2.16.2012

Loving the way God loves

This post isn't a devotion, per se. It's not even about teaching. But it's something that happened to me this week and that God used in a way that touched me deeply, so I wanted to share.
Being a light for Christ looks different in New York City than it does in more suburban and rural parts of the country. If you walk around these streets smiling at everyone and striking up conversations, you'll literally be speaking to people nonstop ("Hello, hey there, hi, how are you.") It's not that New Yorkers are unfriendly, but the sidewalks and stores and restaurants are filled with wall to wall people, and out of both time and space constraints you simply can't hang around starting casual conversations. There's also a sense of respect for privacy; there really is no place outside your own tiny apartment where you can be completely alone and have no one else in your face. It's a courtesy, then, not an act of rudeness, to avoid eye contact, to put on your headphones and stare straight ahead, to get lost in your own world and allow other people to escape into theirs.

And then there are the ways you have to approach people in need. In smaller cities and towns, you could probably afford to give a dollar to everyone who's begging on street corners. Here you would be broke by the end of the day. Not to mention that you have to be careful who you interact with. Recently on the train, I asked a kindly-looking elderly woman if she wanted my seat. She screamed at me at the top of her lungs for ten minutes straight. Only then did I realize she was mentally ill and possibly suffering from Tourettes. While I wouldn't say that's an everyday occurrence and New York is not teaming with crazies, I would say that people encounter those strange situations frequently enough that you learn to pretend as if you see and hear nothing. It's a self-defense mechanism.

My husband has the luxury of helping people more frequently than I do; he's a big guy, kind of intimidating looking, born and raised in the Bronx. He knows this city and how it works. If we're walking along and the spirit moves him, he'll derail our entire errand for ten minutes to buy a homeless person a meal and counsel the guy on what he wants to do with his life. It's both admirable and a bit comical--I'll just be chattering along as we walk and all of the sudden I look over and he's ten paces behind me, talking to a guy sitting on the ground with a cardboard sign. My husband doesn't have to worry about his safety as much as I do as a young(ish?) female still learning this city. Or maybe I just say I'm concerned for my safety when it's more like I'm concerned for my comfort.

At any rate, one morning this week on the crowded subway, a homeless man got on and was standing next to where I was sitting. I had on headphones and didn't hear what he was saying to the commuter standing next to him, but I could hear his slurred speech and mumbling. He didn't appear drunk; his words were more like those of a person with MR (mental retardation) or a similar cognitive disability. 

We got to Union Square and most of the train emptied out. One more stop to go for me. The man stumbled over toward where I was sitting, and I could see he had a great deal of difficulty moving. Please don't sit next to me, please sit in that huuuuge empty space directly across the aisle, I thought. He must have read my mind because he slowly shuffled over to the empty seat. I felt bad in that moment, as if I should have given him my seat and moved over there myself. But he was seated now and it was too late.

I glanced over and realized that one of his shoes was not on his foot. He had been sliding it around with his toe and was struggling in vain to bend over and reach it with his hands. The train lurched and the shoe slid further away from him. The handful of other passengers around us stared straight ahead or down into their cell phones. I was the closest to him, and there was no way I could sit there and watch him struggle. 

I stood up and slid the shoe over to him with the toe of my boot. "Got it?"

The man couldn't bend over far enough to reach his feet. He stretched as far as he could but was still many inches away from the shoe. "No," he said simply.

I paused. There was no way this guy was going to have the dexterity or the fine motor skills to pick that shoe up, slide it on his foot, and fasten it. Someone was going to have to get down on their hands and knees on the floor of the dirty moving train and put it on his foot for him. And no one else on the train in this moment was gonna do it.

Two thoughts flashed through my mind in rapid succession: 1) Is it safe to get that close to him and kneel in such a vulnerable posture? and 2) I do have hand sanitizer in purse, right? I'm not proud of that last thought, but it came to me unbidden. I did have hand sanitizer. And I did feel safe. It seemed impossible for this man to move quickly enough or with the strength needed to bring any harm to me. 

