"Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it." Hebrews 13:1-2 (NIV)
I blew it. Again.
I was in a hurry, pushing a cart full of groceries through the parking lot as fast as I could. A list of errands was running through my mind. Still had to stop at another store, pack for my weekend trip, and make sure my husband had enough clean socks and underwear to last through the days I'd be gone. With my mind focused on the tasks ahead, I was hardly aware of the man standing in front of my car. I heard his voice before I saw his face.
"Excuse me, ma'am. Could you help me with something to eat?"
He stood at some distance from me, probably well aware I might freak out if he came closer. And though he was safely at least a dozen feet away, and both my shopping cart and car were barriers between us, I'd still felt a rush of fear. His face was oily, and his faded black pants and t-shirt were rumpled and dirty.
"Sorry." I tersely dismissed him with that one word, then immediate returned to the task of loading the groceries into my car. I anxiously hoped he'd disappear.
And as soon as I said it, I regretted it. As he walked away, I felt a heaviness in my chest. I knew in my heart I needed to stop what I was doing, run after the man, and tell him I would get him some food. For goodness sake, I had a whole cart full of groceries right there, including some I'd bought to take to my church! Go find that man right now! my heart demanded.
But when I looked down at my groceries, I thought, I can't just leave these here and run after some stranger. I'll put them in my trunk first, then go find the man.
This is the point where I knew I'd blown it. I knew the man would be gone. I knew I'd look for him, and that I wouldn't find him. I knew he would disappear from that little parking lot, as if he'd mysteriously been zapped off the face of the earth.
I knew all of this would happen because it's all happened to me before.
About three years ago, I was driving by a different grocery store in Illinois. It was cold and drizzling, and I just wanted to get home because I knew it would start pouring at any moment. My husband and I had just bought a new car, and I was terribly nervous about driving it on a dry street, let alone a slick, wet one. I didn't want to be driving when the serious rain began. When it rains in Illinois, water falls from the sky in sheets, not droplets. Heaven help the person caught walking on the street during a storm--it's like having buckets of water forcefully thrown at you from every direction.
Heaven wanted to help an elderly woman that day. I saw her walking out of the grocery store and couldn't take my eyes off her. In one hand, she carried a few bags full of groceries, in the other, she attempted to keep her little umbrella upright as the wind tossed it backward. She could barely walk; she dragged one foot a bit as she inched down the sidewalk with tiny, strained steps. The signal on the street turned red, and I watched as she slowly moved in my direction.
Offer her a ride. Help her. The words in my head were as clear as if they'd been said by someone sitting in my passenger seat. The feeling I had was more than just a nagging conscience; I knew God was directly instructing me to help this woman. All I had to do was pull over to the curb.
The light turned green. I can't stop for her, my head rationalized. There's no parking lane on the street. The cars behind me will honk. She'll think I'm a lunatic and will be scared--what if I give her a heart attack? I came up with a dozen excuses as my foot moved from the brake to the accelerator. I watched her in my rear-view mirror as I drove past. There was still time to stop for her.
I turned at the corner. I've got to get home before the rain starts pouring down.
And then it hit me: I hadn't stopped. Nearly every part of my body had urged me to stop. My foot had been resting on the brake. My left hand had been ready to flip on the turn signal. My arms had been ready to turn the wheel. My heart was thudding so strong and deep I could hear it in my ears. Yet I hadn't stopped.
I pulled over and turned my head to look over my shoulder. I couldn't see the old woman anymore. The rain began to pour down.
I hadn't stopped. I'd said "no" to God. I began to bawl and howl like an injured animal.
And I knew I had to find the old woman. I had to make things right. I had to get her out of the pouring rain. I had to do what I should have done in the first place.
I sped around the corner. I figured I'd find her right away. At her snail's pace, she couldn't have gotten more than 100 feet from where I'd turned. I drove past the intersection where I'd seen her. Not there. I drove another block. I drove down the side streets, then through the parking lots of nearby businesses. Even as I searched, I knew I wouldn't find her. I knew God had offered me an opportunity, or rather, a test. And I'd failed it.
