I hate to wait in line.
But when I do, I find consolation in hearing someone pronounce the word “next.” It’s nearly my favorite word in the entire dictionary. It signals that the line in the auto parts store or at airport security is moving, and I will soon have the undivided attention of the clerk or agent.
“Next” is such a beautiful word. Maybe that’s why I love those number dispersers placed in pharmacies, ice creameries, and barbershops. I take a number and the clerk calls each subsequent number with the pleasant intoning sound of “next.”
Next is a delightful place in which to find yourself, because it means that you’ve arrived at where you want to be. Even better, it means that you’ve finally vacated the place you were dreading, i.e., the loathsome waiting line.
However, in my chaplain world, there are moments when I hear the word “next” come too soon for people who lose a child or spouse. In these instances, I dread what it might be like to be next in that tragic line.
But you don’t have to be a chaplain to know the fear of being next. We all know that panic when hearing a friend describe his or her tragic loss. But, instead of acknowledging our fears, we will often pat the grieving person on the back and awkwardly extricate ourselves from the one-way conversation.
Our attitude doesn’t so much display our insensitivity toward our friend as it exhibits our apprehension about becoming the next person to know unspeakable heartbreak.
Sometimes, we will even talk about tragedies as if they demonstrate an unavoidable pattern. We say, “Bad things come in threes” as if we can make ourselves safe by remaining in the back of that line or as if predictable things such as overdrawn bank accounts can count against our quota of bad things.
Of course, we know the quota thing isn’t true. Yet it still doesn’t stop us from secretly wishing for a Bible verse that could promise, “Tragic loss. Limit: one to a customer.”
The truth is that there will never be any guarantee about what comes next in our world. In fact, I’ve often come to the front of an airport line only to see two lines close. I was “next,” but now I’m suddenly stuck. That’s life.
So, instead of worrying about what is coming “next,” I try to focus on what has become true in the present “now.”
I try to remind myself that I have family and friends here, in the now. I have my health, now. I can’t sit around waiting for the next bad thing any more than I can wait for the next good thing to happen.
But the best part about living in the “now” is that God promises to wait with us in the now and in all the struggles to come. It is a promise that God made to us when he said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”
I look at it this way. On some future day, my “next” will transform into my “now.” That day will surely come too soon, but in the meantime, I will fight the struggle to live the life where God has placed me — a life filled with the joy of the now.
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of No Small Miracles. He is a board-certified in the Association of Professional Chaplains and works as a chaplain for both the Sacramento VA Hospital and the Air National Guard.
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