You know the question. If you’ve ever been in an interview, I bet it’s been asked. Maybe you were the interviewer and you’re the one who asked it. Where do you see yourself in five years? That was always both intriguing and a little difficult for me. I have tended to live toward what came in front of me when the situation arose. I wanted to play college basketball and Baker U. was the place I could do that so I started there and in the pre-med. track. Almost all math and science classes, but there was that one outlier American Lit. class that required reading poems of Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, novels by Willa Cather and Robert Faulkner, Melville’s Moby Dick (someday ask my parents about the puppy I brought home from college that I saved from a box that some people had on a street who said they couldn’t afford to keep him without thinking about the fact that dogs weren’t allowed in dorms – I named him Ishmael because well, Moby Dick). And probably what sealed the deal was the day the American Lit. Prof. was lecturing about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and when he was passionately talking about racial prejudice and injustice and he took the cigar stub that was never lit but that he always seemed to have in his hand between two fingers and, with great emphasis, flicked it out the second story window of the lecture hall, as if no matter what we did, we would never overcome racial injustice. How weird is that? Somehow that’s a moment I remember thinking that I wanted to teach English and literature and writing and impact the future through the generations of leaders that would shape the future. I became an English teacher.
And then I was teaching English to sometimes eager, sometimes less than eager 8th grade students, and there were a couple of kids in my class whose parents struggled with providing homes and food and clothes and thereby the ability to offer a stable place from which their students could learn. The students were not intellectually challenged, but no matter what I tried, I could not get them to finish homework inside or outside of school hours. I spoke with parents, with the principle, with the school counselor who was ½ time serving 2 school districts K-12, an impossible job, and there was a lot of caring but not a lot of solving. One of the students moved away overnight, literally, one day he was there, the next day he was gone. The second student simply didn’t pass and I knew he would never finish his education, he would drop out and the cycle would likely continue. In that moment amongst my faith and my questioning about how life works and doesn’t for different people in different circumstances, I wound up deciding the way to make a difference might be in ministry.
Somewhere the common theme in the decisions had a bottom line of wanting to change the world, the life, the possibilities and opportunities for people for whom opportunities didn’t seem to be as easily accessible. Not one time in all that journey did it occur to me to figure out where I saw myself in five years, I think because life never seemed to be that direct a line. Here’s the ironic thing . . . and perhaps because God’s sense of humour moves beyond us, when I started serving churches, the first three churches I served before I came to Grace? I served for five years. I know, right?!!? Each one, five years, on the nose. In the United Methodist itinerant system that wasn’t completely a choice. The D.S. called, and I went, but still, five years. I yet chuckle about that. I also chuckle about the nice woman when I was going through my candidacy process for the ministry asked me in an interview when I was planning on being married and how many children I wanted to have. I told her soon and that I wanted to have a basketball team of children, so five would be the likely number. That made her very happy. snort
All this got stirred up from a stop at a gas station two days ago. Not even kidding. I had swiped my card, popped the gas nozzle in the tank, propped the clicker on the handle to run the gas, and was leaning against my vehicle looking at the horizon, assessing how much of my list I would likely get done for the day, and you know, thinking about Jesus. In the midst of my reverie I noticed a woman picking up trash around the gas pumps across from me. She picked up pieces of paper and wadded up napkins and she kept going past the pumps toward the street and over the curb and continued along the curb gathering an empty cup and more wadded up papers and straws and finally with both hands full brought it all back and put it in the dumpster. What a great employee, I thought. She didn’t have on the usual button down or polo with the station logo on the front, and seemed a little more dressy-casz than most, but good for her I thought. She’s choosing to move above what the minimum expectations are in job responsibility and presenting herself. But then she went around the car at that pump, clicked the nozzle a couple of times, returned it to the pump, collected her receipt, got in the car and drove away. Whaaaaat??? This person who had no idea she was being watched, who was not on the payroll of the station, who didn’t march into the general goods part of the station to announce what she had done for them because they clearly weren’t doing it, simply picked up the trash in her view with the time she had while her car was filling with gas and left.
I suddenly began looking for trash in my vicinity as the nozzle clicked that my tank was full. I found a few small things, put them in the trash, finished at the pump and sat in my car a few minutes before heading out for the rest of my day. It was one of those moments. One of THOSE moments. One of those moments that stops everything for a couple of breaths and makes all the preaching and the teaching and the learning and the growing and the faithing and the encouraging and the wondering if anything we ever do will change anything, just stop. Not because any of that isn’t important, but because sometimes I need reminding that changing the world is really one person in one moment in complete anonymity on a random day at a random gas station can choose to make the world in that place a little better and a little more beautiful. I’m guessing she knew that trash would collect again in all those places, that the next person might as likely throw a cup to the curb as she was to pick it up. But in that moment that’s not what it was about. In that moment she changed the world for the better, and she changed me, and reminded me, and brought the horizon, and tasks, and even Jesus right down to the nitty-gritty earth in my day.
What do I see myself doing in five years? For maybe the first time, at least on this particular day, that’s easy. I see myself stopping for gas and picking up the trash around my car and along the curb. I see myself offering a word or two of encouragement for a mom and dad who struggle to provide a stable home so their children have the possibility of learning math and science and maybe even a novel by Harper Lee. I see myself finding ways to reach out to friends or strangers who may need a listening ear for a minute or two or many, simply to talk about what’s hard, and what’s not, and what’s scary, and what’s great, and maybe even what they see themselves doing in five years. And maybe in the midst of all the five years-ing, maybe the world does change in God’s vision and by God’s grace through ordinary people on ordinary days doing extraordinary things when no one and maybe everyone is watching.