The Safety Patrol.
I didn’t know exactly what they did, other than to yell at the other children to “SLOW DOWN!” whenever it was deemed that underclassmen were exceeding the vague pedestrian speed limits of the sea-green-tiled hallways. But that, in and of itself, was a pretty big carrot dangling in front of me. A little authority granted to an 11-year-old goes a long way. I looked forward to being able to utter those powerful two words that, up until then, had been reserved only for big, burly lifeguards at the pool and the P.E. teacher.
At some point during my sixth grade year, my dream was granted. I joined the secret society of the orange hard-hats and was granted access to the big black cabinet in the recesses of the teacher lounge that stored our sacred uniforms. My heart swelled with pride as I donned my hat for the first time and slipped on the bright orange vest that was trimmed in neon green. The time had come. I was going to serve my school. Do my duty.
Head held high, I marched to my assigned post on the outdoor covered sidewalk between the first and second grade buildings. And like a sentry, I waited for the bell to ring, for little bitty kids to pour out of the gym where they were held like tadpoles until class was to begin. I saw them coming from some distance away, and as they approached me, many of them automatically slowed down to eye me. With awe. Yes, little tadpoles, I was once where you are now. I knew exactly how they felt in the aura of my presence.
But of course, I remained aloof and uninterested in the riff raff. Safety Patrol rule number one.
I wasn’t watching the slow kids passing me. I was watching the one kid (there’s always one) who was flying out of that gym as if no higher authority even existed. He was going to be the first one to his class, Safety Patrol or not.
And there I was. The only one standing between him and certain doom. A loosely defined doom, but still. Doom. (Otherwise, there would be no need for my elite, mysterious organization).
This was it! This was my chance to do my duty to keep students safe! The principal and the Safety Patrol faculty sponsor, and for all I knew, the entire school, were counting on me!
“SLOOOWWW DOWWWN!!!!” I bellowed mightily.
I locked eyes with the offender, who complied and bowed his head, chagrined. Every head in the immediate vicinity turned to witness the unfolding drama, there on the outdoor covered sidewalk. The chattering and hustling to class quieted and slowed, as it was once again established that the Safety Patrol ruled the school.
Times have changed a little bit. These days at my house, I have traded in my orange hat and vest for God-given parental authority that doesn’t require fluorescent colors. But as a carryover from my patroling days, I am still a big safety proponent. I just bought two of these signs for our cul de sac.
And if I have to get out there and blow a whistle on some people, I just might. Don’t mess with the Safety Patrol.
Children are told not to do it. It’s not nice.
But that’s not always the case.
The God of the universe, who determines the number of stars and calls them each by name, knows yours. First, middle, and last. The God who told Moses, “I am pleased with you, and I know you by name,” knows yours. And not only does he know it, he calls it. John 10:3 says, “The sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” That’s what shepherds do.
Maybe the most tender picture we have in Scripture of the Lord calling someone by name is the dramatic scene in John 20, where Mary Magdalene is crying at the empty tomb. Her world had caved in on Friday. Now, her deep grief is compounded by the fact that Jesus’ body has seemingly been taken away. Consumed by the hopelessness before her, she does not even realize that she is in the presence of the Lord. She thinks he is only a sympathetic gardener, asking her why she is crying.
But everything changes when Jesus utters one word – her name. “Mary,” he says. Surely, it must have been said with warmth, reassurance, and, I imagine, a loving smile on his face. At that pivotal moment, the recognition slowly dawns in her eyes, and she is overcome with joy, running to the disciples to share with them the greatest news that history has ever recorded.
Jesus could have abruptly said, “Don’t you know who I am? It’s me!” But instead, he chose to reveal himself to her simply by saying her name. And he still does the same for us. There have been times in my own life when, just like Mary, I have been swimming in my own personal seas of sorrow, anxiety, despair, or fear. In the midst of it, when the Lord has spoken to my heart, he begins with my name. “Jennifer…do not fear. Jennifer…I am with you. Jennifer…fix your eyes on me.”
We hear him when he calls us by name because we are his sheep. John 10:5 tells us, “They will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” The ears of believers have been specially attuned to be able to recognize the voice of the Shepherd. Somehow, we are able to hear his voice cutting through the clamor of other voices that assault us daily.
Because the Lord knows our names, we can be assured of our value and worth in his sight. We are not just a blur of nameless faces to him. In a sea of humanity, living on our increasingly crowded planet earth, you are no trouble for the Lord to find. He knit you together before you were born. He knows how many hairs are on your head, even though that number changes daily. Before a word is on your lips, he knows it completely.
The book of Revelation says that somewhere in heaven, there is something mysterious and wonderful called the Lamb’s book of life, where the names of those who belong to the Shepherd are specifically and carefully written down. I don’t know if the names are printed in glittering gold ink, or handwritten in an elegant, flourishing script. Nor do I know if the book sits on some formal Greek-style pedestal, or is held in the hands of Christ himself. But what I do know for sure is that my name is there…not because of anything good I have done…but only because the Shepherd called out my name and rescued me.
My 4-year-old son was earnest in his bedtime prayer last night. Even with velcro strap shoes, it can be hard to tell the difference between the right one and the left one. Most times, he doesn’t really care, and I’ll catch him galumphing around, with shoes on the wrong feet. But lately, he’s making an effort to get it right.
The ability to put on your own shoes is something that able-bodied adults take for granted. It’s not hard. You get ready for the day, and, just like Mr. Rogers, you get your shoes out of your closet and put them on. Maybe you even simultaneously sing, “It’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive! And when you wake up ready to say, I think I’ll make a snappy new day!” Okay, well, you probably don’t do that. But sweet old Mr. Rogers could certainly sing and put shoes on at the same time like nobody’s business, and there’s something to be said for that.
