Is this heaven? No . . . its the 44.

A few weeks ago in the first Sunday of Lent I challenged our congregation to fast from the fruits of privilege.  One minor act on my part has been to ride the bus as often as possible.  As a country-boy the bus has always been a source of fascination for me and this spiritual exercise paid dividends this last week as my experience ended comprising about half the sermon.

The texts were Moses striking the rock in the wilderness to provide water (Ex 17; the version where it is an act of faithfulness).  The Gospel text is Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well.  Essentially I said that both texts draw the reader into a ‘spiritual’ understanding of nourishment and well-being; that is to say they speak of feeding the soul.  However, the context for both texts orients the reader the initial material and social site of conflict and bondage.  I said that as the church and as Christians we do not know how to begin.  We begin with ‘spiritual nourishment’ which is no beginning.

In my own feeble attempts at beginning I ride the bus for the purpose of connection of encountering travelers in the wilderness and meeting women at the well.  Beyond this I also find the bus carries no end of spiritual virtues.

Not only is it an environmentally responsible option it also reflects an egalitarian and leveling approach in which no one rider’s agenda is given higher priority.  No matter how much of a rush I may be in we must make to time to stop for anyone who wants to board.  I am not in control.  I fear missing transfers like Israelites must have feared not having manna the next day, but there is nothing I can do about it.  And no matter if all seats are taken we will try (some more than others) to make room for one more rider; bodies and smells jostling about over our pot-hole ridden streets.  Community happens there.  This week I rode a bus in the morning and I was waiting with a small group of women.  As they came together from different directions to the bus stop they greeted and hugged one another and chatted the whole ride.

But the bus, of course, is not heaven.  I heard two young men talk about how they each had been jumped and assaulted on the bus.  Their over-the-top macho language of how they responded could barely conceal the unspoken bond they felt in being afraid and vulnerable.  I watched another man prepare to get off downtown.  He took his wallet out and removed the cash putting the cash in a separate more hidden pocket.  Had he been mugged or hassled before?  Was he just being paranoid?  I don’t know.

Then I shared with the congregation,

I am finding a sort of beginning by riding the bus.   I do not know what to say and I have no ready answers, if I will have any answers at all.  In fact one time a woman sat next to me on the bus.  I thought a bus seat was a good as a Jacob’s well so I thought I would give conversation a go.  It is one of the first of the beautiful sunny days that we had this week.  I turned to her and commented on how nice the sunshine was.  She simply smiled in response.  I don’t think she could speak English.  Not only do I not have answers, in many instances I don’t even know the language to a begin a conversation as Jesus did.  This all feels like an infant’s beginning.  But it is my prayer that it is a beginning.

I then left the congregation with two images.  The first was of Simone Weil whose struggles with the church reflected her struggle to find a true beginning.  She writes in Waiting for God,

In any case, when I think of the act by which I should enter the church as something concrete, which might happen quite soon, nothing gives me more pain than the idea of separating myself from the immense and unfortunate multitude of unbelievers. I have the essential need, and I think I can say the vocation, to move among men of every class and complexion, mixing with them and sharing their life and outlook, so far that is to say as conscience allows, merging into the crowd and disappearing among them, so that they show themselves as they are, putting off all disguises with me. It is because I long to know them so as to love them just as they are. For if I do not love them as they are, it will not be they whom I love, and my love will be unreal.  I do not speak of helping them, because as far as that goes I am unfortunately quite incapable of doing anything as yet.

My final image was from, as you might guess, the bus.  I shared in conclusion,

It was again on a sunny day.  At one bus stop a young native woman was about to get on.  She was clear physical healthy and apparent material stability.  She did not appear to be under the weight of any immediate material or social bondage.  There was already a state of freedom that most of us can take for granted.  This, of course, did not actually tell me anything.  What struck me as she got on the bus was how the sun danced and glittered off the large and distinct native jewellery she was wearing.  And as she sat down on the bus she pulled out a book and began to read intently.  I caught a glimpse of the cover and it was a collection of writings be Edgar Allen Poe.  As I mentioned earlier freedom from the immediate material experiences of bondage or slavery is not the same as a life of freedom.  In many ways it is this initial freedom where the temptation to gain our own forms of security and control begins.  This woman in my eyes was under no clear and immediate bondage but I saw in her someone who then decided to take the next step into the wilderness to feed her soul and not continue to just benefit from material wealth and power.  She proudly wore symbols of a culture that for centuries had been attacked and demonized. But she was also not insulated in her culture but open to spiritual nourishment from other places as she read.  And as the sun shone through the bus window I felt as though I was sitting next to someone in whom living waters flowed and part of my own thirst was somehow quenched.

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2 thoughts on “Is this heaven? No . . . its the 44.

  1. These reflections are great. Since my return from Cairo last year I’ve also made an effort to take the bus as much as possible, all the way from East St.Paul to CMU and back. It’s a trip, but I have to say in all honesty it’s been a pleasure, even at 7am. There are also a fair number of students who ride the 11 to UW and consequently there are always plenty books pulled out. It’s interesting too look around and try to glimpse what people are reading. In Milan Kundera’s captivating book “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” he writes that books are the emblems of a secret brotherhood. One of his characters experiences a connection with a stranger because they are both carrying books. Anyway, I like that you don’t understand your bus-riding as spiritual nourishment or a virtuous activity but as a beginning of something that you don’t actually understand. It is interesting and mysterious in it’s banality.

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