“Excuse me, ma’am.”
I was biting into an Indian veggie patty in the few minutes I had before picking up the van from the parking garage and heading to the kids’ school. I looked up to see a woman in front of the bench where I sat.
“Do you have some change so I can get something to eat?”
I swallowed my bite and didn’t think twice about the words that came out of my mouth.
“I’m sorry. I don’t have any change.”
The truth was that I had cash on me, which almost never happens. But because she asked for change, I took her request literally and didn’t have to lie. In that exact moment, I could have given her more than change. As she walked away, I felt it–guilt pricked my heart. I was tired and anxious and overwhelmed from helping others. These are the excuses I told myself.
I could have helped. I chose not to.
Two weeks ago, our neighbor suffered a heart attack and spent almost that entire time in the hospital. He is an older man and his wife doesn’t drive at all and they are the ones whose dogs bark at everything. We have been politely neighborly from a distance, but suddenly we were smack dab in the middle of their lives. The woman asked me to take her to their once-a-month food bank appointment, and I said yes. That day, I carried bags and boxes of food into their house, a place in which I had never set foot though we’ve lived next door for more than four years.
A few days later, when the husband was unexpectedly released from the hospital, our neighbor walked over and asked if I could take her to the pharmacy. Purse in hand, she was ready to go. The kids were off school and we were close to leaving for a family adventure, but she needed her husband’s medicine. I said yes. An hour later—longer than either of us expected—I was back at home and our family adventure was delayed but not postponed.
A few hours before the woman downtown asked me for change, my neighbor was on my doorstep asking if I could take the two of them to her husband’s doctor appointment in a couple of days. I hemmed and hawed and eventually said yes even though the whole thing is getting uncomfortable. The day they need a ride my husband needs to go to work, and they offered their vehicle, but now I am wondering how much is too much here. When she left I researched transportation options for low-income seniors. One reply to an e-mail gave me some hope that I would not have to bear this entire burden alone.
So, this was my state of mind when the woman asked me for change to get some food. Half a minute after she walked away, I realized my veggie patty was frozen in the middle and I would enjoy it more if I took it home and warmed it up. I pulled a dollar out of my bag when I realized the woman and her male companion had headed in the direction I needed to go. I wanted to apologize and give her the dollar, but she walked away from where I stood at the crosswalk waiting for the light to change. Maybe the sight of me and my purchased lunch disgusted her. Maybe she couldn’t handle another rejection. Maybe she didn’t even see me.
The man who was with her stood his ground on the sidewalk and spoke up.
“I don’t mean no disrespect,” he said, “but I’m just trying to get some food. Do you have anything that could help? I missed all the mission lunches today.”
I looked him in the eye and said, “I have a dollar. Would that help?” I handed it over.
His eyes brightened and he said, “I could get a slice of pizza. Thank you.”
“Enjoy your pizza,” I said. Later, I thought I should have asked him what he liked on his pizza because you can tell a lot about a person by what they put on their pizza. Maybe next time. I also should have given him more than a dollar. I had two more in my purse.
I crossed the street, still stewing a little, still tired from all the helping. I ran through my usual list of reasons why no one should be asking me for help.
We barely get by month to month ourselves.
We have one beat-up van we’re nursing along to 200,000 miles.
We don’t have extravagant things.
We are probably only one or two disasters from being out on the street ourselves. (I say this a bit dramatically, although many of us are closer than we think to being in a devastating circumstance.)
A group of men in suits walked by as the man and I were talking. “Ask them!” I wanted to say, but I rarely see the suits hand out money. If I was downtown every day, dressed for work, would I get tired of being asked? I’m already tired of being asked.
Maybe they ask me because I look like someone who says “yes.” Maybe that makes me an easy mark. Or maybe it’s the divine spark in them being drawn to the divine spark in me.
Don’t tell me my heart is in the right place. I know better than anyone that it isn’t. At least, not always.
Last month a woman asked my friend and me for help as we cut through the park on our way back to the car. She had a black eye (real or fake, I still don’t know) and a story about a boyfriend beating her up and taking her tip money. She needed help. She had nothing. We had just eaten a free lunch and learned about having productive conversations about race and injustice. We gave her money and then talked about whether we should have or not afterward. We are both Christian women who care deeply about social issues and justice. Still, we wondered if we had done the right thing. And maybe being together meant that we did what we would not have done if we were by ourselves.
This is how I know my heart is not always in the right place. I still second guess myself in doing the right thing. I want to punch my “doing good” time clock and be done for the day, the week, the month. I don’t want to be responsible for months of appointments especially not for people I barely know who aren’t refugees and aren’t the nicest of people.
Maybe giving money to someone is the wrong thing. But when I think of Jesus and his words about serving Him through serving the least, I think I’d rather be wrong, just in case Jesus is there. (Spoiler alert: I’m pretty sure He’s always there whether I see Him or not.)
I’m in the third week of teaching a course on spiritual practices at church. One of the traditions we’ll be looking at this week is “holiness,” which if I’m honest, sometimes leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But as I’m learning about the true nature of this tradition, that it isn’t legalism or rules or perfectionism, the more I understand how necessary it is.
Holiness is a work of the heart, an inner transformation that makes these outward actions of love not only possible but repeatable. Most of us can do the right thing one time. But what about the next time? Or the time after that?
Only a heart that has been oriented and re-oriented will point us in the right direction consistently. This is what I’m learning about holiness and its effect not only on me but on the world in which I live.
To seek a holy life is not to seek an otherness that separates. It is to seek a way of life that works for the betterment of others. Quaker mystic and spiritual disciplines author Richard Foster says “a holy life is a life that works.” Could anyone say that they don’t want their life to “work”?
My heart may not always be in the right place. But it is getting there. And that is the best I can hope for. When I fail to act because of a misplaced heart, I can reset the course and try again.
As many times as necessary.