When I first moved to Knoxville, I spent a lot of time with my friend Craig. Craig loved to blast music whenever we drove around. He introduced me to quite a few bands I had never heard of. I wasn't particularly fond of most of them, but he certainly expanded my musical tastes.
Some of his favorite CDs to play were recordings of worship services before my time at Trinity Chapel. Craig would always talk about the old worship pastor, Aaron Jones. He was sad that the Jones family had moved away and had enjoyed worship under Aaron. (He would also be quick to note that he meant none of it as an insult to the team that led worship, at the time.)
Long before I ever met Aaron Jones, I became familiar with his singing voice and the way he led worship. But he was just a voice coming out of my friend's speakers, just stories coming out of my friend's mouth. I didn't know the man, only the image.
A few years later, I heard that the Jones family was moving back to Knoxville. My first thought was that Craig would be happy to hear the news. Even as people I loved and respected within the church expressed excitement about his return, I remained unmoved. Sure, meeting someone that people spoke of so highly interested me, but I wasn't going to get my hopes up about someone that might prove to be nothing but hype.
I needed a haircut. My shoulder-length, curly hair was too long to be comfortable yet too short to donate to Wigs for Kids. I had even allotted extra time to give it a chance to grow even a little more, just to see if there was progress. That yielded no results. It was time.
Just getting it cut was too anticlimactic for my tastes. Teen camp was coming up, and I had a plan for the last night. I bought "Jet Black" hair dye and packed it in with the rest of my belongings. On Wednesday, the penultimate full day of camp, I snuck away with another leader to dye my hair.
It turned out that "Jet Black" was an utter falsehood. Maybe "Dark Crimson" or "Red Clay Mud" would have been more apropos. Depending on the light, my hair looked dark purple, very dark red or just brown.
The color was disappointing, but the reaction from the campers and other leaders lived up to expectations. When I walked into the gym where we held services, it actually disrupted band practice. The girl singing lead stopped midverse to ask over the speakers, "Michael, what did you do to your hair?" Phase one was complete.
The next day, I ducked back into the gym right before dinner. The campers killing time there got to witness one of the high school girls straighten my hair and apply eyeliner. After getting a picture, I decided that the eyeliner took it a bit too far and spent the next fifteen minutes in the bathroom scrubbing it off my eyes. Even without the eyeliner, the look was complete: long, straight, black hair, a black shirt, black pants and black shoes. My moody teen transformation was complete.
Our campers, those that knew me, ran the gamut from amused to bewildered to indifferent. There were some younger kids from an unrelated Baptist church that ate meals at the same time as us: those campers, and some of the counselors, didn't want to come anywhere near me. I sat down at a table with my food and was pretty happy with the reactions.
"This is Michael Garrett." Adam, the youth pastor, was standing next to me with a man I didn't recognize. "Michael, this is Aaron Jones."
"Nice to meet you," I said, now regretting my attire.
Adam and Aaron ended up sitting on either side of me. Should I explain that what I'm wearing and how I have my hair is a joke? Aaron left to get his food.
"Adam, did you tell him anything about me?"
"That I'm a counselor, not a camper. That I don't normally look like this. Anything like that?"
"No." Adam smiled. "I didn't even think about it." He laughed.
Aaron returned and dinner went on. I don't remember anything that we said or discussed around that table, but how I looked didn't factor into any of it. It was a non-issue.
I had heard for years from Craig and others about how musically gifted Aaron was, how he had a heart for worship, how he was a great man. Over time, I learned the truth of these claims for myself. But none of that earned my respect for him. When he knew nothing about me other than my name and what I looked like, Aaron treated me with dignity and didn't write me off. That is what earned my respect.
Sometimes, it isn't a first impression that's hard to look past but our own mental image of the person. I love going through old pictures and remembering the times spent with different people that have been a part of my life. I have a tendency to refer to the younger versions of people as "Little [Name]" to differentiate who someone is from who they were.
