“The Messages We Receive”

Read this author's reflective narrative about a new way of seeing.
Working for an advertising agency can be a real challenge for the soul. On the one hand, it is a good thing to put one’s creative gifts to good use by telling stories that move people. But move them to do what? Buy a lawnmower? Join a gym? Those aren’t bad things in and of themselves, but being part of the marketing machine that produces so much noise feels a little like polluting the psychological environment.

I can remember one occasion when my boss told me I had a new client. Getting a new client usually meant a burst of fresh energy. The excitement quickly dwindled, though, when I found out the new client was a company that made denture cream. Denture cream? How do you tell an exciting story about denture cream? “Florence Henderson (the mom from the Brady Bunch) is their spokesperson,” my boss said.

“You’re not helping,” I said.

After leaving work one night, feeling a little disenchanted with my vocation, I heard a voice in the street say, “Hey! What are you reading?” I happened to be carrying a copy of Saint Augustine’s Confessions to read on the commute home. I looked down and saw a man sitting up against a concrete half wall in a tattered jacket with a big grin on his face. I showed him the book and his eyes lit up. “Augustine! He’s one of my favorites!” he said.

“Really?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “My name’s Kevin, by the way.”

Kevin and I spent the next 30 minutes talking about everything from saints to civil war history to the conflicts in Ireland (apparently, he still had a price on his head for being part of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland). Before I said goodbye, he pointed up at the cross on the church across the street and said, “You see that cross? My life is rooted in that cross.”

You could tell Kevin had lived a hard life. After spending some time with him I couldn’t help but notice that he only had a few teeth left. I wondered what Kevin would think of Florence Henderson hawking denture cream.

The next night, I saw Kevin again. This time, he said, “Hey, nice coat!”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Can I have it?” he asked.

My mom had just gifted me the brown suede coat the previous Christmas and I couldn’t bear to give it away, so I told him sorry, but no. He understood, but I felt awful that night when I realized I had just ignored one of the most repeated refrains in Christian teaching: “When I was naked, you clothed me.”

That day, Kevin and I talked about faith and how the Scriptures often speak directly to the heart when we are open to them. Over time, it became clear to me that Kevin was a mystic. Despite his low estate, he was overflowing with spiritual treasures. And he was sharing them gratuitously with a guy who peddled denture cream for a living.

That spring, my wife and I invited Kevin over for dinner. We watched a movie, and he shared his memories about growing up and what life was like living on the street. My wife and I had just had our first son and Kevin took to calling him “the General” after reading about the life of President Andrew Jackson.

It’s been eight years since Kevin passed away and nearly 12 years since I last saw him. My son is 13 now and is infatuated with World War II. He wants to attend one of the academies and study military history. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that Kevin’s nickname for my son, “the General,” stuck. That’s what mystics do, they catch glimpses of God’s designs before the rest of us.

I left the advertising agency a few months after meeting Kevin and went back to graduate school. My PhD thesis looked at the relationship between faith and advertising. Are all of the messages we receive, thousands a day, forming us in a new kind of faith? A faith in material abundance and technological ease and endless self-improvement? The answer, sadly, seems to be yes.

Of the many gifts Kevin and I exchanged, very few were material. Kevin never stood in front of a university classroom, but he had a gift for teaching. The city was his classroom and all of us cubicle-dwellers were his potential students. If only we stopped to listen.

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