Whenever I throw garbage at a garbage can, regardless of whether I hit or miss, I thank God. As with nearly nothing else in my life, my reason starts with basketball.
Certain common assumptions follow men my size. You might expect people to say, “Oh, you probably have trouble finding clothes that fit,” or “I suspect that standardized office furniture is the bane of your existence,” or even, “Welcome to earth, strange tall alien man.” Instead, more than anything else, I hear: “You must play basketball.”
Just to get this out in the open, let me assure you that I don’t, shouldn’t, and certainly can’t play basketball. I understand the game well enough–it isn’t like the proverbial “rocket science,” although rockets might make it more interesting–I just can’t play it. I don’t run, jump, or bounce decorative balls. Even if I did, I wouldn’t be the best choice to do those activities well.
Most importantly though, I have no skill for throwing things accurately. (Or even precisely, if we want to be technical about definitions, which is a skill I have.)
That being said, like most people I’ve encountered in my life, when I’m holding an object at a manageable distance from where that object belongs, I’m tempted to throw it. For me this is especially true with garbage. I don’t throw it willy-nilly or at passersby–I’m not a monkey either–but garbage cans always seem to invite the behavior.
Well once upon a time, during a particularly hectic moment of my life, I needed to get some garbage out of my hand quickly. I don’t mean to suggest that I usually try to cling to it for as long as possible–my wife might disagree, but only when there’s some discussion about what’s “garbage” and what’s “still a perfectly fine shirt”–but at the moment of this episode, I needed two free hands. The closest garbage can was rather farther away than I would have liked, especially since I often miss while standing directly above one, but I figured that I could pick up the garbage from the floor in a few minutes.
Instead the little ball of garbage sailed smoothly through the air, tracing a beautiful arc directly toward the garbage can and disappearing inside. Without putting much thought into it, I said, “Thank you, LORD.” Then I returned to the hecticness of the moment.
At a different time, after an arduous day, while I was sitting on our couch and trying to do some writing, one of my many pens exhausted its ink. I didn’t want merely to put it aside, where it might masquerade as a useful pen only to disappoint me in the future–dry pens can be such nefarious things–but I also didn’t want to extricate myself from the stacks of material with which I’m surrounded while working. Again I threw something at a distant garbage can, figuring that I would actually dispose of it later whenever I found it again.
Instead the pen tumbled through the air, ricocheted off of a cupboard, knocked against the rim of the garbage can, and then fell inside. I relaxed a little bit, smiled a little bit, and said,”Thank you, LORD.”
Then I started thinking. It would have been easy, maybe even natural, to dismiss my success as luck. Isn’t there some aphorism or another about infinite monkeys and infinite time, illustrating that unlikely things become likely with enough attempts? I’d certainly missed the garbage can enough times in my life to feel monkeyish, and I didn’t hear any angelic choir indicating that something other than luck was involved.
Even more, isn’t it a ridiculous sort of hubris to imagine that the God of the universe would pay attention to my insignificant pen toss, enough attention to involve himself?
Short answer: No. It would be hubris to imagine that another human being might be interested in my pen toss–this blog post obviously doesn’t count, because it’s fascinating–but God isn’t another human being. Human beings can only do so much; they only have so much of themselves to go around.
If we imagine that attention is like soup (and who doesn’t?), then spreading that attention around is like spreading the soup into a bunch of different bowls. Eventually one might have too many bowls and not enough soup. People would feel slighted and go hungry. God has endless soup, however. (That was fun to type.) Adding more bowls doesn’t spread him any thinner; every bowl is always full.
Similarly, the more one cares about a person, the more one is inclined to take an interest even in the minor features of that person’s life. If I don’t particularly care about someone, I might have trouble remembering what he or she does for a living, even though jobs are the sort of subject that’s generally considered to be major and significant. Contrariwise, because I love my wife, I pay attention to seemingly trivial things such as her favorite type of yarn and how much mayonnaise she puts on sandwiches. The only hindrance to my interest in her is that, being a small and selfish man, my love is limited. God’s love isn’t limited. It’s perfect and infinite.
So there really isn’t any reason why God wouldn’t be interested in my pen toss, but an obvious reason why he would. With that in mind, it seemed more natural to imagine that my successful throw wasn’t just luck, that God had helped. Maybe he guided the pen through the air; maybe he nudged my arm. Maybe he subtly cued my brain into the proper trajectory; maybe he gifted me at birth with more skill than I know. The method is less important than the belief at that moment that God had helped me succeed, and that he deserved thanks.
I suppose that might seem ironically defeatist. After all, if I’m willing to thank God for something as vague as my thoughts of throwing or the potential with which I was born, where exactly is my involvement at all? What about my decision to throw, and my moment to aim, and all the practice I’d gotten from years of missing? If I thank God for my success, what’s left over in me for me to feel good about? Am I just some sort of puppet which God occasionally uses to showcase his own garbage disposal finesse?
I suspect that there’s very little risk of me forgetting my own involvement in my actions, although I might wish otherwise when I’m trying to escape guilt. When there’s honest praise to be had, I don’t forget the part I played. Is anyone really tempted to give too much credit to God when things go well? Thanking him is a way of remembering to give him any credit at all, and the more I remember to thank him, the more I appreciate what he does.
It seems to me that, if one believes in God (which I do), it’s important to work to remember his presence and involvement. The world certainly tries to help us to forget them, to doubt them, or to downplay them
Even trying to figure out how God’s efforts and mine can coincide (by asking that puppet question above for example) is evidence of that bad temptation. We don’t ask for that sort of detail about other things, we just understand them. If I tell you that my wife helps me write these posts, you’re probably content without my diagraming it like a chemical formula. I’d wager that you aren’t wondering if my wife secretly does all of the work, or if I do all the work but am just giving my wife credit because I’m delusional. I think it’s also possible to thank God without needing to understand the details.
So why do I thank God when I miss?
Well, when I throw garbage at a garbage can and miss, I don’t think it’s because God failed. I also don’t think that missing necessarily means that God is trying to punish me, teach me something, or get my attention in some way. In fact, most often I don’t need to understand why I missed. If I believe that God is present and involved, then I believe it regardless of where the garbage flies. When I throw garbage and miss, I can still thank God for being present, and for being involved even if I don’t understand what that involvement means.
Ultimately, that presence is the real gift, and worth more thanks than I can possibly offer.