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That One Phrase That Can Change Lives

March 18, 2014

It was probably the most isolated and rural corner of  the entire state of Georgia.  The town had no stoplight.  Chickens wandered freely down the weed-encrusted main street.  The sun-baked church parking lot was a dusty acre; they hadn’t been able to raise money for gravel yet.  Virtually all of the families were located on farms.

I was the guest speaker for that spring Saturday, giving a series of workshops to both parents and teens on various topics of Christian maturity, Bible study and Christ-like family unity.  It was an intensive day, yet nobody was tired – the best meeting was yet to take place.  Assistant pastor Kenny and I had agreed upon a fun climax to the mini-conference: an auction.  The attendees had earned points throughout the day for various achievements, and now they were going to “spend” those points on auction items I would show them.

But they couldn’t see them.

This was a “blind” auction, where all of the people had donated items and wrapped them ahead of time.  This was the risk in bidding:  you might spend a goodly amount of money and get a real treat.  Or, when you unwrapped your purchase, you could get a real dud.  Only the one donating the prize knew what was underneath the wrapping paper.

Oh, it was hilarious, too.  Each person attending had around one hundred thousand auction “dollars”, and bidding fever was running wild.  I would hold up a wrapped package and start the bidding.

“What am I to bid for this gorgeous green box with the yellow ribbon?”

“Five thousand!” A teen boy leaped to his feet.

The man next to him bellowed:  “Seven thousand!”

A mother holding a baby chirped: “Eight thousand five hundred!”

“Nine thousand!”

“Ten thousand!”

A junior high boy with freckles waved his hand.  “Twenty thousand!”image

Everyone gasped.  “Whoa, Randy,” called a girl.

“Sold!” I cried.  “Young man, you know the rules of the auction – you must come up here and open the gift and let everyone see if you made a good bid decision.”

Randy walked up front with glittering eyes and tore into the package. As the room packed with people watched, he lifted out of the box…

…a Bojangles biscuit.

Everyone started hooting and hollering in glee.  Randy was smiling good-naturedly, but I noticed something in the biscuit.

“Young man, break open that biscuit,” I said.  “Something is inside it.”

Randy stopped and pulled the biscuit apart.  A twenty-dollar bill fluttered to the floor.  Everyone cheered as he grinned and danced back to his seat.

The auction continued for most of an hour, with screams of delight and groans of embarrassment.

“I have just a few more items on the table, so be wise in your bidding,” I announced, holding up a small square box covered in red shiny paper. “What am I to bid for this little…”

A thin lady in her forties – the mother of some of the middle schoolers – cried out loudly:  “I’m going all in!  SEVENTY SIX THOUSAND DOLLARS!”  The room exploded in cheers.  Nobody else had anywhere near that amount, and they loved the enthusiastic display of bidding mania.  “All right, Ruth!”  “Go, Mrs. Winston!”  “Thataway, Ruth!”

“Sold!” I yelled and held the red box for her.  Ruth grinned and walked up to the front and opened the box for all to see.  As she dropped the paper to the floor, we all gazed at the “prize”…

It was a clear plastic box with spray-painted macaroni and glitter glued all over it.  There were a few star-shaped stickers sloppily attached.  A Magic Marker happy face was scrawled on one side.  Inside was stuffed a sheet of Kleenex.

In short, it was ugly.

For a moment, nobody said a word.  Ruth stood and held it up.

Then a little  eight-year old girl with pigtails spoke up.  “That’s the gift I donated.  I made it myself.  It’s a jewelry box!”

Ruth had just blown all of her money on this homemade craft.  Glitter was floating to the floor.  The little girl looked at Ruth with a toothy smile.  Ruth paused.  Then she turned to me and held it out in front of her and exclaimed loudly:

“It’s the most beautiful gift I’ve ever bought!  I’m going to take this home and put my necklaces in it and keep this gorgeous little box forever!”

The little girl beamed.  The parents and teens clapped.  And I could have hugged her.  It was a memorable display of kindness.

Ruth lived out The One Phrase.  The One Phrase that many Christians never comprehend.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he pens that One Phrase  that, if activated, could change lives the very moment it is put into use:

 “…in humility, value others above yourselves…”

It’s a phrase of Christ-given wisdom that takes a moment to understand but a lifetime to master.

Jesus showed it, even unto His death.  He taught it.  He lived it.  Why can’t we live it as well?  When we do activate the reality of that One Phrase, it gives a deep and lasting impact.

I was invited to the Stevens family’s home for dinner.  I taught three out of the four children in the Steven family.  Peter was the oldest, a thin, intelligent and quiet boy who had just turned thirteen, Michael was eleven, and prodigy Nancy was eight.  Little Linda was the one child I did not teach, although she went to our school.  Linda was a loving and boisterous first grader who had Down’s Syndrome.

The dinner was grand, and not just for the food alone.  The gracious and genteel Stevens parents had instilled a wonderful gift of conversation in the children, a gift of both listening and speaking.  Through the pot roast, carrots, and salad, each child had his or her turn in telling a story.  It wasn’t designated; the conversation flowed naturally and intelligently.  Peter told of a fishing day with his dad.  Michael talked about an all-day bike hike with his Scout troop.  Nancy talked about her field trip to the zoo.  I was especially impressed with the  interesting details and flowing narrative each child gave; these were really good stories.

And little Linda noticed it as well.  I noticed she was getting agitated for two reasons.  First, she felt it was her turn to speak.  Second, she realized that none of her stories would quite match up to these tales.  Well, then, Linda reasoned, she would invent one.  I glanced and could see her mind churning.

“Dr. Zockoll, would you like some coffee?” asked Mrs. Stevens, rising quietly from the table. I started to reply but Linda burst out suddenly.

“My story time!  Listen to this.  Last year I was sleeping in bed in my room, I was sleeping in bed.  I was in the dark and I was sleeping and my head was on my pillow and Peter was walking down the hall and you know what he did?  He came over to me and you know, he just threw up all over me. He just threw up on me bleagh just like that and he made a burp and then he walked away.”

The whole room was still.  “Awkward” is the closest word I can use to describe the feeling for the next twenty seconds.  I could tell that bringing up the subject of vomit at the dinner table was out of the question.  I wasn’t sure how to respond.  Little Lisa bobbed her head and grinned – she had told her story.  But how would the parents deal with this?

Peter took the initiative.

“Wellllll,” Peter said slowly, “I’ll have to be sure not to do that any more.”

We all burst out laughing.  The tension broke.  Mr. and Mrs. Stevens smiled and relaxed.  The faux pas was soon forgotten by the family as the conversations became lively again (of course, little Linda was included now) and the desserts were passed around.  I, however, remembered this situation not because of Linda’s fib nor because of the subject of nausea.

I recall this because thirteen-year old Peter put away his pride and showed his heart for little Linda.  He accepted the embarrassing accusation and rolled with it so that his sister could be included in the conversation as well as avoid a reprimand in front of an invited guest.  It was an admirable thing to do.  Peter showed me a gentle kindness in preferring someone else over himself.

And such is the way of my learning experiences through my teaching career.  God guides me to people who instruct me by example.  From a country church to an urban dinner setting, I learned lessons in humility that will stay with me for a lifetime.

I work on this each day, fail as I might. I stumble, but I want to succeed, and by the grace of God, I can do this.   Can we all do this?  I wonder how many of us actively seek ways to show kindness?

Can we all grasp the importance of that One Phrase?

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