Greyhound Jesus and Alabama Jimmy
Lessons in Following the Holy Spirit’s Leading,
Faith-Based Hoping, and God’s Lavish Non-Economies of Scale
Part 1 – Going with the Eyes of Jesus …
So, I decided to go stealth on the Greyhound to Houston, but to keep asking myself how Greyhound Jesus would view all that would happen, and how He would interpret what He experienced … (Doxology and Decompression)
Here I am, almost three years after a very important, life-shaping event. And I had no clue at the time of its significance. But, as Søren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” And what I’ve been learning in retrospect to carry into my future is a timely lesson in the midst of recession: God’s economy is not necessarily about being efficient or effective. Often, it’s about being outrageous and lavish.
This is my story of experiencing Greyhound Jesus and an outrageously lavish gift God wanted to give a guy I came to call “Alabama Jimmy.” I could give you the “espresso version” of what happened in, oh, a paragraph or so, but I’ve decided to show how things unfolded. To me, that’s more intriguing, and it lets me “externalize” the details of learning to discern and follow the Spirit’s leading. Dealing with details is something I think has ongoing value as we consider our spiritual formation. Externalizing the process of being led and discerning that leading is also just not something I heard disciples share specifics of when I was a young Christian … wish I had, but as in so many other aspects of following Jesus, what I wasn’t able to find then, I’ve made a commitment to become for those I can influence. So here it is.
Giving an expanded account instead of an espresso one also parallels another facet of the lesson I learned about God’s economy and efficiency: God’s not in the rush-rush-rush that we are, and sometimes, the looooonger His set-up for a dramatic scene in human history, the more valuable the pay-off. Also, as others have said, “We see God’s work in the details.” So, what’s a story without the demonstrative details? And thus, I hope you don’t mind if I take it slow and amble along to the denouement …
Anyway, I told some of the background to this story in Doxology and Decompression – how I felt the need to reconnect with the broader community of humanity after 15 months of excruciatingly intense cloistering within two Christian communities: work and church. This trip wasn’t about my escaping the people in these situations, or about taking a vacation. No, it was about something else – seeing places differently, not going different places. And the Spirit transformed it into something far deeper than I intentionally planned.
What it became, I think Marcel Proust expressed best: “The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Back then I didn’t have the words to put to this longing that drove me in an unexpected direction, but now I do: missional. I wanted to rediscover what it meant to really see my neighbors and perceive them with the perspective of Jesus. Actually, it turned out more of a first-time discovery than a rediscovery …
Do you remember from the Gospels when a legal expert asked Jesus about how to inherit eternal life, and He responded to the question with a question?
“What is written in the Law? … How do you read it?”
And the man answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.
“You have answered correctly” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29, NIV)
Well, at that point in 2005, I’d have been more like the lawyer, the one asking that kind of question, than the subject in Christ’s gracious and yet provocative response – the Good Samaritan. Jesus shared the account of someone who helps a wounded stranger from an enemy tribe with a gift of time, assistance, expenditure, and follow-up care. The Good Samaritan reverses my self-centered question of “Who is my neighbor?” with this humility-seeking one: “Who am I a neighbor to?”
And the latter question is the one I finally arrived at, but it took a journey before I could get to The Journey. I knew I was supposed to do something unusual, but floundered around with options for a while until it became clear. First I investigated airfares. Whew! Money talks, and mine would say, “Good-bye” if I chose to fly! I could have gone that route, I had enough – barely – to pay for a flight. But that quiet voice of the Holy Spirit simply told my heart, “No.” I started checking out Amtrack, but remembered how difficult and noisy train travel always was for me. It made no sense to arrive drained by the train, so that was out.
I knew my housing would be covered once I got to Houston, so the only expenses were travel and food. But, being relatively short on cash, if flying was too expensive and training too noisy, I thought maybe car would be the way to go. I remember calling up my good friend Dave to see if he wanted to do “A Ridiculous Road Trip” – I remember using that exact term in my voicemail message – together from the Bay Area to Houston. If he’d drive, I’d pay for everything plus find places to stay along the way. We’d both been at the WabiSabi event in Austin a couple of years earlier, and he already knew a lot of the people involved on the Doxology team.
Even though Dave could’ve had the time free, he’s one who listens intently for the Spirit and follows even when it seems ridiculous. You can pretty much trust that a yes or no from Dave means he’s sought God for any directive in either direction. So … his “no” meant God had a “yes” to some other option, because I knew that I knew I should go to Doxology.
