by John Ellis
As a general rule, my wife and I do not celebrate Valentine’s Day. By no means are we opposed to the holiday. But as newlyweds, attempting to live on my theatre artist’s “salary,” we decided that instead of being locked into certain days – Valentine’s Day, our anniversary, birthdays, etc. – we would use our extremely limited entertainment budget when and where we wanted. That usually took the form of concerts that didn’t coincide with the “special” days. While we no longer have the same financial constraints, we’ve carried that same principle into middle age.
That being said, I appreciate Valentine’s Day and encourage couples to celebrate it if they so choose. However, my thankfulness for the holiday extends beyond the pragmatic excuse to celebrate and spend time with your spouse. In my own story, God used a specific Valentine’s Day to help bring me to the end of myself. Here is that story:
On February 14, 2004, I was delivering pizzas for Papa Johns. That Valentine’s Day was during what is arguably the darkest period of my life. Grasping desperately to hold onto my atheistic worldview, I was filled with a violent fury at the world. Picking fights with strangers was becoming a habit; a release for my anger. While delivering pizzas, mistreating customers was also a way I worked out my growing rage and confusion.
Several years earlier, I had worked as the Driver Coordinator for that Papa Johns and was good friends with the restaurant’s management, meaning that I had a lot of leeway. In fact, my boss found my non-customer-service-centered antics amusing and often egged me on, deliberately sending me on deliveries to people who had already called in a complaint about me. One run-in with a customer happened a few weeks before that Valentine’s Day.
Located in a cookie-cutter, upper-middle class neighborhood, the house was large and bland. Everything my anarchist heart hated. It didn’t help that the teenage boy who answered the door had drawn the anarchist A on his face with a marker. Like most teenagers, he didn’t tip me. That made me angry enough, but what pushed me over the edge was his excuse that, “Sorry, I can’t afford a tip. You know how it is, man.”
No, in fact, I didn’t know how it was. What I knew was that this little wannabe punk lived in a large expensive house and was probably using his daddy’s money to pay for the pizza. His assumed familiarity with me was more than I could handle. Slapping the pizza out of his hand and then stomping on it, I growled my thoughts about what he could do to himself and then stormed back to my car.
Upon arrival at the store, I was greeting by howls of laughter from my boss and co-workers. “I told him I’d fire you,” my boss smirked. He wasn’t going to fire me; I was one of his main sources of amusement.
That’s only one example of several from that time period of me treating customers with contemptuous anger. During one angry encounter with a non-tipper, I got into a physical fight with the customer. Since he was dealing out of his run-down house, I knew he wasn’t going to call the cops. He called the store to complain, though. My boss placated him by making me take him a free two liter of Pepsi. The second time at his house ended the way the first time did. My boss, as usual, laughed it off.
How did I know that dude was a drug dealer? Well, because during that time period, I, too, was a drug dealer. That customer and I had crossed paths before. Frankly, delivering pizzas at the time was simply a way to help me in my main business, and this connects these seemingly disparate anecdotes to my Valentine’s Day story.
Cops sit on houses where known drug activity takes place. They also sit on houses with a lot of foot traffic, especially foot traffic by the shady kind, as in, me at the time. A pizza delivery driver, though, isn’t going to raise suspicions.
So, and returning to February 14, 2004, I informed the phone girl who took the “order” that we delivered that far even though we didn’t. At the base of the South Carolina Appalachian foothills, the delivery was a good fifteen-minute drive from the store. Too far and too much gas to make it worth it. However, the customer who placed the order didn’t really care about the pizza.
I’m pretty sure my boss knew what I was up to during that time. But, as mentioned, we were close friends. I had even crashed at his house for few weeks at one point.
Before walking out the restaurant’s door that Valentine’s Day, though, another delivery order from the general vicinity of the original order came in. It was for a single large pepperoni pizza. Hardly worth the trouble. Since I was already headed that direction, I was told to take it.
The house was tiny, smaller than a single-wide trailer and almost as flimsy. A wheelchair ramp led to the front door that was already open. Knocking on the door frame, I heard a voice from inside the house respond, “Would you mind bringing the pizza inside, sir?”
The interior of the house was much darker than the bright sun shining outside, and I couldn’t see far enough through the open door to make out the speaker. As a rule, pizza delivery drivers are instructed to never enter a place of residence. It’s for both the driver’s and customer’s safety. Aware of the rule and in possession of the memory of anecdotes that illustrated why the rule was in place, I was somewhat wary about entering. I was in a hurry, though, and didn’t have time to argue. Besides, in my current mental and spiritual state, I wasn’t afraid of a fight.
When I entered the house, the first thing I noticed was how much smaller the house appeared from the inside than from the outside. I could see into every single room: the living/dining room with a tiny kitchen in the corner, the small bedroom with a some type of hospital bed, and a postage stamp-sized bathroom crammed with extra hand rails and what looked like a pulley system of some kind. The second thing I noticed was the feeble yet smiling man in the wheelchair. Slowly making her way towards me, his wife was also smiling as she labored to use the forearm crutches, her legs twisted and mostly useless it seemed. The third thing I noticed was the open Bible on the table next to the man.
“Would you mind setting the pizza on the table?” the wife asked as she gestured with her head to a spot on the table next to the Bible.
Already starting to be affected, I silently complied.
“I’m sorry to ask this, but would you mind opening the box?” she sheepishly continued while still smiling.
Again, I silently did what she asked.
“Thank you so much!” the man said beaming. “This is our Valentine’s Day treat.”
As the wife struggled to lay the bills in my hand, she apologized, “I’m sorry that we can’t afford to tip you more.”
I managed to mumble, “Don’t worry about it.”
In fact, I wanted to hand her money back to her and get out of that house. I didn’t, though, because I was afraid of them. A large, angry, and violent man who had been half-way hoping for a fight when he stepped through their front door was afraid of a wheelchair bound paraplegic and his wife who appeared to have MS.
I was afraid, because how could two people suffering so much and who had so little be so happy and so kind?
I knew the answer to that question. And that’s what scared me. Their open Bible burned itself into my brain and memories of the gospel of Jesus Christ from my childhood flooded my unwilling heart. Turning quickly, I stumbled back to my car.
Fighting back tears, I drove away. What made me the angriest as I drove away, I think, is that I wanted to turn my car around and go back to that little house so that I could talk to that couple. I didn’t, of course. But it didn’t matter. The Holy Spirit was working on me and over the intervening months I often thought about that couple and marveled again and again at their joy and kindness. Doing so also forced me to consider the source of their joy and kindness. And by God’s grace, less than four months later I repented of my sins and placed my faith in Jesus.
We don’t know how our words, actions, and attitude affects people. We don’t know how the Holy Spirit is working in the hearts of the people who momentarily enter our lives. This is one of the reasons why as followers of Jesus we need to live in a manner that is worthy of the great calling of the gospel of Christ. We don’t know how our prayer before our meal or how a kind word or gesture will be used to soften someone’s heart. On that Valentine’s Day, that sweet couple had no idea how deeply they affected me and how the Holy Spirit was using them. They were simply living out their faith and expressing the joy that only comes from being in right relationship with God. And I am eternally grateful for their simple obedience.
I look forward to the coming day in heaven when I can find that couple and share with them how the Holy Spirit used them to soften my heart and the role they played in me eventually being brought to repentance and faith in Jesus. This is why I love Valentine’s Day, because it’s an annual reminder of how the Holy Spirit drew me to the Father.
Soli Deo Gloria