January 20, 2017

“Selling” Jesus…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:30 pm


Talkin’ to a preacher, said God was on his side.
Talkin’ to a pusher, they both were selling highs.
Well, I gotta tell the story, boys,
I don’t know the reason why.

—Waylon, lyrics

It’s funny, how things work sometimes. The other day was just an ordinary January day, there at the office. If there is such a thing as an ordinary day in January. It’s a depressing month, all around. (Well, not as dark as March is. But dark enough.) That day, it was late morning. The door opened, the doorbell jangled. I looked up from my desk, and automatically got up to take care of the customer.

He walked toward me, smiling. Then he spoke my name. “Ira.” He was all loud and jovial. I looked at him, tried to place him. His face was familiar. A youngish guy. Then I recognized him and spoke his name back, not quite as loud. He walked up to the counter, and we shook hands. It’s been a while, I said. “Yes, it has,” he answered. “I’m here to pick up some of that wood siding you sell.” Good, I said. I got plenty in stock. He was a local guy, from over close to Philly. I’d sold to him off and on, many times over the years. He’s young, driven, hard-working, and very successful with his own business. And he’s usually all business. On this day, though, he was a little more relaxed than usual.

This time, he asked me, right off. “How’s that book of yours doing out there?” I grinned, surprised. Not sure how he heard about the book. Maybe I’d told him before. Or maybe he just saw the poster on my computer screen. I grinned again. I might as well brag a little. Oh, it did pretty well, I told him. Seventh printing. Close to 200,000 copies sold. It made my publisher a lot of money. He looked impressed. That’s the kind of language he understands and respects. Making a lot of money. I never mentioned the book was a NY Times bestseller. That kind of thing wasn’t going to impress him like making a lot of money did.

The small talk was over, then. We stood at the counter, and he got to telling me about a garage he wants to build at his home. He figured I could provide the materials, and maybe even build it for him. And I don’t know exactly why I did what I did, then. As we were talking, I turned to my desk and picked up a copy of my book from the box, there. Back at the counter, I set the book off to one side, out of the way. I never said a word about it. Just set it there. In the back of my mind, I figured. If I can get a word in edgewise, I’ll see if I can sell him my book.

He was all business. And we talked for fifteen minutes about the garage he wanted. I showed him pictures of what we had done and what we could do. The book sat there, looking forlorn. I never mentioned it, never even glanced at it. We wrapped things up, then. I wrote up the invoice for his siding, and he wrote me a check. I handed him the paperwork and told him where to go to load. I thanked him for the business. And that was that, I figured.

But no. As he was turning to leave, he stopped and motioned. “How much for the book?” he asked. I didn’t act surprised. Fifteen bucks, signed, I said. He laughed. “How about if it’s not signed?” he asked. And I laughed, too. Still fifteen bucks, I said. He got out his wallet and handed me the cash. I signed the book and handed it to him. He thanked me.

And I thought to myself as he turned and walked out. The book just sold itself, right there. I didn’t do anything. Sometimes you sell by not selling.

I’ve thought a lot about the little scene that came down at the counter that day. I think it was just instinctive on my part, to let things go and let everything play out naturally without a lot of fuss. Had the guy not glanced at the book again, I would never have thought twice about it. I never pushed it on him, and so he took it upon himself. It was all pretty amazing, when you think about it.

I’ve never considered myself that much of a salesman. But looking back, I saw it from my earliest days and my earliest memories, what a good salesman is. My father was a natural born salesman. The man lived and breathed sales pretty much every day of his life, at least the part of his life that I saw and remember.

I’ve mentioned it before. Dad loved the art of the deal. Growing up, I saw it all around me every day. Dad plunged about madly, here and there, pursuing his far-flung ideas to wherever they would lead. The thing is, it never fazed him when he failed. Over the years, he wore a lot of different sales hats, with some varied success. And when one little business idea faltered or sputtered to a halt, he was soon busily engaged in launching the next big thing. As long as he was selling, his world was about where he figured it should be. That, and when he was writing, of course. But that’s a form of selling, too, getting people to read what you wrote.

In Dad’s vast and varied career, he sold just about anything you can imagine, from purebred Landrace hogs to grape seedlings to metal roofing and siding. And he had a lot of other little side businesses scattered about, here and there, all throughout my childhood years.

