Last Monday I did a major closet cleanout. It came about in the way all of my big household projects come about: I noticed that there was a problem, muttered something along the lines of I should do something about this at some point, promptly forgot about it, and ignored the situation until it got to the point of ruining my life. On Monday morning I was looking for a t-shirt and my arm got stuck in a jumbled of clothes, and only became more entrenched the more I struggled. I momentarily thought that my closet had become a malevolent organism that was now trying to eat me, like a bad outtake from Poltergeist, and that’s when I decided that it might be time to clean it out.
I ended up stuffing five large trash bags with clothes that no longer fit. It was nice stuff, too: my mom is the master of finding designer clothes at bargain prices, so a lot of the items in the bag were high-quality pieces that I’d only worn once or twice before I lost weight. As I dragged the bulging bags down the stairs, I thought of what a great haul this would be for someone else. I was in the middle of calculating how much time it would take to get to the local Goodwill store and back, when a name came to mind:
Our friend Alicia occasionally makes trips to her home town in Mexico, and in the past she’s asked for any extra clothing or household items we could spare, since she gives them to impoverished people down there. She hadn’t asked me about that in a long time, though, so I went back to my bag dragging.
I heard the name again. I almost considered setting these bags aside for her, but before the thoughts could coalesce in my mind, I was back to fixating how to get this stuff to Goodwill. I had a thousand things going on that day, and was feeling overwhelmed. I hadn’t really had the time to spare to do this cleanout, and now I just wanted this off my plate. Besides, I wasn’t going to see Alicia any time soon — who knows how long those bags would end up sitting there if I reserved them for her? I hadn’t heard about any planned trips to Mexico either; for all I knew she’d stopped going altogether because of the drug violence. So I hoisted the bags into the car, rushed down to Goodwill, and hurried back to all the other things on my to-do list that day.
Two days later, Alicia showed up at my door.
She has a cleaning business that we support, and I had thought she might come by to do some work sometime in late April, but I never expected her so soon. I told her it was a pleasant surprise to see her and welcomed her in. After she’d been there for a while, she took me aside.
“Jenny, can I talk to you about something?” she asked in Spanish. I said of course. “Do you have any extra clothes that I could have to take to Mexico?”
I was shocked. It had been so long since this topic had come up. Alicia hadn’t seen my closet, and I hadn’t mentioned anything about my cleanout. I thought of my half-empty clothing racks, the overstuffed bags of clothes at Goodwill, and resisted the urge to smack myself in the forehead. Before I could answer, she explained the sense of urgency I’d noticed in her tone:
She has an aging uncle who lives in a particularly impoverished area of Mexico, and she’s about to go visit him because he desperately needs her help. Though she didn’t say this, I knew that it would be an enormous sacrifice for her to go without work for that time, and that it would take a lot of effort to arrange care for her ailing husband, who is not able to live on his own. But, she explained, this uncle is getting very feeble and has a hard time taking care of himself, and so Alicia and her sister have agreed to take shifts going down there to stay with him.
In the area where he lives, she explained, there is poverty like we almost never see in the United States. Her eyes grew grave for a moment, then she shook her head, as if trying not to think too much about the things she’d seen down there. Many of the people don’t own beds or blankets. They don’t have towels. The kids have nothing to wear but the tattered clothes on their backs. They don’t usually even have beans to eat: a typical meal for a person around there might be a single tortilla. Though Alicia lives well below the poverty line here in the United States, she said she feels embarrassed by her lavish lifestyle every time she goes down there and sees these people who have nothing.
“And so when I can bring them clothes,” she said, “it is a big blessing.” She told me that a few years ago she took a tattered jacket that was in such poor condition that she was almost embarrassed to give it to anyone. A local mother gladly accepted it; when Alicia returned the next year, she was still wearing it.
The image of those five bags of clothes burned in my mind. I was so exasperated with myself I could hardly speak. In the end I dug out some extra clothes I’d planned to keep and passed them on to her, and also asked about offering financial assistance so that she could buy needed items locally in Mexico.
After our conversation was over, I sat on the edge of my bed, staring blankly at the carpet. What killed me about the situation was not that it happened in and of itself, but that I was certain the Holy Spirit had tried to prompt me to save those clothes for the people in Mexico. Those five bags were meant for Alicia; and because I was too focused on my to-do list to listen for the voice of God, I gave them to someone else. I’m sure Goodwill will put them to good use, but their warehouse is already overflowing with clothes. Also, that store is located in a firmly middle-class area, surrounded for miles by other middle-class areas; the people around here don’t need extra clothes like the people in Mexico do.
That Monday morning that I hastily gave away those bags, I hadn’t spent any time in prayer. If I’m to be honest, it had probably been days since I actually set aside time to intently focus myself on the Lord. This has been a pattern for the past few months, and I keep saying that I need to make more time for prayer. Yes, my life is very busy, but if I spent even one-tenth the time I spend messing around on the internet in silent time with God, I could have a pretty solid prayer life. I know this. I’ve known it for a while. But I thought of it in a “ha-ha, I’m so bad about that!” kind of way. In my selfishness, I thought it was just between me and God.
It took the situation with Alicia to wake me up to the fact that when we’re not closely listening for the voice of God, we don’t just miss out on the peace and joy we experience from a deeper relationship with the Lord; we don’t just miss an opportunity to give honor and glory to the One who most deserves it; we don’t just miss out on answered prayers God may have had in store for us — sometimes we miss the opportunity to answer someone else’s prayer.