Today is my grandmother’s birthday. She has been gone now for almost ten years… but today is still her birthday, and for today’s devotional I’d like to share the story of a lesson she taught me. (It’s also a story of the time your pastor accidentally and temporarily committed petty larceny… but I’ll get to that in a minute.)
The story starts with my grandmother – Kathryn, called Kitty, but “Grandma” to me – on an ordinary, run-of-the-mill trip to Walmart. She loaded up a cartful of all the usual things you’d get at Walmart. Toothpaste. Shampoo. Scotch tape. Windex. Those kinds of things. She went through the checkout line, as usual. Paid with a check, as usual. Loaded the bags into the trunk of her car, as usual. That’s when she realized: she had accidentally stolen something, which was most unusual. She had stolen a spool of thread, worth all of 79¢.
She hadn’t intended to steal it, of course. It was an accident. She had been absentmindedly holding it in her hand the whole time she was walking through the store, the whole time she was going through the checkout line, the whole time she was pushing the cart through the parking lot. It happens. You who have ever torn the house apart looking for the phone that is in your hand or the glasses that are on your head know that it happens. We can hold things without realizing that we’re holding them.
When my grandma realized that she was holding the spool of thread, realized she had accidentally stolen a 79¢ item from a billion-dollar retailer, she walked right back into the store. She waited in the interminably long customer service line. When she finally reached the counter, she explained the situation, how she accidentally walked out with the spool of thread, how she wanted to pay for it. The customer service rep was confused. “You want to do what?” My grandma said, “I want to pay for it.” The customer service rep said, “You came back in to pay for that?” My grandmother said, “Yes.” The customer service rep said, “No one would’ve known if you kept it.” My grandmother said, “I would’ve known.”
Took her the better part of fifteen minutes to get customer service to take the 79¢ for that spool of thread. Still, I love that story. I love what it says about my grandmother, the woman who read me stories and baked me birthday cakes and drove me all over creation and crocheted me a beautiful blanket and taught my Sunday School class and told me the stories of Jesus. I love that it conveys the fact that my grandmother — our family matriarch, my Sunday School teacher, the treasurer of our church — was a woman of integrity. I love that it shows that my grandmother had integrity not just with the big stuff, but with the small stuff, too.
I believe God calls us, as God’s people, to be people of integrity, people who do the right thing, even in the small things, even when it’s mostly harmless, even when no one is watching. I believe that. But I don’t believe that’s a weighty, strict directive from some harsh deity on high, stern-faced with punishing thunderbolts at the ready, just waiting for us to screw up and compromise some of that integrity. I don’t believe this call to integrity is a threat or a burden. I believe it’s an invitation. It’s an invitation to something better than what the world expects.
God calls us to be people of integrity, and here’s the good news about that: we don’t have to live into the world’s compromising, harmful, secretive ways. We don’t have to live according to the false gospel of “what’s the harm?” and “who’s gonna know?” We, by grace, can have a life and a world that is better than that. That’s the transformation that Christ makes possible. That’s the change that the Spirit works within us. Integrity is not about trying hard to be really, really good, any more than Christianity is about trying hard to be really, really good. It’s about being open and humble enough to allow the transformation that Christ offers and the Spirit empowers.
But back to the petty larceny. It was a few years ago, and I was in Walmart. I had a bunch of stuff in my cart and a million things on my mind. I went through the checkout line, as usual. I paid with my Visa card, as usual. I loaded my bags into the hatch of my car, as usual. And that’s when I realized: I had accidentally stolen something, which was most unusual. I had stolen a small box of medicine, some generic version of Tylenol, worth all of four dollars.
I hadn’t intended to steal it, of course. It was an accident. I had been absentmindedly holding it in my hand the whole time I was walking through the store, the whole time I was going through the checkout line, the whole time I was pushing the cart through the parking lot. It happens. Searching for the phone in your hand and the glasses on your head, right? It happens.
There in the parking lot, standing next to my car, I looked down at the box in my hand. I hadn’t meant to steal it. I mean, is it really a crime if there’s no intent? Is it really a sin? And I was running behind schedule already, and… come on, Walmart is a multi-billion dollar corporation, and… well, if I just kept going on my way, I could totally justify it. What’s the harm? Who’s gonna know?
Then I looked back at that $4 box of acetaminophen and remembered: I am the granddaughter of Kitty Geary, a follower of Jesus Christ, and a child of God. So I hiked back to the store, waited in the interminably long customer service line, and (after about fifteen minutes of attempting to explain the situation), paid the four dollars for the medicine. Sometimes, integrity can be really annoying and inconvenient. All the time, integrity starts with the small things.
Today, in honor of my grandmother and the lessons she taught me, I choose to remember that God calls us, invites us, empowers us to be people of integrity… even with something as small as a spool of thread. This call to integrity isn’t a threat or a burden. It’s a release from those disquieting, almost sinister questions: What’s the harm? Who’s gonna know? It’s a chance for a life and a world that is better… a life and a world that God truly intends for us.
Thanks for teaching me that lesson, Grandma. And happy birthday.
May you remember:
Our God is bigger than coronavirus.
Our vision is bigger than coronavirus, too.
We are people blessing people.
We are Wesley Church.
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