The man in line behind me at the downtown thrift shop a few days ago looked pretty rough. Gritty hair, rumpled clothes. Without meaning to, out of the corner of my eye I took him for the local downtown stereotype, subconsciously assigning him a probable past of addiction, conviction, or mental delusion.
“Those are great dishes,” the man said as I laid a set of plates on the register counter. One glance at his genuine face and the life in his eyes showed me I’d underestimated him. He smiled and recited a Bible verse as if the words were as familiar to him as his own name.
I paid for the plates, left the store, and walked to my car convicted. Of the two people in line, only one of us had used the time to do as St. Paul said, “encouraging one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19). And I was not the one.
It shouldn’t have surprised me. That gentleman behind me in line was not the first person I’ve met with unexpected spiritual depth, nor will he likely be the last. Each time it happens, I’m reminded of exactly why Jesus said I should not judge.
I wish I had a prescription for a set of 3-D spiritual glasses that would help me immediately recognize holiness when I encounter it. But at least I can be consoled that I’m in good company. Didn’t some of Jesus’ friends fail to recognize Him after He had risen from the dead? Mary Magdalene saw Him at the tomb and thought He was a gardener; two disciples walked beside Him on the road to Emmaus and took Him for a stranger; His own Apostles thought He was a ghost.
How did this happen? Scripture tells us that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Lk 24:16). In other words, they lacked the 3-D glasses, too.
I’ll say this much for not having them: Life is rich with humbling lessons to learn about other people.
“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” —John 7:24
The first time I saw “Regina,”—many years ago—she was boarding a bus. I was sitting in the back with my high school youth group friends, excited for the weekend retreat ahead of us, when two girls I’d never seen before started making their way down the aisle. Regina and her friend “Vanessa” wore black leather jackets, thick silver chains, and dark eyeliner, had dyed hair, and reeked of cigarette smoke. They acted like they owned the bus, and I wanted them off. Who were these girls, and why were they here to ruin our retreat?
I didn’t have much of a chance to get to know them that weekend, and arriving home I remained outraged by their unwelcome presence. Complaining to a friend from school the following week, I described the girls as “posers”—not realizing that this friend knew Vanessa.
She told Vanessa what I’d said, and the war was on. Vanessa, with Regina listening in the background, called me at home with curses and threats. One Sunday, I was standing along the back wall during Mass (my regular spot) when the two girls came in. As they walked past, Vanessa shoved me in the arm. Hard. My friends planned retaliation, but the drama fizzled out on its own. Nothing more happened.
Nothing, that is, until my senior year, when I took a creative writing course and found myself sitting next to Regina. Class by class, we began to talk—a little, then a lot. Not only did we stop being enemies; we became good friends. I was shocked by how well we got along and how much I enjoyed her sense of humor and her kindness. She was a rebel with a soft heart and, much to my surprise, a kindred spirit.
Regina and I parted ways at graduation and lost touch. Then, a few years ago, our former youth minister emailed me with news about Regina. She had just taken her final vows as a cloistered Carmelite nun.
These days, if I pass by a pierced, dyed, and tattooed teen, I can smile and remember the lesson Regina taught me: don’t judge. Holiness comes in many forms.
“He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” —Luke 19:7
It was Friday, September 14, 2001. The world that my friends and I lived in had been rocked to the core by the events three days prior. We met that night in somber tones, and what would have been a party in other circumstances was now a restless gathering of frightened souls.
“Tommy” was one of people in the group I’d known the longest. His humor was crass, his language foul, and he drank too much. But he respected my faith, and once even told me that he wanted the peace that I had found. That peace had a name: Jesus.
As the usually rowdy group seemed lost that night, a feeling grew within me. I wanted—needed—to ask them to pray with me. It was a request I had never made before; these were friends I’d had long before my conversion, and they were not a praying-together clan. But the inclination grew so strong that I had to heed it, and when I asked the group if we could pray together, no one said no.
Shakily, I began to lead the prayer, only to be loudly interrupted by a guy named Bill shouting to someone across the room, not realizing that the rest of us were praying.
I barely had time to blink before Tommy stepped in. “Bill!” he yelled indignantly. “Shut up, dude! We’re prayin’!” I wish I could say Tommy didn’t use expletives in his directive, but I’m not sure he knew how to speak forcefully without them.
Bill apologized sheepishly, we finished the prayer, and people popped open beer cans. The moment was over, but for me, the memory lasted. What resonated with me long after that night was not the awkwardness of praying with a group of people who usually stuck to just drinking beer, nor the disparity between the heartfelt prayer and the foul language that interrupted it. No, the thing that remained with me was Tommy, trying, in the only way he knew how, to defend the prayer we were saying. Somewhere beneath his gruff behavior was a person who wanted to protect the prayer—the peace—the Jesus—that he had never known.
“Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God.” —1 Corinthians 4:5
There’s no avoiding it; we all live in darkness. The darkness of poverty, of rebellion, of addiction, yes. But also the darkness that veils “things now hidden” and makes us blind to the truth about others. Sometimes we catch glimpses, on earth, of those hidden things—of holiness shining out of darkness, in people like the thrift shop man, Regina, and Tommy—and those glimpses are hints of this promise: one glorious day, a greater Light will dispel the darkness once and for all.
That’s the day, I think, when we will get those 3-D glasses, and where we once saw poverty, and rebel-lion, and addiction, we will recognize the beautiful face of the Risen Christ.