In the Christian year, yesterday was a special day, Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of forty days of repentance leading up to the highest of holy days, Easter. We are challenged over the next forty days to examine ourselves, our thoughts, motives, actions and words. It is in the excellent practice of reflection that we discover ways we have fallen short. We lament the brokenness in our lives and in our world, and our hearts are wrenched for the pain we see and feel all around us and throughout humanity. No matter the religion we practice, or even if we subscribe to no religion, our human hearts can be broken as we see how our brothers and sisters suffer, physically, mentally, emotionally. And I do sincerely believe we are all brothers and sisters, all part of humanity, all on the way to the same certain fate, ashes to ashes…
Over thirty years of teaching I met many broken young people. Hurting, abused, homeless, angry, frustrated, disillusioned, and while I picture many of their faces in my mind, in this season of reflection I always recall the first truly hungry person I ever encountered. Her salt-and-pepper hair was pulled back in a tight bun, her nails painted bright red, and she was dressed appropriately for the weather. I was a newly-hired cashier at the local grocery, so when she placed several cans of dog food on the conveyor belt, alongside a box of popsicles, I tried to make conversation as I rang up her purchases.
“Does your dog enjoy popsicles?” I asked. When she didn’t answer I looked around to find angry, dark eyes staring from her weathered face. “I don’t have a dog,” she snapped, continuing to glare at me. I glanced down at the dog food and back at her, realizing I’d made a naive assumption, and I had embarrassed her with my silly question. Without saying anything further, my customer counted out a large handful of coins, snatched up her bagged purchases, and left.
The nearby manager, hearing the brief conversation, shrugged his shoulders and explained that the lady had nothing but pride, would not accept groceries he had offered her, and that she regularly went through the store’s garbage dumpster for discarded, stale, spoiled food. I watched for her each shift I worked, but never saw her again. Even as a teenager making minimum wages I felt I could help her, be friendly to her, speak a word of peace into her heart, but I never got another opportunity.
Perhaps you have heard the maxim that we should be kind to everyone we meet, for everyone is fighting a battle. This saying is attributed to Ian Maclaren, the pen name of a minister of the Free Church of Scotland. The lady in my grocery line was certainly fighting her own battle, and even now, thirty-six years later, I wonder what the outcome was. Where did she sleep? Where did she get the change she paid with? Did she have a family? Did she regularly eat dogfood? How was she so neat and clean? Who was she? As I reflect on the one sentence I shared with her, it grieves me still, that in my effort to be funny, I had wounded her.
Reflection is painful, because it forces me to admit where I have wronged others, but it is also healing because it gives me the chance to right wrongs, sometimes even before I commit them. Perhaps St. Francis, of Assisi, Italy, prayed most eloquently what I hope to be the outcome of this most introspective season:
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.