Walt Lichtenberger

Rev. Walt LichtenbergerRev. Walt Lichtenberger

“Your call will be answered in the order in which it was received.” I lost track of how many times I heard the voice repeat that phrase as I waited on the phone to schedule a doctor’s appointment. After about five minutes, I memorized the recording, including its encouragement to use the website for quicker service.

Although it would have been quicker to log on to my computer to set up my medical visit, my last attempt to use the automated system was unsuccessful. Besides, I always seem to have questions that computerized forms can’t answer.

At the eight-minute mark, I reviewed my commitment to speaking to a living, breathing person. Then, not wanting to leave my place in the queue, I mustered all available patience and settled in for what would be a long wait. I put the phone on speaker and began to attend to a variety of other tasks. I was surprised by how much I accomplished over the following dozen recording cycles as another five, seven, nine minutes passed.

Although I was getting things done, as time lengthened, so did my impatience. I thought more than once, “this is taking so long, the darn phone is wasting my precious time.” My effort to schedule a health appointment stressed my health; it was an irony not wasted on me.

Somewhere along the line, the patterned recording broke. At first, I thought someone had finally picked up the other end of the line. Before I spoke, though, I realized it was another recorded message. It said that the system was experiencing a heavy call volume and then asked me to be kind to the operators who were only trying to do their best to handle the calls.

I guess my stubborn refusal to hang up had advanced me to the next stage of the waiting process. Perhaps this was the point that folks cracked with rage. If all the calls are answered in the order that they are received, and I have no reason to doubt that they are, I’m sure that things can get nasty when the wait time reaches a breaking point — something snaps inside even the mildest-mannered people, unleashing vicious monsters.

As the recording asked me to be considerate to the person who would eventually answer my call, it woke something inside me. As frustrated as I had become with a longer than expected wait, I heard a voice say, “be kind.” It was an appeal to compassion.

I then imagined how thankless and challenging a call operator’s job must be, spending hours a day fielding angry calls from a high volume of impatient people. Might it be like a frazzled table-server in a crowded restaurant that is also short-staffed? Or, a health care worker who has been on the front line of the pandemic, exposing themselves to all sorts of ills and pestilent behaviors?

With labor shortages and tempers raised, these days are not kind to those in service-related industries. Not only are workers in short supply, but so is kindness. Unfortunately, somewhere in the past few years, we’ve lost the value of civility and empathy. Our antagonist culture is more apt to shout than to listen, hate than love, take than give and center on selfish wants than our community needs.

The recording on the phone returned to its previous pattern, reminding me that my call would be answered in the order in which it was received. However, a new voice repeated something different in my spirit — be kind. Moreover, it addressed me by name, preventing me from avoiding the message. Be kind, Walt.

Was it my conscience, an aspirational self, or God’s spirit that wanted my attention? Perhaps a little bit of all three was at play. In any case, the voice aligned with my spiritual values, and it was speaking them back to me.

It reminded me of my Christian identity and the teachings of Christ. Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor is always in effect even if the neighbor is miles away and on the other end of an electronic device. No matter how frustrated I was with the wait, love made the ethical demand that I show kindness, compassion and respect. To do any less would be to depart with foundational beliefs that I’m not alone in holding.

Whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, secular humanist, or even atheist, we each have a set of core convictions that guide how we interact with others and the world around us. Belief informs behaviors.

Not surprisingly, love is at the heart of most of these systems of belief. The human creature needs to love and be loved. Compassion is essential to our physical, emotional and spiritual development. It connects us with others. Communities, families, clans, institutions and various gatherings need love to bring people together in mutually supportive ways. Without love, things break down quickly.

“Your call will be answered in the order...” Ugh. Why does love have to be so hard? I wanted to scream; I had wasted 20 minutes holding on and was now convinced that I would never get through. Patience. Be kind, Walt. Breathe. Live into your convictions. Let love soothe your agitated spirit and guide the words you will eventually speak.

Suddenly, the recording stopped as I heard a new sound, a ringing. Finally, a tired voice appeared on the other line, “Hello, thank you for waiting.” It was finally time for me to speak.

The Rev. Dr. Walt Lichtenberger is the lead pastor at St. James Lutheran Church in Burnsville. He is one of several area pastors who write for “Spiritual Reflections,” a weekly column appearing in this newspaper. He also writes devotions on his website, lightfromthishill.com.