We have the dress - found on sale at an outlet store - a pair of borrowed sandals, and now all she needs for the dance this weekend is a little black sweater to add a bit of modesty to the little black dress. It’s late Thursday afternoon and the store is packed with shoppers. I hand my daughter a few options and then go back to browsing while she tries them on in front of the full length mirror. In the aisle next to me is another hopeful girl slipping on pairs of high heels. She is acne-covered and stooped-shouldered, her head ringed by a line of old peroxide and a 6 inch grow-out of dull brown. She catches my eye briefly and I give her a smile, remembering the desperate wishes of my own awkward teen years. The young woman looks away and then yells to her mother, who is waiting at the other end of the aisle with a shopping cart and a sour expression. “These are good, but they don’t fit too much.”
Her mom moves toward us, breathing heavy. I look back at the rack and continue browsing, but the smell that has arrived with the woman is shocking. She is short and thick, wearing a dirty t-shirt and no bra. I give my attention to a blue sweater on the rack, but the pair is hard to ignore. There’s a lot of loud talking about sizes and money until finally the girl drops loudly to the floor in the middle of the walkway, crosses her legs indian-style and clutches the pair of shoes she wants tightly in her arms. Her mother is gripping the cart handle and begins to repeat a dangerous mantra, “I’ve had it with this…I’ve had it with this…" When the shouting begins with its spiteful, ugly barbs, I move away as unobtrusively as possible and collect my daughter.
I am taken aback by what I've seen and heard. While I have sympathy for a stretched-thin mother spending money she probably doesn’t have, the lack of hygiene, discretion and simple decency on both sides is particularly repelling. I shake my head and take a deep breath to dismiss the memory as we continue shopping.
It’s later, when I catch a quick glimpse of the mother’s face in another part of the store that Jesus asks me if I would like to die for her. The full force of His question hits me because He asks just as I am at the height of my disdain and without thinking I have answered, "No," and meant it. Instantly I can see that this is why the gospel is so offensive and unthinkable: the Beauty of heaven coming to a dirty stable, Almighty God dying for this...humanity... I am left churning with the indignity and ludicrous shame of such an offering.
Uncomfortable with myself, I head home and turn on the computer for distraction. I find a post about African children needing donations. I look at the brown-eyed darling in the photo and fill myself up with some good feelings about serving the poor, that beautiful and tender work. But the mother and daughter in the store are haunting me again, because I know that what I am really filling up on is romantic notions about ministering to the “deserving” poor and the reality is I don’t want to touch true poverty and its horrors at all. Better to give a dollar’s worth of bread to someone across the world than to breathe in the stench of unwashed bodies and sickly souls next door.
Which of us can turn away from giving a cup of cold water to a child who is thirsty? But the poverty of soul and spirit is harder to confront. The slatternly woman and her daughter do not compel me to give or care. I only want to turn away.
I close out the screen about Africa, and get back to my work. I feel it harshly, this unexpected glimpse into my soul. One trip to the department store and Christ has laid bare my self-righteous disgust and showed me yet deeper vistas of His love for humanity. What can I ever know of this love? Jesus did not die for the “deserving” poor, just the wretched, rude, dirty masses - of which I am one.
There is one week left of Advent, one more week of waiting for the miracle and I am ever more astounded.