I had waited for this moment my whole life, my moment to serve others in a big way. More than putting five dollars worth of peanut butter and canned peas in the food pantry basket. More than trucking all of our unwanted items to the thrift store that helps troubled teens. More than slipping a few coins into the hand of someone brave enough and humble enough to ask for it.
I think I was looking too hard for a way to be a real philanthropist, a real warrior for Jesus. I wanted to come across something, anything that would require more of my time and effort than ever before. I was seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go. (That’s a Simon and Garfunkle reference.) I wanted to find a way to make a real difference for someone or a group of someones.
I realized for the first time today that I cannot find these things; God finds them for me and puts them right at my feet when I least expect it.
I met a homeless woman today. Her name isn’t Jen, but I’m going to call her that. I have no doubt whatsoever that God put me in her path for a very specific reason. My whole afternoon aligned so that she would sit down at the table with me at church while I settled in to do a couple solid hours of blogging while the kids rehearsed their Christmas program in the sanctuary.
I was tapping away at my keyboard, in the zone, cranking out some no-doubt great material, when I looked up and saw a bruised, sad face across from me. I pulled out my ear buds and asked if she was okay. I didn’t recognize her, but even after two years of attending church, I still don’t know everyone.
I learned quickly that Jen was wandering around town and had been sitting outside the church for quite some time before deciding to come inside. Through tears, she told me she’d lost her job, was evicted from her apartment, her children were living with a relative, and that she didn’t know what to do. She was afraid, confused, scared of everything, and worried her past was catching up with her.
Jen told me she has anxiety. I know anxiety all too well. As she opened up about her fears, I was transported back to an earlier version of my anxious self. I knew her fear and indecision all too well, while at the same time realizing that I got off pretty easy in the anxiety department, relatively speaking.
Jen’s stories didn’t always totally line up, but I saw that as a product of her anxiety, not as lies. She stayed and watched the kids practice, and I found her something hot to drink while she randomly opened the Bible hoping for God to speak directly to her through His Word. I used to do that in times of angst, too.
Jen’s faith was weak. She was baptized Catholic but had also attended a Baptist church and was familiar with Native American traditions and beliefs. She clearly loved Jesus and wanted Him in her life, but didn’t consider herself worthy because she smoked and drank and didn’t give side hugs like the baptists told her to, and she wasn’t sure what happened to gay people or people who committed suicide after they died. She’s sampled every piece of the Christian pie and it gave her a tummy ache, I guess.
There isn’t much I could say to fix all her problems, especially her faith concerns, me being a salad bar Christian and all, and I began to wonder what on earth God was thinking letting me handle this one. I told her that all God required was a tiny seed of faith to start, to get rid of all the things the church had told her and start fresh, to be like Jesus in the simplest way by thinking about the way He lived His life and to emulate it. Everything would grow from there, I supposed. I found her a Bible to take with her and hoped she could find some respite in it.
The Christmas program rehearsal ended and I offered her a ride to wherever she would be sleeping tonight, except she didn’t know. Anxiety makes it impossible to make decisions sometimes, and we were on the cusp of needing to make one. I planned to driver her to a shelter or someone’s house, drop her off, and consider my mission complete.
I drove her to three different places she thought she might be able to stay and she made a good handful of phonecalls looking for someone to take her in. I tried not to read too much into the fact that no one would let her stay. She was hurting and broken, confused and scared of her newfound homelessness and no one seemed to care. It was unfathomable.
I wondered if I should take her home with me, and immediately realized my own faith is weak because I wasn’t ready to put myself out that much. So much for my desire to serve others.
I got us some supper, then explained in the nicest way possible that I needed to wrap up our time together and get home to feed my family and get them to bed. She seemed to understand this and made what had to be an extremely difficult decision to drop in on a relative unannounced. I was ready to see our time together end, beginning to feel like I’d done enough and couldn’t do more, perhaps even irritated by her indecision.
I parked outside a house while Jen went inside for awhile, and after about 20 minutes decided she must have been successful. Or perhaps I’d grown too weary to go find out myself, so I left and prayed she didn’t wind up out on the streets again. She needed mental health help, not just a place to sleep. There was nothing I could do to improve her state of mind, no matter how well I could relate to what she was feeling. Or maybe I was trying to let myself off the hook as the day grew longer and longer.
I felt rotten about it, though. God specifically put me in Jen’s path, and I was ready to do whatever it took to see it through, to make a difference in someone’s life, only to ultimately tire of it. This was supposed to be my first taste of real sacrifice and unconditional giving and I failed. Sure, I got her someplace, but not without inner complaint.
I pulled into the garage at 6:08 PM, completely and totally mentally and emotionally drained. I ate a bowl of soup I hardly tasted, then drowned my sorrows in chocolate and peanut butter, feeling like I deserved none of it if I couldn’t even offer it to someone who’d eaten only one meal today. I took a shower, hoping it would wash away the stink of my selfishness. It didn’t work, but my mind if clearer.
There is consolation in knowing God chose me to help Jen today. He knew I wouldn’t succeed, but He knew it would be good practice for next time. I had the brief, fleeting thought that I should harden my heart and never let there be a next time. Even so, God’s going to do what he dang well pleases with me, so I know there will be a next time, and I will pray I do better. I WILL do better.
There is a silver lining: Jen is now on the waiting list for the YWCA, which will be able to get her the mental health help she needs and point her in the direction of healing. I hope and pray everything lines up for her and she is able to get her life back on track. And who knows, maybe Jen will remember that all she needs is a seed of faith to move mountains.
I should take some of my own advice…