I had found the perfect spot.
Along the cobblestone streets of the old Spanish city, with all the hustle and energy of the day, I found a perfect little café that overlooked the square. I sat down at a prime table, sheltered from the wind, lapping up the afternoon sun. It was in perfect proximity to the small band playing quietly. I ordered a full glass of wine and my authentic Spanish meal - all was as it should be.
In the streets that day were all kinds of people. Fashionistas walking their dogs, shopping bags hanging off arms; students carrying packs heavy with books; butchers and bakers toting their goods; tourists like me, curious to discover the voice of this ancient place.
And there was also the dirty and the drunk. The vagabond drifter and gypsy wanderer lingering along the alley adjacent to the café, making a bit too much noise to ignore. Everyone saw them, either pretending that they didn’t exist or regarding them as nuisance.
I couldn’t ignore them either.
As I waited for my food to arrive, I stared at that small group of misfits under my dark glasses wondering how they got there. Three middle-aged men, an older woman, a younger girl and her dog; they acted like family, laughing and carrying-on while the rest of us looked in at their strange party. They were begging for food and money from people passing by.
I sat there curious. I sat there irritated.
“Surely they will go away soon. When will they move to another street – can’t they see that no one here is giving them what they want?” As if my thoughts would somehow shame them to move on, I tried to ignore them and recapture the perfection of the moment.
My food had just arrived. Tapas, or “small plates” are a specialty in Spain; I had ordered eight steamy, golden croquettes, small enough to pop into my mouth and let the ribbons of hot creamy cheese comfort me.
And then it happened; an encounter that left me bare.
The man from the alley approached and stumbled right up to my table and stood before me. He looked much older then I’m sure he was. He was the scariest looking one of the bunch too. Two eyes swollen black, one still shut tight from what must have been some hard encounter the night before. There was a cut on his cheek unclean and oozing; his nose, large and twisted on his face. He smelled sour - a mix of urine, tobacco and cheap wine.
I looked up as he towered over my table. Then he spoke. He looked me in the eye and made his request. I was thankful my dark glasses were creating a shield and preventing a connection.
“Can I have one of those to eat?” He stared at my plate.
His wish was simple. One croquette. Not the whole plate, not some money, just a bite.
I looked around at the other patrons at the tables beside me and thought. “Doesn’t anyone see him here? He’s not allowed to come up to me like this is he? Why won’t someone tell him to go away? I could feel my nerves bubble with nervousness and disgust.
“No.” I said firmly. “You can’t.”
He asked again. And just as quickly, I repeated, “no.” It came out so naturally, it actually surprised me.
A third time he asked, “Can I have one of those to eat?”
This time I just looked blankly at him. Lips curled and silent. I shook my head hoping he would just give up and leave. It must have been less than ten seconds but it felt like time had stopped. He just stood there, not angry, but almost confused.
“Why won’t you give me just one. I’m hungry?” His speech was slurred and thick with an accent but his English was perfect. (I couldn't help but wonder how an old, drunken, Spanish man could speak such good English.)
I was becoming undone. Not with empathy but with repulse.
“If I give you one, will you leave me alone?” I spoke with the bite of rancor.
“Yes”, he said timidly. And so I quickly wrapped up one piece in my napkin androughly handed it to him.
As he was leaving he turned and uttered a simple and quiet response, “Thank you.”
He walked back to the street with the food in hand. I’m afraid he also walked back to that alley humiliated, heavy with my self righteousness.
I sat there stunned at first, not entirely sure what had just happened. I wanted to drink fast the wine and devour the food in hopes to digest and eliminate what had taken place as quickly as possible.
Instead, I was saturated with shame. An hour later I was in my hotel room drowning in it.
What surprised me the most was how naturally I responded with disdain for this man and his friends. My sense of superiority came spewing out like water from a tap – effortlessly. Privilege and pleasure had hijacked and hardened my heart. It wasn’t that I was tired, or strapped for time and cash. There was no reason other than the very terrain of my heart that hatched my response.
I thought I was soft towards those who were vulnerable and on the outs. In recent years, I had given more money away in the name of compassion. I had cried and prayed for others because my heart had been genuinely broken in new ways. I had made efforts to become friends with a few people living on the margins that I wouldn’t normally have. The title on my business card at the time was “Compassion Pastor” for goodness sake. I’m not kidding. Compassion. Pastor.
Hadn’t these experiences strengthened my muscle of kind-heartedness? Hadn’t I grown more compassionate over the years? I genuinely believed that I was the same as everyone else – no better than the next. I had consciously decided to live more generously and I can honestly tell you that I had grown.
Unfortunately, I had tricked myself into thinking that my empathy flowed deeper than my sense of entitlement.
My kindness had limits. I was surprised at just how low the ceiling was.
I was leveled flat. I had seen the ugliness in my heart and wanted to be saved. Sure, I wanted quick forgiveness for this specific offense but I knew I needed something to wash me right out. I felt desperate for the deep crevices sticky with pride to be scrubbed clean.
That’s what happens when "ugly" stares back at you in the mirror.
You intuitively know that the problem is much worse than you’ve considered and a full-scale heart renovation is the only remedy. I know I can’t fix this by trying harder. I absolutely don’t have the resources to do the job. I need something I don’t really deserve. I need God to change my heart.
I need something that goes by the name of Grace.
Grace - It’s unexpected. Underserved. It feels extravagant and costly but it’s given free. You receive empty and walk away full. It builds and repairs and leaves you speechless and thankful. It surprises because it’s always too good to be true.
Do you want to know what I wish I had done that day?
When the man approached me and asked for my food, I wish I hadn’t hesitated. I wish my heart had been soft enough to feed him grace.
“Oh no, I can’t give you just one”, I would say.
He would look confused again, but this time for very different reasons.
“Why don’t you sit down and join me. In fact, go grab your three friends to join us.”
I’d stumble and move a few extra chairs closer to the table. “My name’s Christa by the way. I’m here in Spain on vacation. Why don’t you pick what you’d like off the menu – anything at all. I hear the seafood paella is great.”
Yes – that is what I wish I had done.
That I would have fed him grace and it would have tasted something like the perfect grace that God has given me time and time again. We’d share the meal together knowing that we really are all the same, in need of the same thing. We all need the gift that restores our hearts.
Jesus speaks of grace given. He’s bold and audacious and the desperate surely wonder if it’s too good to be true.
I know that I’m the ugly, unclean one; that I’m the unlikely and undeserving guest. I know that the landscape of my heart naturally germinates pride and selfishness. The invitation is compelling and the aroma of the meal wafts sweet.
I need a feast of grace.
I don’t know the name of the man from the alley, but I do hope that one day we’ll be seated right next to each other at that royal banquet. There will be a quiet Spanish folk tune playing in the background, the wine will be flowing and I’ll pass him the small platter of croquettes, oozing gold and warm. We’ll feast together and smile knowingly while we fix our gaze to the head of the table at the One who feeds us all grace.