Thursday, June 09, 2005

Brunch with a Scowl

Being mid-morning—too late for breakfast and too early for lunch—there were only two of us in the smoking section of the resturaunt. He was a man perhaps ten years younger than me, with much more hair than I have on top of his head, but he lacked the hair I have on my face. What he did have on his face was a frown. No, it was more than a frown: it was a puckered brow scowl. In the ten minutes or so that we had shared the dining area, that scowl never left his face.

The hour preceding my making the decision to have either an early lunch or late breakfast had been less that pleasing for me. I had been at my bank—one of those three-letter named banks that no one seems to know what the letters connote—having a, uh, “dialogue” with the assistant manager. The topic was money—my money—that I believed should be in my account, but wasn’t. Our conversation never became heated because I realized that the assistant manger had no power to do anything about the money. And, besides, it was only about money. Where that is concerned, I agree with H. L. Mencken: “The chief value of money lies in the fact that one lives in a world in which it is overestimated.”

I left the bank with the promise that the manager would telephone me when she returns to work tomorrow. I wasn’t upset, but I was hungry. My breakfast had consisted of a glass of water and a handful of vitamins. So I decided on a leisurely brunch before I returned to task of preparing for a meeting I chaired tonight.

The more the guy at the table across from me scowled, the more I smiled. Perhaps I thought that my smile would be contagious and he’d turn his frown upside down and make it into a grin. He didn’t. And the more he seemed to grimace the more he reminded me of someone.

Then I suddenly remembered who in my past maintained the same expression as this guy: my uncle Otto when he was in church! Otto came to the United States from Germany when he was a teenager. He brought a lot of baggage with him—not the kind you carry in your hand, but the kind you carry in your mind and heart.

Part of that baggage had to do with worshiping God. For as long as I knew him, he would always sit in his pew with his arms crossed on his chest and a scowl on his face—a scowl just like this guy sitting with me in the resturaunt.

It wasn’t until I was in my forties and had graduated from seminary that I asked Otto about his peculiar manner in worship. And Otto, who always went straight to the point, said that he conducted himself in that manner because “if you smile in God’s presence then He will strike you dead with a lightening bolt.” I suppose that must have been some of the baggage from his childhood that Otto carried across the Atlantic. And it would have taken a much more accomplished theologian than me to change Uncle Otto’s mind about that!

When I left the smoking area of the resturaunt, my dining companion was still frowning. And I felt moved to say something to him. So I stopped beside his table, looked him in the eyes, and said: “Lighten up, my friend! The world isn’t going to end until at least tomorrow.”

And, he smiled.

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