In the summer of 2013 I took my girls on a road trip to escape the heat of the Valley’s summer sun. We had decided that our respite was somewhere northwest of us. As road trips go, at a certain point on our three-day itinerary, one of my ideally long travel legs was cut short by the arrival of lunch time. With one eye on my navigation and one eye on the road, we began looking for a good place to stop and eat.
We eventually saw signage which promised a few eatery options up ahead. I exited off the highway and pulled into an upscale shopping center. We compared the storefronts and the marketing claims of our different dining possibilities, and opted for the quaint-looking deli/shop which flaunted “Sandwiches Made with Freshly Baked Bread”.
This was no fast-food freeway stop. This was a sparkling resort town we were passing through, complete with scenery, amenities, and fancy cars. Our tired, bird-poop and bug-splattered, old four-door was a bit of an anomaly; but I take great pleasure in anomaly, so seeing my car doing its own thing amongst the other aggressive and svelte luxury cars in the parking lot made me feel a sort of twisted satisfaction.
Once inside, all appearances and menu options indicated that this was a very “natural” sandwich shop, which is always a bonus for me (so long as the place is also clean), and a welcome change from the usual road trip faire.
We walked up to the counter and placed our order. Fortunately, it wasn’t too crowded inside. Over the course of our escaping-the-heat career, we have learned to become hungry at 11:30 in the morning instead of noon, in order to avoid the lunch rush. We easily found an empty table for ourselves and sat down while our lunch was being made.
With an affinity for contrasts and contradiction, my gaze immediately fell on a woman who appeared to be well-healed, yet who carried herself in a frantic demeanor, and her hair and hygiene presented as… well… “lived in”.
She caught me looking at her while I was simultaneously trying to dislodge with my tongue, a sesame seed that had been in my teeth since breakfast. I quickly looked away.
She walked over toward me and leaned down and said, “I see you laughing at me, and I want you to know that I am humiliated.”
Of all the one-liners one stranger can say to another, I wouldn’t have predicted this one. I sat for about three seconds, stunned. Then my name was called by the sandwich maker—our order was ready.
I went to the counter to get the sandwiches and turned to see that the woman had taken the table right next to us. I walked as slowly as possible back to my table, and put the girls’ lunches in front of them. In those seven or eight strides, I had concluded only that I’d better go talk to this lady.
I forced myself in her direction—praying that I wasn’t walking any faster than the speed of grace, and that my mouth wouldn’t arrive at her table too awkwardly long before it could be filled with the right thing to say.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I wasn’t laughing at you.”
“Yes you were,” she said, “I saw you and I am humiliated.”
“I’m so sorry I gave you that impression. I didn’t mean to humiliate you. I wouldn’t ever mean to do that to anyone,” I said. I realized later that possibly my sesame seed dislodging might have read as a smirk.
“But everybody laughs at me.”
“Why does everybody laugh at you?”
“Because my life is so awful—everything has been taken away from me and I have nothing and I am humiliated,” quite accustomed to living with tears, she began weeping but didn’t waver or wobble as she continued her story.
“My name is Camela. I’m in the witness protection program. Two years ago, I saw my father-in-law commit a murder. The day I went to report it, my husband left me. He didn’t believe me, you know—it was his father. And I have two children… and I haven’t seen them…”
Of all the second, third and fourth-liners that one stranger could say to another, I wouldn’t have guessed any of these, either.
By this time, more patrons had begun trickling into the shop, and I was acutely aware of their eyes on us. And without even looking, I knew my girls were there behind me, slightly uncomfortable, slightly curious, one looking over my right shoulder and the other looking over my left, chewing slowly and holding their sandwiches with sticky, jam-covered fingers. (The sandwich maker—obviously not a parent—was overly generous with the peanut butter and jam). The girls weren’t really eating so much as they were chewing in a meditative state, like that dinosaur we rode past on the train ride at Disneyland—that leafy strand always there, still dangling from its mouth after all those years of chewing…
“…I don’t have any friends. I don’t even have relationships with any enemies. It is too dangerous for me to stay in any hotel long enough to make any new friends. I have no one, and I am so lonely…”
I wondered if she was recanting an actual reality or a perceived one. I felt horrible for wondering that, because there is nothing worse than confiding in a dutiful but doubtful listener; but certainly, what was real was her fear and sadness. And I supposed if I wanted to play like that—like trying to decide if a person’s suffering was real or made up—well then, perhaps all of our fears and anxiety are a result of our imperfect perspectives. Who was I to judge?
