Mr. Potato Head
They all laughed. At a minimum, I expected a subtle nod of approval to recognize my creativity. But I never expected them to laugh. I don’t know about you, but unless I’m telling a joke, I really don’t like being laughed at.
About an hour earlier, I nervously rode the elevator to top floor of the main office building of Hughes Aircraft Company in Los Angeles. I shared a cubical with another young engineer on the sixteenth floor, and had only heard rumors about the executives who occupied the top floor. Now, only six months into my career as an aerospace engineer, I had been summoned to the corporate conference room.
As the doors opened, I noticed that the halls were not painted the engineer-approved, sterile white. These corridors were covered in rich mahogany paneling and art hung on the wall, instead of the ironically mundane motivational posters to which I had grown accustom. Soft music was playing in the hallways and no one on this floor wore a pocket protector. This was definitely not my world.
Under my arm, I carried a box that was clearly marked, “2 years and up,” and had a brightly colored Mr. Potato Head emblazoned on the side. He was the reason I was invited to travel a few floors higher than my pay-grade would normally allow. For years, Hughes had designed commercial satellites to exactly match the customer’s operational goals. Each spacecraft was specifically engineered from the ground up to fit the needs of a specific mission. The design process typically took three to four years before the first vehicle would be ready for launch. This was an eternity in the world of high-paced, communication technology.
Enter Mr. Potato Head. My idea, which as I stepped off the elevator seemed much better when I came up with it several floors below, was to build satellites using a handful of interchangeable, pre-designed space vehicle systems which could be mixed and matched to approximate a customer’s needs. Using a design model that worked for most 2-year-olds (according to the box), Hughes could have a collection of “hats,” “ears,” and “mustaches,” on-hand that could be combined into an orbiting Mr. Potato Head. By allowing our customer to choose from a menu of more generic subsystems, our overall design time would be reduced from four years to eighteen months.
Around the table sat executives who all had some form of the word “president” in their titles. These were important, highly respected leaders. Two of them helped design the lunar lander for the Apollo program. Suddenly, I was acutely aware that I was 23 years old, with a wrinkled tie, white socks, and holding a toy made for 2-year olds.
After I unveiled my “Potato Head Satellite” idea, only one person spoke. “The box says ages two and up….fits.” They laughed….
In 1936, George Orwell wrote an essay entitled Shooting an Elephant about a police officer working for the British government in Burma. As a member of the occupying force, the officer was despised by many of the Burmese people. After all, he was not only an outsider, but also a representative of the British Empire which had taken possession of their country. Yet, despite the sharp looks and general suspicion that greeted him each day, he saw firsthand that the Empire was not doing these people any favors. He found himself trapped between two warring worlds. In his own words, “I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited beast who tried to make my job impossible.”
One morning, those “evil-spirited beasts” called on him for help. An elephant, which was normally tame, had escaped and was tearing through a local village. When he arrived at the scene, the elephant had already destroyed property, killed a cow and crushed a man into the Burmese earth.
Rifle in hand, the officer followed the trail of destruction to a field where he found the elephant calmly grazing. Whatever had set the great pachyderm on a deadly rampage had passed. Thankfully, it appeared that there was no longer a need to shoot the elephant. But his relief was short-lived. A crowd of at least two thousand Burmese had gathered to watch him shoot the elephant which had created so much mayhem in their village. He told himself, “To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing - no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life…was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”
• • •
The crowds that laughed at us were different. My crowd was small and seated around a conference room table. Although I didn’t know any of them personally, I respected their accomplishments, experience and ability to end my young career. For the British officer, the crowd was comprised of people he did not respect, or even like. But, being laughed at isn’t really about who is in the crowd. It’s about us.
The fear of being laughed at may lead us to step back and blend in. We may believe that it is safer to be laughing with the masses, hidden in its ranks. But, standing with the crowd is not without its own risks.
Facing a crowd that had gathered on this rocky hill outside of Jerusalem, Jesus struggles to breathe. Even as death’s cold shadow lengthens over Him, He continues His mission.
He gives forgiveness to those who don’t even know they need to be forgiven.
