January 9th marked the start of the annual food drive that Nashville’s Public Library conducts in order to purge people of all their sinful ways. I mean to waive their overdue fines.
As I approach the gentleman at the library, my face turns pink. My eyes often well with tears when I discuss my overdue fines. I preface our conversation with, “I’m probably on your most wanted list. I need to pay up before I can check anything out.” Fear veiled in humor is a dead giveaway.
He perches up on his elbow, leans in close and whispers, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” He points to the flyer that says “Food for Fines” and tells me to pay up then. “There is so much else to be concerned about.”
Problem is, when I go back on the day Food for Fines starts, he is nowhere in sight. I saunter up to the counter and face the nicely dressed woman who scares me. I force a smile and put my return books and canned goods on the table of shame. I pray that no one approaches behind me to witness my confession.
“I need to return these today.” This is really just to warm her up. “I’d also like to apply the cans to what I owe as well.” It would take no less than 50 cans of petite peas to completely erase our family library debt and I refuse to pull a Radio Flyer behind me.
She looks at me, then the cans, then the computer, pushes some buttons, and glares back at me through pointy silver-rimmed readers. She announces, in an outside voice, “But you have $19.40 to pay off,” so that everyone around me knows I’m guilty.
“Oh my, I didn’t realize it. Let’s just start with these,” I feign surprise at the amount I owe although it’s lower than what I anticipated. She takes my mercy cans and inspects them. I admit this was my clean-out-the-pantry effort, however, I did not submit anything expired. Afterwards, I go look for more books.
It wasn’t until my way out that I saw the official flyer. It stated in neat bullets what they would accept:
- Canned Tuna/Chicken
- Canned Vegetables, Fruit, or Soup
- Peanut Butter
I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Clearly refried beans, jellied cranberry sauce, and bamboo shoots weren’t technically on the list.
I return the following Wednesday, this time with six cans of generic vegetables and find the nice worker. “Hi,” I look down and pray the tears away. “I’m here to pay off more of my debt.” He cracks a joke and senses my ill ease because once again, he tells me to relax.
“See those tall boxes?” He points to the back. “They have been overflowing with canned food all week. Literally spilling out. Some people have brought truckloads so don’t worry. We’ll take care of it.”
“I just feel so bad for racking up these fines.” I glance behind me and see a woman carrying a cardbox box, awaiting her turn at repentance.
I confess that he’s the nicest guy in the library and I confide my fear of the pointy glasses woman. He grabs my hand and offers the sincerest of thanks. “Nobody should be afraid to come to the library.”
He then pulls up all the fines my kids and I owe (I still don’t have the heart to bring up my husband’s account that probably has my lost book attached to it) as we laugh and take our time determining exactly how much more food it will take to wipe the slate clean. This is when he gives me an insider tip: Raman noodles. My eyes light up!
I tell him I will bring the noodles (six for a dollar…yippee!) in tomorrow since it is the last day of the food drive when he says, “Oh no, you don’t have to. The deadline [for grace] has been extended until Sunday!”
I tell ya…while chatting over peas and carrots, my little foreign friend taught me more about grace than I’ve heard in a long time.
I used to lug around a similar cardboard box that held the enormity of all I ever did wrong. Eventually the weight did me in and I finally got the nerve to state my case. Head hung low, I presented an offering that was equal to a bunch of dented cans filled with pureed shame because I had nothing else left.
And right then and there, He accepted everything I did without the slightest bit of judging. I will admit that I look for simple re-reminders from places just like the library. When I saw the tall boxes overflowing with cans, it painted a picture for me as though The Grand Canyon were right in front of me and it was abundant with…you guessed it. More ramen noodles than an eye could behold. Yet not even that beautiful creation can contain the sheer amount of grace He makes available to me!
So I commend you if you’ve lived a life worthy of sainthood or at least having a fellowship hall named after you. But for those of us who have stood outside the shadow of grace for far too long, the idea of a canyon filled with dried noodles makes perfect sense.
I learned through my friendly librarians that grace doesn’t come with a deadline or expire in 24 hours. No one has to be afraid to ask for it. You don’t have to carry it around with you and you don’t have to be afraid to lay it out before a loving God. All you have to do is accept it. Because it’s free. Because it’s immense. And because He already paid your debt.