Do you remember that boy in third grade? The one that discovered the joy of running his fingernails over the chalkboard and making that horrible, screechy sound?
“Enough already! Stop it!”
He just squealed with delight. He giggled. He turned to face his audience. His eyes shown like a lighthouse in the dead of night. Bright. Full of light. Full of the joy of annoying whoever accompanied him in the classroom. And immediately before class? He had all his classmates captive to his torturous sounds. Until the teacher walked in to begin the day’s arithmetic lesson. The brat!
So, why did God invent scratching? Can you think of anything so God-awful? Is there anything good that can come from a scratch?
OK, my back itches. I can’t reach it! Right in the middle. Right where my fingers won’t quite go because my arms and hands don’t reach that far. Up from the bottom? Same problem; different direction.
But when I finally figure out how to scratch, it feels heavenly. My solution? I take my shirt off. I lie on the carpet. Like a bear against a tree needing to scratch his own back, I twist and turn. Heavenly! The itch goes away. Now I’ve got a scratched up back. Too much scratching. It hurts a little. But just a little.
My dog does the same thing. When his back itches, he lies on his back and wiggles like crazy. On the carpet. Or, in the dirt. Or, on the grass. He loves that! He and I have discovered the same thing. We’re a pair!
Oh, I know why God created scratching! Just remembered. Athlete’s foot. Poison ivy. Both require a good scratch. But now I wonder, why did God create athletes’ foot? Why did He create poison ivy? Perhaps to justify His creation of scratching?
So, other than scratching to alleviate the discomfort of an itch, what good is it? Can it possibly have any redeeming quality other than its usefulness to alleviate discomforts? And to worsen a rash?
* * * * *
I hate it when someone else breathes down my back.
Is this just a metaphor? When I’m in a line at the grocery store, and someone gets too close to me, he ends up breathing down my back. Well, not quite. He breathes onto my neck. Just as bad! “Stay back, fella!” Of course, when I turn around to face him, I discover that he has bad breath! I suggest the breath mints sitting along the check-out aisle.
When my boss wants me to finish a project that he should have assigned me a long time ago, he ends up becoming the metaphor. Uncomfortable! Especially when it was him that gave me the assignment too late, to finish by his unrealistic deadline. Especially when my performance review is on the line. “Chill out, Boss! Don’t make me the scape goat of your not planning ahead!” Not a comfortable feeling when he breathes down my back. “Get off my back and let me do my job!”
I can appreciate the intake of fresh air. Especially when the weather and temperature is just right. If I take a jog, I appreciate even more my air intake. Can’t wait to exhale, just so that I can breathe in again. Just thinking, though. What good is the exhale part of breathing? You know, just blowing hot air.
Oh, I know! Just figured it out! The exhale is when we talk. Have you ever tried talking when you’re breathing in? God created an exhale so that we could talk. Or, if you are a dog, bark.
Breathing in is good. Gets oxygen into your lungs. Breathing out? It gets the carbon dioxide out of your lungs. I guess that’s a good thing, right?
I just figured out another good thing about a scratch. When we talk, we scratch our throats. A good thing. Usually. Sometimes. When a person says good things, not mean things. When a person doesn’t talk too much.
It was windy, yesterday. Must have been too much exhaling. All at once. In the same direction. Maybe too much talking, too.
* * * * *
Walking along the beach.
I pick up a stone. A smooth one. It’s got that special feel. Smooth. Great for skipping. So, I wait for the water to smooth out. I spin it as I throw it. It skips. If I do it right, I hit double digits. I think twelve or thirteen skips constitutes my record. Probably a world record. Tough to repeat.
I use a smooth stone sometimes to sharpen my knife. A sharpening stone. A stone can be useful.
* * * * *
A good friend of mine introduced me to a few videos. Cell phone videos, that is. About thirty of them, back-to-back. They all conveyed the same theme. A bunch of people scrambling to scratch the dirt and pick up pieces of gold. Yeah, the yellow stuff. Genuine gold!
Seemed like gold lay all over the place. Shovels and hands just about collided. That could have hurt!
But can you imagine the transformation that that small Congolese village might have experienced? Like most other villages, that one boasted just poor folk. No rich dudes. Until somebody from town discovered pieces of gold laying around the ground, scattered throughout the dirt.
Somebody figured out how to process it. Transformed the raw gold into bars. Gold bricks.
So, how did they know that the yellow stuff was real gold? Touchstone!
A touchstone is a black siliceous stone related to flint. When gold is rubbed against it, the touchstone turns yellow along the line of the scratch. The more yellow the mark, the purer the gold. As impurities dilute the ore, the scratch reveals a reddish hue.
