May 2011


Earlier this week I went for a follow-up appointment to the podiatrist’s office in Amory, MS, where I’m pastor of the Presbyterian church. While I was waiting to see the doctor, a man came in with a paper bootie on one foot and bandages on the same leg. I was sitting near the receptionist’s desk, so I heard the conversation between the man and the nurse. Apparently he had been referred by his surgeon just that day, and he was a new patient. Of course, he needed to fill out a form, front and back. “I can’t read or write,” he told the receptionist. So, she asked him a few questions and got things done that way.

The man had lost his seat when he got called to the desk. The only empty chair was next to me, and he sat down. We didn’t speak. As I sat there reading the book issue of The Christian Century, I thought about the gap between him, the illiterate, and me, the doctor of ministry. But I also considered that we were both there because there was something wrong with our feet. What is more fundamentally human, besides our brains, than our feet, which contribute to our walking upright and being able to use our hands to make tools?

I wondered how the man made it in life. Maybe he always had folks to help him with forms, like the nurse did, or read or write something for him. It was an existence I couldn’t imagine. Getting your information only from conversations or from the TV, with its inane chatter (like the show that was on while I was waiting) or its biased talking heads. Not being able to read even “See Spot run.” Cut off from the Internet. How would such a person get a driver’s license? How would he survive in today’s fast-paced world? Yes, we are image-oriented, but there’s still a great deal to read and write.

And I realized that the worship I lead every Sunday would be utterly incomprehensible and inaccessible to him. Presbyterian worship is mostly words, written on a page for the congregation to recite. Litanies. Prayers. Creeds. The man would be automatically excluded. And, honestly, I don’t know how to fix that.

Perhaps it’s enough for now for me to reflect on sitting next to the man. Doctor and illiterate. Both hurting.

Common bond.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

Please note that I will be taking a break from posting for at least the next two weeks. Thanks for reading.

You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (Matthew 23:24)

Soon after a SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden, MSNBC ran a story about his medicine cabinet. “No exotic drugs found” said the pop-up on the screen. Susan and I “busted out” laughing! How absurd! we thought. Who cares what was in the terrorist’s medicine cabinet?

In doing a little preparation for this post, I Googled “MSNBC Osama’s medicine cabinet” to see if I could find that clip. I couldn’t, but one from ABC got a hit (http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/video/osama-bin-laden-dead-osamas-medicine-cabinet-13522052). According to one of the reporters, the video taken at the compound gives “tantalizing hints” at how Osama and his family lived. OMG, he had on his shelf petroleum jelly! Eyedrops! Nasal spray!

Why the fascination with how one of the world’s most evil men lived? For that matter, why do we want to know the intimate details of the lives of movie stars and politicians?

Perhaps it’s a way to feel powerful. “Knowledge is power,” they say, even if it’s something stupid and trivial like knowing what a terrorist used for a headache or what the star of the latest blockbuster flick eats for breakfast. We long to have control, influence and/or access, especially over/to those who frighten us or entertain us or both. If we can peek inside the closet of the actor or learn the beauty secrets of the supermodel, we might even be like them if we could buy the same clothes or cosmetics. If we can reduce the terrorist to an ordinary person who uses nose spray and takes supplements, he or she must not be so scary after all.

In the Bible, naming something or someone, whether an animal (as in the creation story) or God (as in the prohibited action in the Ten Commandments) is a way of having control, exercising dominance, setting the agenda. Seeing a video and knowing the contents of Osama’s medicine cabinet isn’t exactly naming the animals, but it’s in the ballpark. It’s saying “You ain’t all that. You’re just a man.”

What seems like trivia turns out to be a pretty big deal after all.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

Please check back next week. And thanks, as always, for reading.