My friend needed a ride. I had a car. She was just out of the hospital. I had just left church. She needed groceries. I needed a moment of quiet. It was an errand of mercy—as it turns out, more for my benefit than hers.
While she shopped, I waited contentedly in the parking lot. The slight breeze coming through open car windows provided the perfect counterpoint to the enthusiastic effort of the sun. I checked emails on my phone. I planned my week. I had a front row seat to a constantly moving parade of humanity.
From this vantage point, I saw the motorized shopping cart the moment it emerged through the automatic doors. It moved ever so slowly across the driveway toward handicapped parking. I opened my door, ready to spring into action should a speedy driver fail to see the cart in time to stop. (Years of hanging out with children have made me hyper-vigilant in areas shared by cars and shorter than hood-height humans.) My relief at seeing the cart come to rest by a car was interrupted by my dismay over the challenges facing the woman who drove it.
Perhaps she had a plan. Perhaps she knew how to get multiple bags of groceries and two 12-pack cartons of drinks from the cart into her car, but it was not apparent to me. At the risk of insulting her independence, I met her at the car and asked if I could help. She hesitated. She had a plan, and I wasn’t it. Her plan was to yell loudly and ask the cell-phone talking stranger leaning against his truck in the next row to help her. I assured her I was strong enough for the task at hand.
She pulled her cane from the back of the cart and stood as tall as a body resembling a lower case ‘c’ allowed. Her movements appeared painful and agonizingly slow. I finished loading the car several minutes before she was able to lower herself into the driver’s seat.
From the comfort of seated security, she began, “I wasn’t always like this, you know. I used to be so strong. I could do anything.” To make sure I understood, she recounted details of those former years. I heard this as no mere lament but as a plea to see her as more than she now appeared. For one brief moment my heart joined hers in the backward glance. I saw her as the blushing bride and eager first time mom. I saw her in the tennis skirt and as the faithful wife and as the soccer mom.
This woman, who could no longer walk, was at heart all these things and more. Time had changed what she could do. It had not altered who she was. In her own way, she asked, “See me! See me for who I am and not what I can do. Know that I am more than what my body has become.” I was instantly convicted of my too quick tendency to brand people by the packaging in which they are wrapped—of my propensity to mete out pity or praise based on momentary observation.
In that moment, her self-disclosure of a richer, fuller life now lost reminded me that identity exists beyond the transitory circumstances of our temporal lives. It cannot be defined by the innocence of childhood, the vigor of youth, or the surprising frailty of an aging body. It resides deeper and rises higher than the events we use to mark our steady progress to an eternal destiny. Identity is determined not by default, but by the declaration of a heavenly Father.
Her face brightened, as if she suddenly remembered who she was. “There is one thing I am really grateful for,” she said. “I can still get to my church on Sunday morning.” She put up her window. Our encounter was over; the truth remains.
Sunday, March 5, 2017
I had no cash on me as I raced into my neighborhood market. The plastic card tucked into my cell phone case would be sufficient for two small items.
The sun had just relinquished its claim to the sky, reluctantly handing over its task to the artificial radiance of security lights and neon signs. This changing of the guard went unnoticed by the unusually large number of people who crowded the entryway.
Husbands, on their way home, shopped with lists so short they didn’t have to write them down. Vibrant young adults arrived as couples or in groups, apparently having not yet learned a list saves time and money. A Girl Scout troop, hoping to entice shoppers with their famous cookies and winsome smiles, flanked one side of the sliding door. A solitary figure, sat round-shouldered, cross-legged and alcohol-fogged on the filthy concrete, a counterpoint to the happy and expectant scouts.
Fellow shoppers with cash and a sweet tooth cheerfully greeted the scouts. They paid no more attention to the man on the ground than they did to a misplaced shopping cart they had to step around. I was careful to avoid eye contact with either the Scouts or the derelict. It seemed easier than explaining I had nothing to give.
I was dismayed to discover nothing had changed by the time I left the store. No Good Samaritan had brought a hungry man food or helped him on his way. He continued to sit there, while I, heartsick over the scene, escaped quickly to my car--feeling more and more like the hypocritical priest and Levite who hurried past the robbed and beaten man in the parable in Luke.
“Really, now,” I argued with the inner voice that is not my own. “What was I supposed to do?”
“Give him the gift of human dignity. Look him in the eye. Acknowledge he is a person.”
I retraced my steps across the parking lot. Hoping to make our encounter less awkward, I had retrieved cash from the emergency stash in my car. It wasn’t much, but it was what I had. A store employee confirmed the man had been there an hour. No one else had talked to him.
I knelt beside the man so I could look him in the eye. I asked if he was all right—if he needed help. He said he was hungry. I slipped my meager offering into his hands, hoping he would buy food but suspecting he wouldn’t. The help he needed was beyond my ability to give.
I said I would pray for him—and I meant it. He challenged me, asking if I knew how to really pray. I assured him I did, and he began, “Our Father.” Together we said the Lord’s Prayer, word by word, line by line, outside on the concrete amid the noise of shoppers and Scouts. Few sanctuaries have ever seemed as sacred.
He took my hand and touched it to his head. We connected, one child of God with another, and then I was free to go. “Silver and gold have I none, but what I have that I give you.”