A man from the back mountains of Tennessee found himself one day in a large city, for the first time standing outside an elevator. He watched as an old, haggard woman hobbled on, and the doors closed. A few minutes later the doors opened and a young, attractive woman marched smartly off. The father hollered to his youngest son, "Billy, go get mother."
Sometimes we come up with the idea that 1. Change is that automatic and 2. We have the distinctive power to change other people. Perhaps the greatest lesson on change comes to us from a story several generations old about a man who was told to go into the worst excuse for a country known to humankind and tell them their 15 minutes of fame was about to be up. His name was Jonah. Fast forward beyond his fishing expedition in which he becomes the bait and gets to enjoy life from inside the belly of an orca for an entire long weekend. For someone who disliked a country and a people as much as Jonah disliked Ninevah, you would have thought he would have delivered the gloom and doom with lightening speed. You may not recognize the kind of dislike Jonah displayed for a people he didn’t consider worthy of a second chance. It’s the same feeling we often try on when disliking someone who we might find distasteful, undeserving of our pity. Jonah did everything he could to avoid these pitiful peons. They listened to his sermon and responded to his gloom and doom with life-changing hyper speed. They made abrupt changes in their lives and life-styles and the whole nation from king down to peasant put on garments of repentance and showed their deep desire to do things differently in their lives.
Do we really believe in change for others? We live in such a caustic and critical society. I like to say and this is something you teachers will understand, we live in a “red pen society.” Why do you use a red pen? To make corrections where someone has indicated a wrong answer. I understand that when you’re talking about a test and it will be helpful to know what you might have done differently. But too many of us live with a “red pen” mentality in which we are ready at the drop of a hat to tell folks when/where they’ve gone wrong. And what’s the purpose of that? Do we really believe that we have the power (or the audacity) to change anyone!
It was a memorable moment in sports. April 25, 2003 in Portland, Oregon at the NBA playoff game between the Portland Trailblazers and the Dallas Mavericks. Natalie Gilbert was the 13-year-old winner of a promotional contest and Natalie was going to get to sing the National Anthem for 20,000 rowdy playoff fans. Natalie began haltingly and tragedy of tragedies, almost immediately into the performance of her life, she forgot her words. She stopped and in horror looked around. You could tell she wanted to run screaming from the arena. But almost immediately, the coach of the Portland Trailblazers, Maurice Cheeks stepped up behind Natalie and began to quietly feed her the words. And Natalie slowly began to sing the words that Coach Mo told her. Quietly, unobtrusively Coach Mo began to sing in background. And then an amazing thing happened, the entire arena started to sing as well. It was a beautiful moment. It was a coaching moment. It was a moment when hecklers and critics were shamed into silence and it displays for us the best example there is of how change happens in the face of failure.
You may ask, “Who did that for the Ninevites?” It certainly wasn’t Jonah. Rather it was God who is described by the Psalmist as the fortress in which we feel safe. He saves and honors us. The Psalmist quotes God when he says, “I heard God say two things: I am powerful and I am very kind.” The message to us is to kill criticism in your life. Be the product of God’s belief that He and He alone have the power to help us make the changes that we can shine and rise above our own destruction. Jonah didn’t believe that change was warranted in the lives of the Ninevites so he was determined to not invest once ounce of compassion in them. What about us? We can display our “red pen” attitudes in a caustic, and critical world and do nothing but heap more of the same on the heads of those that don’t live up to our expectations. One thing is sure – our ever being able to elicit change in anyone is impossible but our ability to dump shame and guilt on top of people who live nothing like their potential suggests is immeasurable. Coach Mo Cheeks is our example of one who moved beside a person that upon first glance would have been ridiculed and chided for not knowing something as basic as the National Anthem. The other example that may be more common that the example of Mo Cheeks is the caustic and critical world in which we live that doesn’t have the patience or the belief that God is loving and kind. It is up to us to display and model that kind of love for folks who need a good dose of loving kindness. We have an option today and every day. Our option is that we carry within us the love and kindness of God ready to dispense forgiveness and compassion. Or instead for the sake of some red pen society that says “this is how you need to live your life” then you carry within you instead all those hyper expectations that will leave you feeling empty and frustrated because there is no one anywhere who can/will ever live up to those. You carry within you critique and disappointment. Like Jonah they only see God as a giant frown in the sky. Jonah would rather have died than to live in a world in which these horrible excuses for human beings repented and he never quite understood that there is a wideness to God’s mercy and it must…it must go through your mind and your heart and your actions to reach those it needs to reach the most.
Natalie Gilbert almost didn’t sing at the Portland Trailblazers game that night. She had been sick for a week and throwing up the entire day. But she thought she would give it a try and see what happened. It took her only a few seconds into her song to begin to regret her decision. But Coach Mo said later when asked why he had stepped forward, said, “I don’t know. I just saw her stumble. She looked helpless, so I just started walking. I had no idea what I was going to do…what I was going to say. But as I approached her, I just wanted to help her. I didn’t even know if I knew the words. I just didn’t want her to stand there helpless.”
That was 8 years ago and those 3-4 minutes changed Natalie’s life forever. She later enrolled in Portland Community College and worked at her family’s recycling business. Later she moved to Burbank to pursue her dream to sing on Broadway. She says about her experience with the National Anthem, “Because of that, I know how to fail. Because of what Coach Cheek did, I learned that I am never really alone, even if it feels like I am. And every time I hear the National Anthem sung, I think of Coach Cheek and what he did on behalf of that 13 year old girl 9 years ago. If God is willing to love me in spite of it all, should I not live that way with others?