I was already in a foul mood when I pulled into the grocery store parking lot. I was exhausted from a work day that went from bad to worse, so seeing this woman in her usual spot at the entrance of the store, just made me more determined to get in, get out, and just go home.
“Excuse me ma’am, do you have any…,” was all she could get out before I cut her off.
“Nope,” I answered abruptly, and kept walking.
Her long, lifeless hair that barely concealed her scabbed face, along with needle-tracked arms, and mouthful of teeth in various stages of decay, were enough for me to conclude that she was an addict. I felt uncomfortable being confronted by the in-your-face reality of addiction on any given day, but today I was tired, both physically and emotionally. I would not be made to feel anything today.
But once inside, the conviction began. The voice in my spirit was speaking before I’d even reached the produce aisle.
Monica. What was that all about? Is that really how I taught my children to treat one another?
That’s the thing about conviction- it’s not harsh or mean, but it is persistent. It’s the feeling you had as a child when you got caught by your father doing something you knew you weren’t supposed to, but rather than getting angry and yelling at you, he quietly voices his disappointment, reminding you that you can do better, which often carries more of a sting.
I promised myself that if this woman was still standing outside the entrance when I was finished buying my groceries, I would stop and give her not only my money, but my time. With a renewed sense of purpose, I hurried through my shopping.
As I left the store, I scanned the parking lot and the surrounding plaza, looking everywhere. She was nowhere to be seen. Gone.
I felt the weight of failure upon me. On top of conviction, came condemnation telling me that I wasn’t a good Christian. If I was, I would have helped her when she asked. I wondered whether it had been a test, to see how I would respond to someone in need. Would I show mercy and compassion? By my own estimation, I had failed miserably.
I prayed that night, asking God to give me another chance. If it had been a test, I wanted a re-write.
Within a couple of months, I got my opportunity. I was again shopping after a long and tiring day, but this time when I saw her at her usual spot, I was energized. I even knew what I was going to say; I’d been rehearsing a script I’d had in my head since my first botched attempt.
Instead of diverting my gaze this time, I look directly at her and smile. This is where she’s supposed to ask for change.
On cue, “Excuse me, can you spare some change for food?”
“What if I take you to into the plaza and buy you lunch? Would that be alright?” I had thought this out well. I didn’t need to contribute to a drug habit if I ensured that the money was actually paying for food. Plus, I could feel like I had really helped her.
She looked down, scuffing the toe of her shoe against the sidewalk in front of her. “Umm…that would be nice, but it would only feed me once. If I had cash, I could actually buy some groceries and have food to make more than one meal.”
Wait! She’s not following the script! This is where she’s supposed to say, ‘That would be great! You’re so kind!’ We were supposed to skip off to the sandwich shop where she would hang on my every word as I tell her about the love of God and how He can change her life, and…
Instead, almost apologetically, I explained that I didn’t have cash with me—which was the truth this time. I offered to get her whatever she needed, and she didn’t hesitate to give me a short, yet specific list.
I returned, less than twenty minutes later with both of our groceries. Unwaivered by my previous “duh” moment, I was still feeling pretty proud of myself. I produce her bag of requested items, and then some.
“My name’s Monica,” I offered.” What’s your name?”
“Elizabeth,” she answered, glancing up as she scanned the items in her bag. “Thank you.”
And with that, she left.
I stood there and actually laughed out loud at my foolish pride, and I sensed that God was laughing at me too. In the self-written script of my do-over, it was all about what I was going to say, what I was going to do, and assuming her response would be one of eternal gratitude. Instead of that, I got a lesson in economics and kicked off my I-Throne.
“But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matt. 23:12 NLT)
I’m glad God is the God of second (and third) chances.
About three weeks later, on a hot summer Saturday, I’m leaving the air-conditioned comfort of the neighbourhood grocery store yet again, with bags in hand. Not too far ahead, standing near the entrance of the store, I see a woman sporting a stylish pair of pink capris with a matching pink and black top. Her hair is styled in a flattering bob framing her subtly made-up face, completing a carefree appearance.
Wow, does she ever look smart, I thought. Why do I feel like I know this woman? She’s not quite familiar, yet…
The woman turns and smiles.
I can’t believe it. Once a skittish shell of a human being, tell-tale scabs on her face and arms, Elizabeth now exudes a peace and confidence that I could only dream of. Without asking, I simply hugged her. She hugged me back.
Looking me in the eye, she announces, “I’m an addict but I’m in recovery.”
I am reminded of my earlier judgements towards her, how I had made “helping” her all about me. I realize in the moment that she is much further along the path to recovering the life she was meant to lead than I am.
“It’s going to be a long road, but I’ve been given a chance at a new life, so I’m going to take it.”
“I am so happy for you, Elizabeth,” I say. “You’re very brave.”
Walking home I wondered why, if not to pan-handle, was Elizabeth standing at her old post? I got the feeling it was so I could see things from God’s perspective. He will sit back and watch us stumble when necessary, to reveal the true condition of our heart, and show us where we need to grow. The discipline we endure may seem difficult at the time, but as it says in Hebrews 3:12:
” For the Lord corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights.”
While it didn’t feel good at the time to be corrected and come face to face with my own biases and prejudices, I don’t regret the experience. To do anything for my own glory and not His, I am wasting my time; He’s going to say that He never knew me.
That’s something I couldn’t bear to hear from Him.
Yes and amen.