Tonight our record-breaking 14th Holiday Feast was held here at the JUSTembrace hospitality house.
It never should have happened.
I’m going to share a story and some deep emotion that I’m currently in the midst of, so please take the following with a warning of its honesty.
This morning we held our monthly foot clinic. Mid-way through I noticed a woman with a tan coat zipped and buttoned from top to bottom with the hood up and pulled tight around her face – her bright eyes popping out cautiously.
I invited her to take a seat and she approached with such caution that I realized she needed more direction, so I led her to her seat and helped her get her shoes off, trying to make her feel comfortable.
As I pulled at her shoes, I realized her feet were bare in sneakers that were a few sizes too big for her petite feet. With flashes of a heart-breaking episode of “Call The Midwife” racing through my mind, I gently pulled her shoes off and instantly noticed a few raw and bleeding sores. In order to get her feet into the warm soak bucket, I had to unbutton her bottom button on her coat to lift it high enough so it didn’t drag in the water. As I explained what I needed to do, she helped me enthusiastically, lifting her coat high enough to reveal that she was only wearing that coat. Her vulnerability in that moment almost made me lose it. I walked around the sanctuary – pretending to make a call – trying to think think think about what on earth to do in this situation.
As I sat back down with Sabrina I slowly – very slowly – asked a few questions. There are so many reasons people are the way they are in the moment we encounter them – sometimes they are in their normal state, other times, they are in an alternate place, surviving an “episode”. So I sought more information. She looked at me with her childlike eyes telling me about her children and having grown up on the West Side of Chicago.
I found out she’d stayed in a police station the night before and was looking for a shelter for the night. She had left her former residence because it was too filthy for her, she said. There was evidence that this sweet woman had recently had a disconnect from reality and was trying to survive in her new reality.
As she was getting her freshly bandaged feet with warm socks into her shoes, I offered to walk with her to the woman’s shelter just a few doors down from where we were. I didn’t know much about it, but I have many friends who are clients and have had wonderful experiences. So we went – and we chatted as we walked.
She asked me; “Do you have a bible?” “Yes I do.” I replied. “Do you read it?” Yes ma’am.” I chuckled. “Do you not understand what you read?” “Well, I actually went to college to study for ministry.” I confessed. “OH! So you’re a pastor!?” “Haa, well, yes, I am. I’m not ordained, but I do see myself as a pastor.”
How humiliating that conversation is to me now.
When we reached the shelter, the volunteers manning the day center informed us that they could only help Monday-Friday 9-5. Naked, cold, vulnerable Sabrina would have to come back in 2 days.
We talked to the volunteers for several minutes as my anger and resentment (always battling in my head and heart) were beginning to bounce around inside me – simply allowing me to avoid my deeper feelings of helplessness.
As we left, I came up with a game plan for Sabrina. It was lunch time and they were serving lunch right where we’d had the foot clinic, so I encouraged her to go there and eat something. Then I encouraged her to walk about 3 blocks beyond there to the hospital where I’m pretty certain they allow people with nowhere to go, a warm place to rest through the night. I encouraged her to make that her second stop for the night.
As we parted ways, she asked to hug me twice. The second big, long-lasting hug haunts me. As she embraced me her message changed from “Thank you!” to “It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok.”
We parted there – and I knew nothing was ok.
When I got home, I turned on Netflix and got the turkey out, seasoned it and put it in the cooker. For hours, I pushed the experience I’d had with Sabrina out of my sight, but it lingered in my peripheral. So with thoughts of Sabrina encroaching, I cooked and served our last holiday feast for 2013- #14 to be exact.
After the turkey was de-boned and the stock pot was boiling, I went to take a shower before bed. As soon as my clothes from the day were removed, it was as if my emotional shield was also gone and a wave of remorse and grief hit me so hard I fell to the ground in howls. Howls. I have not cried that hard since the shooting this summer, and before that, it had been years.
My grief and emotion just took over my body as the helplessness and regret fell around me.
I never should have left Sabrina. She was a gift and I refused to stay present with her. I held her at arm’s length and then blamed “the system” for her suffering.
The worst part is my best excuse for not taking her home with me, or at least, making sure she got to someone who would help her, was needing to get the turkey in the oven.
What a wretched reality. This is why I say dinner #14 never should have happened.
I realize if you are still reading this, you most likely have a lot of sympathy for me, thinking that I did my best.
But I didn’t.
Not at all.
As the reality of my selfishness beat and battered me as I sat sobbing in the bathroom, the sound of the “wintry mix” falling outside intensified my sorrow every time my sobs quieted – triggering the helplessness to kick back in as I imagined Sabrina roaming the cold wet streets without anyone to care for her – or even to talk with her or be present with her in her suffering.
I have no dis-illusions about the men and women who die on the streets of our cities all of the time. It’s not the death or even the suffering that causes the feelings of helplessness to overwhelm me.
It’s the isolation. The fact that a precious human being is left all alone to suffer.
As I felt Comfort try to seek to put His arms around me, I fought. I fought hard. I felt so unworthy and unable to stop my grieving as the sounds of suffering echoed through the drafting windows. How could I allow the Lord to hold me when I couldn’t even hold Sabrina – or, if Sabrina happened to be inside tonight – the Sabrina’s of the world. There are so many people suffering all alone – overlooked and held at arm’s length. I was so wrapped up in my need to cook a 14th turkey that I wouldn’t change my plans to spend the day caring for a vulnerable soul.
That is so heartbreaking. My selfishness and calculated generosity terrify me.
I will give in to the Comfort offered, but I want to sit in the pain of my sin and allow myself to be shaped by it. I need my heart to be broken and the cold calculating “executive director” to be thawed. I need to grieve and mourn the possible consequences of selfishness and self-importance.
Instead of seeing God as out to quiet my pain, I want to allow Him to sit with me and give me courage to face it. And ultimately, that’s the path I want to model for others. Jesus doesn’t pat us on the head and say “there there” when our sin causes suffering – but He sure does sit with us on the bathroom floor when we fall apart and He does not leave us as we crumble at the awareness of how awful we can be. I trust that is really the best place to find Him.