Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Scene from a train

It's 7:30 or so and I've taken my usual position at the back of the first train car at Vienna metro. I stayed at work til shortly before 7pm because of downed power lines between East Falls Church and West Falls Church metro station that had folks waiting for about an hour for trains at stations out on that end of the Orange Line... also because I and my co-workers had spent a half hour hanging out by the brick wall in the basement of our building due to dire warnings by National Weather Service that tornadoes were almost certain to sweep through our general area. One whole wall of my office is a window overlooking beautiful trees (which is 75% of why I haven't seriously considered quitting... I have worked in a coffin-sized, fluorescent lighted cubicle and I know how blessed I am right now), so I gladly skittered downstairs to wait out the Impending Doom. Later, I read on that a lady in Fairfax County died when a tree fell on her car, so I ain't messin around. I wait until Metro posts to their website that all is cool between the Falls Church stations and it isn't raining out, and then I jet.

k so I'm sitting here and this kid pokes his head in and asks the lady sitting catty-corner to me if this train is going into DC. This always confuses me when folks ask this. It's the flipping END OF THE LINE in VIRGINIA, son. Where the hell you THINK it's going... Charleston? But she politely answers yes and he gets on, choosing the seat directly across from me. I go back to my book, thinking mostly of the guy a few seats up facing me who was on the shuttle from GMU and both chatted with me on the shuttle briefly and definitely checked me out once we got on the Metro and ISN'T wearing a wedding ring. Hmmm.

Then I hear the kid talking. At first I just write it off as him being one of those kids who sings out loud when he's listening to his Ipod. This happens a lot on the bus, less frequently on Metro, but it still happens. The kid's always black, and sometimes what he's singing isn't very nice because it's rap and rap isn't nice. But I don't mind it. I have my usual I-was-raised-in-freaked-out-suburbia initial jolt but then I just listen to see if I like what he's singing/chanting/whatever.

This time, it's the book of Ecclesiastes. It only takes me a minute to realize this, which I'm impressed by because I honestly can't remember the last time I read the Bible when I wasn't in church. At first I'm like oh it's one of the Gloomy Books... is it Ecclesiastes or Lamentations, but then I realize it's Solomon talking about all the stuff he's experienced in life and how it really hasn't amounted to much and basically everything is pointless. I feel tension. Is the kid crazy? Is this Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction quoting desparing para-scripture before he shoots somebody? Why the heck is the kid reading Ecclesiastes? Out LOUD? But after a while I shut my book and just listen to him. and then I close my eyes and listen to him.

In truth, it's only snatches of him that I can hear... the train is so very loud, and there's always folks on there having their own little conversations and the train operator making his obligatory and occasionally theatrically rendered (i LOVE those) announcements. It's mesmerizing, this occasional Scripture punctuating those familiar noises that I'm so used to blocking out. I'm hearing these little phrases and words from Ecclesiastes buried beneath mechanical noise, the wind rushing past the train, the canned recorded voice that tells everybody to get out of the way before the door closes on their slow ass, etc. It's like my life... little snatches of Grace poking out every once in a while from the numb chaotic sometimes-mildly-surreal ritual of my days.

Then he gets to the "there is a time" section... I hear "A time for being born and a time for dying" very clearly, then it starts to get buried again... only the refrain "A time for... A time for... A time for" is clear and strong above all the other noise. I am wishing more and more that I had something with me to record the kid. I look up at him and study him, unnoticed because he's so into what he's reading. He is a clean cut kid, wearing very nice basketball shoes, big baggy jeans that look expensive, a massive MLK Jr. t-shirt. He has dreds but he's only had them a few months and they are extremely well-tended. He's maybe 17 at the oldest, with a face that's not exactly attractive but not ugly. He's a normal middle class kid, except for the fact that he's reading Ecclesiastes out loud on the metro.

