Thursday, February 7, 2013

Thank you for the pain

Now the topic and conclusion may be up for debate, but when I picture myself I sort of think that I’m a semi-intelligent human being… Now that the immediate laughter has died down a bit, I really do think of myself as somewhere right in the middle when it comes to smarts. With my educational experience to the contrary, some people have even thrown out the idea that I’m even a bit smart. But all that went down the drain when I spoke with a clerk the other day at the county courthouse.

My passport is coming up for renewal, so I went online to find out what form needed to be filled out. I was a bit stunned to easily find the form because governmental web sites are notoriously overly complex and difficult to navigate. Not only did I easily find the form, there was even a $4 off coupon for the required passport photo. Quickly printing and filling out the prerequisite form with information that took neither time nor talent, I clipped it together with the coupon and old passport.

Laying out my plan and route carefully, I retrieved the prepared items and began what I thought was going to be a “walk in the park.” Everything necessary to complete the renewal application and process, including the coupon, was in my folder as I left the house for what turned out to be another Gilligan’s “three hour tour.” First stop the pharmacy for the obligatory passport photo with $4 off coupon in hand. The photo process took no more than 5 minutes and I walked out a very happy customer with my newly minted (and $4 discounted) photo’s in hand.

Jumping over to the courthouse, I went through security and joked with the officers about my hip replacement that was sure to set off their metal detector. Walking briskly down the hall, I stood in line with all the joy and confidence of an Olympian competing against third-graders. What could possibly go wrong?

When the next window opened, I almost floated over and said “Hi” to Nancy, the clerk from a place a little bit lower than heaven. I handed her my completed form and was about to surrender my passport when it all started; a 17 minute detailed doctoral dissertation diatribe about the correct way (and there is truly only one proper way) to fill out the all-important document needed to renew my passport. Some of my passport faux pas included;

Using a pen with blue ink and not black – What was I thinking, using blue ink and not black! Why didn’t my Federal government guardian angel scream from the heavens to prevent me from committing this most heinous and offensive of paperwork sins?

Photos not properly stapled – Not having an engineering degree, I did not realize the importance of stapling the pictures exactly square on the form. Now that I think back on it, I must have set off the small earthquake in the south pacific on the day that I stapled my picture on the form; unbalancing the tectonic plates on which we live.

Not having my date of birth on the memo line of my check – this one really caught me by surprise. When I originally looked over the form, nowhere did I see this. But at this point in the process I was exhausted and not in the mood to argue, I just made a mental note and hoped that my stay in paperwork hell was just about over. But because of who I am, I had to find out. So, I read and re-read the form over and over, and by golly there it was; buried in a word map that would have challenged Indiana Jones! Yes, I had to admit, the form did actually tell me that this was an actual governmental requirement for the form.

There were numerous other details that Nancy covered, all being vitally important or the planets would stop spinning around the sun. Her final advice was that I needed a “big paperclip” to properly hold all my paperwork together. I smiled, thanking her for her concern but assured her that I had large paperclips at home. Her entire facial structure seemed to fall, her forehead came over her eyes while her mouth gaped oven as if to say, “You poor unfortunate thing, you have no idea how you have just stepped into it, offending the paperclip gods.” She repeated my desperate need for a large paperclip over and over, each time the tone of her voice dropped lower and lower, as if to add importance with her anxious call for my paperwork redemption.

Leaving with my tattered clerical tail between my legs, I tried to stay in the shadows so as not to draw any attention to my setback and shame. I hung my head as I slowly made my way through the courthouse, wanting to remain anonymous in humiliating defeat.

Looking back on my encounter with Nancy, I took a few minutes to think about what some people will stand up and fight for. In my unfortunate case, she was the expert and I was just a poor, unfortunate and uneducated person from the wrong side of the forms. While this will not permanently damage my psyche, we’ve all witnessed and even participated in endless wrangling about seemingly meaningless details. I once witnessed a heated, long and loud debate over who was poorer as a kid.

We do the same thing with God; we bring mountains of anger and details to God, demanding definite rulings about our “rights.” We look down out nose at others, pumping ourselves up while putting them down in their place.

Jesus tells a story about two people just like us praying to God [1]; the first is right, self-important and arrogant. With his head held high he thanks God that he is not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers. At the end of his prayer, he informs God how lucky he is to have him on his team, not like that “sinner” in the back row. The second guy in the back row is so sorry and embarrassed that he refuses to look up to heaven. Instead, he looks down and humbles himself before God. No attempt to justify his failures, his only prayer and hope before God is to ask for mercy and forgiveness. Jesus concludes that the second guy was forgiven, restored and made clean before God.

Our hope for a relationship with God is not to try and impress him with our accomplishments, knowledge, power, rightness – they are like the dirtiest rags imaginable. The only way to be truly made right with God is to admit that we cannot fix ourselves and throw ourselves on his mercy. That’s why Jesus came, lived, died and rose from the dead; to make a way back to God for us and all who are willing to abandon their self-righteousness.

Instead of bending God’s ear with how great we are, we need to bow down and loose our arrogance and receive his mercy. Now that’s an argument well worth losing.

Blessings - Chet

Chet Gladkowski speaks and writes on topics that touch on culture, life and faith through GLAD Associates. This article is taken from a chapter in his upcoming book.

[1] Luke 18:9-14

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