“…once a week I go into the police department to get my stipend. It isn’t much. My case doesn’t seem to be a priority, but I think it’s because my husband’s family is very wealthy and important. There is no court date, there is not enough evidence to convict anyone—there is only my story. And while no one seems to believe me, the police know enough about this case to make them think I ought to stay out of sight…”
OK, sidebar: Clearly this was meeting was intended for ministry. And even if it wasn’t, I certainly was planning on responding to her story with something more than just: “Huh. Well, I hope it works out for you.”
And with regards to said ministry, I understand there is a debate amongst Christians. It has to do with whether ministry “counts” in the absence of saying the name of God. I think I empathize with both sides of the argument. As an ambassador of Christ, I am learning that there are times when the name “God” closes doors. In one of my networks of friends, the mention of the name “God” causes gigantic rolling doors to slam shut. I can almost hear the chains and metal sections rattling as their doors plummet emphatically downward. So I suppose in these circles I have become more of an ambassador of kindness and grace. That is more palatable—much easier to for them to digest than all the stigmas that surround the name “God”, and the word “Christian”.
I happen to think that sharing the nature of God with others in these circles can be life-giving and enlightening—both a primer and a sustainer. I believe in the effectiveness of sharing the nature of God because even my own day is brightened just by the smile of the kind barista who remembers my name, and I don’t think she is even a Christian.
But, I also believe that sharing the name of God is the ultimate hope to work toward. Eventually, we really do need to know who authors and perfects the kindness and grace that is so attractive and healing. And, it is not our kindness that raises us from the dead—it is Christ.
Speaking of preaching the name of God, I’m not super well-practiced in my Christ-testimony to strangers. Which brings me to the unusual thing that happened next in this conversation with Camela. As if things could get more unusual…
Suddenly, a thought flashed into my head—hopefully not stemming from my own imperfect imagination—“Say the name of God.” This is almost never my first inclination when I’m with someone I don’t know. Actually, it is absolutely never my first inclination. Except for that one week in Mexico over Spring Break when I was fifteen.
“Say ‘God’,” was the thought, again. So I tried to create some sentence where the word “God” would flow seamlessly and beautifully, and would transition logically from where Camela was at in her monologue. But I couldn’t weave anything decent together because I was actually trying to listen to her and do all this thinking at the same time. So I resolved to say “God” somehow at the next break. After all, my call is to be obedient, not wise and persuasive.
I was neither subtle nor eloquent: “I believe in God”, I blurted nervously, and held my breath. She had only left a quick beat for me to squeeze that in.
She stopped. That sentence had broken her rhythm. Looking directly at me as if being woken from a trance, she said, “I believe in God, too, but my life doesn’t make sense of the God I thought I knew.” And suddenly, I knew this woman. We had shared the same thoughts over the course of history.
Despite being in the witness protection program, she proceeded to tell me everything about herself. I listened as she spewed the details of her life, disregarding rules that the movies would say she is bound by as one protected by the government. She did all this for the sake of making a connection. Finding herself without relationships was her most loathsome form of poverty.
Then, the next thought in my head: “Tell her that life is a gift.” That sound bite had to have been from God—it certainly wasn’t the conclusion I was heading toward.
Camela was just finishing, “… and I don’t even know why I am being kept alive.”
So I inhaled timidly, and wished my words well as I heard them leave my mouth and tumble toward her chaos. “The fact that you are being kept alive in all of this is a gift. Life is a gift.”
I was prepared for a kick to the shins under the table. I hate it when people tell me this kind of stuff. It wasn’t an awesomely convincing statement. I didn’t buttress it with unfailing supports, or decorate it with elegant sentences, or head off the anticipated “how/why” questions with profound wisdom. If I were Camela, I’d have a lot of critiques about what I said. But she didn’t question it or resist it. And she didn’t need any more from it. Maybe, maybe, it actually was just the right thing to say to her. Or maybe she thought I was ridiculous and not worth saying anything else to.
