Lessons in Supermarket Aisles and under Freeways (Part III)

I gave away that $20.  After weeks of wondering, expecting,  in every grocery aisle, it happened in the least expected place: 

Under a bridge.

I was alone in the car.  I am never alone in the car.  I am always carting 3 children in the back.  And always and forever there is bickering, seat-kicking, and requests for the nearest fast food joint and every fast food joint, serenading me from the back seats.  But I was alone this time.  And loving it a little bit. 

I spent most of the trip on a delightful phone call with my sister-in-love.  We hung up as we both approached our destinations.  One block later, I saw her.

She was standing under a long stretch of highway bridge.  In one of the spots

I know of 3 spots.  One at an off-ramp, one at an on-ramp, and one under the bridge.  The beggar’s spots. 

I come across them often in my travels.  Normally a man, sometimes young but often old, and always dirty, stands with his cardboard sign, at the traffic light, looking for mercy.  Their signs, so alike, say things like “Homeless Veteran,” “Need Help,” and “God Bless You.”  And normally, I pray for a green light, and when none is given, I lock my doors and look away. 

It’s easier to look away.  And, so I tell myself, safer.  And granted, a woman taxiing 3 small children should not be rolling down her window to men such as these, right?  Right, I say to myself, and drive on my merry way to the giant shopping malls and gargantuan thrift stores, to spend money on things I don’t need.  And I try not to think twice about it.

But this time, the beggar looked different. 

She stood there with her sign, small and alone.   This time I couldn’t help but look and read, and she was the one that averted her eyes.   There in black lettering on that ripped cardboard sign, it said,

“Homeless and Pregnant”

And she was.  A girl, maybe 20, with nutbrown hair, slivered almond eyes, and a round little belly.  Homeless and pregnant.

The light turned red, as it always does, and I slowed to my stop.  I knew I had moments and I knew He was already speaking.

You have $20 in your wallet.

I sat there in my nice minivan, with my 3 nice carseats, next to my nice wallet and nicer purse and the thoughts started to tumble.

What if she’ll use it for drugs?  What if she’s got some pimp who will take it?  What if she’s not even HOMELESS?

The thoughts tumbled, but this time they didn’t stick.  I knew.  I knew that here before me, stood Him.

… the king will say to those on his right… When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat, and when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me, and when I was naked, you gave me clothes to wear. When I was sick, you took care of me, and when I was in jail, you visited me.”

Then the ones who pleased the Lord will ask, “When did we give you something to eat or drink? When did we welcome you as a stranger or give you clothes to wear or visit you while you were sick or in jail?”

The king will answer, “Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me.”    -Matthew 25: 34-40

Frederick Buechner says it like this:

God comes to us in the hungry man we do not have to feed, comes to us in the lonely man we do not have to comfort, comes to us in all the desperate human need of people everywhere that we are always free to turn our backs upon.

And this time, this one time, I chose not to turn my back. 

I rolled down my window, caught her eye, and handed her a $20 bill.  She looked away, looked at the money, looked at me and said thank you, and walked back to her spot. 

I stammered an awkward, “God bless you,” and gave her a smile.  The light turned green and I drove away. 

And I knew I had been in His presence. 

He was that small pregnant girl.  He’s the malnourished orphans and AIDS-riddled Ugandans that I weep on my keyboard over.  He’s my very own children, my friends, my neighbors, and even the people that rub me the wrong way.  He’s so very much alive in every face that He loves, and every face that He loves is every face on this earth.  Black, white, old, young, male, female.  Child, murderer, widow, thief, prostitute, saint, bigot, zealot, homeless, heartless.  It doesn’t matter.  My only job is to love Him by loving His people. 

I don’t know what that girl did with the money.  Driving away I thought of all the things I could have said,

Make sure you buy some food with this.  Save this for diapers.  Please take care of yourself and your baby

I’m not sorry that I didn’t say them.  I said what I should have said.  “God bless you.”  God show Himself to you.  God wrap you in His arms tonight and be your shelter.  God pour out His love, protection, grace, peace and provision upon you, you His beautiful daughter.  Bless you.

