Standing in line, and the black belt whirs, moving my groceries forward and beyond me. Up here in the front of the store, it’s noisy and crowded. Lines snake back, crooked and jammed. Carts rattle. In front of me, the tables in the cafe are full of people talking and eating. A little voice cries somewhere close and a mama speaks hard, lacing the words with iron. I can’t see her, but I can hear the grip of weary tough-mama love in her voice. Silently, I offer up the smallest prayer for her, for the bit of energy and patience I know she needs. I’m shopping alone today, but this is the place in the store where Riley usually starts holding her breath and stops looking me in the eye. This is the place where she scares me a little, when anxiety clutches her throat like a claw and she clings to me, and tears slowly roll down her cheeks. Up here in the line—where everything seems to crowd together like my groceries, pushed against the metal lip at the end of the belt, squished and jumbled and crooked—this is where my daughter panics and I pray us through the paying and out the door. But today, it’s just me.
One lane over, the clerk calls out cheerily as people approach her. “Hey there, you ready to stop waiting and get out of here, sir? Come on up here so I can help you. How are you doing today?”
Just like that, she starts an amiable conversation, while I heave my heavy bulk boxes up on that neverending conveyor. I don’t stop to look back. I am focused on the time and it’s not enough, and I am sure I will be dumping groceries on my counter and running back out the door to pick Adam up at school. Still, I can hear them talking. I can hear the smile in her voice, and the thin line in his that becomes more curved as they speak. In five minutes, he changes from flat reluctance to jovial laughter. Next time, he’ll choose her line again. As a matter of fact, I wish I was in her line.
The clerk behind me reminds me of a woman we met at a diner in Seaford, Delaware the weekend we traveled to the area for Kevin’s Ironman. I don’t remember much of the town. As a stop-over stay-over place, it seemed tired, gray, damp, and cluttered with brands half-glossy over cracked and faded asphalt. Of course, we arrived at dusk. But besides the general blandness of the stretch where we found our hotel, I remember two things: the notable number of diners in our immediate vicinity, and this woman who worked in the old-fashioned chrome-topped hole-in-the-wall next door to our hotel. The place looked like a camper, striped sticky pink and taffy blue, and on the roof we saw a lit sign that only boldly declared “DINER.” We walked across the parking lot to eat there only because the front desk attendant in the hotel had raved about the food, saying she ate there nearly everyday. “Tell ‘em Alice sent you over, and they’ll give you a discount,” she’d said, smiling, “And tell them to give you a booth in the back.” So, we ventured over, and it felt like walking back in time.
Inside, a woman greeted us like we’d stepped into her home. I don’t remember her name, but her warmth cut the chill in the air. She said, “Unh huh” and “yes” the way some people say “Uh,” filling the spaces between her words with assent. “We’ll get you fixed up, unh huh. Unhhuh, we’ll take take care of you, yes. Unh huh.” Her eyes bright and her smile wide, she walked around the diner laying a hand against the backs of the chairs, stopping to talk to the other patrons, a pencil deftly tucked into the brown hair she’d swept up into a bun. She wore lipstick the color of marashino cherries. I noticed right away that the busy room was filled mostly with older people, silver-haired, bent. She raced across the room to open the front door for a man who looked almost too weak to stand up, and then she wrapped her hands around his arm and focused on his face as they moved across the room. She spoke a little louder than she had before. “Unh huh, Mr. Evans, yes. Unhhuh, how are you these days? Did your surgery work out okay, unh huh? I sure have missed seeing you, yes.”
“She really sees,” I had said to Kevin that night, leaning over the table, our water glasses. “She does more than waitressing.”
He smiled at me, picking up my thoughts. “As working for the Lord, not men.” Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not men (Col.3:23). It’s a passage we pass back and forth, to encourage each other to live beyond the physical details. This lady in the diner had inspired us, and we told her so. She looked surprised, batting her hand into the air in front of her. It was nothing.
“Well, unh huh, it’s been a pleasure to serve you, honey, unh huh, it has.” She had said then, all warmth.
I put a bumpy cauliflower on the conveyor belt, then the bananas and the eggs. The clerk helping me bends over the register, hardly seeing me, grabbing items and tossing them in the cart next to her. I wince. I’m sensitive about where my groceries land and how. Well, she’s quick, I’ll give her that, I think, looking down at my watch. I have one more stop to make before hurrying home to stow the cold stuff. Suddenly, I remember one more thing, and maybe it’s this one more thing and the press of time and the way I stand weary-buried in my thoughts now that keeps me from seeing her. All this thinking about really seeing, about living beyond the details, and I miss seeing the woman right in front of me.
I pay for my groceries, and she hands me my receipt, and finally I really look at her. She looks burdened, her eyes heavy with something I can’t quite discern, some pain or complaint. She looks at me flatly, saying nothing, not even any of the most ritualistic pleasantries.
“I hope you have a great day,” I say, smiling at her. She just nods once, silently dismissing me, her mouth in a thin, hard-pressed line.
I push my cart out the door and into the sunshine, thinking about how different this clerk is from the woman behind me, the one in the diner, these special servants living beyond. She was really kind of rude, I think thickly. That plank in my eye clear blocks my sight.
So from now on, we regard no one from a worldly point of view (2 Cor. 5:16). The voice speaks clear, familiar, too firmly to ignore. So I drop my compaint and take up a prayer for whatever heaviness I have witnessed, for whatever this woman carries that hurts. I think of my dad and the way he sees everyone, the way he always has time to make someone smile, the way he’s always doing more than just putting things on a conveyor belt and paying. I feel the irony of it, that in those moments I could have been living beyond, living more than. I could have made it my mission to make her day different, to offer her strength, to encourage her a little, but I had been focused on what I needed and how she was serving me. And all that self-centering just leaves me blind.
So, I stack my groceries in the car, giving thanks for the food, for the money to buy it, for the car to drive home—Ten thousand reasons for my heart to sing…Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and then I ask for eyes that see and not from a worldly point of view, for a perspective for living more than and beyond the details, for a heart more familiarly focused on serving others than on how well they serve me. Jesus taught that the righteous will not even know they have served the Lord, that in humility they will not recognize it as an honorable act, because serving others will be like breathing; like just living; like it was nothing; like “Well, unh huh, it’s been a pleasure to serve you, honey, unh huh, it has,” to the one with a truly transformed heart (Matthew 25:37-39). And all our redeemed pauses will be assent. Unhhuh,yes Lord, send me.