It happened in a Trader Joe’s parking lot. A not-so-by-chance meeting with Sandra, a brokenhearted woman on a spiritual journey. I was making a run to pick up some items for my son and daughter-in-love after they just had a baby. I pulled into a parking space along the right side of a nondescript sedan. The driver of that vehicle was making her way around the back of her car to the passenger door. As she moved beside my newly positioned car she commented about the dark, scattered clouds that loomed in quiet indecision.
“It’s going to pour,” she directed through my window before she opened her door.
“It’s going to do something,” I returned affably before rolling up my window and turning off the car. I couldn’t exit, though, because she was fumbling through something on her seat. I waited… and I waited, and I waited. She appeared totally unaware, but I figured since we had just spoken, she would soon realize the situation. So I waited. After a few more minutes, she did.
“Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry,” she exclaimed as she caught sight of me over her shoulder. She quickly shut the door and took a couple steps back.
“That’s okay,” I replied as I exited my vehicle and headed in the direction of the store. “I’ve been there,” I threw over my shoulder, relating to being totally consumed in thought.
“Not where I’ve been,” she called behind me. Her tone was odd. It was filled with defeat and a sadness that deliberately fought against itself. Like a gentle hand on my forearm, it stayed my course.
I turned around and responded inquisitively, “Where would that be?”
“With your boyfriend telling you you’re worthless.” She listed off a few other derogatory remarks from him, in a poor attempt to appear un-maimed.
A bit jolted, I looked at her short frame, wrapped in a shapeless navy sweater jacket which she filled out. Her shortly clipped auburn hair was faintly speckled with gray, and its natural thickness held the feathered style into place. She wore glasses with rectangular lenses that were rimless so you saw more of her small face.
“How sad that your boyfriend must feel so bad about himself, that he’s trying to make you feel bad about yourself,” I replied with a ‘Karyn’ response instead of the standard, ‘oh I’m so sorry.’ I don’t know why I say these things, and to strangers; admittedly, it is weird! In hindsight I had no idea how that response would be the springboard for a half-hour conversation with lasting effects.
She went on to say a few disparaging remarks about him with her broken heart peeking out from behind a forceful dismissal of the man. I commiserated and said, “I’ve learned that at one time or another everyone will let you down. The only one that has never let me down has been Jesus.” It was the truth. It was my truth and what I felt the Holy Spirit was prompting me to say. prayed in my head, ‘Lord, what do you want me to say? What does this woman need to hear?’
“Well I’m a Jewbu,” her fast-paced speech didn’t miss a beat. The look on my face must have indicated that I would need an explanation. “I’m Jewish, but I started exploring the Buddhist faith,” she accommodated my confusion. “That’s a Jewbu, but Jon Stewart had a guest on his show the other night that called himself a Buju. So I guess it can go either way. My boyfriend says I’m nuts and should forget all about it.”
With a quick inhalation and rising excitement she explained how she would go downtown and chant with other Buddhists. She named the statue that they chanted by, but I can’t recall it. My imagination drafted a picture of a gong, but I’m sure that’s not right. While I don’t remember the name of the object, I do clearly remember the weighty impression of needing to respect her journey and to trust God for the rest.
Her enthusiasm continued, “Chanting transports me spiritually. We chant nam-myoho-renge-kyo and it’s amazing that everyone starts off on their own key and once we all get going we are soon in harmony.”
I sliced the following into the conversation, “That’s not unlike what I experience in worship. I especially love when we sing an a cappella song and others begin to harmonize. It is a beautiful thing.”
Sandra confessed that she had tried unsuccessfully to pray to Jesus in the past. Like a baby bird waiting to be fed, she opened and closed her mouth twice to demonstrate that nothing would come out when she tried. My heart literally hurt. To think that something could actually hold back the name of Jesus Christ from passing across our lips was next to devastating to me.
She explained that she grew up in the Jewish faith which was harsh to her. The upcoming weekend was Yom Kippur and she teared up as she remembered her parents, who had passed on. “They are all gone now,” she said with a grief that clutched more to her culture than her beliefs. I know that feeling and I felt her loss. Somewhere in the midst of this part of our conversation we had introduced ourselves.
“Sandra, you only know half of the story,” I explained, referring to the Old Testament. “Jesus came and atoned for us all. He is the way, the truth and the life. You are chosen.”
“Yes, I know the Jews are chosen,” she cast that privilege aside, a bit too carelessly I thought. “But I’ve had people proselytizing over me before and I just couldn’t stand it. I’m more of a metaphysical person. I’m thinking of moving to Oregon so I can chant outside. I hear there are great places to chant there.”
“I understand that, having come from a New Age past,” I related. “But I still experience God in nature too.” The conversation took turns that I felt ill equipped for, so I just kept praying, Lord, give me your words, as Sandra wrapped me into her spiritual story. Again I was assailed with the sense that I needed to be respectful of where she was on her journey. So, I don’t know how it happened, and I definitely don’t recommend it, but we were soon holding hands and chanting! Now you have to understand, I’m the person who won’t even say ‘Namaste’ when I’m done with yoga and here I was in the parking lot of Trader Joe’s chanting with Sandra, the Jewbu.
I think it started with me saying, “Can I pray with you Sandra?”
“Don’t be proselytizing over me!” She emphatically answered.
“I’m not going to proselytize over you. I just want to say a prayer,” I returned calmly. I didn’t even know what ‘proselytizing’ meant, I just hoped that praying wasn’t it!
“If you pray, then I want to chant,” she bartered.
After a cautious moment, I agreed. I took her hands to begin to pray, but she started her chant instead. I listened and prayed silently for protection.
“Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” she repeated over and over with her full bodied voice, yet the sound fell flat like an empty echo. Maybe I was preoccupied in prayer, and maybe she felt awkward chanting in a parking lot, but all in all it had a rote quality to it and I suspected she felt unmoved as well. After less than a minute she stopped, pulled her hands away and then explained what the chant meant. “It’s a chant for happiness and for asking for things that you want.” I’m sure she gave me a better definition than that, but those are the two points that I pulled from her statement. I’ve later learned that it actually means: I devote myself to the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law, which I know for sure she never mentioned.
She swiftly began to introduce another topic, but I thought, not so fast! “Okay Sandra, I want something,” I insisted and recaptured her hands. What I wanted was for her to know the hope and fulfillment in Jesus Christ. What I wanted was her heart to find its journey’s end in his arms.
As I readied myself, her eyes gave me a raking assessment – an up and down look which gave me the impression she was grading the make of my clothes, rather than my intent. I must have met with her approval because we ended up saying the chant together.
Just because the chant had no meaning to me, doesn’t mean it didn’t evoke what it meant. I knew the inherent danger and prayed again for protection, not wanting to make myself spiritually vulnerable.
“It’s my turn now,” I asserted. “I want to pray.” She didn’t have much of a choice, but she didn’t balk either. In Jesus’ name I said a short prayer that she would come to know Him personally, experience Him deeply and know His love.
I suppose you could argue that she tolerated me as much as I tolerated her, but we each chose to honor each other. Once we dropped hands she shifted the conversation again, and with this unspoken cue we began to walk toward the store. In that space of time I had mentioned that I was visiting from Nashville, to be here for the birth of my first grandchild. She asked if I knew of Gruhn Guitars. A friend’s brother had moved there in the 70’s to repair guitars and now was so successful he was in an American Express commercial. This friend, by the way, was horribly bullied as a child and Sandra, pointing to her red hair, was evidently bullied as a young girl herself.
Her narrative continued down different trails as I grabbed a shopping basket and entered the store. She said she no longer belonged to any category. She was 60 years old and wasn’t a grandma because she didn’t choose to have children (a big life regret). She wasn’t married or a girlfriend anymore so she didn’t have a group to which she belonged. She remarked that her friends would give her a hard time if she didn’t wear designer clothes (I realized then that this was the reason she so pointedly assessed what I was wearing). She retold a time she was in a conversation with a couple of women and when they discovered she wasn’t a grandmother, they abruptly ended the conversation and walked away. She blamed their political affiliation as the reason. I interjected saying that that wasn’t because they were either liberal or conservative, that that behavior was just rude. She continued with her fears that an Evangelist would be elected President, and on and on.
We were by the open refrigerators with dairy and cheese products when she shared a story about her father, tearing up again with his memory. “My father was in hospice care and just before he died he called out for a Father Cooney.”
Admittedly, feeling a little fatigued from our conversation I was confused. “Wait, your father was Catholic?” I thought she had said he was Jewish in a very big way.
“Of course not, he was Jewish!” she exclaimed.
“That’s what I thought. Then why would your father be calling out for a priest?” I wondered if there was a piece of this story to which I might not have lent a proper ear.
“I’m sure he found his way into a church some time in his life, like I have,” she replied somewhat flummoxed, trying to make sense of it herself.
“Sandra!” Suddenly it clicked and I was supernaturally alert. “It was Jesus! He was face to face with Jesus, that’s why he called out to the priest.” Goosebumps did a happy dance on my arms, and I’m certain it wasn’t from the cool air creeping out from the refrigerators.
“That’s what my brother said, ‘It’s that Jesus thing,’” she parroted with a masculine tone of voice, then continued saying “and he’s an atheist. I don’t talk to my brother these days, but that’s a whole ‘nuther story.”
“It’s that Jesus thing.” I went straight back to the Jesus part. “Sandra, that’s incredible! You just gave me goosebumps. Do you see that it’s Jesus? You have the most amazing story about Him with your Dad. That’s incredible!”
She downplayed it, and I couldn’t believe it. She didn’t discredit it, but I could see that she saw it as just another thing that happened, not God chasing after her. She couldn’t even see that I was standing there as a result of God pursuing her too. I’d never experienced something like this before, where a non-believer had the better testimony! How does that happen? It took me a moment to recover from such a big let-down, but Sandra didn’t notice, she went off on another conversational tangent. This time it was about the current global threats; ISIS, Ebola, etc. Her voice escalated with fear to the point that, I believe she actually said that the world was coming to an end.
I sighed and nodded my head in agreement that things in this world weren’t hunky dory and then said that I needed to get my son’s coconut milk ice cream. “It was nice meeting you Sandra. I wish you the best on your journey.”
We said good-bye weeks ago, but Sandra’s story has lingered with me. I know Jesus loves Sandra, our little chatter-box, but she’s blind to His passionate pursuit. Instead, she’s been embraced by Buddhists who appeal to her metaphysical nature and, she told me, don’t care what type of clothes she wears.
How is it we can look at the same thing and see it differently? How is it that she can’t see that Jesus has no categories, no political affiliation, just hope? The fact that Sandra can’t see Jesus pursuing her breaks my heart, furthermore, what she does see and associates with Jesus hurts me even more.
My encounter with Sandra has given me much to ponder, but for now, I just want to end this witness by saying that evangelizing is not a spiritual gift of mine and I don’t feel like I do it well; however, if I’m talking about myself truthfully, Jesus is going to be part of that conversation. Moreover, when I share my story about Jesus’ love and deliverance, no one can ever dispute it.
Sandra is an example of how we all have hurts and struggles. I follow a God who calls me to share how He has impacted and healed my own hurts and struggles, so others may know He can do the same for them. Like the healed man in Mark 5:19-20 Jesus tells us all, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed. I just want to encourage you to do the same… just share YOUR story. That’s all Jesus asks us to do.