Saturday, April 14, 2012

Angels [Unawares]: A Very Unexpected Encounter on my Way to #T4G12

Photo credit: Google Maps

At 8 a.m., I pulled into the Green Tree Mall parking lot in Clarksville, Indiana.

Clarksville feels like a suburb well past its prime—a littered, blue-collar bedroom community for Louisville, Kentucky commuters. 

It was blindingly sunny for 8am. The sky was the same shade of blue as the sun-bleached posters hanging in the town's storefronts. The air was unseasonably brisk for a mid-April morning.

I was headed to the second day of Together for the Gospel, a conference in the heart of downtown Louisville. Rooms in Louisville had been hard to find, and their prices painfully high. So I had found a great deal on a room in Clarksville, and had decided to take the bus. It was only 4 miles as the crow flies.

I’m a stubborn advocate for public transportation. Besides its economical benefits, it makes me feel more thankful, more human, more connected. Being on someone else’s schedule, surrounded by strangers, at the mercy of another’s skill, is very good for my soul.

There in the far corner of the empty sprawling mall parking lot, I found what I was looking for: a dilapidated bus shelter, exposed, abandoned and poorly manicured. Dew sat on the clumps of grass around it like dampness from the pop of a burst economic bubble. Clearly, public transit was forgotten lore in this town, if this post-apocalyptic lean-to was any indication.

I sat down in the shelter, thankful that its one wall was perfectly positioned to keep the chilly wind off me. I had forgotten to bring a coat, and was visibly shivering through my thin V-neck sweater.

Photo credit: Google Maps
In front of me, the sun was peeping up from behind a mega store of some kind, with a 4-lane boulevard and 300 yards of parking lot separating us. I was stunned by the lifelessness of the landscape, interrupted only by the occasional speeding car. If this was rush hour in Clarksville, I couldn’t imagine what it must be like on the weekends.

Minutes later, a bus approached on the far side of the road. As its air brakes farted a deafening hiss into the morning air, it stopped at the far curb and belched out three people at a small wooden bench. I could only see their feet shuffling under the bus. Two sets of feet dispersed, but one stayed. When the bus drove off, he stood facing me, eclipsing the sun.

I squinted enough to tell that He was a thin African American man, probably in his 30s. His heavy clothes were 4 sizes too big, and he had a dark, flat-billed cap pulled down over his eyes.

He started waving one hand, trying to get my attention across the wide road. “What on earth could he possibly want?” I thought to myself. “Probably money.” I was glad I was wearing sunglasses so he couldn’t tell where I was looking—or that I was looking straight at him.

He started saying something to me that sounded like, “Change, sir? Change sir?!” Ah, my instincts were right. I have ridden thousands of buses, and walked miles of city streets. I am a clever fellow—wise as a serpent, innocent as a dove.

After a car whizzed by, he burst into a sprint toward me. “Wow, this guy is on a mission,” I thought.

He hopped up onto the curb right in front of me and extended his hand, offering a shred of crumpled gray paper.

“Do you need this transfer, sir? I don’t need it. It will get you on the bus for free.”

Suddenly I realized that he had been saying, "Transfer? Transfer?!" As I reached out and took the transfer, my soul immediately started turning inside out with guilt. Before I knew it, he had turned and sprinted back across the street, disappearing into the sun’s rays. I collected myself just quickly enough to yell into the brightness, “Thank you!” as he scurried away.

A few minutes later, my bus came and I stepped on. I waved the gray paper at the driver and asked, “Is this all I need?” He nodded casually. No fare necessary. A stranger, whom I had functionally hated, even murdered in my heart, had paid my way.

The hair stands up on the back of my neck when I read that little phrase at the end of Hebrews 13:2: “Some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” The writer doesn’t give any guarantees that it will happen to us, but he leaves the possibility open.

God has brought many moments into my life like this one, moments that have sent me running back to Hebrews 13:2 saying, “Could it be, Lord?” I ask not out of exhilaration, but out of embarrassment and contrition.

If that was an angel—and it could have been—I blew it. God, please forgive me, and make me worthy of my calling the next time a stranger crosses my path.

And thank you for loving me so personally, so compellingly. Even in my sin.

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