Last week a couple I had never seen before sat right in front of me at church just as the service began. Being a church with multiple services, it is always hard to know if someone is visiting or just attending a different service.
When the singing began, a woman who typically sits a few seats from me began her usual songbird vibrato tenor, which is often heard above the praise and worship team. She has a beautiful voice, which probably made her quite a catch for some church choir in the past, but in our contemporary service, I’ll admit, it can sometimes feel a little awkward.
What I observed that day, though, hurt my heart. Every single time this sweet woman’s beautiful voice rose above the congregation, the new couple in front of me looked at each other and smiled. They were not endearing smiles. Instead, they were exchanging very critical, make-fun-of-someone-and-laugh-about-it-later smiles.
Each time they did this, I glanced over, just hoping the woman was not aware the two were making fun of her. Whether she knew it or not, she was simply worshipping God with her hands raised, praising him with her melodious voice, clinching her eyes in fervent prayer. There were emotional tears in the corners of her eyes.
I felt certain she was praying for great healing. Just moments before, this woman shared with me that she was waiting on some pretty serious test results and could possibly have cancer. And yet, there she was without abandon, praising God with complete trust and adoration.
I couldn’t help but wonder how the insensitive couple in front of me might feel if they knew more about this woman. If they knew how sweet she was, that she would be sure to remember their names if she met them, how many immense health trials she had faced in her lifetime, the circumstances that would cause her to attend church by herself – would they have behaved any differently?
This incident reminded me of a recent conversation about a life lesson that I had with our residents. They had collectively decided they were not happy with certain individuals about something that had happened, and I knew their rush to judgement was based on very few facts, which is always dangerous. So, I used a jar of beans to illustrate the process they had used to come to their group conclusion. It went something like this...
“Hey guys, let me share a little story with you.”
“Years ago, I was excited to take the women of Blue Monarch to my hometown of Franklin. It meant a lot to me to revisit the downtown where I spent so much of my time growing up – and to share it with the amazing women of Blue Monarch.”
“I was so excited I could hardly wait. The downtown is nothing like it was when I was growing up and I described the way Franklin was often considered an unsophisticated cow town back then. In fact, there was a time when I played on the high school tennis team, and on an occasion we visited a school in Nashville, the other team yelled ugly remarks to us, like ‘who loaned you shoes today?’ I remember looking down at my white seersucker tennis dress with blue trim and my bloomers with rows of frills (that my friends apparently admired?), all of which I had made myself – and suddenly noticed the opposing team had nice, matching outfits. When I looked around me, I realized each girl on my team was dressed in her own tennis garb, unique to her. We were all wearing white, but no two outfits were alike. And as for our shoes, they were a collection of everything from sneakers, to oxford saddle loafers, to sandals. We left our school that day feeling pretty special, ready to take on our opponents, but we returned feeling wounded and humiliated.”
The women seemed a little puzzled as to where I was going with my story. I continued.
“By the time I took the Blue Monarch women on this trip, Franklin had become a pretty hip town full of cute, unique shops, and we were going to have fun exploring each and every one of them!”
“There were perhaps seven women with me, and we strolled down Main Street together, checking out the beautiful window displays, and entering the little shops and boutiques, one by one. I knew we wouldn't be buying anything but I thought it would be great fun to just look.”
“Pretty soon, though, I noticed there were fewer and fewer of my companions going into the shops with me. Instead, the women began waiting on the sidewalk out front instead. I asked them, ‘What are you doing out here? Don’t you want to come in?’”
“What they told me broke my heart. It wasn’t easy getting it out of them, but the group finally explained that they felt uncomfortable about the way people were looking at them and acting toward them.”
“What? Nonsense, I said. Come with me and I will show you, you are imagining things.”
“The group didn’t want to, but they followed me into the next little boutique, and it didn’t take long to see what they were talking about. One of our women pulled a beautiful blue sweater off a rack to show me, and the sales lady quickly came over and removed it from her hand with some clumsy excuse about having misplaced it. I looked around at the other shoppers. Two were clutching their purses to their chests, and one lady even looked a little frightened.”
“I stood back and took a good look at the women I had brought with me, trying to understand what others were seeing that would cause them to react in this way.”
“As I studied the hurt and shameful expressions on the faces of the women I had brought on this little field trip, I realized the people we had seen that day were basing their opinions entirely on what little they knew and saw, which was only a fraction of what was really there. It was understandable, we've all done it, but these women who were so dear to me had been hurt, which hurt me, too.”
“For instance, there was Teresa missing her front teeth. Well, they didn’t know she had suffered a severe blow to the head by a steel toed boot. She was actually lucky to be alive and still struggled with slight brain damage because of it.”
“There was Amanda with crudely drawn tattoos all over her arms and neck. They didn’t know the tattoos told the story of the painful death of her child, whom she was still grieving.”
“And there was Melissa with a prematurely aged face and rough exterior. There was no way for anyone to know that she grew up in a house that had no heat except the hot air that came from the dryer vent in sixty minute intervals. She never once got a Christmas gift as a child.”
“As I glanced over the rest of the group, I was reminded that each of them had been sexually abused as a child, by someone she should have been able to trust. There was no way for a stranger to know that.”
“Just like this jar of beans, it is full of things we don’t know – circumstances, life experiences, events, disappointments, hurts, losses – but just like the people we encountered that day, we often draw conclusions from just a few beans, only the ones we can see in that moment. Perhaps that conclusion would be different if our opinions were not based on such a tiny portion of the information. And then I asked the group, when you are the recipient of that, it doesn’t feel very fair, does it?"
At Blue Monarch we live by a phrase that God powerfully gave me during a spiritual mountaintop experience a few years back – “Serve, not fix. Love, not judge.” It has become our favorite saying, and in fact, I realize I am actually wearing a sweatshirt bearing those words as I write this.
We often focus on “Serve, not fix.” But sometimes I think we overlook the equally powerful, “Love, not judge.”
Those we serve at Blue Monarch are easy targets for quick judgement, based on only a few facts. So, during this season of thankfulness, I am especially grateful for all the amazing folks who love so sweetly, and support so generously – without judgement - the incredible women and children we serve. Thank you.
Truth is, even though I will never know all the hurts and struggles each bean represents, and it’s sometimes tempting to judge from only a few, I do know our residents are the most remarkable, courageous, and beautiful women and children one could ever have the pleasure of knowing. And I somehow get the tremendous honor to serve and love them each and every day. May I always make the most of this unique and priceless opportunity.
Only you know what’s in that jar, Lord, so help us to see others through your eyes. Give us the hearts to love before we are tempted to judge. And help us to never forget that you first did the same for us. Amen
Here is a link to an earlier blog post about God’s message to “Serve, not fix. Love, not judge.” http://susanatblue.blogspot.com/2016/02/before-fixing-can-begin.html