Maybe driving was the right thing, but not in a buddy road trip. I hadn’t owned a car for about five years – it was one of the few ways I could economize to survive on a part-time salary from a non-profit organization. So, I thought about renting a car and going by myself.
But that turned out to be out of the question, mainly because my license had just recently expired, and I hadn’t gotten it renewed yet. Oddly, it seemed like every time I got ready to go in and get it renewed, something came up to prevent me. Driving is not my favorite thing anyway, but I began wondering if I was sabotaging myself, or if this seeming impossibility of getting to the Department of Motor Vehicles was due to “spiritual warfare.” Multiple times I scheduled myself to go to the DMV and EVERY time I felt woozy from allergies, or suddenly felt excessively tired on the day I’d planned to go. Either way, I couldn’t even walk one mile to the bus stop to get myself over to the DMV. Weird!
Please understand, I wasn’t in great shape healthwise just then. I’d been through a difficult period where I relocated myself and a suitcase of stuff a total of 36 times in 13 months because I hadn’t been able to locate a permanent place to live – and the longest I spent any one place was 5 months. Which means I shuffled stuff around 34 times in 8 months … once a week on average, going from this house-sitting job, to that short-term rental, then to someone’s home for a few days to a few weeks, and back and forth again.
So, I was utterly exhausted from “couch surfing”! All I had energy for was to work, go “home” (and hope I didn’t take the wrong local bus or exit at the wrong stop), rest as much as possible, and then repeat the cycle next day. I really hadn’t made any new friendships other than with additional people at work or church – and all just Christians. It was a relationally sheltered year as I traveled through this tunnel of weariness.
Anyway, I’m not sure I considered at the time the possibility that all this DMV diversion just might be the Spirit’s gracious (through frustrating!) leading to block me at every turn so as to narrow my options down to the very last one if I was to go on this trip at all: Greyhound.
As I got accustomed to the idea of taking the bus, it actually seemed like an intriguing and relatively relaxing trip – at least, potentially. I wouldn’t have to drive. I could slow down and have a completely different rhythm for 48 hours each way. It would be cheaper than airfare and quieter than going by train. Yes, this bus trip would give me an opportunity to unplug from that discomforting sense of “Christian island” isolation and to reconnect with the larger landscape of humanity.
Once I knew I was going, I began to pray that I would see people in a new light, with the eyes of Greyhound Jesus. This was important preparation, but I also wondered what this meant. Gradually it became clear that it was important for me to observe and listen, and only to say what was called for, if something was called for. I was going stealth. It was not about “evangelisten” where I was to initiate some generic gospel presentation and then ask who the person was I’d just hit with The Message. I guess if I were naming the approach now, it’d be “listenalmissional” – engage your ears before putting mouth in gear. (Shout-out and sidenote: My friend Bill [Yo! Bill!] says I do “frosting” well – as in what Robert Frost did, creating words cuz it’s kind of fun and poetical.)
So, I got on the Greyhound, armed with the sense I should watch for providential perspective instead of catalyze the action. As I’m writing this now in 2008, I’m reminded of one of the first poems I ever wrote, over 25 years ago. It’s really sing-songy, but since it seems relevant to share it here, I’ll do it:
Up to the Balcony
Many times my plans fall through
And it is hard to look to You
And recognize Your sovereignty,
To see Your plan as best for me.
But as I take a backward gaze,
By what I see, I’m just amazed!
Events and details fall in line
As You show me Your plan divine.
For all the whirling, churning thoughts
Come together, as I am brought
Up to the balcony where You share
The Playwright’s vantagepoint from there.
I quietly sit as You point out
Just what the action and plot’s about.
And how each actor plays a role
That is important to Your goal.
You give me wond’rous insights fresh
As You reveal just how things mesh.
I leave the balcony, strength renewed,
And more appreciating You.
So when my world seems caving in
And I’m hung up – caught in sin,
Remind me, Lord, to stop and pray
And seek Your viewpoint for that day.
Your perfect wisdom and advice
Will help me become more like Christ.
Infinite knowledge You will not give
But from the balcony comes truth to live.
© 1981 Brad Sargent
And thus my Greyhound Jesus adventure began … and all kinds of interesting stuff happened at the major stations along the way …