The campus minister pulled me aside. He explained that the college administrative office had called him. Apparently, there was an older woman, and she was (what was then called) a shut-in. Her elderly mother had called to ask if some young girl from the college could visit her. The college office, not knowing who to ask, had called the Christian group on campus to see if they could help. Could we?
The minister persisted and cajoled. I relented. It seemed the right thing to do. I can’t say that I was overcome with charity and goodwill. I wasn’t. Neither did I feel remotely spiritual about the whole thing. It would be a chore. My attitude was that of Christian duty. Within a few days, I contacted Peg by phone with the number I had been handed.
No one prepared me for our first meeting, but someone should have.
I didn’t notice her ear at first, because the rest of her smooth, wrinkle-free face was complicated and unfamiliar. Her face had rarely seen the sun and seemed younger in contrast to her graying brows. One of her eyes was permanently opened way-too-wide. The pink lining below was exposed and as it filled with relentlessly flowing, but unemotional tears, it needed to be dabbed at constantly with a tissue. This kept Peg’s ancient, dusty lavender calico cotton housedress dry.
Peg was blind in that eye, and it rolled as she spoke. She drooled constantly, alternating tissue swipes between her teary eye and drooping mouth. Her attempts to stay engaged in our conversation were interspersed with fidgets of all types, as she tried to adjust herself to be comfortable.
Peggy never smiled, because she physically couldn’t. Her mouth was an exaggerated, permanent frown. Her chin was misshaped and small, and her top teeth seemed oddly large. Her overbite resulted in irregular buck teeth. Her nose was perfect, the only perfect feature on her otherwise non-symmetrical and contorted face.
Peggy never smiled, because she physically couldn’t.
I quickly lost sight of Peg’s physical features when we visited. Because she was difficult to truly engage in conversation, most of my energy went into lifting the basket for her used tissues. I would nod and ask questions, though events in her life never changed. I would stay an hour and hear of her soap operas and game shows, which were her world.
Then I would traipse up the long hill to the college that stood regally on the hill, looking down at the town below. Peg soon referred to me as “her girl.” She would call and ask when I was coming, expectant, like I was hired. I cancelled some weeks and forced myself to go others. I juggled visits to Peg for the next two years, until I transferred to another university in another state. From the beginning, I had thought this would be a chore, and it was.
Somewhere along the way, Peg nonchalantly told me her story. It came in bits and pieces, and she was clinical about it. She gave away her true feelings, however, because those were the only times that she didn’t strain to make eye contact. She would bow her head when she spoke of her early years. Her father, whom she never met, had beat her mother fiercely throughout her pregnancy with Peg. When Peg was born, he looked at her once, left, and they never saw or heard from him again.
Because she was uncomfortable to be with, no one bothered to be with her.
Peggy was prickly, even condescending, in the oddest way. I was not drawn to her, but obligation kept me there, less and less as time went on. She saw me as hers, and was sometimes rude and superior, not too different from a bossy little sister. She’d get pushy if I couldn’t come, because she wanted attention, and was sometimes grumpy when I would come. She was a challenge. I know now that God challenges us. He’s in these situations. He creates them and smiles when we rise to the occasion. He’s with us when it’s hard. I didn’t know back then.
Peg’s birthday was around Christmas, and I always tried to remember her. I did for years and years. I called once or twice a year, but hated doing so because she complained that I hadn’t called when I did. I think of Peg every now and then, and I have regrets. I never shared Jesus with her. I didn’t love her, deep inside.
I learned how to be with her. She was a character. I was loyal, and frequently handed a tissue box to her, attending to her physical needs when I could. I heard the same stories and complaints, over and over. I stayed in her life, but not enough. One Christmas, I called. She had died the previous Christmas. I had not called that year. Like I said, regrets.
Then it occurred to me that I did have it to do over again, all around me, every day.
The truth is, I oftentimes give these people no thought. Like the 18 year old freshman in college, I’m busy. Walking taxing terrain to visit someone on their own turf is burdensome. But my campus minister is no longer there to coerce me, and I don’t. Galatians 6:9-10 tells us:
“Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap a harvest if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith”
Romans 12:10 paints another picture; “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor.” This is an anti-apathy verse! Scripture tells us to be specifically concerned about is the poor. Proverbs 21:13 says, “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor Will also cry himself and not be answered.” But it’s not just the poor who we should notice. It’s anybody in need, any way, wherever we are.
There are numerous reasons why we can be indifferent. By definition, we don’t notice our indifference, because we’re not focused on what we don’t think to care about. It’s a huge blindspot. We don’t realize what we don’t see. Other times, we simply choose to not care, or to not be involved. Or we become hardened or overwhelmed.
We have to fight indifference, or it can take over and we can be so much less than God asks us to be.
Jesus demonstrated that the opposite of indifference is compassion. In Matthew 9:36, we are told, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” There wasn’t a crowd. There were (multiple) crowds. That’s a lot of people to care about. But He cared, for each of them.
In John 21:17, Jesus talks with Peter about Peter’s devotion to Him. Here's their brief exchange;
“The third time (Jesus) said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’
(Peter) said, ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’
Jesus said, ‘Feed my sheep.’”
Interestingly, in I Peter 3:8, Peter instructs the church with his own version of Jesus’ admonition. He tells us, “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.” Peter got it. So should we.
Is it possible to enter a church where Jesus’ love flows palpably, but where people are indifferent to those around them? Tragically, yes. Unless the Holy Spirit prods us, and we respond to His urging, we may never realize the opportunities that we have missed. It’s when we intentionally avail ourselves to Him that He can love and serve His sheep through us. The world is full of people like Peggy, but it's not our duty to love them. It’s an honor to love them, in His name.