I recently watched a little boy trying to get candy from one of those old-fashioned gumball machines. I rarely see such machines now, but I was in a neighborhood hardware store that hasn’t changed much since the 1950s.
The boy was frustrated, because he couldn’t figure out how to work the machine. He kept trying to place a quarter inside the chute where the gum or candy comes out. He tried to turn the crank, but he didn’t understand that the quarter had to be placed into a slot.
I attempted to show him where to put the quarter, but he wouldn’t listen. He was angry at the machine and ignored me — and kept making the same mistake.
“It’ll never work that way,” I gently told him in a friendly way, “because you’re doing it wrong.”
In the last few days, I’ve found myself thinking about that little boy. I’ve been watching all of the unhappiness and anger and misery of the world around me. I’ve been thinking about the things I see people doing that I know are never going to give them peace and joy. And I keep thinking about what God must think when he looks at his creatures.
“Your lives are never going to work this way,” he must think, “because you’re doing it all wrong.”
We’re like the little boy. We want what’s inside the gumball machine. We even have the quarter to exchange for the candy. But we keep doing everything wrong — and we never quite get what we vaguely know we need.
In times of honesty and insight, we somehow know what we need. At least in a vague way. We crave love and connection and acceptance. We want to reach out to others and connect in loving ways. At times we try. But we make so many mistakes that we lose sight of what we need.
The Hebrew book of Genesis tells us that a serpent offered Adam and Eve a fruit which would give them something other than what God had offered to them. God told them they needed the things he had provided — and that they were to leave that tree alone.
Humanity has spent most of its existence in a metaphorical pursuit of that fruit. We see the others around us already pursuing the fruit, so we join in the mad rush to get to it. But God is watching us — metaphorically speaking — and saying with love and compassion, “You’re doing it wrong.”
We’re doing life wrong. We’re so lost about what matters. And we get angry at life for not giving us what we want — just like that little boy was angry at the gumball machine. And we don’t realize that we’re to blame for making this life so difficult.
We’re really good at technology and commercializing our devices, but we’re terrible at wisdom and meaning.
We’re really good at chasing material things, but we’re pretty terrible at building loving communities.
We’re really good at placing a high value on substitutes — fruits from that tree that will never bring us happiness — and we’re terrible at living our lives in the ways we’ve been taught will bring us joy and satisfaction.
The result is that we have fantastically luxurious lives — especially by historical standards — but we’re bored and miserable, having less meaning and understanding of life than ever before. And we’re incredibly proud of our empty-headed tradeoff, because we don’t have the wisdom to understand what we’ve done. Most people simply have no context — intellectually, emotionally or spiritually — and we don’t generally care. We even teach each succeeding generation to live the ways ways.
But some of us still hear an inner voice that whispers, “You’re doing it wrong.”
We have a gnawing suspicion that we’re wasting the short lives that we have here — and we’re desperate to find the meaning that we know is there.
Jesus didn’t come to start a religion. He came to teach people how to live in ways that were radically different than most of them understood. He told the people of his day that they were “doing it wrong.” He taught them to value different things. He taught them to love others, including their enemies. He taught them to stop loving material things so much.
Despite the fact that his followers built a powerful church in his name, they’ve frequently perverted the message. That’s why you will find people today who claim to be Christians who hate all sorts of people, who love money and material things more than anything, and who have no loving connection to anyone.
Despite the clear message he taught in the Gospels, that message is ignored or explained away by most people today. Those outside the church completely ignore the message — and those inside the church give lip service to the message while they live lives that are mostly empty and lost and meaningless.
We’re doing life wrong.
This life is relatively short — and it takes many years before we start to get a real inkling of what “doing life right” really means. That’s my experience. And as I look around me at others, I see people who are just as lost as I spent most of my life feeling.
Wisdom sometimes comes with age. Not always, but sometimes. The culture has marginalized the genuine wisdom that can come from life experience. Instead, our culture has glorified the shallow confidence that comes with youth.
I don’t understand all that I need to understand. I’m a lot wiser than I was 20 years ago, though. I still feel like that little boy with the quarter. I’m still trying to fit it into the machine. I’m still trying to get life to give me the things which I vaguely know will give me peace and joy.
I’ve gone through all sorts of things which I know won’t work. I’ve failed many times. I’ve taught myself how to be unhappy, how to make others miserable, how to squander my assets.
But I’m closer than ever to getting it right. I’m going back to things I should have learned — and should have listened to — years ago.
And I know that when I’m finally humble enough and wise enough, I’ll drop my little quarter into life’s gumball machine — and I’ll finally find the bounty of love and connection and joy that I’ve always craved.
I hope you find a way to do that, too.