An Unlikely Hero

Recently, I went shopping for some clothes to wear on an upcoming trip to Thailand. I am speaking at the Asian Mission Forum in Chiang Mai and needed something appropriate and cool (the temperature “cool” rather than the fashion “cool”).

The woman presiding over the Men’s department was in her mid-60’s, grey-headed and life-lined. She greeted me with a smile and showed me the best options for the clothing I described. She was friendly, helpful, and courteous.

Along the way, she asked about my trip to Thailand and why I was traveling there. When I told her about the Forum, her smile hit high beam. And a testimonial came tumbling out of her that was as inspirational as it was unexpected—a story of grace and courage in a department store aisle.

She named the church and denomination she belonged to and, patting my arm, assured me that we all belong to God’s family, whatever our stripe and tribe might be. She talked about how much she loved her church family, how much they had meant to her in difficult times. She quoted something her pastor had told her, with such respect and reverence in her voice you’d think she was quoting an Apostle.

I excused myself to try on some pants.

She took up again when I returned. Ten years before, she’d lost her husband to cancer—“He was a fine man … a good man.” They had 35 years together. “I miss him every day,” she told me, blinking back tears. The medical bills had wiped them out financially. But she pointed to her name tag and told me, “God always takes care of me. He’s given me a job and a paycheck. And I’m doing just fine.” Her chin raised proudly.

I went to the dressing room to try on a shirt.

Six years past, she continued, she’d lost her 27-year-old and only son to heart disease. “Born that way, poor child. They told me he wouldn’t live to be a teenager. But he showed them,” she said with a twinkle of delight and defiance in her eye. “Oh, he had such a faith! He loved God and knew that God loved him. Passed away in his sleep.”

We moved to the register so she could ring up my purchases.

“Two years ago, my house burned down. I was asleep when the fire started. God woke me up!” she glanced my way with a smile. “Can you believe it? With so many other things on his mind, he reaches down and shakes me awake so I won’t be in danger. Isn’t that just like him?” she chuckled to herself.

I handed over my credit card.

“Then, six months ago, I had a heart attack. Just a tiny one, mind you. God was watching over me again,” she assured me. “Not a bit of permanent damage. And I’m believing in him to take as good a care of me in the future as he has in the past.”

I took my receipt, offered a heart-felt “God bless you,” and walked back to my car. There in the parking lot, standing on the sun-saturated asphalt, the air shimmering in waves about me, I had a moment of worship.

She was just a talkative old lady, lonely, with a sad, sad story to tell. But it dawned on me that she was, in fact, an unlikely hero of the faith. In the span of 15 minutes, she’d relayed a handful of traumas that—each on their own—had broken other people, stolen their faith, left them bitter and cynical. I had to wonder how I would react to losing a spouse, a child, all my worldly goods, my health. Would my faith survive an assault by one of these disasters? Could it possibly survive them all?

Yet there she stood with her department store name tag and a smile on her face. Every word she spoke was laced with trust in God. Every subject she raised, however traumatic, ended with praise for God. Every wrinkle on her face, every ache in her body, every disappointment ladled over her by circumstance only gave her more chances to proclaim God’s goodness.

I have preached thousands of sermons. I wonder if I ever preached one as powerful, as hopeful, as hers.

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.