“In every encounter we either give life or we drain it; there is no neutral exchange.” ~Brendon Manning
I’m not sure about the year, but I remember exactly where I was standing when we learned that our friend Judy had a new super-power: she fries the world’s best okra. (Seriously, you have no idea how good her okra is!) From that point on, however, we haven’t gathered together without making certain that Judy will be there and that she fries the okra.
This year was a little bit different. They were coming to my house and she couldn’t find okra where she lived, so it was going to be up to me to make sure it was available. I checked with my local veggie source and was assured that he’d have some when they arrived. Problem solved…except that we got busy that day and didn’t make it by his stand until after he had already closed.
Two stores later and in a bit of a mild panic, we walked into one that was unfamiliar to me and headed toward the produce department. Yes! They had okra. Well, they had little bits of really expensive okra already packaged out…and we were going to need a lot more than that. (Mainly because, as a group, we stand around the kitchen and eat okra like it is popcorn as soon as Judy pulls it out of the hot oil and we keep on eating it just like that until we all sit down at the table together…and then we eat some more!)
Having worked in a grocery store before, I knew that if you ask nicely, sometimes you can get exactly what you want directly from the produce manager, so we went in search of some “personal assistance” for our mission. We found exactly what we bargained for…and more.
Our new best friend assured us that he had plenty of nice fresh okra and asked us to wait just inside the door. He brought back a brand new box full of okra and we were allowed to personally select each pod! As we sorted through the okra and chatted with him, he suddenly turned toward my friend Judy and said, “Are you married?”
I chuckled inside, but I wasn’t really surprised. She’s beautiful inside and out—and really cool. She told him, “no”, and he asked if she had ever been married, to which she replied in the affirmative. His face suddenly changed and he said, “Can I ask you something?” With barely a pause, he began to pour out his story: former and recovering drug addict married to same—until recently—when she had begun using again. “What do I do?!” His whole being begged Judy to have some answer. “I love her, but I’m not sure I can stay and go through this again.” His voice was ragged and the fact that he was pouring out his heart to two complete strangers without regard to location, ethnicity, or absence of personal relationship indicated just how troubled he was about this situation.
As he reached for a paper towel to dry eyes that were suddenly full, Judy reached over for my hand and said (just where I could hear her), “You know this isn’t about the okra, don’t you?” I nodded quietly and stood there praying silently as I continued to sort through the okra pods. Judy, on the other hand, looked him straight in the eye and began to share the story of people she loves dearly who had endured similar issues for most of her growing-up-life and how they had just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary because one of the two had chosen to trust God for deliverance and restoration of her family…and how she stayed while she prayed.
She talked about how God had been so faithful that the marriage was now a thing of beauty, the old life gone and the new one such a blessing in the wake of all that former pain. It had taken 49 years before the man had finally allowed God to change his heart, but she believed the wait had been worth it. I saw hope start to enter our new friend’s eyes and tears rolled down his cheeks and hers. I simply asked that God would allow me not to wail like a banshee…because that’s what I really felt like doing.
We asked about his faith life and were assured that he knew Christ as his personal Savior and that he was participating in a vibrant, Bible-believing church with access to support from his pastor. Judy further counseled him that he needed to seek professional help for both of them—and that he should go even if his wife refused to do so.
As we wrapped up our okra and our time together, we formed a small circle and held hands as I prayed for God to show up and provide the answers our new friend needed so desperately. We had a big group hug; I promised him that we would share his story with our friends and that they would add him to their prayer lists just like we planned to do. I told him that I lived locally and that I’d check back in with him from time to time. He was overwhelmed…and so were we.
As we checked out and rode back to the house, Judy and I laughed about how our friends back at the house would be jealous that they weren’t able to be with us for such a phenomenal time in the Lord. We’d had church in the produce department! Who would have thought?! God. He is not limited to time or space, location or planning on our part. He is always there and He has a plan to use us if we’ll just pay attention and be ready to participate. He knew just what our new friend needed and we were fortunate enough to get to be a part of it.
Brendon Manning was right: there are no neutral exchanges, so make sure you’re ready for them, no matter how mundane you think they will be. God has a plan for everything and everyone…even you…even when you think that you’re just out to buy okra.
“But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess.” 1 Peter 3:15 (NET)
Addendum: I’ve checked back with our new friend several times since then. His eyes have been bright and his faith strong, but his situation remains largely unchanged at present. I’m certain he wouldn’t mind if you added him to your prayer list, as well.