A lot of times when people share stories about individuals they’ve met in ministry, they are success stories. The story I have to share tonight isn’t a success story. It’s not even a story, really. It was a chance encounter, a brushing of shoulders between two people in a city of 9 million. And it ended in tragedy, at least for tonight.
I was standing behind her on the subway from Sakae to my apartment in Tsurumai. Of average height, with long, caramel hair, she would not have stood out to me, except for one thing. She was wearing a romper with no shirt underneath, leaving her whole back exposed. Japanese 20-somethings are not ones for modesty, but there are certain nuanced rules about how to be sexy in Japanese culture; exposing one’s shoulders AND back was probably pushing it too far, I thought. If I wasn’t sure about that, her black bra which stood out vividly against the skin of her back was enough to let me know that no, this was not a cultural norm I was misunderstanding. She was indeed aiming to be exceptionally provocative.
In the crowded subway car, it was difficult to move any more than a few inches from where I was standing. I couldn’t see her whole face, but only a portion of her profile. She kept her neck bent, eyes cast downward. She clutched her purse tightly, and I could see, off and on, the glint of her curved, rhinestone-adorned fingernails. Though those are the nails typically worn by women who work as hostesses or in night clubs, her hands were not caught my eye. It was her wrists. And forearms. And elbows. And the back and the top of her upper arms. All the way up to her collarbones she had them-thin, white scars, slightly raised. Some were crisscrossed over each other, others straight and methodically imprinted. But it was undeniable that each of them had been sliced into her skin by a sharp razor blade. Perhaps more precisely, the hundreds of now-healed cuts had been sliced into her by a person holding a sharp razor blade.
Whether it was at her own bejeweled hands that she was mutilated, I don’t know. Maybe it was, as people who suffer from cutting usually inflict the wounds on themselves. Or maybe it was someone else who hurt her; a boyfriend, a relative, a pimp. Maybe it was the same person who told her she was worth nothing apart from her sexuality. I’ll never know. I reached in my purse to pull out a church invitation card, and as I did so, the subway doors opened and the mob of people around me began to move. I walked quickly behind her so as to keep an eye on her, though her exposed flesh was hard to miss amid the sea of black and gray suit coats. I held the invitation card tightly in my palm, poised to give it to her once we had both gone through the wickets and the crowd had dispersed.
I scanned my card to leave the wickets, and for a split second, I couldn’t see the woman. And it is right here that I wish my story was different. I wish that I had lost her among the masses, despite my best efforts to find her. Or that I had ran to give her the card, and she had utterly and dramatically refused it. Or that I gave it to her, and she never came to church, or really, anything besides what actually happened. In the split second that the woman left my field of vision, a wave of doubt came over me. I wish there was reason to it, that I could explain it in rational terms like, I thought she might have refused to take something from a stranger, or I imagined the disgruntled look on her face upon being invited to a religious gathering. But in fact, I didn’t think either of those things. I simply doubted that I should give it to her, and so I didn’t.
It wasn’t a long, drawn-out decision that I made to not invite this woman to church. It was literally 3 or 4 seconds of hesitation, and by then it was too late. I just stood there and stared as she turned around a dark corner. It was the last I saw of her.
I stood there for several more minutes, invitation in hand. People walked around me. It was the invitation to our weekly Sunday gatherings. If the woman came, she would have heard about hope in Jesus. She would have been welcomed by Christians who would have showed her acceptance, and longed for her to join our family. She could have met Jesus, and found wholeness and healing and forgiveness of sins in him. She could have been introduced to her Creator, and thereby, at long last, been given Truth through which she can make sense of the rest of her broken life. The invitation, just a little black and green card with some pictures on it, was really an invitation to feast at the marriage banquet of the lamb. But she never got it.
And I get that there are ways I could bring myself to a state of cognitive peace about this. I could tell myself that if I gave it to her, she probably wouldn’t have even come. That may be true, actually. Lots of people who receive cards don’t come to church. I could tell myself that she was a stranger, and my Japanese isn’t good enough to really get involved in her life. Plus it would be strange and stilted, and that may also be true. Or I could tell myself that she will meet another Christian who will reach out to her. That may be true, possibly. And certainly it is true that God works in people’s lives daily in ways I’ll never know about. And I hope that’s what happens with her.
But here is the other side of it the side that I can’t stop thinking about tonight. God made it necessary for there to be a messenger in order for people to hear about him. Not possible, but necessary, and that’s the whole reason I’m here with my teammates. And the odds of this woman ever in her lifetime rubbing shoulders with a Christian are almost nothing. It’s not like other countries, where I could allow my ambassadorial responsibility in Christ to be diffused to other Christians. I knew she needed help- if I couldn’t see it plainly on her arms, I could sense it palpably in her demeanor. I crossed paths with her. It was my responsibility. If I had taken just a little longer eating my McDonalds at dinner, or hadn’t stopped to put more money on my subway card, or if I’d gotten in a different subway car, I would have missed her. But it was at just this moment in history that this woman’s path had connected with a person who could connect her to Jesus. But I chose not to reach out to her.
I’ve come back to this entry a few days after I initially wrote it. For whatever reason, I still feel pangs of remorse about not extending an invitation to that particular woman. But thankfully, because God is gracious and strong in my weakness, that experience has been affecting the way I see people around me. I’ve invited more people to church in the last week than I have in several months. Not that that is supposed to change or make up for what happened with her. But I think God has made the image of her walking off into the night one that is redemptive, because I feel urgency now to tell people about Jesus when I think of that. I’m thankful that sometimes, even if it’s painful, he allows us to see people the way he sees them. And I’m thankful that even when I’m not faithful, he always, always is.