Dad sold fruit. Well, mostly he sold black sweet cherries and peaches in season. And he raised acres of strawberries and sold them, too, in season. The strawberries, we peddled door to door, in Aylmer and Tillsonburg. The cherries and peaches, well, he brokered those. Was simply the middleman who moved and shook things, and made them work. It’s all part of Dad’s legend, how he got into the cherry business. Early on, after moving to Aylmer, he was traveling to the east one day, over close to Niagara Falls. He saw the rich fertile ground, he saw the mile after mile of vast orchards with bowing trees. And randomly, he stopped in to talk to one of those orchard owners. That man’s name was Alfred C. High. And Dad and Mr. High struck up a deal that day. Mr. High would bring Dad a flatbed truck load of cherries, all packed in four-quart wooden baskets. And Dad would sell them to the people in the community. I think they started small, that first year.

Dad soon had the community saturated with fresh, delicious sweet cherries. He needed a bigger market. And that’s when he went to the Aylmer Sales Barn and set up a stand. When Alfred C. High came around with his little flatbed truck, we unloaded all the baskets the Amish people around us had ordered. Then it was off to the Sales Barn vendor’s lot. By mid-afternoon, usually, Dad’s table was loaded and ready for business. And he developed quite a reputation as a seller of quality fruit. At the stand, he didn’t just sit around. Not Dad. He got all active. “Fresh, delicious cherries,” he hollered to anyone who would listen. He poured a basket of cherries over into an empty basket, to show that the cherries were good, all the way down to the bottom. And he usually sold out well before dark, when the market shut down.

I can’t remember that he ever sold peaches at the Sales Barn. For those, he simply took orders from people in the community. And Alfred C. High brought the amounts Dad ordered. Those black sweet cherries and those peaches were the most luscious fruits that I have ever tasted. Maybe it’s a childhood thing, the vividness of those early memories. But I think all my siblings would agree with me. Alfred C. High raised the most delicious, mouth-watering cherries and peaches we ever ate.

The strawberries were another story. At dawn, we were out in the strawberry patch, on our knees in a vast sea of dew-soaked plants, picking box after box of the ripe red berries. And we had a different way of selling. We peddled those strawberries door to door, mostly in Aylmer. I peddled my first fruit when I was probably ten years old. I look back on it all now, and just marvel at how audacious it all was. We walked through the back streets of town, lugging a crate of strawberries. I can still feel how to was to walk cold to a door and knock or ring the doorbell. You wait, then, for some kind of noise from within. If all is silent, you knock or ring again. Back in those days, the early 1970s, more women stayed at home, I think. Someone was apt to be home, about any hour of the day. And when the housewife came to the door, you asked her as politely as any little Amish boy could. Would you like to buy some strawberries today?

I can’t remember many people being rude, although I’m sure some were. We were focused on getting that buggy load of berries sold, so we could go downtown. After a hard afternoon of selling, we would walk into Clarke’s Restaurant, there on main street. A cheeseburger and French fries, those were the reward. I remember that Clarke’s had a juke box, with a song selector at every table, a little glass cabinet. In that place, that’s where I first heard Sammy Davis, Jr.’s classic. The Candy Man Can. The place was a mecca to us, so cutting edge and worldly.

Dad sold nursery stock. Again, how that ever came to be is lost to me now. I never heard how he got the idea. He loved shrubs and bushes, loved to plant a nice blue spruce here and there around the yard. And somehow, he got the idea that he could sell shrubs and trees. So he sent off for thousands and thousands of infant seedlings of every describable type, breed, and nature. Blue spruces. Evergreen shrubs. Oak and maple saplings. We planted the seedlings on the sandy hill east of the pond. It was the only sandy spot on the whole farm. And it was the perfect spot to sprout Dad’s inventory of nursery stock.

And for the nursery stock, Dad had to bring the customers out to our farm. Along the gravel road, seven miles east of Aylmer. And somehow, the man did it. He placed a small ad in the weekly Aylmer Express. I don’t know, he might have advertised in the daily St. Thomas Times-Journal, too. And in the summer, especially on a Saturday, the people came. Car after car cruised slowly down from the west, and pulled into our drive. Sometimes there were four or five cars stacked up. The place got full. Usually it was a husband and wife. Sometimes the wife was alone. And they all came to buy the bushes and shrubs Dad had for sale.

We were just kids, my brothers and me. I was ten, probably. We kept a few bushes and shrubs in the shop, there, in the yard. But often, the customer wanted something fresher. And we would grab a shovel and escort the customer right out to the sandy hill east of the pond. And there we would dig up the shrub the customer chose. Those were busy days.

