Ever since I was a little girl, I dreamed of going to a ball. It was the influence of too many princess movies, I suppose, but I longed for that Cinderella moment when the skinny, freckle-faced girl I saw in the mirror was transformed into an elegant woman in a sweeping dress, my unruly hair piled perfectly on top of my head in one of those hairdos I could never get quite right.
I could never get any of it right. Not the gown, not the guy, not the ball. I never had a prom, or even a formal, and that one time I was a bridesmaid didn’t quite do it for me.
So when my husband told me he had a military ball coming up, I was ecstatic. I may have squealed. I already had my prince, and he would be wearing his dress blues with the squeaky black shoes he hates and the bow tie he hates more, and I would be the tall, slightly-less-awkward-than-I-was-at-twelve woman on his arm in that gorgeous gown I have fantasized about all my life. We would ride off in our pristine white carriage minivan while the kids fought over the last slice of pizza at home.
Except the more I thought about the dress thing, the less comfortable I felt about it. I’m not sure how I could outgrow a dress I’ve never worn, but it seemed the dress I had in my head didn’t fit me anymore.
I guess it’s because I’m a little wider in places than I used to be. My narrow, self-centered focus has broadened, little by little, until I can’t look at myself and my resources the way I used to. I can’t be that princess anymore, who makes people look up and gasp, “Who is she?” What I want is to bend down, so people look up and say, “Who is He?”
But it was just a dress, right? I would spend a hundred dollars—maybe a hundred and fifty, if I counted the shoes (and I always count the shoes)—so why did I feel like a new dress was a little too tight around the middle? And why did it feel a little scratchy under my conscience? Perhaps someone who says she has my kind of eternal perspective shouldn’t be spending so much of her wealth on one night. Just to look pretty. Just to be seen. Just to drive past the homeless guy on the corner and wave and say, “Don’t worry—this only lasts ‘til midnight. I’ll be back to pray for you tomorrow.”
Somehow, I couldn’t find a dress to fit that.
And it bugged me because I really, really wanted a new dress. There is nothing wrong with going to a ball, I told myself. There isn’t. I just wished I could wear a new dress and be okay with it. I wished God would leave my global conscience alone for two seconds so I could spend my money without tripping over the homeless guy at Starbucks. But I couldn’t
Because there are hundreds of children in foster care in my town, and I’ve seen their faces. There’s a mama in my small group whose groceries don’t stretch out like the month does, and I know her name. There’s that man who sits outside my corner Starbucks with all his worldly possessions stacked neatly in a contraband grocery cart, and he blesses my kids when we give him bananas.
Because it’s not my money.
Because the only difference between me and them is the dividing line of grace.
Because Jesus was the heir of all things, and he didn’t even dress up for it.
Because little choices matter.
The week of the ball came, and I spent a pitiful amount of time in front of my closet, praying. A six-foot tall woman doesn’t have a lot of options in the “borrowing ball gowns from friends” loophole, but still, I kinda hoped my Fairy Godmother would show up at the last minute with a Plan B. Because Plan A was an old, black, hand-me-down dress I kept rescuing out of the thrift store donation pile in case I needed it for a funeral. It is not a ball gown. It is not even a formal dress. But it does have to be dry-cleaned, so there was that.
And like it or not, that black dress fit.
In the end, I had to wear it because the carriage minivan was leaving.
“You look nice,” my husband said as we got ready to leave. I had taken the time to Microplane the callouses off my feet for date night.
Still, I felt insecure. Terribly, terribly insecure. In the parking lot, I watched the other women go in before me. No one was wearing a funeral dress. Not one. I wondered if the servers could deliver my chicken option to me in the parking lot because staying in the van seemed like a really great idea.
Oh, it’s hard not to be vain. It’s hard not to care about what others will think, even when you believe you are doing the right thing. I felt a slight humiliation on my cheeks when I walked in to the ballroom looking every bit like the wife who didn’t get the memo about the ball.
It was hard until I walked into the ballroom and saw the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the two cities, mine and the one just across the border where kids grow up looking over here and wondering why they were born on the wrong side of the border patrol.
Suddenly, my momentary “shame” was put in perspective. It was nothing like the shame of a teenager who has to go to school wearing the same two things every day. My humiliation was nothing like the humiliation of digging through trash cans for food. My fear of rejection was nothing compared to the fear or hunger or cold or violence.
In fact, it was not really suffering at all. Because at the end of the night, when all the ball gowns swept out of the room and I went home to hang my dress up for the next funeral, I had something left. Instead of empty accolades that do not satisfy, I had resources to give to make a real difference in the world around me. It’s not much, when I think about all that needs to be done—but doesn’t change start there? Doesn’t compassion begin with the small choices to think of others’ needs before our own wants?
Sometimes I get tripped up, not just by the guy at Starbucks, but by the overwhelming sense of need in the world. I don’t know where to begin. The need is so great, and I am so small. I forget that something as small as a rudder can change the course of a ship, and something as small as a dress can make a difference in a world of need. It is a beginning.
The simple–although embarrassingly difficult–choice to wear an old black dress equates to a hot meal and gloves for the man at Starbucks. It’s a smoke detector for the family trying to get a foster license. It’s a week’s worth of groceries for the mama in my small group.
It’s a dress that fits just right.
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another…And above all, put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Colossians 3: 12ff