I Had The Whole Cafeteria Screaming


I will never forget it. Maybe the most embarrassing day of my life.

It was early in my freshman year of high school. I was happy because it was a rare day for me to eat hot lunch in the school cafeteria, rather than the usual bologna sandwich I brought in a brown paper bag. I had just sat down at a table of some friends and picked up the salt and sprinkled it on my food. Martin, evidently, thought it would be hilarious to unscrew the top for some unsuspecting soul, and I was that soul. So when I “sprinkled,” it poured.

My food was virtually ruined and I was mad. I picked up the ketchup bottle, not knowing he did the same to it, and pretended to flick it at the kid across from me who was laughing. But when I flicked, the top popped off and a wad of ketchup went flying across our table, through the air, across the second table, and smack dab in the middle of a senior girl’s chest, who happened to be wearing a white blouse. At the same time the bright red ketchup hit her in the chest, a boy at another table dropped his books loudly on his table, and it sounded like a shot had gone off, like I said, just when the girl in the white blouse was hit. She felt the impact, looked down, and screamed. Then all the other girls sitting across from her starting screaming. She stood up, looking horrified, pointing at her bleeding wound. That’s when the entire cafeteria joined in on the mayhem.

I sat in my chair with a nearly empty ketchup bottle, dumbfounded. I saw no holes to crawl into. I was too young to join the army. Instead, I spent the rest of the afternoon in the principal’s office.

You can imagine my glee when the school paper headline read something like, “14 year-old freshman, armed with a ketchup bottle and a grudge to settle, triggers hysteria in cafeteria.”

But I learned a valuable lesson that day. One that I’ve had to relearn many times since. Quick reactions based on emotions rarely accomplish good things. In fact, the whole cafeteria fiasco was one of a chain reaction of reactions. Kids were running for the doors, others were diving under tables. It didn’t calm down until I started yelling, “It’s only ketchup”, while waving my empty bottle. “I’m sorry, I did it. But it was only ketchup.”

Now I want you to think about the atmosphere created by your emotional reactions at work and home. When you are wronged, do you flick back, only with a more damaging thing than a ketchup bottle. What damage has been done to your marriage, your kids, your workplace, because you pick up the bottle and flick when you feel like someone ruined your food.

We live in a world where people are so quick to flick back, almost instantaneously, and without thinking, My wife once observed, “I can’t believe how fast some people are at getting their middle finger up in the air. It actually takes some coordination. I’d have to really work at what I see other people do almost instantaneously.” Very true. In actuality, I think they’ve had a lot of practice, and now they are good at it.

But we are followers of Jesus. Let’s be known as people who think, respond with patience, and treat others, even those who harm us, with gentleness and respect. That too will take some practice. But the end result is being the salt and light that Jesus was talking about.

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