Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Did You Hear of the City on a Hill?

I was at my local Publix on Saturday, foolishly thinking that would be the last time I had to go to the grocery store before Thanksgiving. (HA! I've since been twice more...) But on that particular day, I was feeling very accomplished. My house was clean and organized. I was way ahead on all my business projects. And I had just filled my cart with all the things I needed for my Thanksgiving food "assignments".  It was crowded and crazy, but I managed to slip into one of the checkout lanes and survey my purchases once more to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything. I was good. Ah, it was a good day.

Suddenly there was a bit of a ruckus two lanes over, and I glanced over to see what the issue was. I saw a woman with two small children in her cart, a woman I had passed earlier in one of the aisles. When I had passed her before, I had then noticed that she looked rather frazzled. She had a small boy in the seat of her cart (he looked about 2 or 3) and was clutching the hand of a beautiful curly-blonde-haired girl, who was about 6 or 7. What had struck me then was that the little girl was terrified. I didn't understand the panic on her face until I looked at her once more, and I realized that she was autistic. Upon another glance at the sweet little boy, I realized that he was, too. I had smiled at the woman, who wearily smiled back at me, and thought to myself, "Wow, she's a superwoman. Grocery shopping on a Saturday in Publix in this busy area of town? With two small autistic kids? Wow."

So it was this same woman I observed in the checkout lane two slots over from me. But the noise I heard was coming from the little girl.

Remember I said that she looked terrified when I passed her in the aisle? Well, that would be an understatement at this point. She was so terrified she was frozen in one of those open-mouthed-cries, tears streaming down, unable to breathe, and when she was able to catch a breath it was deep and rasping. She finally began to wail, darting glances from side to side as if something was after her, and begging to go home.

My heart broke. This was not a child who didn't get her choice of cereal and was pitching a fit. This was not a child who was promised a balloon and was told she wasn't good, so no balloon. This was a clearly disturbed child who was very overwhelmed by all of the noise and chaos around her. And it hurt my heart to see her.

As she continued to wail, loudly and pitifully, her mother wrapped her arms around her and tried to comfort her, to no avail. She only grew louder and more afraid. And people began to stare.

My first instinct was to get over there and at least put the poor woman's groceries on the belt for her so she could comfort her daughter. The poor woman who was now apologizing to everyone around her for the commotion, who had lines furrowing deeper through her forehead every second, and was biting her lip frantically as she tried to calm her daughter. But I was stuck. I couldn't move forward, because there was a very large woman in front of me, and there was no sliding around her. I couldn't move backwards, because there was an elderly couple behind me with two carts who had already loaded half of the first one onto the belt after my purchases. I was stuck.

And then the woman behind me began to talk. She said things like, "Can't anyone control their children anymore?" and "A little discipline goes a long way." I bit my tongue for as long as I could stand to, but she took it too far when she sniffed out "Spare the rod, spoil the child!" I let out a breath and turned around.

"Ma'am, that little girl over there is autistic. She's having a hard time because it's too loud and crowded in here today, and she's terrified. She's expressing herself in the only way she knows how to. And her poor momma is doing her best to get out of the store, but you know what? Autistic kids have to eat, too!" Her eyes grew wider with each word I said, and I wondered if I'd gone too far.

I turned back around again, trembling. I half-expected the woman to tap me on my shoulder and give me a piece of her mind, but she didn't. In fact, she didn't say anything else.

Goodness, it felt like forever I had been standing in this line. I needed it to move! I felt helpless, wanting to do something for the poor mom, but completely powerless and just plain stuck!

But then something amazing happened. The manager of the store walked over to the mother, whispered something in her ear, and the mother's face completely changed. She smiled, sighed and nodded, and the manager scooped up the little girl. The child had no idea who had her, but she covered her head with her arms and buried her face in the managers chest. And then...she was quiet. As I watched the manager held the little girl tightly, and then walked alongside the mother, carrying her daughter out to the car...arms still tightly covering her head.

Walking to my car, I was fighting back the tears. I felt so sad for that mom, and wondered what it was like to have two special needs children. I wondered what SHE felt like there in the store that afternoon. I wonder if that was how she felt often. I wondered when was the last time that she was able to go shopping alone, or even have her nails done, or get a cup of coffee from Starbucks. It made me and my "small" agenda feel pretty silly.

And it made me think of the song that Casting Crowns sings, City on a Hill. Have you heard it?

Did you hear of the city on a hill?
Said one old man to the other
It once shined bright and it would be shining still
But they all started turning on each other
You see, the poets thought the dancers were shallow
And the soldiers thought the poets were weak
And the elders saw the young ones as foolish
And the rich man never heard the poor man speak

How often do we, maybe without even realizing it, see someone else who seems to us to be shallow, weak or foolish? And how do we treat those people? Do we talk about them behind their backs? Do we discount others because they don't have what we do? Or because they don't act as we think they should act?

And one by one, they ran away
With their made up minds, to leave it all behind
And the light began to fade, in the city on a hill...
Each one thought that they knew better
That they were different by design
Instead of standing strong together
They let their differences divide

This is what amazes me about the human race: we have the potential to do SO much good - but we get caught up in ourselves and what WE thing is best. Instead of celebrating our differences, and the way we each have been gifted or designed, we group everyone into their own little categories. And by all means, don't mess with the categories.

But it was the rhythm of the dancers
That gave the poets life
It was the spirit of the poets
That gave the soldiers strength to fight
It was the fire of the young ones
It was the wisdom of the old
It was the story of the poor man
That needed to be told

That small autistic child touched me in a way no teacher, no preacher, no scholar or instructor ever could. And I submit this: that it doesn't matter your age, your size, your talent, your handicap, your race, your IQ, your gifting, your shortcomings or your strengths! It doesn't matter whether your house is always clean or it's always dirty! It doesn't matter whether you're done with all your shopping a week before the event, or you have to travel back to the store multiple times!

Celebrate the differences. Celebrate the dancers, the poets, the soldiers, the young and old, the poor and the rich. Look for opportunities to be changed for good by those around you. Don't you think life would be better for it?

Come home
And the Father's calling still
Come home
To the city on the hill
Come home

Happy Thanksgiving!


  1. That was a beautiful post! Thank you for that. We know exactly how that mom felt. My Grandbaby, TJ, is Autistic and its a big challenge to take him places. We have to do it anyway because its very important for him to be out and about. People dont understand when its too much for him or doesn't "behave." Thank you for speaking out on behalf of the mom and kids. My daughter says she wishes more people would. It is few and far between that my daughter gets to do nice things for herself because I'm the only one who can sit with TJ and I help on a daily basis while she works and etc. Just no time left in the day between her job and taking care of his and family needs. She is amazing just like that mom.