It was just a Taco Bell. The likes of which I’d seen many times before. It was the same food, same in-and-out mentality. Only this time, I was actually looking around.
I think it was because this particular Taco Bell had recently been remodeled. If not for that, I probably would have never seen them.
The African-American man with braces on his arms and deep bags underneath his eyes. The woman standing alongside him with pursed lips, looking all at once determined and tired and worn.
The small family sitting nearby, with the young daughter’s perfect posture. The father with the storm gathered in his eyes, and the mom with the phone in her hand. The pretty young girl attempts to make a joke, smiles; but the dad never looks up from his food and the mom just gives a half-smile before returning to her phone.
Later we go to Wal-Mart, and once again, our eyes are focused on our goal, and we see almost nothing as we whiz by nameless faces, racks, and carts. Suddenly, I hear a warm, sweet Southern voice behind me:
“Excuse me–can I stop you?”
I look behind, a little disoriented at the sound of a voice in my product-cluttered tunnel.
My eyes focus on a cheery blonde, wearing a wide smile and a comfy-looking hat.
“Excuse me,” she says again, “Can I stop you guys? Is that your mom?”
I suspiciously nod–not certain if she’s some sort of salesperson– and she walks over to my mom. “I noticed your hair and loved it,” she says. She sweeps her hat off her head and runs a hand through the close-cropped hair. “I just went through chemo and it’s growing back, but so far I haven’t found anyone I trust to cut it. I saw your hair and wondered if you could give me the name of the lady who did it?”
For the first time, I notice the white patch on her chest and the hat suddenly registers in my mind. My heart fills with sympathy and I long to help this woman any way I can.
But she doesn’t have a pen and neither do we, and we can’t remember the name of the salon where my sister works. She starts to back away apologetically, and my heart beats an accusing thump in my chest: Do something! Help her! All she wanted was a number.
But my lips feel too sticky to part and she’s walking away quickly now and all that will come out is “Bless you” and it’s not what I meant to say at all.
We each go back to our business and the walls and shelves all close in again until I’m surrounded once more. But my world feels bigger somehow, and I can’t get the woman with the comfy hat out of my mind or out of my heart.
Who was she? What was her name? Is she in remission? Does she have family around her loving and supporting her? Will she find a hairstylist she can trust? Does she know the Lord?
The accusing bump continues its beat, and I can’t help but shake my head and ask: why couldn’t I have at least given her that number?! So little to ask. So brave of her to do so. Such a little thing to give.
Or why couldn’t I have prayed for her? Given her a single word of encouragement, or invited her to church? Was it just a coincidence we met? With as big a God as I have who delights in the details, I don’t even know if I believe in coincidence anymore.
Her politely-spoken plea echoes once more in my ears: “Can I stop you?” And suddenly I realize why those words sink so deeply into my heart and into my soul like a hand into dough or a foot into snow: because if she hadn’t asked… I wouldn’t have stopped.
Because if she hadn’t taken off her hat, I wouldn’t have noticed.
Because every day I rush by, never seeing, hardly breathing. And the walking wounded walk by as the faces of my waitress, the cashier, barista, my sisters’ friends, and even the face of a sweet little redhead with freckles across her nose and pleading in her eyes, saying, “Can I please just stop you long enough to play with me?”
Can I stop you? Asks the man with the braces on his arms.
Can I stop you? Asks the hurting family at the table.
Can I stop you? Asks the hardworking woman taking out trash and clearing tables.
Over and over again, in every face, and all at once I realize with a swallow and a sinking in my heart why the woman with the cancer and comfy hat bothers me so much. Because I haven’t stopped. I haven’t seen. Nor have I cared or loved or given as I ought. As Christ told me to do. As I want to do. As He demonstrated.
I am no better than the ones in the parable whom Jesus spoke about as a man lay broken, bloody, and bruised. Laying by the side of the road, he calls out for help, and yet, I press on–too busy to see, too busy to care. On my own mission and thinking, “Someone else will take care of it.” (Luke 10:25-37.)
Passing by the homeless, the poor, the destitute–forever, always thinking, “Someone else.” And so it is. Forever someone else. Or worse–no one else.
Am I any less guilty if the wounds I come across are battered souls instead?
I am reminded of the man who died on a cross to cover those sins for me. Who breathed the same air and walked the same sod, standing sinless and pure and matching my every selfish stride just because He cared enough to stop me and let me know that I was headed in the wrong direction.
I am reminded of the very same man who stretched out His arms to die on a cross for me, and for a mother who I imagine must have looked at so many as her son was lead up to Calvary, asking, “Please, do you see Him? Do you know who He is? Do you see your Savior? My son, and the Son of God? Will you stop them?”
And at last, as they stretched Him out and spread out His palms, I imagine her pleading, asking once more with her eyes,
“Can I stop you?
You, my son, my Savior, who listened to His mother’s plea and turned water into wine at a mere wedding?
You, my Son, whom the angel told me would save all the world from their sins and whose kingdom would never end?
Oh, my precious Son, who’s known so much more than me since the time you were twelve and even younger still within my womb–can I stop you?”
His love was the love that moved, and breathed, and lived to the point of death itself. That pushed and extended itself to the least of these until it became the least of these–spread out on a cross, helpless, bloodied, and bruised. The same man on the side of the road became the man on a cross, and we are all speechless as He breathes His last breath and the ground shakes and the earth darkens and we realize that this–this is what we’ve been waiting for. What we’ve meant to see all along. The earth shudders with His last quietly exhaled breath and suddenly: everything. Stops. Even the sun and moon and stars all stop to watch this one event all creation has waited for since the very beginning.
The eyes of the thief and the guards were opened and out of the depths of their dark tunnels they heard the Savior call:
“Can I stop you even now?”
It’s a call we all will have the chance to hear many times in our lives. To either heed, or to place hands over our ears. To ignore, or to obey. Jesus said, “It is as to me you give the cup of water. As if to me you welcome in.” (Mt. 25:31-40.)
So with every face we pass, it is He who asks, “Can I stop you?”
And with His question, I am but left with just one more: what will my answer be?