The woman in the red shirt addresses me with a cheerful “Welcome to Meijer!” Her name tag says “Nancy.” Her hair is bleached, her lips are painted the color of her Meijer-issue shirt. Her black stretch pants are maxed out.
I feel pretty good, but I don’t quite know why. “Nancy, you must know where everything is. My wife has sent me to buy mixed greens. Where do I find that?” I say. Her smile disappears behind a frown of concentration. At last she suggests I try the produce department. Not wanting to add to her discomfort, I say thanks and leave her to compose her face from bewilderment to sunny optimism. I’m guessing this woman can’t quite make it on her Social Security checks because she has to buy groceries for her out-of-work daughter’s kids.
As I make my way toward the produce department, an old man is pushing a loaded cart into a checkout lane. The rim of his camouflage hat is a dark halo shading his florid cheeks and bulbous nose. A pair of suspenders, outmatched by the pull of gravity and the push of belly, clings to his trousers. I’m feeling good.
A pony-tailed teen, Marlboro behind her ear, pushes a cart while texting. Tattooed around her neck is a strand of barbed wire. On her left cheek, just below her eye, more body art: feathers. I’m feeling good, getting closer to the mixed greens.
I nearly get run over by a woman driving an electric cart. The metal wire basket in front is heaped with bags of chips, sixpacks of Dr. Pepper, a loaf of Wonder Bread, and several packages of hot dogs. She holds a large cane between massive legs. Swollen ankles bulge over the edges of her scuffed moccasins. A smile of apology accentuates her cheeks. I feel good, but I don’t think it’s because of her smile.
Sorting through a bewildering variety of mixed greens, I finally choose: Spring Greens. An old man is writing a check in the express lane. The clerk throws me an apologetic glance. The man’s hand trembles, his face a mask of concentration as he slowly writes his name, the signature a daunting exercise in penmanship. Carefully he tears out the check and pushes it toward the clerk. He turns to shuffle off. I greet the clerk, slide my credit card, right-side up, through the slotted machine, grab my receipt, and hustle toward the exit, feeling good.
Nancy is still at her station. As the automatic door opens at my approach, she calls out a cheery, “Thanks for shopping at Meijer!” her smile in place.
Back in the parking lot, my thoughts return to last evening’s home fellowship discussion. The topic had been judging others, trying to remove the speck of sawdust while ignoring the plank in our own eye. Dallas Willard’s assertion in his book The Divine Conspiracy that contempt is a major part of condemnation had startled me. Condemnation, he said, always involves some degree of self-righteousness and distancing oneself from the one we are condemning.
It dawned on me then that in my quick errand, I had singled out and smugly compared myself with Nancy the greeter, the man with the big nose, the tattooed teen, the woman who filled her basket with junk food, and the man fighting the ravages of old age. I felt good because, having taken care of myself over all these years and having made good life choices, I looked good.
I get in my car but do not start it. The bag of healthy garden greens is on my lap; in my mind are images of the people I’d noticed. I have half a mind to go back into the store, hug Nancy, and tell her how good she looks. Instead I bow my head over the steering wheel, cradle the greens in my hands, and thank God for irritating my eye with a stubborn plank. And for Jesus, who touched lepers, ate with outcasts, consorted with prostitutes, healed all manner of sick folks, and made it clear to his disciples that neither his nor his parents’ sin caused a man to be blind
About the Author
Hank Ottens is a retired orthopedic surgeon and an active gardener, photographer, and singer. He attends Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Mich.