Whatever the reason, the conversation wound down immediately. She offered her thanks for my listening, and I offered my sorrow for her situation—it was both a civil and a spiritual exchange. Then she left. I don’t remember if she ate her food. I don’t even remember if she actually ordered food.
It is now some time later, and I am still unpacking that phrase. “Life is a gift”—even a life like Camela’s—which is to say that in her case, it is a gift to know utter heartache. It is a gift to know the anguish of this world as it remains largely separated from its only real hope. It is a gift to know injustice and powerlessness and loss, and to have a palpable knowledge of the absence of all that was once good and full of promise, because…
Well, frankly, believing the world in itself offers anything else is to be living a delusion. Part of life’s gift is that through it, truth would be known. If I don’t experience or know the shortcomings of the world, I don’t know the reality of it. And, as evidenced by the haunting dissatisfaction of those who are far removed from knowing limitation and consequence: being completely disconnected with the consequences of this world is quite actually, a curse.
Drawing upon my own experience (specifically the suffering of it), I could list quite a few beneficial byproducts of life: it teaches me, it disciplines me, and it enables hope. Life is the laboratory of trials and events which reveals the world’s weakness, and transforms me into a shape which might accept something “other-worldly”.
Hidden within each day is a the gift of dim, veiled expressions of eternal things, for examle: faithfulness—displayed in the rising of the sun rising; sovereignty—illuminated in the designs within creation; and grace—shown in the way hope grows even in the most arid places.
Life is the place where God comes to us and gives us a new version of it. Where we are gifted breath, we are being gifted a place for salvation to manifest (oh, Lord let me want this and be satisfied by it).
Although a hardship-free life has a shimmering allure and a salvational appeal, it is not the goal. Non-suffering in itself is not the ticket to ultimate satisfaction. That I should have no problems, is not the “gift” of life—this life, anyway. (This is me preaching to myself right now). A utopian life, made possible by me, is not the real escape-hatch from the consequences of my human-reality, and the loneliness and fear and disappointment therein. Christ is the goal, He is our only salvation—and by his example, it is a process that includes great suffering and humiliation. The goal is Christ, who triumphs and perfects and heals all of life’s failings and the vast damage done by it.
I’m all for practicing gratitude and making a discipline of seeing the good in what have in our grasp, but there are days—for some, even decades—where it is all we can do just to ask for the gift of being sure of what to hope for and uplifted by what we cannot see.
Each day is a gift, if only to clean up a mess, or to walk through the anxiety of an unknown future, or to be sustained as the poster-child for brokenness. To be flatly unable to attain a shred of happiness and to be made fully aware of the limitations of humanness… It is a gift to suffer, and to become humbled—to be humiliated!—and to still be breathing all the while because…
It is only fuel for our imminent and eventual resurrection. God comes to His people of need, and causes real resurrections as we finally accept our real state of hopelessness without Him. To that end, the needier the better.
Life is a gift from God, for God. When I become convinced of this to the point where it is my inhale and exhale, a divine alignment occurs by which my human ailments are largely overcome simply by the fact that I am no longer aligned with my skin-and-bones, and therefore, its ailing.
It is not God’s desire or design that we should suffer forever. But the only real, lasting, effective way to escape the consequences of our human-reality is to be rescued by Christ, Himself.
Life is a gift—how? Well, outside of experiential proof, I could theorize and reverse-engineer myself from the truth to its reasoning all day long. And by that method, I would come up with reasons that either hit the mark or miss it completely. And I might come up with reasons that inspire and encourage and convict and motivate. But perhaps the sum of all the reasons is not at as great as wholly believing that, simply: all of life is a gift.
The fact of our creation is a wonderful thing, that we would someday have eternal life and a relationship with our Creator.
Wherever you are Camela, I remember you. I know a bit of you. As one of my friends says, “I see you, sister soldier.” I am grateful for our meeting because the words that you somehow pried loose from my mouth are the words I need to hear today, too.
God come and resurrect me with your life today.
(Details of the story have been changed out of respect for Camela).