Our minivan smelled like cigarettes and bourbon. It’s a smell that doesn’t wash out easily. Some smells can never be scrubbed clean. These are the scents that don’t just live in the cushion seams, but in my nostrils and stain my memory. When I was growing up, my mom would regularly pick up hitchhikers. The haggard hair of a homeless man or vacant eyes of a wanderer didn’t make her afraid, but compassionate. She would see a wayward person on Main Street, pull over, stretch her body across the passenger seat like a bendy straw, and barely reach the handle with the tips of her fingers. Then it came, that smell like a gust of wind. Smoke and alcohol.
Sometimes we would drive around for hours. She would tell the new member of our “van family” about Jesus. Between the train station and stop lights, she would listen, make eye contact, and ask questions. Sometimes it was a woman with her small children. Sometimes there were clothes stuffed into garbage bags. Sometimes there was silence from the stranger. But there was never a hesitation from my mom to drive miles out of the way to help a stranger.
Picking up people off the street never felt dangerous. The behavior and body language of the different passengers sitting shotgun were oftentimes striking to me, but I was never afraid. I sat in the backseat curious and confused, but not anxious.
As a parent now, I’m not sure I would give strangers a lift with my daughters in the backseat. But what my mom did has left a long-lasting imprint on me. I don’t want the scent of booze to be bleached out. I’d rather not erase it because it taught me something.
The way of Jesus is not just a mission trip or Sunday morning. His way can not be relegated to a to-do list or secret society for the wealthy, intelligent, or spiritual. A community service project downtown isn’t what will make me feel better about myself. But oftentimes I make following Jesus more complicated than it needs to be. I turn loving people into an agenda instead of a way of life. When I look at the ministry of Jesus, He loved those who were on His path. He was always walking towards the cross, but if I mapped out His journey it would look like He was directionally confused. But He wasn’t. He was moved by compassion by those who needed Him. He had mercy on the leper, the sick, the young, the hungry, the grieving, and the dead.
The way of Jesus is walking the way He leads you. The way of Jesus is becoming like Him. The way of Jesus requires seeing humans as humans. It is being with others.
But how do we — how do I — choose His way? It starts by acknowledging that I am always becoming something. My formation is always in process. My heart is always being shaped. Whether by mainstream media, society, science, community, or Scripture, I am always becoming formed. I am evolving and changing and growing. I am always going somewhere. The voices I listen to, the crowd I surround myself with, and the videos I watch are all a part of my formation. It may be in small ways or large ones, but formation is always occurring. Even in silence and stillness, my heart is being formed to trust in the goodness of God or to trust in other powers. I am always moving forward in either direction.
The question is — where am I going and who do I go with?
For me, the words “come beside her” have recently been rising and ringing inside of me. Come beside her. Don’t come down on others. Don’t preach over others. Don’t treat people like they are a project. Don’t flatline under the weight of holding others up, but come beside her.
There may be a day when I pick up a stranger off the street. But for now, I’m leaning into Christ’s invitation to come beside women. This looks like resting a hand on the back of the broken, offering a seat to the tired, encouraging women to take just one more step.
Where are you going today? Who are you going with? Pay attention to the path you are on and be awake to who God brings to you. Look at each other with eyes of compassion. True, deep, genuine, Jesus-loving compassion. We are being formed into the aroma of Christ. Sometimes that aroma smells like dirty diapers and cleaning detergent. Sometimes it smells like a garden with lilac bushes head high. And, sometimes, it smells like cigarettes and bourbon.