Eugene Peterson told me a story about when he was in college. Somehow, he’d landed a job as the personal driver for a wealthy, cantankerous old man who blasted through his days with little appreciation for people and the details of life.
The old man called every male he dealt with “Joe.” So, when they pulled into a gas station, he told the attendant, “Fill ‘er up, Joe!” And after the attendant had filled up the tank, he asked Eugene, “How did he know my name is Joe?”
How ironic that the attendant felt known by a man who had no interest in knowing the “little people” in his life. But that’s not the story I’m interested in.
The man had an appointment in Vermont that he needed to get to on a Saturday morning, so he had Eugene pick him up before dawn and the two headed north on the highway. Along the way, they passed a billboard for a restaurant, highlighting its pancakes with pure Vermont maple syrup. And having started their trip before breakfast, the two were soon talking about how great it would be to eat pancakes with pure Vermont maple syrup. And so the decision was made that they would stop at the advertised restaurant and satisfy their craving for pancakes with pure Vermont maple syrup.
Before too long, they arrived. And without looking at the menu, the man ordered two plates of pancaked “with pure Vermont maple syrup,” which the waitress gladly brought them. But when the man had taken his first bite, he called the waitress over to complain.
“We saw your billboard offering pure Vermont maple syrup and came here to have it,” he said, “but this isn’t pure Vermont maple syrup. It’s terrible.”
The waitress politely said that it was. But the man insisted and demanded to talk with the manager.
When the manager arrived, he launched into his complaint about wanting “pure Vermont maple syrup” and being offered this pale substitute in its place. And after confirming that the syrup was in fact really made from maples in Vermont — in fact, the restaurant made their own syrup and had been doing so for generations — the manager asked the man, “What do you normally eat on your pancakes?”
And the old man replied, “Karo syrup.”
Years of eating the overly sweet Karo syrup had numbed his senses to the subtleties of pure Vermont maple syrup, so that when he encountered the real thing, the pure thing, it bored him with what he thought was blandness. Too much flavor had made his, well, tasteless.
This is the American condition: We want everything so strong, so sweet, so fast, so intense that we lose all sense of subtlety.
We blast past people, not learning their names, rather than stopping and paying attention to their holy humanity created in the image of God.
We guzzle diet beverages, always wanting something sweet on our tongues. Or we down cup after cup of coffee for its bold bitterness and caffeine rush.
We drive too fast from one place to another, not limiting our top speed by the speed limit, but using it as a bottom limit that we can’t go under. And in our speed, we miss out on all of the details of landscapes and neighborhoods in our rush to get where we’re going.
We force advertisers to resort to using sex to sell things that have nothing to do with sex, because we will only pause our self-important rush from one thing to next for something as intense as sex. Yes, advertisers ought to have more imagination than simply resorting to sex to sell things, but we have to take responsibility for it as well.
I recently watched the Red Bull sponsored movie The Fourth Phase, which follows the life of snowboarding legend Travis Rice and some friends as they carve and flip down the slopes in Wyoming, Japan, Kamchatka, and Alaska. There was an exquisite beauty to the filming and editing of the movie, but it was the Red Bull intensity of it that dominated. The film was not so much of a narrative as it was a thrill ride as they bounced from slope to slope in search of a bigger and better rush.
This all raises the question: Is this how I want to live my life? Is every experience a quest for the next big sensation? Am I becoming “fat” in my desire for more of whatever it is that gets me high?
I want to learn Joe’s name. I don’t want to push past people, these vast human mysteries, dismissing them as I lump them together into a faceless mass named Joe or Jenny or nothing at all.
I want to have taste buds sensitive enough to notice and enjoy the subtleties of real Vermont maple syrup, because I have weaned myself from the super-sweet treats that are constantly put in front of my face.
I want to quiet myself and my environment enough so that I can hear the voice of God.
God is the master of subtlety. The simple, the quiet, the passed-over, the unknown. These are his favorites.
He picks an elderly Aramean, renames him Abraham, and starts a world-changing family.
He pulls Moses out of the reeds and later from wilderness herding to become the savior of an enslaved people.
He chooses forgotten David to shepherd his people.
He has the Messiah, the King of kings, born in Bethlehem and laid in a feeding trough.
This is God’s way. Behind the scenes. Hidden from those who are looking at the glamorous and the gorgeous, the hyped and the hip.
If we want an encounter with God, we need to regain our taste for the subtle things in all of life. Otherwise, we will be surrounded by endless expressions of his presence and miss them all.