He reaches a stopping point, considering what he's just read, and I lean over and ask "Why Ecclesiastes?" I've been dying to ask him this ever since I realized what it was. Why this? If he's some kind of evangelist, why Ecclesiastes? If he's a charismatic who's just nuts about reading scripture out loud, WHY Ecclesiastes? He looks up at me, surprised, eager, and I'm a little shocked by the intensity, clarity and intelligence in his eyes. Maybe he's older than I thought. He says "Yeah, it's Ecclesiastes" and smiles at me. I say "Yeah, but why?" He says "I don't know. I just felt like that's what I was supposed to read", and smiles again. "You like Ecclesiastes?"

The woman in front of him is also African-American. I haven't been able to read her body language over the last 10 minutes as he's steadily read out loud right behind her. At first she leaned forward very far and studied the Metro map in her hands and I thought he was making her nervous, but then she leaned back and just listened, with her brow furrowed. I thought, he's bothering her in a way, but she's listening. Maybe she's thinking this is one of those racial moments... and it's true that all the white folks on the Metro are looking nervously at him. She jumped when I said something to him, and smiled at me, like I was talking to her, too.

I explain that I like Ecclesiastes --it's philosophical, real, it makes sense-- but if I'm going to read the Bible I'm going to go to the Psalms, the Gospels, to Proverbs because I really need Proverbs. He says again that he just opens the Bible sometimes and reads wherever it goes, and that he always tries to read Scripture out loud, so he can hear it. The woman nods and says something like "Faith comes from hearing" and he responds "and hearing from the Word of God". I don't know if I got that quote 100% right, but I know a) it's scripture and b) they just spoke in African-American cultural code and I'm on the outside and oh how I always want to be on the inside when that happens.

We talk a little more... I tell him about wanting to record him, and we all laugh. and I say I'm sorry for interrupting him but I had to know why he was reading THAT, and he reiterates that it was just what he was led to do and then I'm like cool well I'll let you get back to it, and he does. and I close my eyes and he gets to the part where it says "Two are better than one"... and he reads it twice... that two are better than one because when one falls the other can pick them up. and I am hearing it and thinking that I don't know if God told him to read that particular passage out loud, but that I'm BLESSED by it anyway... that he's reminding me of the passion for scripture that I once had, the way I felt God was speaking to me through it... the way it would sometimes be the highlight of my day even when I was a teenager and most of the time really just wanted to have a more exciting life and a lot of sex. and didn't have either.

Listening to him, I had a sudden urge that I should get off a stop earlier than I was intending. Ok, I thought... he blessed me with his impulsive following of what he perceives as the will of God. I'll answer in kind. I get off, and tell him to take care. He and the woman look up and smile as though I'd addressed them both. I walk out, full of thoughts, trying to interpret what just happened. Halfway home, a few rain drops start to fall and I put up my umbrella. Two blocks later, it's raining in earnest, and by the time I get to my street, I'm running, my dress soaked, and lightning and thunder are starting. It rains like this for the next hour, pouring down with considerable lightning and thunder. If I'd gone to the next stop and gone to CVS like I was intending, I would have been either stuck in CVS for a long time or done my whole walk in the pouring rain with lightning coming down.

So, did God "tell" the kid to read Ecclesiastes? Did he "tell" me to get off a stop early so I wouldn't get struck by lightning? I don't know... but I know that I was changed, however imperceptibly, by that guy obeying what he perceives to be God's Will or the Spirit's prompting and reading the Word out loud on the train, surrounded by stressed out Washingtonians. Thank you, whoever you are, for obeying the urging of God. I think maybe I want to be more like you.


Mike Croghan said...

My first thought was, "Why don't I have more experiences like this?", followed quickly by "I'm sure I do, but I consistently fail to enter into them as openly as you did."

Thanks for making me want to be more receptive, mindful, and humble. No, really. :-)

P3T3RK3Y5 said...

seriously cool post moff

Jon said...

Beautiful post. I haven't read something this stirring in a while. I love the crescendo of your tenderness and the observation of your dynamic, realistic surroundings. We all do this everyday, seeing and analyzing others reactions, but only few are able to paint gorgeous and accurate word picture for others to enjoy.

Ramona Z. Lear said...

Thank you for sharing your beautiful experience.


Mike said...

Nice. Thanks, Moff.