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"Hello," I said when Mr. Van Houten entered the small book and gift shop where I worked. Dressed in his usual navy peacoat, layered with cat hair, the eighty-year-old man ignored me. His rigid frame headed straight for the copy center which the store provided as a convenience to customers.
In all the years he'd come to the store, he'd displayed a gruff, harsh exterior that I didn't understand. His corrosive attitude always directed at the unfortunate person nearest his path.
People throughout our small community knew of Mr. Van Houten and most tried to avoid him. Though I cringed when I'd see him walk through the door, after six years on the job I'd learned to ignore his crusty behavior.
While he shuffled papers and made copies, I sorted a greeting card order at the main counter. He soon peered over the top of a gift display and mumbled something in my direction. Unable to make out his words, I asked him to repeat his question.
In a fit of frustration, he threw the stapler supplied for users of the copy machines. It skidded across the top of the copier, banged against a wooden table filled with paper supplies, and bounced to the carpeted floor.
As the only employee working, I watched from the safe distance of the register. A rush of emotions surged through my body - fear, shock, anger.
From across the store his black eyes stared at me through narrow slits. His cheeks flashed red and his lips tightened to a flat line.
Unsure what to do, I drew in a deep breath and paused to pray, "Lord, please help me know what to say. Show me how to respond."
I had hardly completed my prayer when God's wisdom answered. "Put on your biggest smile and use kind words." God's solution ran contrary to my emotions. Then I remembered Proverbs 15:1: "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger," (NIV).
I stepped out from behind the security of the counter. With a smile, I walked over and picked up the stapler. "I'm sorry, Mr. Van Houten. Sometimes I don't hear so well," I said. "Let me get you some more staples."
The older man crumbled right in front of me. His shoulders fell and his chin quivered. "I'm so sorry," he said. "You didn't deserve that."
I refilled the stapler and he completed his copies. He hesitated when he approached the counter to pay, and then held out his hands palms up. "See that," he said. At first all I saw were weathered hands blotted by age. Then I noticed the deep scars that streaked his fingertips.
"Those came from clinging to a jagged rock one night during World War II," he said with a grimace as he recalled a distant time and place. "I no longer have natural finger prints like other people. And there's a steel rod that holds my spine together. That's why I walk so stiff. I can hardly bear the constant pain."
The Lord flooded my heart with compassion for Mr. Van Houten that melted away years of irritation. "I'm sorry for the pain you're in," I said with a lump in my throat. "I had no idea."
I think he was as shocked that day by my calm response to his angry outburst as I was. He relaxed his defenses and told me more about himself.
Despite my own roar of emotions, because I chose to obey God's Word our relationship changed. After "the stapler incident" Mr. Van Houten acted pleasant, would crack half a smile, and made an effort to say something nice when he visited the store.
I'm glad I called on the Lord for help that day, and trusted His lead. Because of that experience, I learned the power of a kind word.
© 2013 Kathleen Kohler