And then there was a third thought, an image, really. That of Jesus washing his disciples feet. And in that moment, I felt a connection to my Savior in a new way. I had an opportunity to reach out and serve someone else in an act that was a bit degrading and extremely uncomfortable for me, something that no one else would ever require me to do. And I could do it simply because of the love of God.

I knelt down gingerly on the dusty floor, purposely ignoring the fact that my work pants and coat were now touching it. And I picked up the shoe. It was far from a heroic, selfless gesture--I was still hoping to slide it onto his foot without actually touching either the foot or the inside of the shoe. But it was clear that wasn't possible. I reached down into the dampness of this stranger's shoe and pulled out the tongue to untwist it. I lifted his foot and slid it in, and then unfolded the back of his shoe so it fit snugly around his heel. 

Then I stood up quickly and held onto the bar, resuming my protective and guarded New Yorker stance. It was my intention to look back over, give him a quick smile and spoken blessing, then busy myself with staring blankly at the train doors as I waited for us to near the next station. When I shifted my gaze over to him, though, I was totally disarmed. He has a childlike look of pure and utter bliss on his face. It occurred to me that he had been dragging that shoe around with his toe for quite some time and had no way to put it back on. "Thank you," he said with the clearest enunciation and brightest smile he could muster. I couldn't help but beam back at him. "You're welcome. God bless you," I replied.

I turned my head to stare at the doors again and felt him reach up to the metal pole I was holding and put his hand over mine, then remove it. He wanted my attention. I looked back over at him, and the expression on his face told me he had so many words he wanted to say but couldn't form them in his mouth. So he said them with his eyes, instead. They were joyful and full of gratitude. I smiled again and turned my head back toward the doors. I wondered if I should say more, or do more, but what? Had I already said and done what he had needed most already, or was there something else? The train pulled into the station.

He reached his hand over and placed it on mine once more, and this time, he left it there. I let him. And I did what I have done for no male stranger in New York City to date: I held his gaze and smiled kindly and lovingly toward him. We didn't break that eye contact or the grasp of our hands until the train doors opened. His eyes shone the way that is only possible when someone is experiencing the love of God. There was joy and delight in his connection with me, and in my connection with him, and in our connection with a God who loves His children and wants to teach them about Himself through one another. The man nodded to me as I got off, and I nodded back, both of us still smiling. 

The power of that moment of connection surprised me; I fought back tears as I headed up the stairs and onto the busy Manhattan street. There will probably be other people during the day who give this man money or buy him food. Maybe a lot of people. But who knows whether someone else would have ever knelt down and took that man's foot in their hands and placed it into his shoe? What a simple act that was. It cost me nothing, but changed the entire way the man experienced the world for that day. And in turn, he blessed me with the chance to see more deeply into the heart of God.

Oh, Lord, give me more humility. Open my eyes to more opportunities to love like You love and serve like You serve. Thank you for bringing this man across my path, and for the smile and warm touch of his hand. Provide a way for him, and use me to help. Thank you, Jesus. 

7 comments:

Thomas said...

That was beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

Ms. Kerri's Krazy Kindergarten said...

Thanks for sharing this story. It was so inspiring.

Janet Nicko said...

tThank you.I wish I could read a collection of stories with a similar theme. It would help me knowing how others live for Christ. Maybe someone could start a blog with things that have helped them see Christ. I would like to journal about such experiences in my own life.

Anonymous said...

Inspiring story! I am personally blessed on how you have helped this guy. Indeed, he experienced God's love through you. God bless you more!

Anonymous said...

I used to live in NY doing ministry in the Bronx and miss moments like this. Thank you for sharing such a sweet moment. Your sensitivity to the Spirit in the midst of the hustle of the train is beautiful and admirable.

britney fitzgerald said...

Wow wow wow. That is awesome; your thoughts and his reactions make a fabulous and inspiring story to hear for this NY chick. Thank you so much for sharing Angela! I'm glad I got to see this.

Linden (Australia) said...

I am blessesd but also shamed by my inability to take on board a Jesus moment like that. I cried. Thanks for posting this.