“May I come speak with you about a religious matter?”

I was expecting a call like this, on a Monday after the Supreme Court’s decision about marriage.  Our office manager buzzed me.  “There’s someone on the phone who would like to speak with a pastor about a religious matter.”  Sigh.  “I’ll take it.”

“This is Reverend Beth Neel.  How may I help you?”  I usually don’t refer to myself as Reverend Beth Neel, but when strangers call and want to talk about a religious matter, I do like to be clear about my role and authority.

“I’d like to come speak with you about a religious matter.”  We agreed on  the time of 11:30.

Here’s what I assumed: that this woman, who self-identified as Presbyterian, wanted to talk with me about either the SCOTUS ruling or about what had happened in Charleston.  I confess that normally I try to pass this sort of thing along to one of my colleagues, but it was just me in the office today.

At 10:15 I ran downstairs to look at something in the building, and when I came back up to my office, she was waiting for me, 45 minutes early.  I took one look at her, wearing her down coat on a day when it was supposed to get up to 90, carrying two laden shopping bags, smelling a bit of stale cigarette smoke, and I knew that the SCOTUS ruling was probably the last thing on her mind.

She did mention it, sort of.  She said when she got off the bus in Portland and saw two men holding hands, if her mother had been with her and had seen that, she would’ve had a fit.  So much for hearing a proof-text about the sin of gay marriage.

We talked for an hour.  She poured out her life story without any self-pity, talking about her family, her mom and dad who married and divorced three times.  Her sister, who married the wrong guy.  A Mexican restaurant in the Memorial area of Houston; did I know it?  Her work at a car dealership.  Her time in Oklahoma, in Nebraska, in Seattle.  When she worked at a hotel run by East Indians, and their conversations about the Gideons Bibles and why her boss would need to talk to Jesus if he wanted her to work on Sundays.

After an hour, I asked her what her religious question was.  “Religious?  I don’t believe in God anymore.  I’m so tired I just can’t believe in anything.  I don’t know if I can go on.”  Turns out she had no where to stretch out and sleep; at her age, sleeping under the bridges wasn’t an option.  She tried to sneak in naps at Denny’s or Shari’s, but that’s no rest at all.

“Can we provide a motel room for you for a couple of nights?”  Sure.  We did, and gave her something for some food.  Should I have done more – connect her with social services, give her a ride to the motel?  Should I have done less – tell her we couldn’t help but that I’d pray for her?”  She was grateful for what we offered, said yes with dignity; she didn’t ask for anything more and I sensed (rightly or wrongly) that she really wasn’t looking for anything else.

Her name was Joy, and I don’t know if there was a higher purpose to Joy showing up in my office this morning.  Was it to challenge my assumptions that gay marriage is on everyone’s mind?  Was it to remind me that a big part of my calling as a pastor is not time efficiency but kindness?

Maybe there was no higher purpose.  Maybe there was just a child of God who needed a little help today.  And so Joy came in.  And so Joy left.

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Blessed to be a blessing

So it’s Monday morning and I’m on my way to Starbucks.  In my defense, I usually don’t visit Starbucks on a Monday morning, but there was a lot of gardening and the ensuing sore muscles yesterday, and the child woke me up at 2:30, and biology woke me up at 4:30, and the puppy woke me up for good at 5:30, and this week’s liturgy just needed a boost of caffeine.

So I’m on my way to Starbucks, a two-minute walk from the church, and I pass a guy pushing a grocery cart with a big garbage bag in it, which I assume is filled with cans and bottles he’s planning to recycle for the 5 cent rebate.  I’m on a mission for coffee, but I do think to myself, “God, bless that man” as I walk by.  But in the seconds after I pass him, before I get to Starbucks, I think to myself, “Maybe God wants me to be a blessing to him.”  And I go in and order my tall latte.

I have brought $3.oo with me; the coffee is $2.65 and I put the change in the tip jar.  I’m chatting with the barrista who’s foaming the milk and I hear the guy come in.  “Have you seen my friend who was pushing the thing?  Has he come out yet?”  No, says the barrista.  But then his friend comes out of the loo – an older gentleman wearing an Oregon State cap, pushing one of those walkers that has a basket and a padded seat.  The gentlemen leave.

I get my coffee, go outside, and pass them by.  They nod to me, and I’m expecting them to ask me for a dollar or two and I regret having only brought was was necessary for the coffee.  But they don’t ask me for anything; I’m pretty sure they don’t even notice me.  We end up  next to each other at the light and cross the street together.  The guys are chatting away, oblivious to my theological musings.  And on my way back to the office, I think to myself, “Who’s to say that man isn’t meant to be a blessing to me?”

May there be caffeine and the blessing of strangers for you today.

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