Most of us go about our days doing a multitude of things that are not considered to be insurmountable tasks. They are so surmountable, in fact, that there is practically nothing to surmount. Brushing our teeth. Eating food. Noticing the sky. Hearing our family’s voices. Simply getting out of bed in the morning. But if you can do those things, you can be thankful.
From this little prayer out of my son’s little heart, maybe there is a light dawning in him that God is in all things that he faces. Not just the enormous challenges, but the ones as small as putting on a size 11 shoe, which, to a 4-year-old, is one that requires some divine help.
In 1993, Christian artist Billy Sprague wrote a song called “Press On,” in which he sang this: “Press on, mi amigo. Press on, mon ami. Walk on in the face of the mystery. Though the night hides the light through the darkness ‘til dawn, tie your shoes, my dear friend, and press on.”
My mother once played that song for a dear, elderly widow in our small church, a lady who needed some encouragement. And the following Sunday, in the middle of the service during a song, mom said that she looked across the aisle at Ms. Ethel, who met her gaze and then bent down to “tie her shoes” in a gesture of understanding. As Ms. Ethel stood back up, she flashed mom a quick thumbs-up and a smile. She had gotten the message. She was putting on her shoes and pressing on.
Today, whatever it may bring, must begin with putting on shoes. Before you go out to face this world and all that awaits you there, you’ve got to have something on your feet. You’ve got to start somewhere. You might be lifting your eyes up to some pretty big hills, ones that you are dreading to climb (Psalm 121), but your help comes from the Lord.
“The Lord directs the steps of the godly. He delights in every detail of their lives.” (Psalm 37:23).
Below is the obscure video for “Press On.” (You will be prompted to watch it on youtube rather than here on my blog). Obviously, it is dated and quirky, but I am touched by the little boy struggling to put on his red Converse tennis shoes. His frustrated facial expression at 1:29 is one of a child lifting up his eyes to a big old hill in front of him -- a hill upon which his shoelaces just won’t go where he wants them to go, and his fingers won’t do what he wants them to do. But in the end…he climbs it.
Press on, friends!
Make-up lines, hair salons, clothing, tanning, gym memberships, plastic surgery...name your favorite segment.
The entire world is telling you that who you are is inescapably tied to how you look, for better or for worse. The fashion world says, wear this to make a statement about who you are.
The business world says, wear this to be successful. Hollywood mercilessly labels its winners or losers based on red carpet fashion choices. Worn down by these messages, it’s no wonder that people subconsciously accept the idea that physical attractiveness equals happiness in life.
Proverbs 27:19 says, “As a face is reflected in water, so the heart reflects the real person.” In the same way that you can look into a still pool of water and see yourself staring back, you can look in your heart, past all the exterior things, and see who is there. But most of us would rather not look that deeply into ourselves. What if we don’t like the person that we see there? It’s much easier to remain in the superficial realm and live on the surface. We prefer to be defined by the likes and dislikes we list on our social networking pages.
But the inner workings of a human heart could never be reflected on something as canned as a Facebook profile.
The heart, as pretty and red as it is in Valentine's Day marketing, is not a pretty place in its natural state. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” As darling as children are, they are not born knowing how to behave. They do not have to be taught how to lie…how to hoard possessions without sharing…how to act, above all, in their own self-interest.
As we get older, we learn how to suppress these knee-jerk instincts. But that ugly seed of self is still there, though usually well-disguised, regardless of our age. Jesus even went so far as to say that hating another person is the same thing as murder, and that what comes out of our mouths is what is overflowing out of our hearts, for good or for evil. “No one is good except God alone,” he said in Mark 10:18.
That means no one. No one walking around on this planet, at least.
And you would think it might be okay to have some darkness inside of us, since we’re all so consumed with externals, except for one uncomfortable fact: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). The One who set the world in motion and made us – he knows everything about us.
And He is holy. Perfect. Unblemished. Very much unlike ourselves. Ugliness inside of us creates a big chasm between Him and us. A chasm that cannot be bridged by our own goodness or even by religion…because our righteousness is like filthy rags before him (Isaiah 64:6). Even on our best day, that chasm is still just as deep and as wide as it ever was. There is no way we could ever reach Him on our own.
But Jesus changed all that.
C.S. Lewis famously said this about him in his classic work Mere Christianity:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic -- on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."We needed someone to intervene. God Himself, in his unfathomable love, sent His own Son to do so. Jesus was not stained with any of the ugliness that stains our lives. But in order to bridge that chasm between us and God, he literally became a stain for us when he suffered on the cross. Someone had to bear the blame for everything wrong within the heart of mankind, and only He, in all His perfection, was fit to do it. In John 11:25, he said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live.”
That is not the kind of thing that a “good teacher” says.
If you are wondering what your heart looks like, the answer is not in how you view your past. It’s not in the way that you present yourself to the world. It’s not even in your best attempts at being a good person. Your heart is what’s there when everything else is stripped away. God says He is able to give us an undivided heart and put a new spirit in us – to remove from us our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19).
As a face is reflected in water, so the heart reflects the real person.
Hearts don’t require make-up, though they might be bruised, beaten down, depressed, marred with guilt, or bristling with offense at the very suggestion that they might not be what they thought they were. Whatever it is that you see there, Jesus is able to handle it. Nothing is too gruesome, too far gone, or too stubborn. He has seen it all. He is the heart-changer, the purifier, the new life-giver, the prayer-answerer, the hope-filler, the faith-sustainer, and the answer to every longing of the human heart. He has proved it in every way, not only historically, but in what he has done in the changed hearts of millions of people on planet Earth for thousands of years.
And one of those millions was mine.