He gives the promise of paradise to a self-proclaimed criminal.
He gives His mother a new family to care for her.
And then something unexpected happens. Jesus asks for something. This is so surprising, that even the author telling the story doesn’t know what to do with it. “After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’“ (John 19:28)
We have been discussing prayer and our ongoing relationship with God. We have discussed what we say to God and why. We haven’t said much about what we do when God responds, or when God asks us for something. Here, at the end of his life, Jesus is asking for something intensely practical from the crowd. Something simple. Something to drink.
He was thirsty. His request should not be surprising. Quite possibly, Jesus did not have anything to drink since the final meal He ate with His disciples in the Upper Room. He was tired, racked with pain, cramping, bleeding and suffering. Of course He asks for something to drink. So, why then does John, the author, need to qualify it? Why can’t Jesus simply be thirsty and ask for relief? Why does everything that Jesus does have to “fulfill the scripture?” Why can’t Jesus just need something from the crowd?
Someone in the crowd heard Jesus and took Him at His word. “At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.’” (Matthew 27:48-49)
We don’t know who stepped out of the crowd to help Jesus. But, in the midst of the darkest moment in history, a nameless face reaches for a sponge and offers Jesus something to drink; offers a final act of comfort and compassion amidst callousness and cruelty.
But others in the crowd, laughed. They preferred the irony. This thirsty man dying on a cross once said that His followers would never be thirsty. (John 4:14) Now, He is the one who is thirsty. And that’s not all...
“He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him:” (Matthew 27:42-43)
When I picture this crowd gathered outside Jerusalem that day, I wonder:
Would I have laughed at the irony, without making the effort to know the whole story?
Would I have grabbed a sponge?
Or, would I have quietly stood with those timid souls who hid in the midst of the crowd?
Frozen by Fire
Sometimes, when facing the unexpected or unthinkable, we freeze. I have seen it happen. When I was a minister, I had what I believe was a unique experience. During a worship service, I watched my youngest child go up in flames. Not in the Holy Spirit, Pentecost, tongues of fire version. Luke was about eleven years old and lighting candles as an acolyte. Somehow, he accidentally lit the arm of his cassock. My wife and I were sitting on the front pew, watching as flames rolled up his arm. Together, we ran to him, smothered the flames in a joint bear hug, and rushed him off the stage. No one else moved. Not the band, not the choir, not the ushers. They stood there, frozen.
I don’t blame them. I hardly believed it was happening myself. Since Luke was not harmed, a few folks approached me afterward wondering if the entire episode was something that I had planned as part of my message that morning. I like to be creative, but setting my kid on fire is where I draw the line. (By the way, right after this excitement the children’s choir was scheduled to sing that morning. Can you guess the song? “This Little Light of Mine.”)
If asked, I am sure that everyone gathered in the church that day would have gladly helped. I don’t think anyone would intentionally just watch or expect someone else to run to get some water. But sometimes, in the moment, we just freeze.
• • •
In daily life, I would like to think that I would be the first to run and get a sponge to offer a dying man something to drink. I would like to think that I would not care what the crowd thinks. I would like to think that I would not care if they laughed at me for me getting involved. But then, maybe I would freeze. Sometimes we simply find ourselves hidden amongst the crowd because our “whole life … [is] one long struggle not to be laughed at.”
For the crowd gathered in Jerusalem that day, there is an upside. That was not the last chance for them to do the right thing. In fact, they will all admit to having a second chance. All of them; the one who ran to get a sponge, the ones who were waiting for Elijah to show up, the ones who were frozen, and the ones who laughed. All of them will ask the exact same question when they face Jesus again. On the last day, the Day of Judgement, everyone, including you and I, will ask the same question.
“Lord, when did we see you thirsty?” (Matthew 25:37)
Jesus will respond, “What did you do when you saw one of my brothers or sisters who were thirsty?”
Our greatest hope is that we will have chosen to live with courage, faith and compassion. That we will have stepped out from the crowd, dismissing the fear of being laughed at or ridiculed…or even made just a little bit uncomfortable. And because of that choice, Jesus will ultimately reach out to us and say, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." (Matthew 25:45)