On February 16, 1955, a team of surveyors in the Soviet Union surprised the world. They made the announcement that a previously uncharted mountain had just been discovered in Siberia. I guess not many people vacation in Siberia, unless you are sent there on a government excursion of indefinite duration. Out in Siberia it is cold and slow going. Not too many people who go there get out much to see anything. Even so, the discovery of this hitherto uncharted mountain is certainly amazing. Especially since the mountain was 24,664 feet high. How could anything so massive be overlooked for so long?
Often, the things we overlook are not that huge. But they may be just as startling. Our lives are mostly hustle and bustle, taking care of written or unwritten lists of details. When we get through with one list, we start all over. Another is created. It seems we have to take care of so many things in order that we not miss anything. Sometimes things get lost in the daily shuffle. Like priorities. That’s the way it is. The more significant things keep getting pushed aside for less important items.
In our push to get done what we have to get done, we overlook some things. Mostly, I think, we overlook people. Think about it: while doing your Christmas shopping, for example, with your list in hand, how many people do you bump shoulders with? You are completing your tasks, but how many faces do you pass doing those tasks? You may or may not glance into their faces. You don’t know them. You’ve never seen them before; you’ll probably never see them again. Imagine what you may be overlooking. Or, should I say, WHO you might be overlooking.
Stanley Marcus, former chairman of the Newman-Marcus store in Dallas, Texas, told about a customer who once wrote him a letter. The letter read:
There’s a very nice-looking elderly woman whom I frequently see in your store. She picks the dead leaves from the plants throughout the store. Surely you can find a better position for a person such as her.
Marcus wrote back to the customer thanking her for expressing her concern. He explained in his reply, “...the only higher rank the woman could have would be my job. The woman to whom you are referring is my mother, Mrs. Robert Marcus, Sr., now age 93, and a member of the Board of Directors.”
How many people had just walked past this mountain of a woman—this leaf-picking member of the Board of Directors? To our eyes, and in the midst of our plodding through our days, most people seem insignificant. Small potatoes. But in God’s eyes, and in God’s plan, they may loom as large as uncharted and hitherto unnoticed mountains.
We are so familiar with the Christmas story and its characters, we plow through it, thinking we know everyone, the role they play, and so we don’t feel we have to take as much notice. How many times have we heard this story already!?
Today, all the people in the Christmas story are seen for their importance. We are looking at the Christmas story from the perspective of those who know the outcome. We can’t read these parts of the gospel of Luke or Matthew without assuming we know all about Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the shepherds, and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
We miss how important they are, though, unless we can force ourselves to see these characters with pre-stable, pre-star, pre-wise men eyes.
I may have told the story about the Kurt Vonnegut novel, Slapstick. His books usually have a surprising bite to them, and full of satire and social commentary. In this book, there are two female characters. One is a shopping bag lady who roams the streets of New York City at night. She carries everything she owns in her shopping bags. She lives in a large cardboard box during the night.
The other woman is described only within the smart surroundings of a fashionable, uptown, corporate boardroom. She is the owner and Chief Executive Officer of a huge corporation. It isn’t until the end of the novel that you begin to realize that the two ladies are actually one and the same person.
Then you go back through the novel, thinking about how the woman was treated in each of her surroundings, knowing she led a double life. The reader’s perspective all of a sudden changes about the shopping bag lady, who has been ignored and overlooked while on the streets. Even some of the big-whigs who did business with her in the corporate board rooms mistreated her, or took no notice of her while they passed by this bag lady.
That is what I want us to see, or the way I want us to see the Christmas story. Let’s take Joseph and Mary for example. Today, there isn’t a Christian alive who doesn’t know who Mary and Joseph are. I would dare say that even a lot of non-Christians recognize their names, at least at Christmastime.
But how many knew Joseph and Mary back then? Do you remember those old American Express credit card commercials. Somebody would be shown, they’d ask the viewer, “Do you know me?” Then they’d hold up their American Express card, and we’d figure out who they were. I don’t think an American Express card would have gotten Mary and Joseph recognized, nor secure a room at the inn. They were a shopping bag couple. They were the kind of people we see, but really don’t see. Think of all the people we go through life seeing, but never really see. Some of those people just might be Mary and Josephs.
Even those closest to us have a way of being taken for granted. We look across the dining room table, and assume the other person who is looking back at us is someone we know. And yet, in reality, we have missed something here, overlooked something there, and made many assumptions in between. We see, but we really don’t see, even those closest to us.
So why should it be any different with all the Mary and Joseph’s that go by us each day. Insignificant faces in a crowd, looking for a room. Looking for attention. Looking for a face that will look back—really look back—with some kind of acknowledgement that someone is really seeing them.
The incongruities can be alarming when we think of Mary. Here is a young woman whom God has visited through an angel. Here is a young woman who bears within her the Savior of the world. Here is a young woman whose every move must have been watched by every angel in heaven. But, here is a young woman who couldn’t get anyone else to look at her long enough to see, really see, who she was, what her needs were, what her mission was.
Have you ever been told, “You are special simply because God created you,” but then wondered if God can see you are so special, why others don’t see you that way?
In the movie, “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind,” French movie director Francois Truffaut plays the part of a scientist trying to communicate with extra-terrestrial visitors. In real life, he is not particularly interested in UFO’s. He said, “The encounters one has in real life are so mysterious, so difficult to handle successfully, they are enough to satisfy my curiosity.”
He went on to give an example:
The creatures from outer space in “Close Encounters” were played by children. To us, they looked identical in their costumes. But they would recognize each other, and from time-to-time, we’d see two of them give each other a high five, or put their arms around each other’s waists. That was beautiful.
In that kind of childlike innocence there was true seeing. There was recognition beyond the exterior.
“Why doesn’t anybody notice me?” you might ask yourself. “Why must I fight for recognition, so that people will notice who I really am?” Or, “You’re OK God, and I know you are with me always, and it’s not that I dislike your companionship, but I’d like to feel welcomed by at least a couple of people, too.”
That was Joseph and Mary before the birth. Now, everyone knows them, and really sees them for who they are. And, maybe, that was you or I before whatever it is that may happen, that will make those around us finally notice us for who we are. Because that’s one of the lessons, isn’t it? That it is the “you or I’s” in the world, the small potatoes, the shopping bag people, the overlooked, who just may be those with mountainous characteristics and roles to play in the world. It is the neglected innocents who God has chosen, and will continue to choose to make the great changes in our world.
As Mary sang:
God has scattered those who are proud...
God has brought down rulers from their thrones,
and has exalted those who are humble.
God has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent away the rich empty-handed.
So, if you are looking for the newsmakers, the ones who are going to have a lasting impact on this world of ours, don’t look at summit meetings. Don’t look in the White House or the Kremlin. Instead, it will be one of the faces you passed in the crowd. One of the faces you saw, but really didn’t see.
If you are looking for the places out of which the great trends of the future will be determined, don’t look in New York City, or Washington, or Moscow, or North Korea. Instead, it will be in one of those towns so small their motto is, “You don’t need to use your turn signal; we already know where you’re going.”
If we are looking for God’s big potatoes—the people God is using for grand plans—all we need to do is pay closer attention to the small potatoes.