I remember a couple of things about it all. Me and my brothers, Stephen and Titus, took in a lot of cash from those sales. We often walked around with a pocket full of assorted cash bills, including twenties. Our system of writing up sales was extremely lackadaisical. We handed over a lot of cash to Dad, when he came home for lunch from his office at Pathway. And always, a little bit of that cash stuck to our fingers. A five here, a ten there, a twenty there. We didn’t really consider it stealing, but I guess it was. We were just storing up funds we needed to buy hockey sticks and comic books and other goodies. Titus even saved up enough to buy a shotgun. An Ithaca twelve-gauge that kicked the empty shells straight down, not out to the side like all other brands of pump guns. I feel no guilt from here, looking back at that syphoned cash. Maybe we shouldn’t have done it. But that’s what boys are gonna do, right across the board, normally, if they get a chance. It just was what it was.

The second thing I remember is a small thing, but it stayed with me all my life. I was just a kid, a raggedy, snot-nosed, barefoot, dirty kid. But that was the time of my life I learned to hold the car door open for a lady. I’d sell a few shrubs to a man and his wife. We’d load them in the trunk of the car, and the man would pay me. And as they walked forward to get in the car, I darted forward, too, on the lady’s side. Opened the door. And every single lady I ever opened the door for acted all surprised and delighted. Always, they smiled at me, real smiles. And always, they said, in a pleased voice. “Why, thank you.” (On the other side of the car, the husband sat, looking glum that a little Amish kid had outclassed him.) You’re welcome, I mumbled, rubbing my shirt sleeve across my nose. It was all quite wild and wonderful.

Back to the opening scene on this blog. I come from a place where selling was what we did from our earliest memories. So maybe I kept silent instinctively, because of how I had seen my father sell all those years ago. I can’t say for sure. In sales, there is a time for silence, and there is a time to speak. I do know I have never come close to matching Dad’s selling skills.

And perhaps his most lasting sale of all came from the true calling of his heart. His writing. When he founded and launched Family Life, he put all his many sales skills to work, honed to their finest edge. He produced a quality inaugural issue of the magazine. He mailed it out to thousands and thousands of people, for free. And he included his sales pitch, in that first offer. This is our vision, here at Pathway. This is an example of what we can produce here. Please subscribe if you want to read more such material in the future. It was my father’s greatest sales triumph. And he will leave behind the work of his hands when he passes on. No one can ever take that accomplishment from him.

And sliding off on one more little bunny trail, here. The last one, I promise. It made me think of one other thing, that little incident with my customer friend. He asked about the book. I told him. We chatted about it. Then he got down to the business he had come for. And I just quietly set the book off to one side, there. Didn’t call any attention to it. Not one word. There it was. If he wanted it, he could ask. He knew it was there for the taking.

And I thought about it. Isn’t that how we should treat the gospel? You walk through life as a Christian. You don’t have to wear it on your sleeve, the fact that you are a child of God. You don’t have to tell the people you meet in the wilderness. If you meet them where they are, if you reflect the true love of Christ, they’ll see and know that on their own.

I come from a quiet people who are not expressive at all about their lifestyle or their faith. I was taught from my youth. Live your faith. Don’t worry so much about speaking it. It’s OK to speak it, if someone asks. But don’t go around harassing people, don’t go around preaching. Anyone can claim anything.

I want to be careful here. The vineyards of the Lord are vast and varied. As are the numbers and types of laborers in those vineyards. I’m not knocking the wild-eyed preacher on the street corner. I’m not talking down on people who knock on doors to spread the good news. I’m just saying. That’s not who I am. And no, I don’t feel even slightly guilty about any of that. I just walk. I figure that’s what I’m called to do.

And yeah, I’ll tell you, here. I’m a Christian. No, I don’t make a big fuss about it. I might tell you in person, if I figure it’ll make any difference. I might not, too. But if you ask, I’ll never, never be shy about it. I’ll never flinch. Yes. Jesus is real to me. Yes, life is still hard, as often as not. Yes, I am flawed, just like anyone else. Yes, I get pissed and sometimes lose my temper. Yes, I’m human. I always will be. And my heart will always be as depraved as the heart of the vilest sinner out there you can imagine. It’s only God’s grace that makes any difference. And you can have that grace, too.

These things I’ll tell you, if you want to know. If you don’t want to know, I’ll just keep walking. My words won’t make any difference, anyway. I won’t try to “sell” Jesus by telling you life gets easier if you speak the “sinner’s prayer” and believe. It doesn’t. It gets harder. It gets messier. Still. Either the gospel will reach you, or it won’t.

There is no “bargain basement” pricing, either. Because it’s all free, that grace is. It always was, and it always will be. You can drink deep from that fountain whenever you choose to believe. And then you can walk in calmness and in peace through any hard and messy place that life slings at you. Take it from a guy who’s seen lots and lots of hard and messy places. A guy who’s still walking.

And that right there is about the only “selling” of Jesus you’ll ever hear from me.