Nobody serves up chicken better than Chick-Fil-A—warm, inviting, served with a “my pleasure” and quick. Although I’m ashamed to admit it, that’s pretty much how I prefer to interact with people. If I can move into a conversation with a smile, exchange a few encouraging words and leave with “have a great day”, I’m happy. Just like a drive-thru, nobody gets the chance to see what’s inside. Customers get some quick food, a smile, and then they are on their way. Nobody gets hurt. It’s safe. . .but God doesn’t always like safe.
A few months ago, my wife gave me an adventure. She did all the soccer chauffeuring for a few days so that I could go to Estes Park for a Christian Writer’s Conference. Before anyone was out of bed, I threw my computer and some clothes in the back of my car and drove away, all by myself. It was beautiful. I was alone, everything was green, and because it was morning, fresh sunlight sparkled off the dew on the grass. The people were beautiful too. At registration, groups of coffee drinkers stood in circles smiling, quick to make eye contact and answer questions. I smiled back, and then happily walked to my seat right on past them.
The conference started, and the guy behind the AV equipment asked a man named Peter Lundell to share his mike with another speaker, so he undid a few buttons and untucked his shirt. He started to do a little dance as he pulled out the cord, joking about the strip show we were getting at a Christian conference. Everyone laughed. When it was his turn to speak, putting his mike back on, he talked about the typical Christian response to our culture, responses that are too often ineffective and repulsive. His words resonated with my public-school teacher’s heart, and I had to tell him, so when he was done, like Maverick landing his F-16, I calculated my approach. I walked up to him, shook his hand and said, “Thank you for your talk Peter. Your words meant a lot.” It was supposed to be quick. In that situation, just after speaking, most pastor-types offer a simple “thank you” and let the conversation end; that’s not what happened.
“You’re welcome,” he said, but before I could move past him, the little strip-dancing preacher had to throw a wrench in the wheels of my drive-thru plan. “Why did it move you?” he asked. Peter’s headlights cast their frightening beams all around me, and I was stuck staring at them. No problem, I thought; I can do this. I talked about being a Christian in a public school and the challenges that go with it. He listened, asked me questions, and when I talked, because he was tall, he stooped down to see me better.
The next morning, after perusing through the book display, I headed out of the auditorium, and there was Peter. He was finishing a conversation, and the exit was behind him. Again, I plotted my approach. He was facing me, and we were going to make eye contact. Back at my school, when the halls fill with students, it’s easy to smile and offer a jubilant “good morning” as each student passes. They smile back, say, “Good morning Mr. Ahnfeldt,” and they are on their way, like Chick-Fil-A. This would be my approach with Peter. Maybe I’d even offer an affirming pat on the shoulder as we passed. Steps one and two went off without a hitch, right up to the “Good morning Peter.” There was one problem. For whatever reason, he stepped in front of me. I couldn’t pass. He gripped my hand when I offered it for a shake, and he held it. Then, looking into my eyes, he said, “Good morning to you, Erin.” The shock of him using my name left when I remembered my name-tag, but my mouth was stuck hanging open as my mind sputtered away at what to do next. Alarms in my head blared out a code red, and all I could come up with was to keep smiling and say “good morning” . . . again. “That was it?” I asked myself, walking away. Yep, that was it.
We met again in the cafeteria. He was debating about getting ice cream when I walked up to drop off my tray. “Peter, you taught me something,” I declared, putting out my hand for a shake.
“What’s that?” he asked. I explained how his life spoke to me about being present in the lives of people, much more powerfully than any keynote talk. He received the compliment, and, like I expected, he lingered. We talked about cross-country running and how Jesus got his attention at a Billy Graham Crusade; we were present with each other.
When Jesus was visiting Mary and Martha, Mary sat at his feet to listen while her sister Martha was “distracted” by all the preparation. Mary was present, and Jesus said she had “chosen what is better” (Luke 10:38-42). Rather than being busy moving her way through life like a drive-thru, she chose to forgo the Chick-Fil-A option and dive into a feast. Jesus liked her choice because being present is a quality rooted at the core of His character. The angels called Him Emmanuel, a Hebrew name that means “God with us”. When I tuck my daughter into bed at night, surrounded by her sparkly-eyed Beanie Boos, rather than kiss and run, God wants me to be with her. When I’m tired but haven’t talked with my wife all day, God smiles when I put down the remote, take her hand and go for a walk. And when a student walks in my office right in the middle of my grading, putting down my pen to listen is always the right choice. Chick-Fil-A is good, but God doesn’t want us to settle for drive-thrus. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that, but the God who is present in the most intimate way saw my “present deficiency” and used Peter to do something about it. When we finished talking, I dropped off my tray, circled back and found him reaching into the freezer. Our lingering gave him time to decide to get ice cream. They say “good things come to those who wait”, but our culture has forgotten how to do that. I’m done with missing out on dessert, and I’m done with drive-thrus.