A little less than half a year ago, my wife and I picked up our family and moved from Washington, D.C., to Seattle. There are many things that I miss about D.C.: the close proximity to some of the best museums in the country, as well as the incredibly intelligent and ambitious people who populate that city. But what I do not miss about D.C. is the lack of grocery stores.
To be fair, there was a grocery store not far from where I lived, but getting there was a pain. The only two ways to access the store were both single-lane roads winding tightly up a steep hill. Since the grocery store shares a parking lot with a crowded Metro station, those narrow and winding roads were often clogged both with pedestrians going to and from work, as well as buses which could only navigate the sharp turns by straddling both lanes of traffic at once. I always cringed at the thought of making a run to that store, and it was no different when I walked through its doors last November.
Chicken stock. I was just there to get chicken stock and nothing more. I knew where the chicken stock was, and snatched it off the shelf like it was the last case of bottled water as a hurricane was bearing down on the city. I speedwalked to the registers and scanned the situation like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. Aisle 6 was a negative, with a woman’s cart filled to capacity. The gentleman in the front of Aisle 5 was too friendly, intent on making conversation instead of purchases. But Aisle 4, that was the way to go. Only two customers were lined up, and that lane was limited to 15 items or less. I quietly thanked God that this trip was going to be mercifully short.
But of course, as it seems to be my lot in life, I chose the wrong line. The couple at the front of the line was having some issue with their purchase. They poked around their pocketbook as the clerk took items off the belt and placed them to the side. I desperately looked around to see if it wasn’t too late to go to Aisle 5 instead. I watched in dismay as the friendly man flew through his purchases and departed with a cheery wave of his hand. I pursed my lips and peered around the customer in front of me to catch a glimpse of the couple who had so perfectly sabotaged my exit from this purgatory.
I could see little of them except their dark curly hair and ill-kept clothes. Their heads were down as they continued to fiddle with their pocketbook, and the attendant took more canned items off the belt and placed them in a cart next to her. I didn’t really know what was going on, but frankly I didn’t care. They had more than 15 items and shouldn’t have been there in the first place. I had no compassion on people who couldn’t do something as simple as making a purchase at a grocery store. I rolled my eyes as the attendant took their final item off the belt.
Finally, the couple shuffled on their way, heads down, their empty shopping bag swinging at their side. All that time, and all for nothing. I shook my head in disbelief, and cast a disapproving look at them as they walked away. The man in front of me quickly purchased his groceries, as people are supposed to do, and then it was my turn. I stepped up to swipe my card, when I finally saw what the attendant had been taking off the belt:
Baby formula. Cans of it, perhaps 15 in all. The couple must have been trying to buy baby formula using a city program like WIC or SNAP when they were told that the type or size was not covered. And so they had scoured their pocketbook for any spare change to pay for the formula, only to discover they didn’t have enough cash for even a single can. They were forced to leave the store empty-handed, which meant that their child would have an empty stomach that night.
My own stomach dropped. I stared at the cans wordlessly, struggling to comprehend the situation as well as the depth of my own callous selfishness. I looked up and tried to catch a glimpse of the couple, but they were no longer in sight. I started to walk away from the register.
“Sir, sir, your soup? Sir?!” the attendant called after me. I kept walking. I didn’t care about the soup. I had to find that couple. I nearly sprinted out the door and scanned the parking lot, trying to find the dark-haired couple with the threadbare ski jackets. People looked at me curiously as I ran from one end of the parking lot to the other, jumping up every once in a while to get a better view. I couldn’t find them. They were gone.
I went back to my own car and sat down heavily in the front seat. I placed my hands on the steering wheel and began to weep, furious at myself. I had enough money in my wallet to pay for all the cans that they had wanted to buy, and several more. But I had let my selfishness get in the way. No, it wasn’t selfishness that had made me ignore the plight of that couple, because I would have been more than happy to pay for their baby formula. It was something else. It was my enslavement to my own convenience. I could not see their plight because my convenience was at stake.
The United States has perfected the art of convenience. For instance, if we don’t want to get out of our car to order food, no problem. We invented the drive-thru, the most iconic of American institutions, where we can sit in the comfort of our car and order food from an unintelligible talking box as we inhale carbon monoxide from the car in front of us. Convenience has become so omnipresent in American society that it is no longer an amenity but a necessity, even a right. When we are robbed of our convenience, we react as if we are being robbed of our property or life.
Rather than standing against this cultural phenomenon, the church often conforms to it. In an admirable but terribly misguided attempt to reach all people, we succumb to our culture’s veneration of convenience. We cram a Sunday service, that blessed celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ, into a single hour or even less. We go to great lengths to minimize any possible inconvenience to church attendees, and in so doing, we communicate to our people that convenience possesses great value. And American Christians have internalized this notion so completely that nowadays people are downright miffed when church goes beyond its time limits, and they have to miss kickoff or tee time or brunch as a result. Convenience has become king, but not just in American society—in American churches as well.
Yet by its nature, Christianity is inconvenient. The story of the Good Samaritan reminds us what true ministry looks like: it requires that we selflessly sacrifice our time, our safety, our money, and, yes, even our convenience, to serve those who are in need. And what more perfect illustration of inconvenience is there than the Incarnation, that God would leave the perfection of heaven to become a man and walk with us through the mess of our lives, even submitting to the most terrible “inconvenience” of all: the crucifixion. Convenience is nothing less than a heresy that runs contrary to some of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be a follower of Christ.
I wish I could share a happy ending to this story, that I later ran into that couple and purchased a year’s worth of Similac for them. But that never happened. I still look back on that November afternoon with great shame, but with even greater resolve. I am committed to following Christ which means I must also be committed to inconvenience. I don’t want expediency to distort my understanding of what it means to take up my cross, nor make me ignorant to the pain of those around me. As long as Christ sits enthroned in my heart, convenience must take a back seat.