I didn't want to hear my name called just then. I was in a hurry. I had ducked into a grocery store - one that I rarely shop in. I had just left a meeting and I wanted to quickly grab some cut up veggies and fruit for my lunch and then get right back to work. There was no time for dilly-dallying today. I thought about ignoring the voice, half hoping it would go away or that there was someone else in the store with my name and I would be off the hook.
"Susan!" This time it was louder and more insistent. There was no choice, I had to look. I turned to see my friend Inez, and the look in her eye told me there would be no putting her off. She motioned me over by insistently flapping her right hand toward herself, but it was the look of joy in her eyes that caused me to succumb. "Get over here!" she squealed with delight.
"Okay, Lord," I mumbled to myself. "Your agenda today, not mine," and I put on the brakes full force, causing my day to come to a screeching halt so that I could be fully present for a few minutes in a grocery store with an old friend. I thought God was asking me to slow down to be a blessing to her for a few minutes, but it was entirely the other way around.
"I can't believe you're here!" she spluttered happily. She hasn't been well for some time and I couldn't believe the energy that she was able to muster to cause her words to dance and tumble off of her lips like the water in a brook bubbling over and around the rocks in its path.
"I've got something to tell you!" she said. "I've been praying that I'd have a chance to talk to you. But you're so busy... I can't believe we just ran into each other in the grocery store of all places!"
I couldn't believe it either, and told her so. I rarely go into that store, and never in the middle of the day on a workday. It had to be God we quickly decided.
"Remember when we had Alpha at our church a couple of years ago?" Her story began.
How could I forget? It had been a community event, made possible by all the churches in our area and over a hundred people had taken part. Some of them became Christians through that event and are attending our church to this day.
"Well, I ran into someone at the hospital last week who was there."
"Oh?" I was intrigued. Inez began to tell me about a woman who had come out to Alpha who had been searching and was at a very difficult crossroads in her life. She felt like it was time to explore this "God-thing" to see if there was really something to it and so she answered the call of the advertisement she saw in the paper and she came.
Alpha, as most of you probably already know, is a program designed to introduce people to the basics of Christianity in a very non-threatening, culturally sensitive way. The meeting begins with a meal together, then everyone watches a presentation before breaking up into small groups to discuss what they've seen.
This person had come alone, Inez said. She didn't know a single soul in that room. She got there just at the advertised starting time and there were no seats left. There were a few chairs turned up against tables saving spots for others, but there seemed to be nowhere left for her. She finally found a seat after walking self conciously through the whole room asking here and there if this seat was taken. She was finally able to sit down, but everyone at the table had come with others and didn't think to talk to her through the meal, so she just listened quietly to the conversations of others. She enjoyed the presentation, but she hadn't make a single friendly connection that night. She came back the next week thinking surely someone would welcome her this time. But again, that's not what happened. Not the second week, not the third week, not the fourth week either. By the end of fifth week (there are twelve sessions in all) she was really discouraged. She told Inez that she made a pact with herself about the sixth week. "If no-one talks to me," she promised herself. "I am not coming back."
When she came back after making the promise, someone finally came up to her, said hello, and asked her a few questions about herself and made her feel welcome. She told Inez how good that made her feel and she decided that she would finish the course. She had someone to talk to now, someone to connect to. She was no longer "alone" in that crowded room.
As Inez began the story, dark fuzzy memories had begun to stir in the nether reaches of my brain. By the time she had finished the story, I remembered the woman. And I remembered who it was who had talked to her. Inez knew, too. "It was you!" she declared to me right there in the grocery store.
"I won't keep you," Inez began to loosen her friendly grip and I knew I would soon be on my way again.
"I know you have to get going, but I just wanted you to be encouraged. God used you that day, and you probably didn't even know it. But what you did made a difference in someone's life." Inez went on to tell me that this person is going to a church in another city now and after being there for a short while, asked the leadership if she could be a "greeter". The church had never had greeters before, but she wanted to do all she could to make sure that everyone felt welcome.
I remember that day. I remember having the same feeling that I had when I heard my name called out in the grocery store this day. I had seen the woman sitting alone in that crowd and I knew I had to walk up to her and talk to her. I didn't want to do it. I wanted to stay put, just like I had obviously done for the previous 5 weeks. I wonder how many times God had tried to get through to me before I finally paid attention and responded with this simple act of obedience. I actually heard that still small voice, and chose that time, for some inexplicable reason, to succumb. As soon as I started talking to her, of course, it became easy, but I really do not like being the one to "break the ice".
Thank you Lord, for the grace to be obedient to you this time. How many times have you asked me to do simple things, small things, that really didn't seem at the time as though they would make much difference at all? But when you ask us to do something, you know what you're doing, don't you? How silly we are not to trust you! Thank you for the grace you gave me that night - the sixth night of Alpha - the grace to walk across that room.
And Lord? Bless that woman. Wherever she is tonight, bless her real good.