As a boy, growing up in South Baltimore, I had two newspaper routes. I delivered the News American to the front door of every one of my 114 customers. I got strong cycling legs from this; carrying about 35- 40 pounds of newspapers nestled on a two-inch wide strap, diagonally positioned across the front of my body like a sash. I walked briskly for about 45 minutes to an hour everyday; up five steps, down five steps, over and over. I often had face to face contact with folks, got to hear their stories, and enjoyed, (unbeknownst to me) a practical course in pastoral care.
Many of my customers- my neighbors- were older than my parents. I would often have five minute chats with one who had a surgery coming up; another whose family was struggling with something, and another whose husband could always be found in the bar up the street. His wife said he was at “his office”. They had seven kids, and she always looked frazzled and tired. Yet she always smiled. Never complained.
On those days when the newspaper delivery truck was late, I was late. Mrs. Burke was at her door, waiting for me with an impatient look of disgust. She frustrated me because she was mad at me for something I had no control over.
You ever have an injustice like that? You are unjustly criticized for something you could do nothing to prevent. I was 17 years old by that time. No quite an adult and not quite a kid. I sure couldn’t address this elder woman as an equal nor could I justify my performance with excuses she wasn’t buying and was not interested in hearing. I kind of resented her after awhile.
Then one day, as I reached the steps of their house, her husband came to the door to receive the paper. Sadly he informed me that his wife had cancer and was in the hospital for surgery. I could see the worry in his eyes. As I delivered the rest of my papers, I couldn’t get his face off my mind. And in turn, I could envision her face (with her customary look of disgust at my being late), and pondered.
I had my license by then, so I borrowed Dad’s car and drove across the Hanover Street Bridge to the hospital. Mrs. Burke was as surprised to see me enter her room as I was to be entering it. It was just the right thing to do, and somehow that night, I had the guts to do it. I didn’t know the Bible very well then, and I wasn’t even going to church, but the seeds had been planted long ago in my soul.
I was kind of scared of this woman, so it must have been a God thing behind it; certainly no virtue of my own.
From that time forward, after she came home, she never scowled at me again on those days when I was late. In her kind smile I could see I was being pardoned. And when she died, the family told me how my visit had meant so much to her and that she frequently talked about it.
It’s no wonder that Jesus says that the whole Bible hangs on two main commands: Love God and love your neighbor. I learned how much influence that second one can have on so many people and in so many situations, and for such a very long time. That was forty years ago and it still touches me when I think of it.