My mother really didn’t tolerate any “bad” words in her home but she never ever wanted us to tell each other to “shut up!” Of all of the “four letter” words I heard playing basketball at the Y, or sitting in the back seat of the youth van, I couldn’t understand why these two were so bad…until I said them to the woman who would become my wife. In an instant, Jenny who always seemed to radiate a quiet, easy-going joy completely shut down, doing exactly what I had demanded she do.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it,” I stammered, but the words that floated like balloons beyond my grasp, unable to be contained. Could their be anything more dehumanizing than angrily telling someone to stop speaking? Than forcefully invalidating the emotions, needs, and ideas they are trying to share with you?
Mama was right.
“Shut up!” the crowds yelled at blind Bartimaeus as Jesus walked by. But the beggar kept crying out for mercy until Jesus stopped. We easily remember the stories of Jesus’ healing words and healing actions but we often forget that Jesus almost always asked first, “What do you want me to do for you?” Instead of asserting he knew what was best for those he encountered (even if he actually did), Jesus asked questions and listened, creating space for others needs to be heard within the dignity of their own voice.
As I re-read this story yesterday morning, I felt righteous anger toward this crowd rebuking the beggar. I felt sadness over the hardness of their hearts. But then I thought about my own response to those who cry for mercy from the street corners.
Living in cities with large homeless populations over the last 13 years, I’ve been trained by non-profits and pushed by city ordinances to direct people to services rather than giving out cash. I occasionally make a gut decision to give a couple of bucks, but usually give away whatever food is in my car. I sometimes offer to buy dinner or pay for a bus pass. When I don’t help, I try to follow the dignity-protecting way of my friend Heath, “I say no, but I look them in the eye when I do it.”
But more than I’d like to admit, I just keep driving, just keep walking, I refuse eye contact or acknowledgement, saying in my spirit, “Shut up!”
A few weeks ago, a woman flagged me down as I left an empty parking lot. After I lied about not having cash in my wallet, she asked for a ride. Still shivering from the chill of the 22° afternoon, I unlocked the door. My stomach turned as the smell of body odor, cigarettes, and booze filled my Father-in-law’s Lexus. As she navigated across Raleigh, she weaved an intricate narrative about her father’s funeral, her daughter’s illness, and the Greyhound ticket she needed to buy to get her family home. As she made her phone call, I prayed the light would not be red long enough for her to run away with my iPhone. As she shared her testimony and called out left and right turns, new requests for help kept coming. I offered to pay for her hotel room but after another phone call, she told me the hotel was paid for. When I refused to stop at the ATM for the second time, she asked if I would buy dinner. As the fear and resentment squeezed me from within I pulled into the Bojangles parking lot instead of letting her direct me to the restaurant of her choice. I heard myself saying,”I’m sorry I won’t give you cash, but I’ve heard a lot of stories over the years and I just don’t do that.” She told me she understood. She agreed that there are a lot of hustlers and liars out there, but asserted that she wasn’t one of them. She told me what I already knew in my heart of hearts, that they were just doing what they had to do to survive.
As I pulled away from that shitty hotel, her words rang in my ears, “It’s all God’s anyway.” Yes, she said them to shame me into giving her money, but she also spoke the truth. Our time, our money, our very lives are God’s, not ours. But I also felt frustrated about the hour I just wasted, foolish about letting her take advantage of me, careless for letting her navigate to an unknown place, guilty for not being present and pastoral, self-righteous about the control I exerted over the situation, angry that she ordered the family-sized, tailgate special (that I could easily afford), sad that her story might be true and sad about whatever had happened in her life that led her to make up a story like that.
Didn’t they tell us as children that serving others would make us feel good?
In so many ways, without saying it, it felt like I told that woman to “shut up!” I also trust that she heard the voice of Jesus,through me and in spite of me, asking, “What do you want me to do for you?” I pray that my anxious and distracted listening was life-giving for her, even if only for a moment.
And I wonder, “Aren’t we all just like this before God?” Stinking of our own bad choices and the tragic circumstances that chose us? Earnest and manipulative? Speaking directly and changing our stories? Asking for what we need and demanding much more than we deserve?
May we learn from the boldness of this woman.
May we shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”