I learned today that Tony died.
To be honest, I didn’t exactly remember his name, although it was printed on the employee tag that he’d always worn. But when the baby and I went to the grocery store, after dropping off my oldest at preschool, I saw a display set up, blocking check stand 13.
I stood off to the side for a minute, staring at the flower bouquets, the framed photographs, the cards and pieces of paper taped up, words scrawled across them. A lady was standing in front of it with her cart, staring at everything. I waited until she moved away.
As she left, our eyes met; hers had that grave look of solidarity that people get when something bad has happened, in the news. Can you believe it? Isn’t it terrible?
That’s when I realized: someone had died. As I got closer to the largest photograph, I thought Uh-oh…I hope that’s not who I think it is.
It was. It was the tall man with the gray hair and mustache and the paunchy belly, the one who always smiled at you and kept up a cheerful patter and joked with your boys, even when they gave him that silent, sober stare that toddlers are so good at. The man who remembered little things about you. The friendliest cashier that the grocery store had.
“Tony,” the placard said. I should have remembered that, I thought. I should have remembered his name. According to the notice, he had died suddenly.
My eyes filled. I stood there and read some of the cards left behind by customers.
They all said how kind Tony was, how friendly, how much he’d be missed. How they used to purposely choose his line, when he was working. One lady talked about how much Tony had “been there” for her while she was going through an adoption, and a divorce.
There was a book lying open on the top shelf of the display, where store customers could write thoughts about him. So far, forty pages had been filled.
The thing is, it’s not as though Tony was “living the dream,” on top of the world. He was a fifty-year-old grocery cashier. And he didn’t seem to be a naturally bubbly guy, one of those people who have energy and exuberance to spare. Lots of times, there seemed to be an effort behind his smiles, his banter. Not that he was sad, exactly – maybe just that he was tired, like all the rest of us, and that it wasn’t always the easiest thing in the world to come up with good cheer and kind greetings and one smile after another, for hours at a time.
But he always, always did it. I guess you could say he always put others first.
A few days earlier, I had finished reading Blue Like Jazz, by Don Miller. (Yes, I realize I’m late to the party, that almost everyone else in the world read that book years ago.)
Blue Like Jazz was Don Miller’s attempt to write out “non-religious thoughts on Christian spirituality,” and it is a fairly brilliant little book, the one I’d want to read if I wasn’t a Christian. (And how many books on faith can you say that about?)
The catchy title of the book came from Miller’s idea that God is like jazz music (He doesn’t resolve) and so is Christian faith, which, in the end, cannot be written down or spelled out, but is something that is felt.
The thrust of the book, though, the thing that resonated so deeply with me and with so many others, is how important (and utterly unnatural) it is to die to self, to live for others. Miller writes: “The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: Life is a story about me.”
We Christians talk about that a lot (we talk about a LOT of things a lot), but it’s often accompanied by a hint of martyrdom (look how much I died to self today), and it’s usually in the context of putting Christ first, or putting our “brothers and sisters in Christ” first. Not, you know, putting unbelievers first. Not the people who are totally screwed up.
Why oh why do we keep forgetting that we’re totally screwed up?
We send the message that people are only worth our time if we can get them interested in our faith, if we think there’s a good enough chance that they’ll come around to our beliefs.
What the freak is that? Who on earth is going to be drawn to that?
Don Miller doesn’t have all the answers, any more than anybody else does, and that’s kind of his point. His book is blunt, and honest, and so real you can feel the experiences he describes. He loves Jesus. He loves people – all people – for real. He tries to pour himself out for them.
St. Francis of Assisi put it this way: “Go out today and preach the gospel. And if you must, use words.”
I have no idea if Tony the cashier ever read Blue Like Jazz, but I can tell you that he lived it. He lived it every time he turned his mouth up into a smile, every time he offered up a personal greeting and some friendly chitchat. Every time another person (and another, and another) moved in front of him, and he behaved as though they were worthy of attention and respect.
Tony wasn’t trying to sell anything. His customers had already chosen their purchases, had already decided to pay. Cashiers are trained to greet you, but that’s about it. They don’t have to act like you’re important.
I’m not sure yet what it will look like, or what I’m capable of, but I really want to live more the way that Don Miller described in his book. Fully present in a flesh and blood world, caring for people, letting my faith manifest itself as a love that spills out every day, in every interaction. I want to be more Blue Like Jazz.
I want to be more like Tony.