The line at the food pantry had been endless all morning long. By two o'clock over four hundred families would be represented in that sea of people bearing beat up reusable grocery bags and noisy metal carts. I had been moving as quickly as I could all morning to try and get the line down but the people kept coming and the line kept growing.
"Number 31?" I called out, looking for the next in line to receive the food pantry's daily offering of boxed foods, canned goods and almost over-ripe fruit. At the front of the line stood a frail woman, hunched over and stiff, the crown of her head facing me with a mess of unkempt silvery white hair. She stepped away from the crowd and toward me handing over her disc bearing the number "31" on top. This is how order is kept in the food pantry line. Each person is given a disc when they check-in. The discs start at 1 and go to 100, then the numbers begin again at 1. By 10:00 we had already been through our first 100. With so many faces streaming through the doors I was becoming numb and robotic until I reached forward to take disc number 31. Suddenly I was met with a stench that pierced my nose. My next in line, number 31, wreaked of clothes that hadn't been washed in weeks and hair that hadn't been touched by hot water or shampoo for just as long. The stench of the homeless is not an unfamiliar scent in the food pantry but this was more severe and intense than anything I had ever encountered before. I immediately held my breath in an attempt to cut off the odor and, hopefully, disguise any facial expression that would have given away the assault on my nostrils.
I gave myself a quick pep talk as number 31 and I walked over to the canned foods. "Don't let on that she stinks!" I told myself. Slowly my food pantry guest and I walked down the line of food offerings. Every step was laborious. The woman's movement was arthritic and she appeared to be in great discomfort. As we moved down the line she started to move at an even slower pace but I didn't really notice. I was so focused on keeping my nose pointed in the other direction that I didn't realize how much she was suffering.
Finally she spoke up. "Can you take this bag for me?" she asked. Humiliated, I realized the great anguish in this woman's face. She was crippled to begin with and the bags loaded with heavy cans and cumbersome boxes were causing her more pain. I quickly lifted the bags off her frail arms and apologized for failing to do so earlier. Of course I couldn't tell her why I had been so negligent. I couldn't tell her that her odor was so off-putting that I wanted to be as far away from her as possible. Inside I felt horrible. In a lame attempt to make myself more comfortable I had allowed this poor woman to be more uncomfortable.
Number 31 and I made our way to the end of the food pantry offerings. She was winded from the short stroll (and unnecessary carrying of heavy bags).
"How are you getting your groceries home?" I asked.
"My car... I have a car. It's just a few spaces down the road." She told me.
"Let me carry them out for you."
I couldn't undo my selfishness and thoughtlessness of just a few minutes ago but I could try to redeem myself and show this woman that she was special, cared for and valued. She accepted my offer and the two of us walked toward the door. As we were walking over the threshold, about to take the single step down onto the pavement she looked up at me. She was practically in tears and her voice choked on her words. "I had such a terrible day yesterday and today...it...I...I'm not doing much better."
"I think you're doing great." I told her. I didn't know what else to say. I didn't know what was causing her body such distress but I just knew that something was physically ailing her. I couldn't make it better but I could encourage her that she was an over-comer.
The woman looked up and gave me a faint smile. Somehow in that moment number 31 didn't stink any longer. The odor that had struck me so forcibly was gone. All I saw and smelled was a sweet child of God, precious and loved.
We made it to the car and I placed her bags inside. She gave me a heartfelt, genuine "thank you" and that was it. She got in her car; I went back to the food pantry and we both went on with our days. I wish I would have asked for her name or introduced myself but in that brief encounter the thought didn't even cross my mind. I went from being consumed with a smell to being overwhelmingly convicted by my lack of consideration.
As I made my way through the line with more visitors to the food pantry I realized the magnitude of what had happened with number 31. In that brief encounter God revealed to me a priceless truth of His character. God - perfect, spotless and smelling of sweet roses - looks upon you and me and loves us dearly. Even when we wreaked of sin and were clothed in filthy rags of rebellion, God loved us. You and I are valuable to God and He cherishes us. Each one of us is of precious value to Him. God doesn't look at us and see a terrible sinner or our past transgressions. He looks at us and sees who we are in Christ - redeemed, saved, made new, reborn.
Before we ever loved God, He loved us. It is that truth written in 1 John 4:19 that makes it possible for me to stand in the presence of number 31 and not smell her unwashed clothes. It is because God loved me first that I can love others. God loved me before I acknowledged Him, knew Him and repented of my sin against Him. God loved me so much that He gave up His Son's life to save me. Why? Because I am precious in His sight and so is His beloved number 31.