By Sherye S. Green
What I learned in the checkout line
Have you ever done something and then immediately wondered why you did it, hoping for all the world you could get a do-over? I did. Even though it happened several years ago, the incident still sticks in my craw. I’m ashamed of myself and angry I allowed fear, and a distrustful nature and absorption with self-protection take precedence over helping a fellow human being in a time of need.
I was in a craft store looking for a few items needed for a project. While searching for my purchases, I turned down an aisle and noticed a woman ahead of me who had stopped to examine a product on a shelf. She looked a little younger than myself, and her buggy was loaded. As we passed each other, our eyes met. I smiled and nodded my head slightly, and she shyly returned the greeting.
Later in the checkout line, I took my cell phone out of my purse to check for messages. After having done so, I looked around to find the same woman I had passed earlier in the aisle now behind me in the line. She was also standing very close to me, and the fact that she had invaded my personal space made me a bit nervous.
She held out her cell phone to me. A few words in English, spoken in a thick foreign accent, let me know she was not a local. More with hand gestures than with words, she let me know her phone was not working and motioned toward mine. The arch in her eyebrows accentuated the question in her eyes, “Can I borrow yours?”
Now really. How much of a threat could lending your cell phone to a total stranger pose? Instead of handing mine to her, I told her I could not help her and stated that perhaps the store had a phone she could borrow. She glared at me in disbelief and then muttered under her breath something which I supposed meant she hoped I’d find myself in a similar situation some day with no one to help me. The minutes endured under her scornful scrutiny slogged by like hours. I couldn’t wait to get out of the store.
All my life I’ve been taught to be courteous and to help others. It’s ingrained in my psyche and is a natural part of how I try to treat everyone I encounter. Why not be kind to this woman on this particular day? She had not in any way been rude to me. What was it about the silk hijab covering her head that frightened me so much?
Perhaps it was that my studies of the geopolitical landscape of the wider world has made me a little skeptical and, that on this day, I allowed one person’s appearance to lead me to a predetermined conclusion.
Perhaps it was that I’ve read too many stories of people posing as innocents who instead used the naiveté of others to carry out nefarious plots. Several different scenarios, based on my experience as a former criminal justice instructor, flashed through my mind.
Perhaps I am more selfish than I like to admit and, on this particular day, allowed this aspect of my flesh to override all other lessons learned in my life regarding the Golden Rule.
Perhaps it is because I am, at times, frustrated by technology itself and was worried she’d reprogram my cell phone or somehow send all its contents to some virtual portal in the sky.
No matter the reason, I failed miserably that day in the checkout line. I made an “F” in interpersonal communications 101, especially the lesson in dealing with strangers.
No sooner had I taken the receipt from the clerk’s hand, grateful I could finally leave the store, I took out the big stick I frequently use to beat myself up with. Stupid, stupid, stupid, I grumbled over and over to myself, as I headed out to the parking lot.
Once seated in my car, however, I heard the Lord whisper lovingly in my ear, “Sherye, you’re not stupid, but that’s not exactly the response I had hoped for when I sent that woman your way. Let’s talk about this, and we’ll work on a plan for future encounters. You’re going to meet other people like her again, and I want you to be prepared when you do.”
While driving home, I asked the Lord for forgiveness. The lift in my spirit let me know my Heavenly Father had once again done for me what I could never do for myself: dust off my britches, brush away the stain of sin, and gently and lovingly place me back in the saddle of life.
By the time I arrived home, Jesus had also reminded me of the parable of the Good Samaritan. I knew I had, in this encounter in the craft store, acted just like the priest and the Levite, who when encountering the wounded man lying in the road, “passed by on the other side” (Luke 2:31-32). Even though the space between me and the lady in the checkout line was no more than a few inches, the chasm created by my unwillingness to help her might as well have been the Grand Canyon.
What I’m praying for is a second chance to help someone else in need. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term opportunity means “a time or set of circumstances that make it possible to do something.” Paul wrote about maximizing such situations in his letter to the Galatians, “While we have opportunity, let us do good to all people…” (Galatians 6:10, NASB). His words, “while we have,” suggest that when life offers these moments to us, we need to make the most of them.
Since that day in the craft store, I’ve asked for His eyes to see, His ears to hear, and His heart to better understand people around me. My attention to clothing details is now focused less on whether the fabric covers a person’s head or entire body and more to do with whether I am clothed in the garments Jesus has asked me to wear – “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12 NASB).
What I failed to put on before leaving home on this particular day was l-o-v-e. Jesus has told me many times it’s the most important piece of clothing in my closet, “And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it” (Colossians 3:14, MSG).
I’ve thought of that woman in the checkout line many times since making my unfavorable impression on her. Although she was probably only trying to find a way to contact her husband, I know she didn’t leave the encounter knowing I was a Christian by my love. What a difference it might have made if I had shared a little of God’s love with her.
There may be another chance out there in my future for me to meet another lady wearing a headscarf. When that day comes, I pray I’ll pay more attention to the condition of my spiritual garments than her physical ones. When that day comes, I pray she’ll come away from the encounter touched by the beauty of my garment and from an otherworldly kindness and compassion she’s not likely to find in the secular world around her.
This world is a complicated place, and as thankful as I am to live in this modern age with all its tools and seemingly limitless supply of information, it is still a very complex environment to navigate. As sophisticated and educated as I think I am, there’s a world of learning I’ve yet to master.
Jesus has given me two rules He’s asked me to follow that will keep me headed in a direction that both pleases Him and blesses others: to love Him with my whole heart and to love those around me as He loves me. My prayer is the next time I’m out shopping, I’ll remember the lesson He taught me in the checkout line.
Sherye S. Green is a Jacksonian and a wife, mother, and grandmother. She has enjoyed two careers — one in business, the other in education. Sherye and her husband, Mark, are members of First Baptist Church Jackson. She is also the author of Abandon Not My Soul and Tending the Garden of My Heart: Reflections on Cultivating a Life of Faith.