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Theology in the Dressing Room

2012 May 11
by Julie Clawson

With the school semester finally over and summer rapidly approaching, I recently embarked on the dreaded task of shopping for a new swimsuit. While I could easily rant about that process, I wanted to share my encounter with a very interesting dressing room attendant.

To remind my readers who have never actually met me, I am missing my left arm below the elbow (hence the name of my blog – onehandclapping). When I walked walked into the dressing room this lady immediately saw my arm and started offering to do everything for me. She took all the suits, walked me to the handicapped stall, took everything off the hangers for me, undid all the fastenings, and then offered to help me try on the items. While it was a bit infuriating that she assumed that my disability meant that I could not dress myself, I tried to just appreciate her helpfulness. Then she chose to stand right outside my dressing room and talk to me the entire time I was in there. And this wasn’t just small talk either, she essentially delivered a sermon to me about how Jesus had brought me to her to allow her to help a person in need. She then went on about how God has given me strength and grace to manage in this world with just one arm and how blessed I must feel that I have had such grace bestowed upon me.

By that point, I was feeling rather uncomfortable. I hadn’t told her my faith choices, but I did know that the woman who came in before me was Muslim and was having to listen to this sermon. And while I believe that we are all blessed by God, I am not a fan of being pitied because I am “abnormal.” But then this woman started describing a homeless man she had seen on the way in to work. She described how he seemed to have created a home out of a shopping cart and that it was his choice to be living in such misery. She said as she passed him, God told her that she didn’t need to help him because if he chose to he could do something with his life and be blessed too. She then praised me for choosing to live in such a way that I can receive God’s blessing.

I didn’t want to argue with her, so I gave her a quick thanks and walked away as she called out to me to always remember to trust in and praise Jesus. But it was such a strange encounter that it’s been hard to stop thinking about it. I don’t know her and don’t want to so readily judge her as she did me and the homeless man, but I couldn’t help but see her as the perfect example of why so many Christians are reluctant to love their neighbors. We create categories that allow us to help those we can pity and see as helpless but which excuse us from helping those we find difficult or uncomfortable – and we do so in the name of Jesus. We create tribes and in-groups and then rationalize that God only desires for us to love our neighbors within the tribes we have created in our own image. We theologize ourselves out of following the greatest commandments and then praise God.

The tendency these days for Christians to pick and choose who they will love is sadly becoming the defining characteristic of what it means to be a Christian. My awkward dressing room encounter simply reminded me of this trend. I just wonder what it will take for that to change?

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12 Responses leave one →
  1. May 11, 2012

    I was wondering when you were going to update your blog!

    Ever notice how the more people brag about their good deeds–“Look at me, I’m helping a woman with one arm!”–the more they show they just don’t get it? Sounds like this is a good example. How would she know the homeless “chose” to live like that? Maybe he tried getting a job. Maybe he tried finding a place to live. It seems like way too many Christians take 2 Thesssalonians 3:10 way too literally.

    Of course I don’t claim innocence. I’ve deliberately walked past people in need a few times in my life.

  2. Joe Harrington permalink
    May 11, 2012

    Really a sad commentary but so common in our culture.

  3. May 11, 2012

    Travis–as you probably know, a large percentage of our homeless population suffers from serious mental illness but cannot get treatment for it. This fact makes it even harder, in my mind, to justify this woman’s attitude.

    • May 11, 2012

      Oh, I’m not justifying her behavior in the least bit! In fact, you bring up a good point. He could have been mentally ill, thus dispelling the whole “He didn’t apply himself enough” myth.

      • May 11, 2012

        Travis–I was concurring with you. :) I apologize if my comment wasn’t clear.

  4. Jon Eric Smith permalink
    May 11, 2012

    I wish God would talk to me like that, you know, answer all my thoughts in a clear audible voice so I wouldn’t have to waste so much time figuring out who to help and not. I sure would like to know her secret. Could you possibly go back and ask her for me? Thanks

  5. May 11, 2012

    I swear … moments like this remind me very strongly of why we are encouraged to help people in such a way as “the right hand will not know what the left is going.” Bragging brings it’s own rewards … I daresay that growth in the way of Jesus is not one of them. It’s amazing that helping you, a clean-cut white woman, was what God “told” her to do whereas the dirty old homeless guy was just making a life choice. Really? Funny how her god lets her off easy …

  6. Megan permalink
    May 11, 2012

    I was leading a text study on the reading for Sunday and the question came up about how do we love like Jesus did, even if we don’t like the people we encounter. One answer from the group was, “stay away from them.” It was frustrating and the more we talked, the more folks talked themselves back into their comfort zone about who we love and who we judge. Thanks for sharing your story.

  7. May 13, 2012

    I have always wondered what I would do if someone started evangelizing me on a plane or something. I would like to think I would say something Spirit-led that would lead them deeper into their understanding of God. It has never happened to me … yet. And, no, I am not actively praying that God will cause me to cross paths with someone like that outside of a dressing room. That’s just too scary. The whole idea of it makes be itch. I mean, really. What could we possibly say to her that would lead her to listen for the voice of our all-inclusive loving God?

    You’re stretching me … again. Thanks, Julie.

    My longer thoughts on this are behind my name.

  8. May 14, 2012

    Ms. Clawson,

    While I agree in many cases people “helping us”(I am also challenged) can be madding. I have more then once been in similar situations

    While I like you dislike being patronized in these ways I roll through everyday..at least I do now Thinking “what would it hurt to let people help me from time to time? I may be the only one that makes them feel worth anything, when they help !!

    I do however–in part disagree with the premise tha allt people are that help us only do it only “to show off” I think that humanity deserves just a little more credit. If God chooses to show someone grace through them helping me open a door..then by all means “” yes you can help me

    Your brother in Christ,
    Nathanael

  9. May 15, 2012

    Hmmm…
    I knew that bit about your arm but I had long since forgotten it.

    I am sure you know, Julie, about the folk who have done the experiment with a group of Sem. students, had them discuss the Good Samaritan parable, but then they need to be somewhere else and they are running late.

    What was it, the tiny % of students who stopped to help the person whom the instructors had planted between their departure point and their destination? 10% or less? Your story has some of those comfort zone features in it. The homeless fellow was “along the way;” she was female and he male; her work space is a comfort zone for her, not the path or a lone, unknown male.

    Still, to a large extent we do see in your attendant the outworking of the “works” gospel, the prosperity gospel and the postmodern elevation of “the handicapped” as victims. Interestingly, in Jesus’ world, it would be assumed you had lost part of your arm as a repayment for sin! Remember the disciples question about the man born blind (John 9)? In every other case, they just assumed misfortune or ill health or physical loss was because of sin, but what about someone who had had a phyisical handicap since birth? Of course Jesus blows their whole construct to bits.

    I am again reminded of C. S. Lewis’ “The Weight of Glory” in which we are all described as eventually becoming “eternal splendors” or “everlasting horrors.” But since we do not now know which, we are called to treat everyone we meet as an eternal splendor! I guess she had not heard that idea. Then again, how often do I fail to live as though I had heard it?

    Thanks, Julie!
    Glad you were free to blog again. I always get so much from you; hope I give a little back.

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