Defining Moments and the Coldest Root Beer

Defining Moments and the Coldest Root Beer by Jason Smith © 2020

As I write, I am sitting in my air-conditioned office listening to the din of the air handler. The time is approaching late afternoon, it just cycled off followed by a brief adjustment in the change of air pressure. The sound of silence was traded for the whirring of the cooling fan on my computer. An email notice splits my focus momentarily and I have returned.

I am overcome by a familiar feeling, some may call it depression, for others it may be melancholic. In artistic circles it is often referred to as muse and in spiritual realms, a stirring of the Spirit. Yes, it is familiar. It could be compared to a faded pair of jeans, once your favorite jeans. The most comfortable pair of jeans you have ever worn. Jeans you never want to let go of, only time has left them worn and tattered, exposing parts that may be deemed inappropriate, all the while you constantly strive to keep them hidden. Once again your body is nestled among the seams, partially comforted, while taking the beginning steps of a journey not fully knowing the destination or even direction. Only knowing fully, it must be revealed.

In the quiet of the afternoon, my mind began to wander back through the recesses of my memory as it does frequently. I thought back to an interaction, that had a profound impact on me as a young adult. Allow me to lay the groundwork. I, like many children from young middle-class American families, grew up attending church regularly. Through this upbringing, I became familiar with most of the common stories and lessons found in the Bible. As I approached young adulthood, this familiarity increased as I set out to pursue a life in church ministry. The small church in which I was raised, was my first foray in full time ministry.

I was brought on staff to serve as the youth pastor, which at the time also meant, custodian, and yard maintenance as well. On the outside, I felt reasonably equipped with all the tools necessary to be an effective youth minister. I was young, but not too young. I was dating the young, very pretty Jr/Sr Hi school choir director. I had recently acquired my dream car; a beautiful, blue, 1965 Mustang. My physical appearance was that of a wannabe rock star; long flowing hair, leather jacket, trendy work boots. I was riding a wave of momentum and excitement, trying to make connections with and influence young people in the analog world long before being an influencer was even a thing. On the flipside of all the awesome in my life, I half-heartedly tolerated the additional menial tasks that came with my job. It was certainly less than cool, but I scrubbed toilets and mowed the grass for Jesus. At least that is what I kept telling myself. I was always told menial tasks never hurt anyone; they build character.

While on the wave of my exciting, cool life, an older, single gentleman in the church whom I will call Robert, began coming by the office regularly to talk to me and really anyone else who may have been at the church. He also began calling me at home, often at very inconvenient times. It only took a glance to know Robert had some issues. The first and most obvious was physical. He could walk but wore old style orthopedic leg braces on both legs. Robert was a reasonably tall and lean man, so the addition of the leg braces made it difficult for him to move his knees adequately. This gave him an almost robotic, lurking gate. His personality came across as slightly gruff and stern. The less obvious issue and the possibly the most heartbreaking, took a while to rise to the surface. Robert heard voices. Before you get ahead of me and draw your own conclusion where this is going, I would like you to stop for just a moment. I do believe in demonic possession and deliverance. However, I also believe in untreated mental illness as well as other conditions such as traumatic brain injuries that can impair one’s cognition. Let’s save the exorcism for another day. I don’t mean to sound callous or unsympathetic. Quite the contrary, I spent many times in prayer for and with Robert crying out to God to heal and restore him. Here is a piece of information I later learned about Robert; I have intentionally withheld to this point. When he was a younger man, Robert had been a construction worker and fell 30 feet from scaffolding. On the way down, the back of his head hit a steel I-beam. Honestly, it is a miracle he even survived.

I was not real sure why this older man began seeking me out. I was the youth pastor and he was clearly not a youth. Just in case you are wondering, I have long since learned when you are “in ministry” the only compartments that may exist are in your own mind. When someone comes in with a need, they don’t really care if they are in the correct demographic for your services and attention. Suffice it to say Robert began to really annoy me. There, I said it.

Now, where was I going? Oh, yes. I mentioned menial tasks previously, but I will come out and be a little more concise. I hate yard work! I have always hated yard work and will likely always hate yard work! As a kid I spent countless hours pulling a stupid cord trying to start a stupid mower that may as well have been a stupid tool of Satan himself. It may have taken what seemed like an hour or two to get the mower started and once I did, I would mow like crazy until it would run out of gas only to start the process over again. Unfortunately, not every paragraph can be artistically eloquent. Sometimes you must be honest, own it and tell the truth. By the way, I am still working on building that character.

