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Written by Don Walter
From his column A Minute with Donminute-with-don-07-15-1

I’m getting old enough now to understand some of what I used to think was just strange behavior of my parents. If you’re over 50, you’ve probably started to see the occurrence of this phenomenon in your life too. If not, give it a few years. If you’re paying attention, you may even recognize the face staring back at you in the mirror as strangely similar to those that used to gaze at you across the dinner table when you were in junior high school. It’s a DNA thing.

My mother traded this world for the heaven she longed for a few years ago. My father preceded her by several years. When one has been blessed with loving, godly parents, the reminiscence of former days under their care is a bittersweet, heart-melting exercise. Such moments occur more frequently with the passing years. There is something that happens to me during these times. Occasionally, I am simultaneously child, parent, and grandparent—caught up in a twilight zone of thoughts and emotions. It is almost as if I am remembering the future.

One such moment occurred recently when I was with my wife while shopping. Most husbands will know that “with my wife while shopping” is not the same as “shopping with my wife.” The difference is a topic for another day. If you understand the concept of parallel play among pre-school children, you have the basic idea of what I’m referring to.

On this particular day, my role in the shopping exercise was mostly that of transportation support, package management, and emergency financing. I learned long ago that my value in fashion advice and decorating counsel is significantly limited. Apparently, the concept “brown goes good with everything” tends to disqualify one in those areas.

Knowing the roles I was assigned to didn’t demand my immediate presence, thanks to both of us having remembered our cell phones, I chose a nice, shady parking space, centrally located to the field of endeavor. My wife merrily went on her way to enjoy the opportunities that lay before her, with me safely tucked away, freed from interaction with bustling crowds. All was right with the universe.

Surprisingly, the time passed quickly. No, I hadn’t fallen asleep. But upon my wife’s return, she asked if I’d been okay with her having been gone so long. It was then I heard myself utter words I’d heard my mother say hundreds of times: “Oh, I was just enjoying watching the people.” Kathy and I both laughed. Whenever we’d ask my mother what she wanted to do on any outing, her response was “just watch the people.”

I’m finding “people watching” truly is an entertaining exercise. And I’m finally learning what my mother understood all those years ago. It’s the ultimate reality show, and exercising a bit of creative imagination regarding the roles and relationships of those we watch make it even more entertaining.

Recently I’ve found myself adding a twist to this cheap but enjoyable type of entertainment. I like to sort and categorize things. This inclination has come in handy in many of the jobs I’ve had. Apparently this can be an annoying trait for those of freer spirit than me (that is what my free-spirited family members tell me). But adding it to the fun of people watching only improves the experience. People are fun to sort! Again, if you understand the pre-school game of alike and different, you’ve pretty much got the concept.

Now, I’m going to meddle and mix it up in an area that could agitate some folks. For both our sakes, please don’t write and chastise me—at least not until you’ve finished reading the whole article. Even then, please understand that this is only an article by a guy who has very little influence on the final outcome of pretty much anything important. (You’d be better served to complain to your postmaster about the behavior of your letter carrier if you really want to impact the general quality of your life.)

Here it goes. I did some people watching at a recent gathering of pastors. I had a front row seat, and it was truly entertaining. A colleague speculated on the age range and mix of those at the event, and I was trying to figure out how to test his assumptions by general observation. As it turns out, I discovered some tell-tale traits that work for “herd sorting” clergy. In fact, these principles probably apply to sorting non-clergy as well.

Culturally it seems there are distinctive age identifiers that work with some degree of reliability. Shirttails and backpacks, when used in tandem, can be good age group predictors. If you’re people watching and see a group of persons with shirttails out and packs slung on their backs with both straps in use, you’re watching younger members of the herd. On the other hand, if you’re watching folk with shirttails tucked in, minus backpacks, you’re viewing members of the old guard. Of course, the trick comes with identifying the outliers. At this point, a third marker can be helpful. Of course, I speak here of socks. When in doubt, check the ankles.

Herd members with shirttails out, clutching one strap of a backpack, minus socks are definitely younger than those dressed similarly with socks. Once in a while you’ll see an obviously older member of the herd with his or her shirttail out, a shoulder bag, and no socks. Disregard this anomaly. That individual is functioning in a self-delusional state and is unable to find a functioning mirror.

One of the sadder sights is an older member with shirttail out, but with obvious wrinkles at the shirt’s waistline. This poor fellow actually is dressed properly for his age, but somewhere along the way he has been influenced by the cajoling of a family member or friend about looking “so old.” The “cure” of the untucked shirttail was, no doubt, well-intentioned, but has been poorly executed.

As I made my observations though, I was struck by one significant fact. God uses different criteria for observations when calling men and women to ministry. The stuff that marks us in the eyes of humanity doesn’t hold much stock with Him. He calls us to service in the context of those we are called to serve. And it reinforces the reality that everyone, regardless of age or sock preferences, needs a pastor.

As our culture becomes increasingly diverse in styles and appearance, some of the old ways of identifying members of our herd no longer work. But thanks be to God, there is still no replacement for women and men who’ve committed their lives to vocational ministerial service in response to His call. Whatever else may be the case, I’ll find comfort with that herd any day.

Don Walter is director of Pensions and Benefits USA for the Church of the Nazarene.

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