Bigger Than a Sandwich

Sometimes God shows up in unexpected places. It’s not so much that you expressly and instantly recognize God in a particular moment or encounter; rather, you just have a nagging sense during it or soon afterwards that something bigger is going on than meets the eye. Songwriter/guitarist Phil Keaggy captured this phenomenon in his song “Portrait” with the line “I saw His presence when you laughed just now.” [1]  And it’s not always pleasant, as the patriarch Jacob can attest after he wrestled all night with a “man” who’s blessing he was really determined to get. Jacob finally got the blessing, along with an injured hip and the new name “Israel,” and then it dawned on him that this was no ordinary man, but really God he was wrestling with all along (Genesis 32:22-31).
Similarly, we might cross paths with angels, according to the writer of Hebrews who reminds us: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

Grace Dancing

Frankly, the fact that God, angels and even perhaps dark spiritual forces (Ephesians 6:12), though unseen, intersect with our temporal lives is a pretty amazing thought, and brings a whole new dimension to what might otherwise be mundane or even trivial experiences. The art is not, I suppose, in knowing that the temporal and spiritual realms can intersect in this manner or even what to do when it happens. “Éveryone knows,” said the poet W.H. Auden, “if there when Grace dances, then I should dance.” [2] Rather, the art is in recognizing these moments when they happen.

I know that I’ve experienced a number of such moments, and from time-to-time I try to write them down, as with the true story below. Whether or not they all make it to paper, they all undoubtedly make me smile and wonder what the moments might mean, that is, if they mean anything at all beyond the reminder that Grace is dancing all around us. Anyway, the following happened at lunch time a few years back…

A Deli Encounter

“May I help you?” the woman behind the counter asked. Her voice had that smooth, soulful quality, low and buttery with a wonderful and unmistakable accent. She’s from down here, I thought, although I’d never seen her before. Her smooth, mocha complexion, graying, short-cropped hair, and generous crow’s feet framed her large brown eyes which practically danced with mirth.

“Sure, I’ll take a turkey sandwich, please.” I wondered how old she was— Sixty? Sixty-five? I’ll bet she’s seen a lot in the South in her lifetime. She was so grandmotherly that I couldn’t help but be warmed by her pleasantness. As she set about busily making a sandwich, humming some lovely tune, I felt comfortable, content, although I had no idea why. I wondered if the others near the deli counter felt the same thing.

She sure moved slowly, though. Would she last long making sandwiches for this busy lunch crowd? I watched her as she deliberately laid out two slices of wheat bread and dressed them up, then put some sort of salad—chicken salad or something—on top. It must be someone else’s sandwich, I thought, maybe someone near the counter or even a phone-in order. Man, this was going to take some time—but I didn’t have the heart to say “never mind” to my newfound “grandmother.” She put everything together and patted it down, placed the sandwich on a plate, cut it, garnished it with a pickle and chips and raised it to the top of the glass counter. As she pushed it towards me she said, to my surprise, “Here you go.”

I looked over my shoulder, thinking it must be for someone behind me, but no one stepped forward. I was so surprised, I almost felt embarrassed, but that didn’t make sense. Why should I be embarrassed? “I ordered turkey,” I told her. “Ohhhh” she drawled slowly, showing a big smile to go with her dancing eyes, “I thought you said turkey salad.” Wow, I thought, I’ve never known them to serve turkey salad here. As a matter of fact, I couldn’t remember ever being at a deli that served turkey salad. It’s an honest mistake, though, and for some reason turkey salad sounded good to me, which is weird because I’m not even sure I know what turkey salad tastes like. In any case, I couldn’t bear to wait while she started over, making another sandwich for me.

“You know what, that’s okay, I’ll take the turkey salad sandwich,” I reassured her. She looked puzzled. “You can’t,” she said. “No, really, it’s okay” I said. “You can’t have a turkey salad sandwich,” she repeated. “Well, why not?” I asked, starting to get a little irritated. “Because,” she said looking me squarely in the eyes, “we don’t have turkey salad.”

It may have been impolite, but I burst out laughing. She didn’t seem to mind because she laughed along, looking at me with those mirthful eyes. We kept laughing for a few seconds until she finally reached up to grab the sandwich plate. I tugged it back, though, determined to eat that sandwich she made for me, whatever it was. I just had a feeling that it would be one of the best sandwiches I ever had.

I never saw her again, although I certainly looked for her. No one seemed to know who she was or remember her working there. I’ve thought about her often, though, and she puts a spring in my step to this day. Hopefully, I’ll try a turkey salad sandwich one day—in her honor.


[1] Phil Keaggy, “Portrait” (Love Broke Thru, Myrrh 1976)
[2] W.H. Auden, “Whitsunday in Kirchstetten” Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson. New York: Vintage 1991.