Grocery Store Checkout

Thirty years ago when my husband and I got married in York, Pennsylvania, I asked a friend from seminary to read Scripture. She and I had both just graduated from Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. I remember that she drove all the way from Texas to the wedding and read l Corinthians 13 like there was no tomorrow! After that, we lost touch. I caught wisps of her life- I’m still not sure how, since this was in the days before Face book and we didn’t have many mutual friends. She had married a man from China. She had 2 children. She lived on a farm near Austin, Texas. That didn’t surprise me- I remembered she was a Texas native. I had memories of our friendship in seminary- her practical advice on relationships, her ready smile and quick humor. I even remember her sermon in Duke Chapel during our seminary years which she called “Grocery Store Checkout.” The theme was that you can load your cart with all kinds of delicious items, but sooner or later you have to check out and pay for every single item you’ve put in your cart.

A few weeks ago, in emailing a student whose name was very similar to my seminary friend’s, I accidentally emailed her. She wrote back and said that it was nice to hear from me but that she assumed the message was meant for someone else. Her return address showed she lived not far from our oldest daughter Melissa in Austin. Melissa is a sous chef at Sobani restaurant in Lakeway. She works 6 days a week and has Sunday off, so from time to time my husband and I will drive down Saturday, eat in her restaurant, and then spend Sunday with her. Eating gourmet food at your child’s restaurant is a tough job, but someone’s got to do it! What can I say, we’re sacrificial parents.

When we decided to go to Austin last weekend, my accidental email to a friend I’ve not seen for 30 years suddenly seemed serendipitous. So I called her to see if, after all this time, she still remembered me enough to want to have lunch while I was in town. As soon as I heard her voice, the years peeled away. She was delighted to hear from me and incredulous that we’d been living in the same state for 12 years without getting together. We made plans to meet for lunch.

It was a wonderful time of catch up. We talked nonstop for 4 hours, sharing the triumphs and traumas of our lives over the past many years until it was time to part with the promise to not let 30 years go by again before we got together.

Mingled in with the joy and delight of seeing her again were a couple of troubling questions I directed at myself-

How does someone let 30 years go by without contacting a friend? I thought of it only from my side, but I guess there are two. I started thinking- do I treat God like this? God is living close by, but until there is an opening in my schedule, I don’t make time to get together with God? In the various ups and downs of her life, my friend had called on other friends, with whom she shared daily contact, on whom she could rely to help her in a crisis. She hadn’t called on me because I was a friend in memory only. That was at least half my fault.

So since I had allowed myself to be out of touch with her, suppose I had had a health crisis- maybe I got sick at home and my family was all out of town and I needed a friend to take me to the doctor. Would I call her and say “Hi, I know I haven’t been in touch for 30 years, but could you drive to Dallas from Austin and take me to my doctor appointment? “ For many people, God is a friend in memory only, a nostalgic wisp of emotion from childhood.

Thinking of this in terms of my friend’s Grocery Store sermon from seminary- if I put preoccupation with my own agenda in my shopping cart and leave out time for nurturing relationships, (with others and with God) sooner or later I’m going to have to pay for what’s in the cart and for what isn’t. The price is the loss of the opportunity for a friendship that could enrich and nurture me and my friend. And we never know when checkout time will occur. It’s not always a time of our choosing.

The recent accidental death of a student at the school where I teach reminds me and many others of the fragility of human life and the often unexpected intrusion of death. It’s too late for me to call this student and get a cup of coffee and offer her encouragement in her vocation. I had planned to do that this month, but now it’s too late. But it’s not too late for me and my friend from seminary.

We’d better not wait another 30 years for our next lunch, though.

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