The scratch against the touchstone serves a rather useful purpose. It allows the assaying of gold and the valuing of its richness.
That Congolese village transitioned from poor to rich. All due to someone’s scratch of the dirt. The dirt that used to be considered useless. The dirt that mimicked a touchstone and revealed particles of yellow along the scratch line of the dirt.
* * * * *
As I sat listening to a talented choir and orchestra make the most beautiful music, I relaxed and lost myself in the contemplation of the words and the pleasure of their harmony. They inspired me. The music soothed my temperament. I closed my eyes as the melody washed over me like a sea breeze. Like the exhale of God’s breath across my forest of worries. Worries about avoiding becoming my boss’ scape goat.
Then it occurred to me that what was happening involved the orchestration of a bunch of scratches. Sound artists scratched bows across taught strings to transform what could have resembled a boy’s fingernails across a chalk board. But their scratches didn’t annoy me. The players only turned their scratches into beautiful music.
Blowhards exhaled mightily into brass tubes to create more sound. They coordinated. With all the scratching and exhaling, they could have created a torcher chamber of deafening noise. But they didn’t do that. Rather, they harmonized their practiced scratching and exhaling into a symphony of sound-wave heaven.
At the same time, the choir of male and female blowhards sang. They scratched their vocal cords and exhaled in unison. They harmonized with the orchestra, and visa versa. I saw heaven in each of their faces as they sang praise to their Maker and inspiration to me.
The definition of touchstone has changed over time. If you check your dictionary, that assaying instrument lays in third place behind two more relevant and current definitions. A touchstone now signifies a fundamental or quintessential part or feature. The second definition describes touchstone as a test or criterion for determining the quality or genuineness of something (not necessarily gold).
It’s curious how something so commonplace as a stone can find relevance in its usefulness. The usefulness that needed to be discovered before its elevation from a skipping stone to a touchstone. The usefulness that transformed its functionality into a metaphor for quintessential.
It’s curious, also, how phenomenon so commonplace as a scratch and somebody’s exhale can find relevance in alternative uses.
* * * * *
“I’m not very talented,” I once said about myself. Like thinking that all scratches produced an annoyance, I didn’t stop to imagine how my common-ness might turn into something special.
I perceive that a lot of us delude ourselves into thinking that we’re not very special. That we don’t have much talent. That we have been sentenced to ordinary-ness by the God who created us.
Now, I’ve changed my mind. Now I think that many of us, including me, have not “scratched the surface” of our potential to turn our ordinary-ness into gold. If we scratch the surface of our talents, I think we would all discover a bright streak of yellow or gold. Else, we would find gold nuggets hiding in the dirt of our ordinary-ness.
As an accountant, I have worked with entrepreneurs, small businessmen and businesswomen over many years. Clients who might have appeared ordinary at first, which is everybody, now carry their own weight, and the weight of others. Without exception, they perceived opportunity where others did not. They planned, then acted upon that opportunity to transform not only their perception into reward; they transformed themselves from penniless to plentiful, poor to rich, ordinary to symphonic. Like musicians who practiced their way from annoying beginners to accomplished performers, they turned noise to melody, melody to harmony, harmony to orchestration, and orchestration to a concert of scratches and exhales of heavenly music.
Entrepreneurship should be defined as the art of finding the higher usefulness of something commonplace and transforming it into that higher, more valuable purpose. Because that is exactly what entrepreneurs do. Maybe discipleship should be defined similarly. Maybe it should involve the uncovering of at least one raw talent, its transformation into a useful implement, and useful implement into an effective imitator of Christ.
When a child first learns to play an instrument or sing, he tends to sound awful. When an entrepreneur first tries to turn perception into realized opportunity, invariably, she embarrasses herself. He inadvertently runs fingernails across a chalkboard. But she figures out how to scratch her back like a bear. And when he exhales, he smiles as he looks back at his first sign of success.
If we all start out as ordinary, do we continue to perceive ourselves in that light for the rest of our lives? Some of us do, I believe. But some of us learn to understand the nature of our ordinary-ness to discover our potential to turn scratches and exhales into things of beauty. Into persons of beauty. Into the creatures that God intended us to discover. Into the talent-laden disciples He instructed us to become.
How are you ordinary? Like me?
If you scratch the surface of your ordinary-ness, what do you find? Do you delight in just scratching the chalkboard and giggling with delight? Perhaps because you don’t see the potential for arithmetic equations written across its breadth?
If you exhale a baby’s cry, can you perceive your potential to develop your golden voice?
Can you see the nuggets of gold with which God endowed you?
Can you see your potential to become a new instrument?
Do you have any idea the pleasure you might give another as the metaphor of a new song?
March 4, 2021