God will never tell us where to get off

Published May 1, 1998

WHEN DOES SPRING really, finally arrive in a Canadian city?

When they tear up the streets.

Last year, this ritual took over the street where I catch the streetcar every morning. As well as the city’s repaving of the street, the transit authority was also at work, improving the roadbed and replacing rails.

The upheaval lasted until fall and brought many inconveniences. For myself, I discovered that doing my crossword puzzle on a jolting, veering bus was very different from the same restful activity on a smooth-riding streetcar.

But the major inconvenience was the frequent change of route – as each section of the work was completed, the road was re-opened, and a new stretch was closed. One never knew with each passing week where the changes would be. Because buses can run only on major roads, those changes could take the bus as much as a quarter of a mile from the usual route.

Once, during the summer, I was riding a bus that turned off its east-west road and headed south about five blocks to the next main road – that month’s detour. One passenger, an elderly woman who spoke and understood very little English, became agitated and began (it seemed clear to me from her gestures) to ask what was happening and where the bus was going.

The driver, probably as frazzled as anyone by all these changes, told her brusquely that he didn’t understand what she was talking about. No one on the bus spoke her language so, at the next stop, the driver opened the front door and by gesture made it clear that he wanted her off the bus. Confused and upset, she left. Some passengers then challenged the driver about his actions, and he responded that, “If you don’t know English, you shouldn’t be on the bus.”

About two weeks later, on a different detour, almost the same scene repeated itself with a not-quite-so-elderly Portuguese-speaking woman. But this time the driver asked if there was anyone on the bus who spoke her language and, when a passenger responded, he patiently explained through this interpreter exactly where the bus was going and when it would rejoin its normal route. She eventually understood and stayed.

It was not surprising that the subjects of these experiences were older women. In many households of newcomers, men go to work, children go to school and women stay home, mixing only with those who speak their mother tongue, so they are most vulnerable in such unexpected circumstances.

But the contrast between the responses of the two drivers made me think not just about the different ways in which we respond to each other, but about God’s response to us. When we are uncomprehending and unresponsive, when we seem not to understand what God is saying, the human response would be for God to tell us to just get off the bus.

The divine response to us, even when we are more than simply uncomprehending but turn downright mean, is to join us to go where we are, to get right inside us, to become (in the language of the creeds) incarnate in the person of Jesus.

The second driver, with his effort to go where the woman was, seemed to me not simply a nice guy, but a gracious sign of God’s way of handling our human dilemma.

Archbishop Michael Peers is the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.


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