I had already started unloading the overflowing cart when I realized I had chosen the cigarette aisle in Walmart. Behind me stood a young guy in a tank top and baggy shorts, a little rough around the edges, with nothing in his hands.
“Do you want to cut ahead of us? Please, go ahead… we have a ton of stuff.”
He looked unsure for a minute and then grateful. “No… I mean… really? Well, thanks. Thanks so much. I just want to get cigarettes.”
He squeezed by our cart and kids.
And then, as the clerk turned to get change from the register for the man in front of both of us, I saw him pocket a couple of ‘5 Hour Energies.’
He turned to me again, “Really… thanks so much. That was really nice of you.”
“Uhm.. yeah, well, no problem.”
The clerk got the cigarettes he wanted and I saw him count out his loose change to pay for them.
And, I wondered, what is my purpose right here, right now?
He took his cigarettes and whatever else he had stuffed in his pockets and left.
I kept the inner dialogue going as I paid and wheeled our purchases out to the van.
‘He obviously didn’t have a lot of money. And, what’s a couple of 5 Hour Energies to Walmart? But, would it have been more loving to say something? Maybe getting in trouble for shoplifting something small now could break the path he’s on and keep him from doing something worse in the future. What is the Christian responsibility when seeing someone sin against another, even if it’s a store?’
I said to the kids, “I saw something that wasn’t right in there today. I’m wondering if I should have done something.”
My nine year old quips up, “You mean about that guy stuffing things in his pockets?”
Let me just intersect here- children miss nothing.
The almost eleven year old said, “Yeah, I saw him, too. We should have told somebody.”
I kept thinking as I maneuvered our big van out of the parking lot and started the drive home.
“Lord, what would you have done if you were standing there and saw someone breaking the law? How could I have been more like you?”
And, I knew what I should have done.
If I were there again, (and brave enough), I would have looked that young man in the eyes and loved him. I would have said, “You know, you don’t need to do that. If you knew how loved you were, you would never feel like you have to steal and deceive to take care of yourself. If you take those things out of your pockets and give them to the clerk, I’ll pay for them myself. And, you can walk away free.”
He would have had choices then.
He might have looked back at me and been angry. I was pointing out something he felt justified, for whatever reason, in doing. He might have lashed back at being exposed as a law-breaker. He might have thought of all the ways life is unfair and he’s forced to do what he does. He might have called me a profanity and walked out the door.
Or, he might have felt ashamed. He might have pulled the stolen goods out of his pockets and left them and left the store. He might have walked away feeling depressed that this is what his life has come to; stealing caffeine and paying for cigarettes with nickels. He might have thought of all the ways he doesn’t measure up and of the people who are disappointed in him. Or, maybe, there isn’t even anybody who cares enough to be disappointed. Maybe he’ll decide he should try to do better but the next time he needs to steal he’ll feel the shame all over again.
But then, maybe something else would have happened. Maybe he would have accepted the gift. Maybe he would have taken the stuff out of his pockets and put them on the counter where they would be exposed, and let me pay for them. Maybe he would have admitted that he didn’t have what it took to pay the price and that he was breaking the law. Maybe he would have let me pay and he would have walked away feeling cared for and knowing that his life is valuable after all. Maybe he wouldn’t feel like a thief any longer, but instead, he would have walked away free.
And, I realized, as I was driving home and thinking about what I could have done, that Christ has already done it. This is my story, too.
Saturday, I was stewing over something for a few hours. After I decided to stay home with the baby and not to go to the fireworks with the rest of the family, my husband mentioned something about me having a default tendency to retreat back to the house in the evening. Like I was no fun or something. I simmered for a while. How could he think I’m no fun? Did he forget that I have had seven babies in thirteen years and maybe I’m feeling a little tired at the end of the day? Couldn’t he be a little more grateful that I do the dishes after dinner? Does he really think that I enjoy missing out on the fun things everyone else is doing? I am totally fun. I just have had a lot to do in the house after dinner for the last decade or so.
He figured out I was mad when I started making little passing comments like, “Hmmm, the baby just woke up. Should I go outside and play Frisbee or feed him?” Or, “While you guys are outside playing, I’ll just be in here making dinner, you know, because I love it so much.” I was totally mature about it. And a really great role model for my kids. Just super.
Thankfully, like he has a way of doing, God started pressing in on me, turning me back to the truth, revealing the reason I really was upset. Looking back over our marriage, I don’t remember many incidents of being really angry with my husband for anything he’s done. I married a pretty good guy and I don’t expect him to be perfect. The times I’ve gotten mad are the times when he’s pointed out faults in me. Because he should totally think I’m perfect.
And, I realized, I’m mad because I’m afraid. I’m like the guy in Walmart trying to look innocent when he knows his pockets are bulging with stuff he hasn’t paid for; I’m counting my nickels and coming up short.
About twelve years ago, a friend looked me in the eye and said, “I would just really like to see you grow less fearful.”
I was holding my firstborn at the time, and as she spoke those words, my defenses went up. I didn’t feel afraid. I just wanted to do everything right. And, for another ten years, I searched for the perfect way to do everything. (Though, I didn’t say it like that.) I was looking for the ‘best way’ to raise my children (homeschool for sure!), to eat (all natural, farm raised, no sugar, milk the cow yourself!), to dress (maybe we should be wearing long skirts?), to entertainment (no television, no way! Movies are for special nights at Grandma’s), to toys (please no plastic, but natural wood with beeswax finish would be great, thanks…) and the list could go on…
One thing about trying to find the ‘best way’ is that you have to decide that other ways are… not so good. And, (speaking from experience here), if in your heart you equate things like a diet free of Cheezits with what it means to live as a faithful Christian, it might be hard to rest easy in a local church.
