He showed up at our door yesterday afternoon to fix the refrigerator.
(What do you get when a professor and a minister have a broken refrigerator? Answer: An appliance repairman.)
The first words out of his mouth signaled he was Russian.
Maybe I should have guessed what was coming when I asked in my now slow Russian (residual stammerings from four years in college and a summer at Middlebury) whether he liked Putin. (I know they advise not to talk politics in polite company and at the dinner table, but to my knowledge the rule book makes no stipulations for refrigerator repairmen from foreign countries.)
“Yes,” he had answered in reply with a wry smile.
It turns out he had come to this country three years ago on vacation and succeeded in getting hitched, gesturing to the ring on his left fourth finger as he waded with his other hand through bags of frozen peas, popsicles and scattered coffee grinds to the back of the freezer.
By this time he had found the problem: the line at the back had frozen, blocking cold air from entering the main fridge compartment and ruining a couple gallons of milk before their expiration date. The solution? A ten minute exercise in defrosting.
The price was a different matter. A whopping $174. This was calmly relayed to me after the procedure had taken place.
“What?! That’s awfully expensive,” I demurred, remembering that two years ago when the same thing happened to our fridge, the service man had charged us $15 for the same procedure. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t pay that.”
“I’ll give you a 20% discount then.” Then, seeing that the look of shock on my face had yet to dissolve into one of resignation about the fact that my wallet was about to walk off, “Okay, how about you pay $85 just for labor? That is the cost of one hour of my labor.”
“That’s still too much,” I protested. “You were here for maybe 15 minutes tops!”
“But I drove 40 minutes to get here, and then I had to take all the stuff out of your freezer.” (Correction: I had had to take out all the stuff from the freezer.).
“Okay, then…how much do you want to pay then?,” he asked. The tone and content of the question took me back to the souvenir vendors on Gorky Street in Moscow selling matriushka dolls to naive tourists: they meant, “let’s bargain.”)
“I don’t want to shortchange you,” I said, “but at tops I can really only pay you $60.”
“Okay,” he said, acquiescing.
I wrote the check to Putin’s fan- “Kevin” is his name, not, I’m pretty sure, your everyday, run-of-the-mill Russian nomenclature- and he was soon off, looking even a bit self-satisfied at the “generosity” he had shown. He had left me with a receipt that showed a 111% discount.
The exchange reinforced a lesson that in recent years I’ve been learning about human nature, which is this: we human beings, most of us “saints and sinners” at least, are all fundamentally the same at our core. We’re good at telling ourselves all sorts of lies to justify ourselves. We’re good at using others and even calling ourselves “good.” When we feel we’re being treated unfairly (as I did in this exchange) we’re quick to say so, too.
Churches aren’t any different when it comes to these things. When an ego or job security or one’s very livelihood are on the line, we will usually do what it takes to get our “fair” share or to justify ourselves with all sorts of self-inflated claims about our intentions. Maybe this realization is why I have become so cynical and jaded about the church and about human nature in general. I’ve seen and experienced it up close. Maybe you have, too.
Does this mean that we are simply to give up on the church? Does this mean that the church no longer really matters, because so much of the time it totally fails to be what God intended it to be, anyway? I don’t think so. For more on why I don’t think so, come back again tomorrow.