For several summers while I was in college I worked as a “Cabin Boy” at a rustic inn and resort nestled deeply along the coast of Downeast Maine. My job was pretty much as you’d imagine it: I carried luggage for arriving and departing guests, chopped and delivered fresh firewood to each cabin every morning, supervised a weekly lobster beach picnic, ran errands and basically did anything and everything I could to provide our guests a memorable vacation experience, while ever and always working for whatever tips I might gain along the way; because trust me here, there were guests at this place who were capable of tipping very, very well!
However, looking back, it wasn’t so much the tips that made this particular job fun and worthwhile; it turned out to be the wide variety of people I had the chance to meet and come to know. There were, of course, a few who were, to say the least, difficult; the kind of people who seemed to delight in making life miserable for the staff, and who let you know with every word and glance that they were rich, powerful and used to getting what they wanted. My favorite (in retrospect, at least!) was the erudite gentlemen from Philadelphia who gave me a verbal dressing down in the main dining room; all because, after three long days of my guiding him around Eggemoggin Reach in a wooden rowboat so he could go fishing with his state-of-the-art fishing gear from L.L. Bean, he had not caught a single fish and, obviously, that was due to my poor rowing abilities (actually, if memory serves, I received a very good tip that time – from the man’s wife, who was so mortified that her husband had said those things gave me, along with a heartfelt apology, roughly twice the amount I would have ordinarily received!).
Mostly, though, our guests (some of whom were part of families who had literally been coming to this resort for generations) were good and supremely nice people; kind, caring, funny and supportive, and who treated the staff like they were human beings – friends, even – and not merely servants. And they could often be inspiring: like one of our regular guests who happened to be a paraplegic, the result of having contracted polio at an early age, and yet whose great sense of joy and enthusiasm for everything in life never dimmed; or like the retired New York executive who tenderly cared for his beloved wife, very frail and near the end of her life, so that they could spend their last days together enjoying the ocean view from their cottage. These were people with incredible stories to tell, and I remember thinking even back then that whatever kind of tip I might end up receiving, the real gift was in having had the opportunity to be a part of those stories in some small way.
For this pastor-to-be, in many ways the whole experience also proved to be an apt preview of life in the parish; after all, say what you will, but it does indeed take all kinds to make a world… and a church! But moreover, I now know that I was also learning an important truth about people, and by extension, about true faith: that while it was clear that these people were all very successful in their lives, it was never the money, the power, or the social position that made them likeable, respected or the least bit wise. It was how they used what they had, how they carried themselves and above all, how they treated others – all others – that mattered. In fact, after a couple of summers on this job, I began to realize that you could tell the difference between those, on the one hand, whose wisdom was ultimately earthbound and tied to their own often misguided pride of place, and on the other hand, those who, whether or not they understood it as such, possessed wisdom that in words of the Epistle of James had “come down from above;” shown forth in a good life that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits.” (3:17) The difference simply showed forth in the way they lived.
It seems to me that therein is posed an important question for each one of us; and in truth, that question essentially comes down to” just who do we think we are, anyway?” For whereas most of us will never yield the kind of wealth or power that commands the attention, if not the respect, of the world’s movers and shakers; nonetheless each one of us who would carry the mantle of faith brings something far greater into the comings and goings of our daily lives. And make no mistake; the people who move in and through that daily life can easily see how that faith has integrated into our lives; and they recognize it simply by virtue of how we act, the ways we treat others, and in how God’s presence is made manifest in the choices we make for ourselves and in what we intend for the world. To put it another way, when those who get the opportunity to share in our story discover that our “religion” has become little more than an excuse for pettiness, divisiveness, and “holier than thou” behavior, they are more than likely to dismiss us along with our proclamations. But when they see that what we’re about is compassion, integrity, and sacrificial love after the manner of the one whose holy name we proclaim, showing by our good lives that our works “are done with gentleness born of wisdom,” (v.13) then there is no telling just how many hearts and lives can be changed for the better.
It’s not always easy to live that way, given how “difficult” things and people can be, but in the end, such an effort will be rewarded, in James’ reckoning, with “a harvest of righteousness… sown in peace for those who make peace.” (v. 18)
Certainly, the tips don’t get any better than that!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry