I was already running late when I exited the interstate to continue my journey down the winding country road. I was on my way to spend the weekend teaching on servant leadership at a retreat center, and the last strong rays of sunshine shimmered through the trees, temporarily blinding me as they rushed to finish their work before stealing away and turning the sky to blue velvet dusk. The falling leaves reminded me that summer was long gone and wouldn’t be back for a while.
In my rush to get out of Nashville and miss the afternoon traffic, I’d decided to gas up somewhere down the road. Now, glancing at the gas gauge, I realized I’d be running on fumes if I didn’t stop soon.
Around the bend was Chet’s Quik Stop. I turned in and pulled up to the gas pumps, reading the handmade signs taped to them. “Come inside if you need a receipt,” it said. “No problem,” I thought, as I pulled up to the regular pump. “I don’t need a receipt, just gas.” But after trying to swipe my credit card twice, I realized there was more than a receipt problem. I’d actually have to go inside and pay. With precious minutes ticking away, I sighed with annoyance, grabbed my purse, and headed into the dilapidated mini-mart that also moonlighted as a restaurant.
As I made my way around the small lime green car parked directly in front of the door, the odor of old grease hit me. It hung so densely in the air, I knew I would come out smelling like the hot wings and pizza Chet advertised on the tired old sign out front.
I got in line at the checkout counter behind an enormous woman purchasing several bottles of Mountain Dew. Her head had been recently shaved, and her ill-fitting clothes were sloppy and smelly. Pulling out handfuls of change from her pockets, she clumsily counted out the nickels and dimes with her fat, puffy fingers while attempting to engage the disinterested clerk in conversation. Her stab at witty small talk made me cringe. Full of improper grammar and word usage, her loud, unruly words—like her person—were coarse, repulsive, and offensive.
It was obvious she wasn’t in a hurry. “Come on, people,” I thought to myself. “I’ve got places to go and people to see.” Folding my arms tightly, it was all I could do to keep from heaving a sigh out loud. I tapped my foot; frustrated with the turn my day had taken. I tried to think happy thoughts, but when my eyes landed on the three large rolls of fat where her neck should have been, I became mesmerized by a huge boil at the base of her skull. Even though her hair had started growing back, it wasn’t long enough to cover the festering sore nestled between the giant folds of fat.
Oblivious of my presence, she finally finished paying and—in one sweeping motion—picked up her plastic bags, turned her massive body, and headed straight for the door all the while spouting a string of curse words rude enough to make a sailor blush. Had I not been quick in stepping back, she would have plowed me down. As it was, she met my gaze. I felt her thick contempt for me, the city slicker, as she glanced down at my leather boots and well-planned outfit. The sneer on her face dared me to speak.
In that moment, I knew I had two choices on how I could react to the hate pouring from her eyes.
I could play her game and reply with a cold, disdainful look that said, “What a bothersome creature you are. Please get your obese, mouthy self out of my way.”
Or, I could be like Jesus.
In an instant, I knew there was no choice.
Compelled by a sense of overwhelming kindness, I returned her candid stare. Love that could only come from God coursed through me; in that moment, I was able to reach out my hand, touch her arm, and say, “I’m so sorry. Please excuse me.” Then I gave her a big, sweet smile. Not just any smile. I’m talking about the ones I usually reserve for new babies or special friends.
And I meant it.
We stared at each other for at least ten seconds. Then, lumbering around me, sneer intact, she pushed through the door.
When I came back out, she was still sitting in the little lime green car in front of the door. She was fidgeting with two small American flags—like the ones you wave at parades—that were pushed in the dashboard vase, and I got the feeling she was waiting for me to come out. I was right.
I looked at her, and her fleshy face broke into a smile. At first it was shaky, like a kid who’s riding her bike for the first time without training wheels. But then it turned into a genuine, honest-to-goodness smile. Raising her hand, she waved good-bye, and the little green car pulled out of the parking lot and drove away.
Sometimes it’s the everyday, ordinary living that’s the hardest.
While it’s easy to be kind to people we like and those who are like us, it’s harder when we have to make the effort to reach out to the exhausted in life and pull them to their feet by showing kindness with a smile. Sometimes its just easier to judge and be judged than to look for the best in each other.
But life’s too short to be unkind—to anyone. It’s an abuse of power and authority. Meanness is never an option for the Christ-follower; we should go out of our way to be kind. I remember reading somewhere that it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.
It’s true. And I’ve never been more aware of it then when I drove away from Chet’s Quik Stop that day.
“Look for the best in each other, and always do your best to bring it out.” (I Thess. 5:15b The Message)
© 2011 Kathy Chapman Sharp