I was lured away from the Hill Country last week for a business trip to Atlanta. I’m talking planes, trains, automobiles, and acres upon acres of concrete. I’ve managed to stay out of cities for the last few years, and that is to my liking. I much prefer observing the wildlife in the Hill Country and the clouds moving around the silhouettes of these hills than watching the “wild life” in the city and the sun easing down behind a skyscraper.
After a bumpy airplane ride and landing a bit late, I decided to take MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) as it promised to be the quickest way to get to my meeting in Buckhead. I boarded the train and found an adventure quite different than my quiet and peaceful morning walk through the hills. As a writer, I am a diligent and constant observer of people, and you might say I got an eyeful and an earful in a twenty-one-minute train ride.
I found myself in a seat where I faced most of the passengers in this particular train car. Almost everyone of them sat with earbuds in and staring at cell phones, unaware of anything but the train stops. Seated directly in front of me was a young man with his earbuds, a cellphone in one hand and a vaping apparatus in the other. (I knew nothing of vaping at the time so I was quite curious. Remember, I lead a sheltered life. But since that morning, I’ve learned these personal vaporizers are called MODS.) This young man never looked at me which gave me time to study him.
At the first stop, another young man, dressed similarly with the same blank eyes, carrying a MOD and a cellphone, boarded the train. He spotted the one seated in front of me, walked down the aisle and took the seat next to him. Apparently they had known each other at some point, and they began to talk openly. I can assure you their vocabularies would have called for more than one bar of soap.
Now, I wasn’t eavesdropping. I just don’t have earbuds, and I was sitting within six feet of them as they talked about their series of jobs and firings. Then one mentioned a mutual friend of theirs. “Yeah, I tried to chat him up on Instagram after I heard about the shooting. You know, the shooting where those three dudes were killed. I knew he had something to do with it. Found out he did. Got shot. He’s in jail now. They’ll send him up. At least he didn’t get killed.”
The other replied. “Yeah. Too bad. I got no worries myself. My refrigerator is full of Girl Scout Cookies.”
Now the writer in me assessed that quickly and determined that Girl Scout cookies must be code for something else. But not so, this boy went on and on about thin mints and his favorite peanut butter patties and Samoas.
I felt my heart growing heavier and heavier. It wasn’t just the blank look behind their eyes that made me sad or the fact that they both seemed to have a problem with keeping jobs. It was that Girl Scout cookies carried as much weight in that conversation as did a shooting where three men were killed and their buddy was wounded. I pondered that all day. They spoke like this because it was their normal, and I ached in my bones because it was so.
My journey was gray – cloudy skies, colorless concrete barricades, steely skyscrapers, and drab train stops. I felt smothered under the grayness of it all, but mostly from the memories of such a grim conversation. However, I could anticipate returning to the safety and comfort of the Nichols’ Nest where sunrises are spectacular, and I have meaningful tasks, and the conversations are bright. I have a different normal.
Even after returning home, I still walked around in the shadow of this conversation and pondered it. What I have concluded is this:
One: Those young men and I were on the same train, and we were all headed somewhere. But our experiences along the way would be determined by our sense of normal.
Two: These young men are living in a dangerous place because they have accepted this way of living and valuing life as normal. It’s not normal. It leads to concrete walls, dark alleys, and desperation. They need a new normal. They need the Light of Christ.
Third: We, who live in the Light of Christ, have a normal that leads to life, purpose, responsibility, sunlit skies, hope and peace. But we should be wary of growing too comfortable in our normal. The reality is that following Christ also means that our normal should include walking among the hurting, suffering, hungry, and hopeless people like Jesus did. We must work at the balance of enjoying our lives and serving others and introducing them to the One who can change their normal and change where they’re headed.
I won’t soon forget this trip or the conversation that I wasn’t supposed to hear — or maybe I was.