I had a sad and moving experience last week in the most mundane of circumstances. It was during my weekly shop. As background, maybe I should explain that I hate the weekly shop. I gave up supermarket shopping years ago when they invented online shopping but when we arrived in the Middle East last summer, online shopping was in its infancy.
I had a brief fling with it but we didn’t get on and agreed to part company after my second delivery. The combination of our medieval WIFI and my impatient fingers meant I selected things too many times, only realising I had been click-happy when my first delivery arrived.
Amongst other things, I received 120 eggs, 15 bunches of bananas, 5 pineapples and a tonne of creamed corn (it looked like something you might use to fill in holes before you march out of quarters but, apparently, some people use it to make pancakes).
I ended up having to flog it all second-hand on our compound’s version of eBay, mainly to friends who, I suspect, were pity-purchasing to save me having to drink 10 gallons of milk myself. But I was still so keen to avoid going back to the supermarket that I persevered online.
An inexplicable repetition of the first delivery led me to call time on having the contents of Carrefour delivered to my doorstep on a weekly basis. Grim-faced, I headed back to the actual shops.
The reason supermarket trips here fill me with particular dread is the appalling experiences I had as a newbie expat. With my husband away, three cross children in tow due to the school holidays, tripping in my hand-me-down-abaya that was a foot too long, unable to locate the things I wanted, baffled by the currency, we spent some very unhappy times there.
To top things off, I would almost always time it, regardless of when we had left home, so that we arrived at the check out as the call to prayer started, meaning a half an hour wait by the sweetie section, with it’s choice of full-blown tantrums x 3 versus kiddie-sugar-high x 3. The worst outing was when I persuaded the children to behave with the promise of a post-shop McDonalds, only to have the shutters descend as we arrived to claim our not-so-Happy Meals…
So my new policy is to head to the shops as they open, without the children, with a shopping list organised in order of the aisles, grab a trolley and screech around the place like Road Runner.
Last week, I employed this tactic to great effect. My only mistake was not putting my fresh stuff into plastic bags in an attempt to help the planet. Over here, you have to get everything weighed before you queue to pay and the person weighing things wasn’t interested in my plastic-not-so-fantastic views. He insisted I use his plastic bags.
A lady dressed in a hijab, not the burka, a Muslim lady from another country maybe, pushed ahead of me at the weighing counter as I was being served. The weighing bit of shopping is often a bun fight, only with melons and cucumbers being lobbed from all directions by impatient customers with little regard for queuing.
I therefore assumed the lady was pushing in. I watched her suspiciously- I was on a mission to get out of the supermarket before prayers and I wasn’t going to be thwarted. But she started ripping off bags and stuffing them with my things. She was helping me. I smiled at her, ashamed.
From there, I ran to the frozen aisle, then the bread section, before joining the shortest queue. As I stood in line, I tried to maximise my time by sending an email from my phone. There was only one person ahead of me so I kept looking up to check when I needed to start shovelling my shopping out of my trolley.
I was distracted by my phone so it was a few minutes before I realised our queue had ground to a halt. The check out assistant was buzzing for help. I felt irritated- I’d chosen the shortest, yet slowest queue. When the assistant started moving things off the conveyor belt, I realised we were in for a wait. This woman must be doing a return.
I wanted out before prayers so I looked across at the neighbouring queue. It was like a bus lane when you’re stuck in traffic: empty and inviting. I went to heave my trolley across to it but the men behind me , who’d already clocked the situation, darted ahead of me. I could join their line and wait behind two customers or stay put behind one who was causing a ruckus. I stayed where I was and started to pay attention because I was now really fed up.
When I looked harder, I realised the customer causing the delay was the kind lady who had bagged up my fruit. She watched as the check out staff removed half her shopping and took her two bank notes. She slowly walked away with the small bag of shopping she had paid for, looking back at the pile of shopping she had left behind, which was already being taken back to the shop floor.
Big, sorrowful eyes peered our from under her hijab. She looked ashamed, sad and a bit desperate. And then the penny dropped. She hadn’t had enough money to pay for everything. I ran after her and clumsily asked her what had happened. She said she couldn’t afford everything she’d chosen. ‘I just need the water,’ she explained.
In her embarrassment, I imagine, she’d left the most important thing. It was 45C outside. She’d want the water at ifthar if she was fasting. I ran back.
The water was the only thing the check out staff hadn’t whisked away. I put it through with my shopping and gave it to the lady. We smiled at one another. She still looked ashamed, like me at the weighing counter. And then she turned and walked away and I tried not to cry.
I realised my cross had escaped from my abaya and I hoped she had seen it because I knew it wasn’t me who was watching out for her- she was firmly on God’s radar, even if she’d barely been on mine.
And the funny thing was that when the check out staff processed my bank card, it was declined. It was my turn to feel embarrassed. The man behind looked like I had done twenty minutes earlier: impatient and stressed. I asked to try my card again, praying it would go through. It did. A timely reminder that I was in no way superior to my new friend.
I left the supermarket before prayers but actually, for me, prayer time began when the lady and I smiled our good byes- for the rest of the day, I kept praying for her. I was affected by her vulnerability, particularly in a place built, in recent times, on such vast wealth. The water had cost pennies. It was no grand gesture on my part but it was upsetting that she hadn’t been able to pay for something essential and so cheap herself.
The thing that had seemed to be a blight in my plans, delaying me when I wanted to escape, became the most significant thing that happened to me that day.
A few weeks before this encounter, I heard a talk online given by Phil Moore (of Everyday Church) that has stayed with me – one of those talks I hope I will always remember because I hope it will reshape my life. I have put a link to it here.
One chunk of the talk discusses the idea that our destiny lies in the detail of our life. Here in the desert, about to turn 40, having stepped away from law, with all three children about to be in full-time education, I have wondered where my life is headed. What is my destiny? Rather a grand question!
The answer is far less grand. My destiny, according to the Bible, is in the details of my life: who I live near, the people I meet at the school gates, the coffee morning I might get invited to, the chat I have with the man fixing my bike, the lady who helps me when I’ve not bagged up my shopping properly.
These things aren’t coincidence- they are God’s plan for me. To quote Phil Moore, ‘The detail of your life is the destiny of your life.’ The details may seem as boring as bananas, as neutral as milk, as spiky and tough as pineapples or as pointless as creamed corn. But when God gives us a tonne of creamed corn, perhaps he wants us to start flipping pancakes. We may not understand the plan but he does.
Instead of hurtling through life like Road Runner, feeling as though the pressures of life are snapping at my heels like Coyote, as though half the people I meet are obstacles in my path, I can take a different view. These people, obstacles and delays are my life. I may have my plan for the day, for my week or even the next decade, but God’s plan probably involves different things, more chaos and lots more people.
In his talk, Phil Moore quotes C.S.Lewis, who wrote:
There is definitely a peace that flows from this outlook. We can more easily accept a day that refuses to go the way we hoped once we realise that the person who’s held us up was always supposed to be part of the plan. There is freedom, richness and joy in knowing that our destiny isn’t written in some abstract way in the stars, it’s to be discovered daily in the details of our life.
Another favourite of mine