Sometimes grace slips in unnoticed and sometimes it comes up and slaps us in the face. It slapped me in the face one night last week.
I was spending several days with my dear friend Mera Corlett, “Susie” to me and our other friends from 35 years ago when we were students at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville. We met up for the Cooperative Baptist Convention in Atlanta, and while the program was informative and inspiring, the best part for me was being with friends who are “in the trenches” of ministry and hearing their struggles and successes. And Susie and I talked non-stop for 3 days!
On Thursday one of our good friends drove in to have dinner with us. John Talley has pastored Southern Baptist Churches for the last 30 years and is one of the most sincere guys I know. He picked us up up at our hotel and took us to Mary Mac’s Tearoom, an institution in Atlanta. I had never been there, and felt like I was back in my Grandmother’s house in South Carolina. The restaurant is in an old building and features good Southern cooking – and lots of it!
We made the mistake of ordering the Southern special – 3 meats, 3 vegetables, homemade yeast rolls, cinnamon rolls, corn muffins and dessert. Just before the waiter brought out a huge platter of fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, green beans, fried okra and squash casserole, John took out a small black bag and excused himself. “I’ve been diabetic for 30 years, and I have to go give myself an insulin shot.”
I was surprised to hear this, since he is the picture of health, but I know several people who have this disease, and admired his matter of fact attitude. When he returned we dug into the fantastic food and had a wonderful time laughing about old times and catching up on everyone’s family news.
We did our best with the huge amount of food, but there was no way three normal sized people could eat all of it. Since John was going back to his house, Susie and I insisted that he take home all the leftovers, so he packed two styrofoam take-home plates.
The restaurant was ready to close as we finally pulled ourselves up from the table. It was raining as we came out and, always the Southern gentleman, John told us to wait and he would go get the car. As Susie and I stood in the doorway of Mary Mac’s, I looked over to where John had gone. He had been stopped by a homeless man on a bicycle. And with no hesitation whatever he handed over one of the bags of food, nodded to the man and went on his way to get the car.
Susie and I looked at each other and Susie had tears in her eyes. “He’s the real deal,” I said. We were so proud and happy to have that kind of friend, who after 35 years of preaching and teaching, was so compassionate to the old black man. I know some people are cynical when it comes to homeless people, especially those that ask for food and money on the streets, but what I saw in John’s action was the true heart of a Christian minister – one of God’s children was hungry and without even thinking about it, John gave him food.
Not five minutes later, as Susie and I stood in the doorway waiting on John, the man on the bicycle rode up.
“Were you all with that man that gave me this food?” He asked. When we said yes, he continued. “I went over to get out of the rain to eat it and found this.” He opened up the plastic bag and there was John’s black insulin shot bag, sitting on top of the styrofoam box.
This was when grace slapped me in the face. This man, who in the eyes of many is at the bottom of the social strata, had the dignity to come back to find John to return the insulin bag. He could have tossed it, or sold it to some crack friends, but he realized that the bag was important. Now yes, he did mention he could use some bus fare, and Susie quickly gave him a few dollars. Maybe he just brought it back because he thought he could get some money, but I don’t think so. I think John had treated him with respect and he was responding to that.
On the surface it would seem that these two men have little in common – John is a successful minister with a loving family and a comfortable home. He has worked hard to be well educated and to make a good life for himself and his family. The homeless man, on the other hand, is probably not living a comfortable life, either through poor choices, addiction, mental illness or just bad luck. Yet both are the same in God’s eyes.
These verses from Romans have deeper meaning for me now:
23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24 Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. (Romans 3:23-24)