We are really alive when we are together as human beings, when by sunset or daybreak or by the fluorescence of a grocery store or the shabby twilight of a church, the walls between us crumble a little.  What I try to avoid because the word has become so threadbare in our time is that we are really alive, of course, when we manage somehow to love- when we love the mystery and beauty and terror that loom vast just beneath the air we move through, when we begin to hear a voice not just in the setting sun but in the earthquake, in the silence, in the agonies of men as well as their gladness.  We are really alive when we love each other, when we look at each other and think,  “Grace and peace be with you, brother and friend.”  When there is such life as this, once is not nearly enough.   -Frederick Buechner

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Lessons Learned at the Supermarket Checkout

I went grocery shopping at 9 p.m. last night.  Call me crazy but since the schools have released their young inhabitants, I do not wish to go accompanied by “helpers.”  This is especially the case when I need to be on my game.  Armed with $60 worth of coupons that I intended to use, I needed my full capacity.  The stakes were just too high.

I meandered around the store, taking time to stop and smell the doughnuts.  This time when I forgot something a couple rows back, I didn’t mind so much.  I easily made my way back and forth between the aisles without a Strawberry attempting to bungee jump from her seat in the cart or a Sour Patch Kid taking every sweet treat off the shelves and asking me, “Can we get this?”  Heavenly for a bags-under-the-eyes-tired mom.

It was around 10:30 by the time I strolled my heavy-laden cart up to the checkout.  A cashier was swiping and bagging groceries with no customer in sight.  I gave it not much of a thought and began to load my goods on the conveyor.  I barely noticed the customer, a middle-aged woman, come back to where I was busily organizing my bounty into like-groups:  meats over here;  produce over there; a section for boxed goods, frozen foods and chemical-ly products.  And then, out of the corner of my eye I saw her rifling through her purse and out came the words,

I forgot my wallet.

The four dreaded words that I myself have spoken in the past.  First comes the dread, then the panic, then the embarrassment and finally the sheer defeat.  So much work for nothing or maybe an unplanned run home to retrieve the missing culprit. 

My heart felt for this poor woman, no doubt getting groceries at such a late hour because her life, like mine, necessitated it.  But then I heard Him whisper,

Pay the bill.

I looked at the total.  $115 and change.  Oh, Lord.  Not a small chunk of change for a family of 5 and living on a teacher’s salary.  And with this very day’s  impending doom of Honeybun losing his summer work and the several thousand dollars we counted on.   Oh, Lord.  More than I normally spend in a week and not to mention the work I put into carefully planning my trip, clipping coupons and attempting to save every last penny.  Oh, Lord.

And in an instant she was gone.  Back home to fetch the misplaced wallet. 

How many times did I play this very scenario in my head, swearing I’d do the right thing.  But when the opportunity found me, it found me wavering.  Oh, Lord.

The cashier rung up my order, swiped my coupons and bagged my paid-for groceries.  I had saved myself $118.12 when every last sale price was tabulated and every last coupon scanned.  My work had more than made up for her bill.

My heart hurt as I loaded my crinkling plastic bags into the back of the van.  I knew I had disobeyed.  My head started rattling off excuses again but then I stopped and asked myself that oft-mocked question,

What would Jesus do?

And then I knew for sure.  He would have paid.  Oh, how He would have.  And not only would He have paid but He’d have thrown a few checkout lane candy bars on the belt for good measure.

Was He ever stingy?  No.  He gave time.  Just ask the multitudes that vied for His attention, who followed Him across countryside and seas.  He was tired, but He gave.  He gave compassion and forgiveness.  Just ask the woman ready to be stoned for her improprieties.  It was Him who turned the accusers away by simply saying, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.”  He gave love.  It was love that healed the lepers;  raised the dead;  spoke parable after parable, prayer after prayer, blessing after blessing . 

He gave His very life. 

How could I forget that.  Why does $115 seem so much to me when my very life was bought with a life.  A perfect life.  He can ask me to pay a bill because He already paid the most expensive one.

It’s not about the money.  Hasn’t He always provided?  It’s about the heart.  My heart proved unfaithful this time, but I’m a work in progress.  I’m praying I’ll be able to prove that very soon.  Maybe at the next supermarket checkout.