It was the day after Christmas 2019, and the last place I wanted to go was the local Mall and face the crowds of people returning unwanted gifts. Yet here in a crowded suburban mall, it was I who received an unexpected gift…one wrapped in tears of grace.
Even as I type this, my emotions are swelling. I confess to having been shaken by the events of just a couple of weeks ago. Little did I realize that a short shopping trip would end with my being humbled (yet again) by how God continues to redeem my suffering.
It started with a simple invitation.
Patrice and I needed recharging. Christmas had its ups and downs this year and with sunny skies above Augusta and temps hitting the mid-60’s, I suggested we have lunch at P.F. Changs located next to the Augusta Mall. Afterwards, we could walk the length of the Mall and get some well-needed exercise as we dodged the post-Christmas rush shoppers.
Over Hot and Sour Soup, Asian Caesar Salad, and Mongolian Beef, we shared how our hearts were breaking for those who had lost loved ones in 2019. I openly discussed what we could say to a cousin, a dear friend, and a former colleague all of whom had lost their spouses in the latter half of the year. It was a sobering conversation. It helped keep the highs and lows of the previous week in perspective.
After lunch, we walked the pedestrian Mall corridor but still could not resist stopping at Barnes and Noble, Dillards and Macys before returning to our car at the opposite end of the Mall. As we climbed into our car, Patrice remembered she needed a new winter coat. After some debate, we agreed to return to Dillards’ biggest one-day annual sale. Being weary after walking, I insisted we drive the car around to the other end of the Mall where Dillards was located. As we exited the car, out of the blue, Patrice asked if I had any of my TheBuddyBlog.com cards with me. These business cards are what I use to give to folks to invite them to check out my blog. Unfortunately, I had no cards in my wallet. Then I spotted a single card lying on the car dash. Grabbing it, I tucked it in my pocket.
Twenty shopping minutes later, I finally discovered a coat that met my wife’s criteria. We soon agreed that this coat was the One. Mission accomplished. The hunter (that’s me) had caught the prey (the right coat). Now we could finally go home.
Glancing about for available sales registers, I spotted one where only a single couple was checking out. But as we approached, we sensed something else was going on. The couple was not buying anything. They were just talking with the saleslady. As we walked up, the Dillards employee asked if she could help us. Seeing our confused look, she explained that she was only talking with the couple to our right. As she price checked the coat, I noticed the man and woman beside us were about our age. They appeared downcast. The sales lady, sensing an explanation was in order, shared that this couple had lost their son four months ago. With that comment, the couple immediately began opening up about their grief.
Hearing them describe their loss, our purchase forgotten, Patrice and I became engrossed in their story. Though I needed no urging, Patrice nudged me ever so slightly, and I reached out my hand to the man, introduced myself, and began to share my grief experience of losing my wife. For the next several minutes, we both shared our stories. Sam* (a pastor) and his wife Debbie* confessed they had yet to receive any formal grief counseling. They were beginning to realize the need to consider that option.
I cannot fully convey what unfolded over the next several minutes. They showed us pictures of their 45-year-old son. They discussed the last time they saw him. I shared my grief story and the book that came out of it. They spoke of how God had brought them comfort through Scripture and fellow church members. I spoke of eventually reaching a point of expressing gratitude to God for what I had rather than anger over what I had lost. Debbie explained that she too struggled to praise the Lord until Christmas Day when God impressed upon her to “just try” and how she’d found an amazing comfort and peace in doing so.
I shared of recently hearing a new insight into the shortest verse in the Bible. John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” That verse reflects the deep compassion of Christ, for even though Jesus knew what he would do (raise Lazarus), he still wept. He still grieved.
Sam shared a meaningful conversation he had with a friend who also had lost a son. His friend admitted to being angry with God, to the point of shouting at God, “You gave your son voluntarily, but I did not give mine voluntarily!” At which point, his friend confessed to hearing God speak to his heart, saying, “Yes, I gave my son voluntarily, so that you might endure the loss of yours.”
While I was listening to Sam and Debbie’s heartfelt words, the sales lady pulled Patrice to the side. She shared that she had worked at Dillards for twenty years and works for only one reason, to serve people. She prays for her customers. Sometimes they come to buy happy things like baby clothes or wedding dresses, while other times they come to buy sad things like black clothes for funerals. We assumed she was a friend of this couple, but she just smiled and spoke of how frequently the Lord brings people like Sam and Debbie to her register.
At this point, I wished I had a Kleenex. Holding back my tears, we completed our purchase. I remembered the lone TheBuddyBlog.com card in my pocket. After handing it to them, I mentioned a few grief-related posts. We hugged and said our goodbyes.
We had hardly reached the door when Patrice grabbed my arm and asked if I was alright. “No, not really,” I confessed. I began to assess how a series of decisions made the previous hour had brought us to this particular sales register at the precise minute this hurting couple was sharing their grief. Coincidence? Hardly.
By the time we reached our car, waves of emotion came crashing over me. Tears were running down my cheeks. The moment had become overwhelming. We just sat there, pondering the sanctity of this moment in time and space. God continues to redeem the pain of my loss of nine years ago in ways I cannot imagine or anticipate.
I have come to believe that when people openly share their heartaches, it is, what I call, the gift of transparency. That gift was opened again at a most unexpected place, a department store at the Augusta Mall. Maybe those were not tears in my eyes, but the overflow of heaven’s grace.
A gift given. A gift received. Yet again. Amen.