September 13, 2019
While serving in my first appointment, which was out in the country, I made a weekly trip into town to do my grocery shopping. On one particular day I started up and down the aisles when on one aisle I encountered two young men in their late teens/early 20’s who were being rather loud and boisterous and, in my mind, up to no good. I looked at them for a minute then decided to skip on over to the next aisle, not wanting to deal with their rowdiness. As I ended that aisle and turned to go down the next, I peered down it, only to find the two rowdy young men were now on that aisle, so I skipped it, continuing this attempt to avoid them as I finished up my shopping.
by Ginger Isom
Clergy of Sycamore Tree UMC (Maryville, TN)
Smoky Mountain District
When I approached the front of the store to check-out, there were only three registers open: the Express Lane, which I could not use because had more than 10 items; a very long line of four other shoppers; and a short line that, low and behold, these two young men were in, second and last in line to check out. I selected a magazine from the rack to buy and settled into the long line, burying my head in the magazine as I waited.
It wasn’t a minute or two later when I heard someone speaking to me, “You don’t have to be afraid. I won’t hurt you. You can come over here.”
I looked up from my magazine to find one of the young men standing in front of me, gently pulling my shopping cart toward the check-out lane he was in. He smiled, and I followed, realizing once he had spoken to me and had once I had looked at him that he had not been “up to no good,” as I had assumed. Instead, it was apparent he was developmentally disabled.
While I waited behind him and the other young man, who I decided must be his older brother, I asked his name. He told me his name was Cory, and we began to chat. Their purchase complete, they left, Cory waving goodbye as he walked out the door. I finished my purchase with a lump in my throat, quickly put my groceries in the car, got in, and placing my head on the steering wheel, began to weep. Not only had I made a false assumption about these two young men based on their behavior, but I was shamefully aware I had also associated their behavior and my false assumption that they were up to no good with the color of their skin – Cory and the other young man were black.
Psalm 51 is one of seven penitential psalms, and in the first ten verses, we see the psalmist acknowledging his sinfulness, asking for forgiveness, and seeking wholeness that he knows is only possible through the work of God from within the heart. It is often attributed to David as a response to the awareness of his sinful acts in having Uriah killed in battle so he could take Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, as his own. In verse 4 we read, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight.” This mimics David’s response in 2 Samuel 12:13, after the prophet Nathan called David on his actions through a parable, and David replied, “I have sinned against the LORD!” In confessing his sin against God, David was acknowledging that any sin against another human being was also a sin against God, who had created human beings in God’s image. In repenting of his sinfulness in Psalm 51, the psalmist also acknowledges that it is only God who cannot only restore him but can even re-create his heart and give him a new spirit. It is only through this inner work that the psalmist’s relationship with God and with others can be made right.
That Thursday at Food City, Cory was both my Uriah and my Nathan. As I was growing up, my family had anybody and everybody in our home – people of every color, people of different ethnicities and cultures, people who spoke different languages and ate different foods. Our parents raised us to treat everyone the same and to appreciate the beauty in diversity. I thought I had mastered that, only to learn on this day, that my upbringing gave me a false sense of security when it came to prejudices. I had believed my upbringing was some sort of immunization preventing me from being infected with this contagious disease of the soul. When confronted by Cory, however, and his verbalizing that attitude within me that I was unable to see within myself (even with his developmental disability!), I suddenly learned I was wrong, that as much as I wanted to think I was above being prejudice, I was not; as much as any of us wants to think we are above being prejudice, we are not. The potential for any of us to sin in such away against another human being, and in so doing, against God, is very present and most often, catches us off guard, as it had me that day. As I sat with my head on the steering wheel of my car and wept, I confessed my sin before God and pleaded, as the psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
In today’s increasingly divisive climate, perhaps that hidden inclination to assume the worst in someone based on skin color or language or dress or any number of characteristics that make one unique is greater than we dare to admit. How many times have we determined someone to be up to no good because we just don’t want to engage with who they really are? How many times have we missed the opportunity to encounter the image of God in the other because we let differences keep us apart rather than bring us together? Maybe we should make, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me,” our daily breath prayer so we see others through fresh eyes and a new and open heart.
Prayer: O God, who has created all people unique yet all people in your image, forgive me when I sin against you by sinning against my brother or sister when I fail to acknowledge your image within them. Forgive me when I succumb to the influences of the larger society to see others as less than created in your image, often unaware I am allowing those influences to cloud my vision and harden my heart towards them and you. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. In your holy name I pray. Amen.