Luke 5:15-16 “Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”
This past week, I went away to the California coast to be quiet for a while. I’ve learned that when I make myself unavailable to the world by being away, the world becomes more available to me on my return.
It would be nicely pious to record that I spent hours reading the Bible I had along, or prayed for extended times at the top of hilly hikes, but even those things felt weighted with too much purpose and too much need to make this vacation achieve something, spiritual or otherwise. Part of Sabbath rest is to set aside one’s own purposes, as well as the purposes that come to us through others, and the purposes that arise when life happens. The top purposes on this vacation wouldn’t be mine, wouldn’t be in the sales pitches (“Would you like to purchase snacks for the flight?”), and wouldn’t be in mere events (After I shook the bottle of hibiscus kombucha and opened it all over the airport floor, I read the label that instructed me not to shake the bottle. Purpose: clean up the mess.).
If we do manage to suspend the priority of such other purposes, we leave more space for God’s purposes. God’s purposes are not things we must make happen, nor do we take on the burden of securing an outcome. Instead, we receive them. And they come to us more easily when we allow space for them. Our creative God abhors a vacuum.
At the hostel among the eucalyptus trees, there was woman who seemed only to be able to be present. She sat on the common room couch, shielded by dark glasses, a woolen cap, and the attempt to suspend her own physical tension. She kept her bag close to her side, as if it was a good friend. Rarely did anything come out of the bag and rarely was she doing anything.
But we saw each other.
“Hi, I’m Dan.”
“My name is M__.”
Born in South America, she’d lived in Sausalito for over 20 years. Sausalito was too close to mean that staying in the hostel was a happy circumstance, but she respectfully avoided sharing details.
The next day at the long breakfast table, M huddled into a corner, and I sat at the end of a bench near the kitchen.
“Good morning, M.”
“Good morning.” She sighed.
I overheard her conversation with the Colombian teens when they settled down around her, all speaking Spanish. That must have signaled safety to M, because she allowed a few genuine words to escape: “I’m so afraid.”
At lunch, when she heard I had a car and was going to walk the Golden Gate bridge, she came over to ask for a ride into town.
“Claro. Voy a la una,” I said. Apparently, that was enough for her to trust. When another guest breezed by on her way out and tried to make M take a Bible (“I have many at home, so please have this one – it can help.”), M could explain her polite refusal to me.
“Oh, I believe in God. Just… well… I was brought up Catholic, in Chile. My grandparents were very religious. We went to mass every week, baptisms, confirmation… and catechism. Agh, catechism. The monjas made us kids draw pictures of people burning in hell! We were just niños! It was terrible. And we had to learn the doctrine, or else. Everything was controlled by threats and fear. That’s all I learned. So I grew up afraid of God, terrified, really.”
“That makes sense,” I said. The Bible reposed, unopened, on the coffee table.
“Yes, I suppose it does,” she mused. “I don’t mean to offend, but that’s just how it was. So I don’t go to church or anything. Are you religious? Well, I could never set foot in a church – it’s all too horrible what they teach. Christianity is awful.”
“Sometimes I have found that there’s a difference between what the institution of the church teaches and what the religion’s founder, Jesus, actually said and did.”
“Yes, I believe in Jesus. A great man.”
“You might want to read what He said sometime.” I gestured toward the crisp new Bible.
“Maybe, but no… no. After all these years, I have found more in Hinduism. I’ve read the Bhagavad Gita.”
“The Hindus have their own issues with what their holy books say versus what their priests teach verses how Hindus actually live. All religions have this problem. It’s better to judge the truth by going to the source texts.”
Over and after lunch, our conversation ranged far and wide, but I mostly listened. Later, she asked me if Christians believed in karma. I never figured out how she managed to find the karmic idea of cosmic justice so inoffensive when compared to heaven and hell.
“So I’m here at the hostel, trying to wait out the weekend. They kicked me out, and they have lawyers, four, six, eight. With their fees – what can I do against a team of rich people? What if they find me?… I just want to be able to get my car. But my son, he keeps telling me that he told me so, and he won’t drive down to come help me… And I contacted my sister, but I need to go get my check, make some phone calls from the public library.” She suddenly stopped the flow of words, concerned she’d said too much. “Thank you for listening to me. Well, I’ve talked a lot.”
“Sounds like you’ve needed to.”
“Yes. That’s true.” She breathed slowly as if discovering her own necessity. “Well, what about you? What do you do?”
I laughed, knowing that eventually that question would come, and hoping to let her down gently. “That’s… well… guess.”
“You’re not a tech guy – no smart phone. But an intellectual, the way you talk. Professor? Teacher?” I shook my head.
“Would you believe me if I told you I was a Christian pastor?”
She rocked sideways in her seat and began to chuckle softly.
That afternoon, I dropped her off in Sausalito, picking her up again in time for dinner back at the hostel. As I waited on my slow-cook meatloaf, she was reflecting with another guest, a Spanish travel blogger, about the evil in the world and how overwhelming it could be.
And so I told her my story of how it is that I am still alive, despite once being nearly overwhelmed by suffering and evil.
“… so for me, the Christian God is the one who understands the evil in the world because He has experienced it first-hand. He doesn’t always give us explanations of why He continues to allow it, but He gives us something better. He says to us that He knows. He knows… So many people think that evil in the world is an argument against the existence of God, but to me the presence of evil is an argument for the existence of God, but more than that, a God of compassion, because, in fact, we humans may require such a God to be able to bother with continuing our own existence.”
By the next morning, the Bible was gone from the coffee table, though I doubt it was she who took it. Yet the Word was never far from her those three days in the hostel. She hugged me when we parted.
God will be working His purpose out.