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Gray Isn’t Black and White

Tom Grady and I have many things in common, but one bond is especially near and dear…our Volkswagen Bugs. The first time I met Tom he picked me up at the Windy Hill depot in North Atlanta driving a white hardtop Beetle. We were sporting ties, slacks, and brief cases– all the trappings common to executive types with one notable exception: his car. The driver’s door wouldn’t open, so Tom, at 6’2", had to crawl across the passenger seat to get in. He must have been doing this for some time because his move was silky smooth. With an apology just for protocol’s sake, Tom asked if I’d mind to push the car before I got in– the starter had passed away and there wasn’t a usable hill around. I never thought much about it at the time, but looking back now I’m sure we left no observer with the delusion that either of us was serious about our executive status.

Tom moved up in the world when he bought the little red number he rescued from the crusher. He scrounged parts from west-coast customizers and, after sticking all the pieces where they were supposed to be, he now has a restored convertible Beetle that will really turn your head. (The white hard top is in the barn awaiting Tom’s son’s sixteenth birthday.)

Me? I’ve been driving my orange Bug since 1972. I’ve put 160,000 miles on it, replaced the clutch, the transmission, and rebuilt the engine. Only once has it failed to start and that’s because it drowned sitting out in an Oklahoma thunderstorm. Not long ago I purchased a sporty Toyota, complete with tachometer, five-speed transmission, A/C, and more lights than New York at night. But, I’ll be putting it up for sale this summer even though it has lots of accessories the Beetle never dreamed of having. "The Bug" is endowed with heart and soul that the Toyota can only emulate through raw power.

Red. Orange. Heart. Soul. Those are all elements that make life fun to live. They catch attention and bring flair into the blues, blacks, greens, and grays. Have you seen the commercial on TV for the Traveler’s Insurance Company with all the people carrying umbrellas? I’d seen that commercial several times on my black and white TV set (I was the first one on my block to have b & w!) and had a difficult time telling which one was the Traveler’s agent. Then I saw the commercial on a color screen; to my surprise all the umbrellas were black except for the Traveler’s red one. I hate to tell them what a bust their commercial is in black and white, but it makes my point precisely: Color adds definition to life.

Generally speaking, it’s OK to drive a fire engine red car or wear a spotted Canary-yellow tie. But, when it comes to values, concepts, beliefs, and convictions– just to name a few gray areas in society– we look to black and white for clarification. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with these two polarized "colors," but as I’ve depicted: it’s easy to get the wrong picture if the only shades you’re seeing are black and white.

In this world of grays, Christians are awfully prone toward black and white. I don’t know about you, but black and white don’t do much for me when it comes to dealing with assorted grays. If I’m struggling with despondency, I don’t appreciate the guy who says, "Praise God in the storm or drown!" Although there may be an element of truth in this, the person who puts their arm through mine and sings a song brings color to my world.

I once owned a gray Camry. On gray days, I either drove with my lights on or risked my life at each intersection. Gray can be dangerous for anyone, but especially for Christians. I’m not sure who started the rumor that "Christians are supposed to have the answer for everything," but laboring under this misconception, instead of splashing color into the inevitable grayness, Christian "wisdom" often becomes black and white cubby-holing.

If you can keep the categories separated with black and white labels, you’re one step closer to partitioning the issues into black and white as well. The major problem isn’t really with categories or issues though–it’s with people. Folks aren’t black and white; gray is the common denominator of life.

Attempting to segregate gray into black and white is a narrow rite that, more often than not, offends and promotes bigotry and pride. This isn’t the desired outcome, but this compulsion to provide "answers" within the Christian community blinds us to the real effect our black-and-white philosophy has on people. We think, if the world would just sit down and listen to what we have to say, wouldn’t we have heaven on earth? Mix this with our aversion to pain and associating with unpleasantries and you have the potential for tragedy. We avoid getting involved, listening, and understanding, but are always quick to throw out pat answers.

If we never hear the problem to begin with, how can we be sure we are coming up with the right answer? If we approach life with compartmentalized categories, how are we guaranteed that the right pigeon hole is stuffed? If we never take time to get our hands dirty in life’s affairs, what qualification do we have to spout our opinions? As you can see, it’s easy to miss the mark with black and white arrows; even if they are on target, those people within our sights won’t be inclined to heed if they believe we don’t understand their need. There is a lot of truth in James Thurber’s statement, "It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers." Sterile answers may work on paper, but they will fail miserably with people because life is a mix of grays that can’t be labeled black or white.

I’m not saying that you should sacrifice your standards or refrain from giving your input. When there is solid counsel to share with those trying to distinguish gray #411 from gray #413 on the life-color chart, give it; but be real. Don’t quote scripture references at me; share God’s Word but give your heart along with it. Don’t tell me what I’ve got to do; cry with me, laugh with me, be a part of me. Don’t point your finger; put your arm in mine and share your life through friendship. The challenge is not to partition gray into black and white, but to infuse the gray with color. What better way to do this than to allow Christ to do it through you alongside me?

The Spirit of God dwells inside you. You are secure and totally accepted in Him! So be you and reach out with the colors of who you are. Link arms with the guy under the gray and remember, just as the song says:

You’ve got to give a little,
take a little,
and let your poor heart break a little.
That’s the story of…love.
You’ve got to laugh a little,
cry a little,
until the clouds roll by a little.
That’s the story of love.

That’s life, and living life in the power of God’s Spirit to love through you splashes even the grays with color.

I live in a duplex on a block of multiple blocks of duplexes. Giving directions to my home could be an Eiger-sized challenge, but it’s easy to get folks to the corner and then say, "You’ll see my orange Bug parked out front, and nobody else has a Beetle the color of mine."

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1 Billy Hill, "The Glory of Love" (Published by :Shapiro, Bernstein and Co., Inc., ASCAP Copyright 1941)

Preston Gillham

About the Author

As a co-founder, Preston Gillham led Lifetime for 30 years. Preston is a writer, speaker, and leadership guide. He has authored numerous articles and several books including No Mercy and Battle for the Round Tower. He blogs on “Life and Leadership”. More about Preston, his writings, speaking, and his consulting practice can be located at PrestonGillham.com.