Over time, I began to realize that comments such as, "I miss Little [Name]," have hurt some people. The meaning intended is, "I miss those times with you." The meaning that it has carried is, "I don't like the person you've become. I want you to be the same as before."
Understanding that better now, I try to avoid saying it. If I want to express a similar sentiment, I instead reminisce about a particular shared experience. As much as I loved who they were in the past, stunted growth of any kind is not something I would wish on them. What was cute and innocent at nine can be sad and creepy at nineteen.
More importantly, a past mental image is not always positive. There was a kid I knew some years ago that was funny and generally well-meaning. He also had anger issues, a weak filter for the things he said and tended to get in trouble a lot. He became known as a problem child. Eventually, he began to feel like his side of the story didn't even matter to anyone, whether or not he was actually given an opportunity to voice it. I was sad when he left my life, but I had hope that he would fare better where he was going.
Some years passed, and I learned that he was doing a lot better in his new setting. When I shared this with another adult that had known him, their reaction disgusted me. It was along the lines of: "Yeah, I don't believe it. He'll always be like that. It's who he is."
This person was allowing their own mental image of this boy to poison anything they heard. They couldn't see past their own hatred, bitterness and unforgiveness to accept the possibility that he had matured and grown closer to God in the intervening years. This person was a Christian, yet seemed to have no faith in God's redemptive power. I was happy that I didn't have much cause to be around them.
More years passed. Every once in a while, I would hear about how the boy was doing. I would first smile and thank God for taking care of him. Then I would think of that close-minded adult and get angry all over again. How can someone call themselves a Christian when they don't believe in redemption? Even when I heard about the service this adult was doing, I wouldn't believe that anything good could come from someone that would make such a spiteful, ignorant statement about a child.
Then, one day, I realized that I was doing the same thing. I hadn't seen this person in quite a few years, but I was still holding on to a single moment of their life and using it as proof of who they were. I wasn't allowing them to grow and develop past that single snapshot, just as they had done to the boy. We were guilty of the same thing. The only difference was that there was a chance they had already repented. I took that moment of clarity as my opportunity to do so, as well.
We cannot allow what we can see or have seen to rule us.
Samuel had seen God use King Saul in the past, but then God told him to anoint someone else as king. Samuel decided to obey God rather than rely on what he had seen of Saul leading up to that point. The formerly faithful had disobeyed God and needed to be told that "obedience is better than sacrifice," (1 Samuel 15:22).
When Samuel went to anoint one of Jesse's sons, he looked at Eliab and thought that he had to be the one God had chosen. Instead, God said, "Don't think Eliab is the one just because he's tall and handsome. People judge others by what they look like, but I judge people by what is in their hearts," (1 Samuel 16:6-7). David's own family had counted him out as a possibility, not even bringing him to Samuel as a candidate, but God had chosen him as king (1 Samuel 16:12).
Jesus stood in Nazareth and read prophecies that foretold his coming and part of the work he was to do. The people asked, "Isn't he Joseph's son?" (Luke 4:22) Jesus said that prophets are not liked in their hometown (Luke 4:24). Eventually, the gathered Nazarenes tried to drag Jesus to a cliff outside of town to kill him (Luke 4:29). They weren't about to listen to this guy they had seen grow up alongside them. Who did he think he was?
Before Paul's name was changed, before he wrote most of the New Testament, he was a facilitator of and participant in the persecution of the early Christians (1 Corinthians 15:9, Galatians 1:13). Ananias voiced his concerns and suspicions when God told him to find the blinded Paul (Acts 9:13-14). What if Ananias hadn't obeyed? What if the rest of the early church decided that Paul's past would forever make him untrustworthy and didn't accept any of his writings as scripture?
We must all constantly ask ourselves if we are looking at people as they were, as we want them to be or as we expect them to be. Are we looking with our own eyes and with our own understanding, which can be misled? Or are we doing our best to look past our preconceived notions, to view others with the wisdom and love of God?