As I became acclimated to my newfound life as a full-time staff youth pastor, I was taken back to the storage shed behind the church where the lawn maintenance tools were kept. There were a few rakes and shovels hanging neatly from pegs on the walls. A little further back was what appeared to be one of the nicest mowers I had ever seen. It was clean, self-propelled and included the bag. I began to rethink my hatred of yard work. Beside the mower was a nice clean gas can full of fuel, waiting for me to complete my important task of mowing for the kingdom. With joy in my heart, I pulled out the mower, checked the fuel level and checked the oil level as I was taught from my early years. Once determining both were adequate, I set the choke level appropriately, and pulled the cord, and pulled the cord, and pulled the cord, and pulled the stupid cord on the now deemed stupid mower. This would be my Saturday routine for many weeks. I have since learned a little about a small internal combustion engine’s need to breath along with the workings of the fuel delivery system and carburation but that isn’t really the point.

Summer in the Oklahoma Panhandle is delightful, especially July. That is not right. Allow me to try again. Summer in the Oklahoma Panhandle is balmy and warm, especially July. No, that is not quite right either. Summer in the Oklahoma Panhandle is almost comparable to living in a kiln located on the 17th floor of a blazing towering inferno, especially July. It doesn’t matter that it is dry heat. It is all heat all the time accompanied by the delicate breezes that blow just outside that gates of Hell.

It is a random Saturday morning in July and I begin my sacred cord pulling routine and somewhere by early afternoon I am in the middle of mowing the grass. It is blazing hot and not a cloud in the sky. There would not be a cloud in the sky for months and I am diligently providing my service to the kingdom, again with joy in my heart and a great hymn of faith on my lips. The part about it being hot is true.

The July sun is beating down on me and I am feverishly trying to finish mowing the grass before I stroke out. I am about halfway finished with the yard when I see Robert pull up in a parking space and get out of his car. He abruptly called my name a couple times and waved his arm, motioning me to come over to where he was. The only thing I could think was something akin to “Really? What fresh hell is this? Can he not see I am busy?” I reluctantly turned off the mower and lumbered over to where he was parked to see what he needed. You see Robert was not much of a conversationalist so there were usually few pleasantries exchanged. I gave him a half-hearted greeting and he said something gruffly like “I have something for you. Let me get it out of the car.” His issues with mobility caused every movement to be labored and take longer than that of most people. I was trying to muster patience, especially since all I really wanted was to be left alone to finish the yard and go home. He hobbled the few steps from the sidewalk back to his car and he opened the door, rustled a few things around in the front seat and pulled out a small ice chest. As he turned back toward me he stated something to this effect. “I was driving by and you looked hot. I thought you needed this.” He reached into the ice chest, pulled out two cans of off-brand root beer and handed me one. The can, dripping with ice-cold condensation met my hand in a way I had never quite experienced as it began to soften and melt my hardened heart. As we popped open the cans of root beer, there was little to no actual conversation as Robert leaned against the edge of his car hood and I stood there on the sidewalk. At that moment we were just two guys drinking a cold root beer on a hot day, but it was so much more than that for me. For in that moment, I experienced true human compassion as I consumed the coldest, smoothest, sweetest, most satisfying root beer to ever pass my lips. My pride and arrogance dissolved with each sip and by the end of the can were replaced with gratitude and new perspective. I began to see clearly how God can use the simplest means to reveal complexities of the human condition. Once we finished, Robert reached out his hand to take the empty can. I expressed my thanks, we exchanged a see you later, he got back into his car and drove away. I returned to the mower, still hot but refreshed, physically and spiritually. This time with true joy in my heart and a song on my lips. I would go on to have numerous encounters with Robert in the year that followed. Sometimes he would need a ride to the local food pantry on distribution day. Most times he wanted someone to pray for his healing. I would take the time to listen to him with a little more patience and care.

Volumes have been and will continue to be written about the passage of time, distance and life. Phrases like learning life lessons and time heals all wounds take on a totally different meanings now than when I was younger. It has been almost twenty years since I moved away from my hometown. A couple years ago I was looking at the website of the hometown newspaper and came across Robert’s obituary. My initial reaction as I read about his life was that of sadness followed shortly after by a warming peace. I imagined in his passing Robert received his healing as he stands and walks unhindered and unfettered in the presence of God almighty. The voices in his head no longer torment his every waking moment as he dwells in the place prepared for him.

Whether we acknowledge it or not we all have a need to experience compassion. Not all life lessons and defining moments are brought forth with fanfare or flashing lights. In fact, very few if any are. You may never know how profoundly the simplest of your actions can impact someone’s life. Here I am almost 25 years later writing about the day a poor, disabled man on a fixed income saw that I was hot and brought me a twenty-two cent can of root beer. As neighbors and fellow travelers on this journey we have the choice to bless or to curse. Are you willing to see as you are seen? There are dozens of illustrations and examples that could be made from this story, and you are free to draw from it what you may. Since this time, I have had many cans of root beer, but none would ever quite measure up and I still count that day as one of the most profound blessings of my life. Yes, I still dislike yard work but still have room to build some character.

Posted on 13 Aug 2020, 15:42 - Category: Spiritual Lessons