I bawled all the way home, trying to comfort myself with the thought someone else had picked her up, or that she'd found refuge at a bus stop or under a store awning. Those thoughts didn't soothe me. I prayed, "God, I missed what you put right in front of my face. But I'm going to be aware now. I'm going to listen when you ask me to do something. I won't blow it again."
For the next several weeks, my actions played over in my mind like a CD stuck on repeat. I begged God, "Please give me someone to help! Please give me something to do for you. Please let me make up for my inaction." I thought about Jesus' illustration of the three servants who were given different amounts of money to invest for their master. And I thought, "I'm the foolish servant who buried the master's money and didn't even earn basic interest from the bank." In the weeks that followed, I looked everywhere for an opportunity to help another person. I held every door open, told everyone who sneezed, "Bless you," extended kind greetings to every passerby. Every day, as I drove by the intersection where I'd seen the elderly woman, I looked for her. Nothing gave me peace.
But as the days passed, the memory gradually faded. I got caught up in work and my never-ending to-do list. I'd almost forgotten about the old woman when I read an article, "The Test," in Today's Christian magazine. In it, a man shared his memory of an elderly homeless man who'd visited his church. The homeless man had come in during a Sunday service on a freezing, winter morning and asked the congregation to help him get some food. No one offered to help him. So he walked back out empty-handed. As soon as he'd gone out the door, a few church members ran after him to offer their assistance. But he was gone. He'd seemingly vanished. Afterward, the senior pastor got up and told his congregation:
"Something terrible happened here today. We missed an opportunity to prove ourselves, and I fear we may never receive it again ... I believe we received a visit from an angel today. My mother taught me, when I was just a boy, that God sends his angels down to look after us and to guide us … but he also sends them to test us, to see what kind of people we really are. I think we were tested today. And I think we failed."
I bawled three years ago when I read that story, and I ache as a read it again today. Because I know I've been tested many times now. Many times I've "passed"--I did what I knew God was asking me to do. I'm thankful God softened my heart and opened my eyes during those moments. When I help someone, I almost always feel wonderful afterward. I feel connected to God and to humanity. I feel more like a person, and less like a machine that's programmed to never deviate from its routine.
Last week, I was a robot, following my usual pattern of ignoring people, rushing to complete chores, and strictly sticking to schedule. With a fat wallet, a full belly, and a cart full of groceries, I turned my back on a hungry person who simply asked for something to eat.
Today, I feel that old familiar pain of heartbreak. I hurt, knowing I left an old woman to walk in the cold rain three years ago, and a homeless man to wander on last week, with his stomach still empty. I hurt, knowing my lack of compassion perhaps made those two people feel a little less loved and cared for by God. I hurt, and I welcome the feeling. I hope it lingers for a long while because it reminds me of who I am--a child of God, with billions of brothers and sisters who are hoping some "stranger" will offer them the tiniest bit of kindness. They pray God will send them someone who can give them enough hope to get through one more day.
Today, I'm a little bit more human.
1) Do you believe God tests us? How has he tested you?
2) What are some typical excuses people use to avoid helping someone in need?
3) Most of us have had some bad experiences when we've helped others: Maybe you've given money to a con artist, or perhaps someone you've helped has returned your kindness with a lack of thanks or even cold words. Perhaps that bad experience makes you to hesitate to serve others now. Read the true story, "You Ain't No Better Than Me." Then think about the person who conned or insulted you. How did their actions differ from the way you expected them to react? How do expectations sometimes hurt us, especially in regard to the lessons God's trying to teach us?
4) Think about the typical human motives for helping others. Compare this to Jesus' motives for dying for the world. What might have happened if Jesus had made his decision whether to die based on typical human motives, and if he had used typical human excuses?
5) Make a list of 10 ways you can help others. Here are a few to get your creative juices flowing: bringing canned goods to a food drive, helping an elderly person put groceries in their car, saving pennies for the local school, babysitting a child for a couple hours to give a parent some free time, having lunch with someone who is lonely.