Two years ago, in a Wal-Mart parking lot, I failed God. I passed by a dejected man, standing in the sweltering middle-of-July Kansas heat. I only looked at him long enough to see his sign reading “Will Work For Food.” In my passenger seat were 20 or so ice-cold Powerades, just purchased inside, condensation beading up on chilled bottles to match the beads of sweat pouring down this man’s face. I couldn’t give him money, or food, but I could give him refreshment. And I did nothing. I ignored that small voice. I just drove on by.
All the way home, my heart ached. I knew I’d done wrong. But I didn’t turn around. Later, I begged God for forgiveness, and a second chance. Give me another chance! Please, God. Let me redeem myself. Let me serve you. Please, let me serve you.
Today, that chance came. On a job assignment that sent me delivering a fancy VIP invitation to the County Sheriff, I parked in front of the jail. I’d never been before, and felt instantly out of place in my tailored suit, low heels and clean, white skin. Up ahead, I noticed a homeless man sitting in the grass just off the sidewalk. He held no sign, and made no attempts to interact with those walking past. But there was one man walking by, who made an attempt to interact with the homeless man. He bent down, looked him in the eyes, and shook his hand. My heart swelled. The man sitting in the grass smiled a toothless grin. This acknowledgement was worth more to him than any handout.
I almost didn’t walk down the sidewalk. Why? Was I scared? If I’m a child of God, whom shall I fear? No. I would not be afraid. As my heels clicked on the sidewalk, my heart quickened as I approached the man. Would he ask for money? Would he look down as I passed? His eyes met mine, and the wild-beating heart in my chest softened with Grace. “Hello,” I offered, along with a warm smile. “Hello,” he offered back, a somewhat surprised look lighting his elderly, sun-weathered face.
Jail. It’s somewhere I’ve never been, not even as a visitor. What hit me first was the smell. It was a mix between body odor, stale cigarette smoke, and last night’s hangover. Mothers, with infant carriers over their arms, and heavy makeup on their emotion-worn faces, left the building with a sadness I’ll never know. Babies born while their father was behind bars. Women who woke up on this day of love, day of affection, only to paint their faces, dress their little ones in their best clothes, and attempt to create some kind of family togetherness in this unlikely, hostile environment.
The whole scene, the entirety of this experience, just felt like a wake-up call. I am so privileged. I have so much. I want for nothing. I whizzed through the security line, being ushered ahead of the waiting masses. A well-dressed white woman bearing gifts can open doors that others can’t. I delivered the package, and returned to the cool February air, with a smell that can only be described as “inner city.” Down that same sidewalk I traveled, back to my car not even 50 yards away. Again, I approached the homeless man.
Again, I met his eyes, and again, I smiled and said hello. This time, though, he spoke. “Ma’am, do you happen to have some spare change?” I stopped. I had nothing in my pockets. I carried no purse. But I did have something to give him. “No, I’m sorry. But I do have some Valentine’s candy in my car you can have.” He jumped up, the prospect of something, anything, putting a spring into his weary step. “No, stay here, I’ll go get it.” Although a Sheriff was just across the street, I had to take steps to ensure my own safety. He sat, and waited.
I walked 10 yards or so more, unlocked my car, and reached in the backseat to grab one of three goodie bags my girls had been given at various Valentine’s parties this morning. Bags filled with chocolate heart candies, Hello Kitty pencils, Little Mermaid stickers, colorful sugary squares, and most of all, love. Without thinking, I grabbed the one bag my child had made, with pastel paper hearts glued to the side.
I returned to the man, who was once again sitting, and placed the brown bag in his leathery hands. “You’re welcome to anything in here. My girls don’t need all of this sugar anyway,” I jokingly said, our eyes meeting in a shared smile. I wonder if he had kids of his own, or perhaps grandchildren. “Thank you,” he said, “Thank you so much.” As I turned to walk away, a hand appeared in front of my face, a tight fist held over a white string. “Here,” a young male voice said. Startled, I turned and saw a man probably no older than I, but whose life had obviously not treated him as well as mine. His hair was cropped close, his teeth showed signs of poor hygiene, and he had that same smell of body odor, cigarette smoke, and last night’s hangover that I’d encountered behind me in the jail’s waiting room.
“I saw what you did, and I wanted you to have this.” Floating above his hand, dancing in the strong Kansas wind, was a red heart-shaped mylar balloon. That once-hardened heart in my chest, softened by the gesture of kindness I’d seen earlier, and had just participated in, melted completely, and came pouring out as tears. I managed to stammer out a broken thank you, as the young man darted into his older model Chevy truck and drove away. I didn’t get his name, and I can’t quite remember his face, but I do remember the tear. He, too, was moved with emotion.
I walked in a daze the short distance to my car, and climbed inside, my mind spinning with disbelief. Did that really just happen? Did I really just redeem myself from that shameful summer two years ago? Did God really show up and hand me a heart-shaped balloon? On Valentine’s Day? Yes, yes he did. I know it wasn’t coincidence. I know it wasn’t some random act of kindness. God isn’t random, after all.
Today, I am grateful. Not only that God gave me another chance, but that I finally learned how to let Christ spill out. If we let ourselves be filled, and then let ourselves be spilled, he will refill our cup over and over and over. The cycle will never end. We must empty our hand if we want to receive a gift, just like I had to give love away, to receive it in return. As any good farmer knows, you reap what you sow. And if you want to harvest love, the pure, sweet manna of God, you must plant your heart in the ground.
Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed. 2 Corinthians 9:6-8
Never be afraid to give love. Today, I overcame my fear of opening up my heart to a homeless stranger. I gave love, and was given more love in return than I ever deserved. God is good, and today was the best Valentine’s Day ever.