On a December Saturday years ago, the Millers piled into our van and headed for the mall. It was lunchtime, so we stopped at McDonald’s. Waiting at a red light in front of the restaurant, we saw a man standing at the intersection. In his mid-40s with a full beard, he was wearing a well-worn army jacket, ripped jeans, tennis shoes, a skimpy wool hat, and gloves with holes in their fingers. He looked cold.
He was also holding a sign that said, “Food for work.” Our kids had a lot of questions. Karen and I did our best to answer them. “Yes, kids, he’s probably hungry. Yeah, I guess he’d work for food, not just money. No, he probably has no place to go tonight. Yes, I’m sure he’s poor. No, he probably does not have a home. I’m sure he’s cold. You’re right, it’s very sad.”
Finally, the light changed and we turned into the home of “880 Billion Served,” or whatever the sign said that year.
After 30 minutes of heavy eating and light conversation, we walked out. I was carrying a leftover cheeseburger, still warm in the wrapper, untouched. We got into the van, turned around, and pulled up to the same red light. The “Food for work” guy was still there.
Suddenly, Kristin—the missionary in our family and now a brand new mom—who was nine years old at the time, asked the question I did not want to hear. From the back of our van she shouted, “Daddy, can you get out and give that guy our cheeseburger? We don’t need it.” I froze. And then did some fast talking, saying, “Well, Kristin, it’s awfully cold. The light’s about to turn green. Might cause an accident. I’ve got lots of cars behind me. I’m sure he wouldn’t accept charity, anyway!” An eternity passed and the light turned green.
As we pulled away, the man and I exchanged a glance, and then we were gone.
Many years later, I vaguely remember his face, but there is another face I cannot forget. In my rear view mirror, I saw the face of a nine-year-old with freckles, dazzling green eyes, and a tear coming down each cheek because she’d just seen her daddy refuse to feed a hungry man. There was no refuting, denying, or wishing it away. She saw what she saw.
For a moment, let’s put aside our politics, our opinions on social programs, and our temptation to wonder whether the man would have taken the food. People have said to me, “Well, maybe he was a con man,” which honestly had never occurred to me. Even if that were true, it’s beside the point. What this moment in time represented was a daughter watching her daddy not stand on his stated values. Not live what he said he claimed to believe. Not follow his own teachings. Not demonstrate integrity. It was not an outstanding moment for me.
You see, at home, in a nice, warm kitchen full of food I had been throwing around words such as “sharing,” “giving,” “tithing,” and “helping those less fortunate.” But my actions in that moment were completely inconsistent with those words; I didn’t share, give, or help.
As unpleasant as that memory is, it helps me remember the big difference between my words and my actions. I realize I need to be vigilant if I want to live a life I’m proud of and be a good role model for those around me. I think poet, Edgar Guest, said it best:
Sermons We See
I’d rather see a sermon than to hear one any day.
I’d rather one should walk with me than just to show the way.
The eye is a better pupil and more willing than the ear;
Advice may be misleading but examples are always clear.
And the very best of teachers are the ones who live their creeds,
For to see good put into action is what everybody needs.
I can soon learn to do it if you’ll let me see it done.
I can watch your hand in motion, but your tongue too fast may run.
And the lectures you deliver may be very fine and true,
But I’d rather get my lesson by observing what you do.
For I may misunderstand you and the fine advice you give,
But there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how you live!
So let’s each remember to not ask, “Why don’t others walk their talk?” but rather The Question Behind the Question (QBQ), “How can I today practice the principles I espouse?”
Meanwhile, please enjoy our Be Outstanding! show titled “Integrity: An Idea That Works!”
John G. Miller