I met Gertrude in a dingy tenement thirty-seven years ago, and I remember her still. I remember how she wore her hair and how she talked, but mostly I remember the sad, desolate look in her eyes.
Gertrude was a prostitute and an addict. Her drug-dealer/pimp/boyfriend held court in a corner of the room, doing business while loudly berating her without stopping for breath. I perched uneasily on a dirty bed, my back to him with Gertrude next to me, inching ever-closer as the curses got louder and more threatening. I tried to act tough, but secretly, my heart ached for her.
Even though I was a mess, inside and out, Gertrude seemed drawn to something in me – or perhaps it was the Someone I was hiding from who never left me during that dark season, not even for a moment. Now that I was in the very heart of it – the rebellion, the anguish, the terror, and the hopelessness – I could see eye to eye with those who lived here. And I found real people – people like Gertrude – who desperately wanted a way out of hell, but couldn’t find the door.
She scooted next to me, close enough now to whisper in my ear – do you want to see my treasure? As the stream of profanities continued unabated, Gertrude took me by the hand and led me to a wood dresser, slowly opening the top drawer. I remember that it slid silently and smoothly. I don’t know what I expected to see, but it wasn’t this: a worn Bible laid open to the 23rd Psalm. She touched the pages gently and said tenderly – this is my treasure.
Instantly, a hard lump formed in my throat, and I choked back hot tears for Gertrude and everyone else in the room – even the obscene, angry man. I had met scores of Gertrudes in six years of inner-city ministry, and I had felt compassion for them, but never anything like what burned in my heart at that moment.
Much later, I learned a Greek word that explained what I experienced on that day: splagchnizomai. It means to be moved in the inward parts, especially the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys – what became known as the seat of affections. We first see the word in Matthew 9:36: When he saw the vast crowds of people, Jesus’ heart was deeply moved with compassion, because they seemed weary and helpless, like wandering sheep without a shepherd.
One commentator, whose name I can’t remember, used language that I can never forget. He said that whenever you see the word compassion concerning Jesus in the gospels, it means that his heart contracted convulsively at the sight of crying human need.
At the moment when that broken woman exposed her vulnerable soul by opening her treasure to me, my stone-cold heart contracted convulsively at the sight of crying human need. Christ was still alive in the broken shell of me and reaching out to Gertrude.
I don’t know what happened to Gertrude. Not long after that chance meeting, I began the long, prodigal’s journey back to my Father’s waiting arms and never saw her again. But I know this: if I have never forgotten her, I am confident that God, who is Love, did not forget her. I believe that on that day, he bent his ear to hear the silent cries of his weary, wandering, helpless daughters and showed us goodness and mercy that would follow us all the days of our lives.
If you are weary, anxious and fearful, I pray that you will find a treasure in these words of Psalm 23 from the Passion Translation, to refresh your soul and strengthen your faith.
The Lord is my best friend and my shepherd. I always have more than enough. He offers a resting place for me in his luxurious love. His tracks take me to an oasis of peace, the quiet brook of bliss. That’s where he restores and revives my life. He opens before me pathways to God’s pleasure and leads me along in his footsteps of righteousness so that I can bring honor to his name.
Lord, even when your path takes me through the valley of deepest darkness, fear will never conquer me, for you already have! You remain close to me and lead me through it all the way. Your authority is my strength and my peace. The comfort of your love takes away my fear.
I’ll never be lonely, for you are near. You become my delicious feast even when my enemies dare to fight. You anoint me with the fragrance of your Holy Spirit; you give me all I can drink of you until my heart overflows.
So why would I fear the future? For your goodness and love pursue me all the days of my life. Then afterward, when my life is through, I’ll return to your glorious presence to be forever with you!