For years I wanted to leave our church. Years and years and years.
‘There just aren’t enough homeschoolers or like-minded families.’ ‘People there seem so… well, nice but compromising.’ ‘We might share a faith in Jesus, but we have different worldviews. I mean, I could just never send my kids to public school. A lot of people there even go trick or treating.’
Every Sunday I would sit in the back of the church with my husband and my row of little ones. I would listen to my pastor share the message of truth and freedom and while consistently hearing the gospel, I would hope other people were listening.
I had no idea how much I needed to hear it myself.
Thankfully, something changed.
God was so kind to reach into my self-protective, fearful, perfectionistic and idealistic world and break it into pieces. I couldn’t hold it together. I failed at living the ‘best way’. He pealed it all back and said, “You are completely insufficient.”
There came a day when I sat on my bed holding the telephone and knew I needed to call someone. I had failed in a lot of areas and I knew if I didn’t shine the light on one area of my life, I could fall further. I prayed. I asked God, “Who can I reach out to right now?”
Ten years earlier someone had looked me in the eye and told me truth I didn’t want to hear. It was her number I dialed.
Now, this friend and I could not have been more different. She was a public school loving mother with a Diet Coke in her hand (sugar! chemicals!), and she not only celebrated Halloween, she hosted the neighborhood party.
But, the truth was, I knew she had something I didn’t. She had something that allowed her to call me back and give me words of truth and grace, even while knowing in her heart that for years I had judged her to justify myself and to protect myself from facing fear.
God, in his relentlessly kind way, started breaking down walls in this friendship. To be perfectly honest, it was humiliating. I started to see that I wasn’t more mature than a lot of people at our church, I was actually ‘the weaker brother’ (Romans 14). I realized that I needed the gospel as much, and probably more than, the person sitting a row in front of me at church.
But, while I was drinking in the gospel message each Sunday, I still wanted to leave. At one point, I wrote to my patient, truth-bearing friend and told her that I’d really just like to sprout wings and fly out of there. I felt hurt and unappreciated and like I didn’t belong.
I think when you have a heart that is searching for the ‘best way’ and comparing yourself to others, you tend to believe that other people have it as well. When I looked at our church, and the women in leadership there, I thought that they would change me if they could. I believed that they would really be happy if I left my kids more to take part in women’s Bible studies and ladies’ nights out and maybe if I put a couple of the older kids in the public school system. I believed that when my friend said she would love to see me less fearful, that she was saying she wanted to see me living more like her. And, I was a total disappointment in that category.
I honestly believed it would be a relief to my friend, and other people in our church, if we left. I didn’t see us serving in any meaningful way and the only thing of value we’d take with us was our tithe money. Our church was getting really full on Sunday mornings and people would probably be really glad to have all those seats we’d be leaving behind in the back row.
While I was begging my husband to agree to visit other churches, and feeling like no one would care if we left our own, I had no idea that my friend was hoping and praying that we’d stay.
One night, she wrote me a letter.
She shared what she remembered about the time my family had spent at our church, starting with when my husband and I showed up newly married, newly graduated from college and only taking up two seats on Sunday morning. Her perspective was vastly different than what I had imagined. She didn’t talk about what I’d done (or not done…). She talked about who I was, and said that our family was a valuable part of our church. Before she ended the letter she even said, I love you.
Something broke in me when I read her words. Here was someone I had assumed was disappointed in me; someone I thought would be happier if we just moved on. I had been watching her for years and it was obvious that her ‘best way’ was very different than mine. I had assumed that she was judging me and that I had been falling short for years.
It was like a gateway swung open. Like a wall crumbled. She was the person in line behind me at Walmart offering to pay my way because she knew the One that had sufficient funds for us both. She pointed me straight to the truth that hadn’t sunk in before.
There isn’t a ‘best way’, there is The Way. (John 14:6)
Jesus paid my way. I am walking free.
My life is completely changed. And, you know what is funny? Outwardly, not much has changed at all. I still homeschool our kids and cringe at a room full of plastic toys. I am still uniquely me. But, my heart has been transformed by grace. I don’t have to try so hard.
On the cross, Jesus said, “It is finished.”
I don’t need to be afraid because there is nothing left to prove.
The last couple of years I’ve felt something completely fresh and new at our church. I belong there. I don’t serve there, or learn there, or attend there… I belong.
On Sundays, instead of standing in the back thinking of how it would be nice to see more people living like me, my heart feels overwhelmed with the love Christ has shown to us all.
A few days ago I ran into another homeschooling mother. She drives a big van like mine and might not have a television. She mentioned how she’d love to get together and let our kids spend time together. She really desires more time with like-minded families.
I also hope we can spend more time together because I really enjoy her and her children.
But, I noticed something about my heart while she was talking. It doesn’t matter to me that she homeschools her many children. The fact that she makes parenting choices that are like mine and that our lifestyles are similar isn’t what gives me the motivation to spend time with her. None of that matters to me anymore.
I don’t know that I am ‘like-minded’ in the way she meant.
Only one thing matters.
My ‘best way’ has given way.
My pockets have been emptied and the price has been paid by Jesus, who saw me.
I’m walking free…
‘Come, see this man who has told me everything I’ve ever done… and offered me living water. He saw my shame and covered me, my insufficiency and loved me, my chains and broke them. Won’t you come and drink with me?’