I get paid to work sixteen hours a week. I spend another sixteen on underpaid projects not fit for making a living. The rest of an average work day is set aside for what I call the “ministry of availability.” Included in such ministry is responding to texts from friends (no more than one social outing per day), responding to creaks in my body (no more than three days without a long walk), and responding to the sound of God that comes on as unpredictably as the engine light in my truck.
One morning, the light came on in the parking lot of Whole Foods. The day was overcast and I was optimistic; the world tends to require less of me when the mood is bleak. I had just bent over to buckle my groceries when a thought flickered in my mind: “Ask her if she needs a ride.” She, I gathered, was the old black woman at the nearby bus stop. And from what I could tell by her curved posture, she didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Then again neither was I.
The problem was “Ask her if she needs a ride” is the kind of God thing my mother hears. “Ask her if she needs a ride” could have been an article in the catechism of my faith. Every trip to the grocery store was an opportunity to hear God’s voice if we could only quiet the rickety wheel of the shopping cart long enough to listen. I don’t remember ever feeling too busy to spare an extra twenty minutes to take a stranger home. Spontaneity was among the great gifts of childhood.
I yielded to the idea of becoming like my mother and shouted out the window, “Hey! Can I give you a ride?” The old woman’s neck turned slowly toward me, and I was sure she was going to say no but at least I would have asked. The satisfaction of obedience would be my reward. But just as gently as she was standing on the sidewalk, she began walking toward my car, stopping at the safe distance of two arm lengths to inspect me.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Well, I’m going home, but where are you going?”
“I’m going home, too.”
“Where’s home for you?”
“Oh, that’s not far.”
“If you say so.”
And that settled it.
We spent our first five minutes together trying to decide in which direction to start driving since she didn’t exactly know how to get home without the bus route to guide her. She knew how to get there from the dry cleaner so perhaps we could go to the dry cleaner first. Where’s the dry cleaner? That she didn’t know either but she had a claim ticket that if I could just give her a minute more, she’d surely find. Her name was Cecelia Jackson but I was to call her Mrs. Jackson because from what she could tell I looked suspiciously young.
After we took the long way to the dry cleaner and I waited in the car for her to get her items and then apologized that her newly steamed coat would be dusted in dog hair, we found her apartment. This was a relief to me as I was beginning to imagine a Silver Alert with my licence plate attached. When we pulled up in the semi-circle in front of her building, the air let out of my lungs. “Why Mrs. Jackson! Do you know how many people my age would love to live in a building like this?” She beamed. It was an old, brick hosiery mill turned into assisted living for seniors. Did I want to come in and see it?
The thing with the ministry of availability is once you get going, it’s hard to stop.
I parked the car and met her at the front door of the building. “109,” she said and pointed to the numbers on the buzzer. “Remember that if you ever want to see me again.” She introduced me to a few folks sitting in the lobby, and not with any great sense of pride, before she led me down the blue-felt path to her door. What the apartment lacked in size it made up for in light; floor to ceiling windows the shape of fat Popsicle sticks butted up against one another. “Oh, Mrs. Jackson,” I melted. The city felt larger than it had moments before.
I didn’t stay long. The time I’d scheduled for being unscheduled was beginning to wane, and even though I could see the irony in this, it was an irony I accepted. She wasn’t overly grateful saying goodbye, and this prevented any sort of smugness as I drove home knowing very well I would make no effort to see her again.
It’s not that I’m too busy; I am decidedly not and hold firmly to the belief that saying “no” is a spiritual practice. It’s that there’s enough in my life that’s already mapped out, and it’s never as thrilling as what happens when the light comes on.
Obedience is not subjection to divine authority, but the act of keeping ourselves open to the Spiritual Presence which has already grasped and opened us. – Paul Tillich