A Toxic Story

When I was twenty-one years old, a young woman from the church I attended asked if I would get a cup of coffee with her.  We had been in the same youth group for a year and I said sure.  We met at a Village Inn on Colfax Avenue in Aurora, Colorado.

She was wearing a gray sweatshirt and some jean cutoffs with flip flops on her feet.  Her pink nail polish was chipped and her nails were chewed to the quick.  Her mousey colored hair was pulled back in a ponytail and looked as if it had been a day or two since it had been washed.  Her face was round and without make up and specked with pink dots of blemishes and pimples.  She had deep dark circles under her brown, blood shot and puffy eyes.

It had been months since I had seen her and was astounded at how worn out she looked.  She was a fun-loving girl in the youth group.  She had always been nice to me.  But, honestly, I didn’t know her very well.  I guess what I am trying to tell you is that I had no opinion of her.  She was just a person at church.

Her name was Laura.

As we greeted one another and seated ourselves in the vinyl booths and exchanged small talk for a few minutes, I could feel an awkward tension between us.  She had a hard time looking at me.  She kept bunching up her napkin between her index finger and thumb.  Something was on her mind.  She carried a weight into the pancake house like Atlas with the world on his shoulders.  Heavy sighs would leak out of her at the comas of her spoken sentences.  Her words felt heavy like a glacier.

I kept waiting for something to be said or for something to happen.  I hadn’t yet sat with countless parishioners over two decades who were about to unload deep burdens.  I didn’t know how to make her feel comfortable.  I just sat there like a potted plant.  A potted plant that knew something was troubling her, but I offered her no mercy, no soft place to be, no encouragement and no assurance.  I just sat there and watched her soul writhe in agony like a child might watch an animal that was sick.  Sad, but detached.

Then she spoke words that I have mocked and ridiculed in the retelling for over three decades.  I didn’t laugh her words back to her at that time, for even as a gangly twenty-one year old I seemed to know that the ground upon which we sat was hallowed.  Sacred if for no other reason than the icy pain it must have taken for her to let the words fall from her cracked lips.  But I laughed and scorned her words later, safely out of her view.  I mocked her words to anyone willing to hear my version of the story.  She never knew of the ridicule because we never spoke again after that evening in a pancake house.

I imagine Jesus sitting in the booth with us that evening and accompanying both of us away from the meeting, being present in our respective passenger seats; He with me in my Datsun pickup and with her in her Ford Pinto. I was slack-jawed and yet knowing what I know now about Jesus, he was there with me.  He absorbed the ridicule that oozed from my heart towards this girl.  He sat in the circle of willing hearers of the story for three decades since.  He is sitting here with me in this coffee house as I remember today.

But He was with her too.  He went home with her.  He lay beside her that night.  He held her and loved her and was present with her.  And whether she ever told the story to anyone again of what passed between us that night I do not know, but she might have remembered it and felt her face grow hot with shame.  And when her face flushed—He was with her.

I can’t undo the past.  I can’t unsay a story of shame and ridicule.  Those words escaped my lips like feathers from a pillow and cannot be put back.  She never heard them but I wonder if in the telling of a story where scorn is involved I have done damage to the Kingdom.  I wonder if I have eroded the underpinnings of my impact for Jesus.  I don’t know.  I could have kept her words with more care and that is my mistake.

What does it say about my heart that I would spread that scorn around so freely?

What does is it say about yours that you want know what she said?

I hope she is flourishing.  I hope she found her way.  I hope she is at peace.

Oh, be careful little mouth what you say,

For the Father up above,

Is looking down in love,

So be careful little mouth what you say.


4 thoughts on “A Toxic Story

  1. I wish I could tell a story as clearly. Even if it puts a tear in my eye for my personal lacking sensitivity.

  2. Great thoughts Joe Chambers. I often have to check my own attitude as I too sit across from others who are dealing with deep heart pain of which I think is trivial or immature. Pain is pain and he has placed us in the position of being that human caring touch of which God touches through us. I am sure others look at my own painful heartache and laugh inside at how ridiculous it is to them.

  3. We’ve all said and done things that we wish we could change but, alas, that is not possible. It is only possible to make amends, either with that person or with future encounters. We can learn and change our behavior, admit our faults, and try to be less critical. Only recently have I begun looking at people that I might have scorned for one thing or another and stopped myself, realizing they are children of God and who am I to be judgmental. Others might look at me and pass the same judgements Iike I would have judged others with. Therefore, I try to stop my critical thoughts, stop scornful words, and take a different path – not always successfully but better than before. It’s a day-by-day growth and I pray not too many setbacks.

  4. As He did with Peter, Jesus takes us where we are and leads us to a maturity that we, in our immaturity, never dreamed could be possible. Glad to see you on that road. I remember that young man in the booth and have to confess I’ve heard the story and was also amused at what the young lady had to say. Looking back I have to admire her courage, you were pretty intimidating at that age. I too hope she has done well in life and continued her walk with the great comforter.

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