In storytelling, most important is for me to find my own connection to the story. For then, I will convey a different sense of ownership when sharing it.
So, I had worked and worked in preparation for a funeral I was to lead with Psalm 23. Perhaps you know it:
“The Lord is my Shepherd.
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He Leads me beside still waters,
He restores my soul.
He leads me in the paths of Righteousness for His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.”
Now, this is a powerful bit of story in scripture and very familiar to some so it can be bypassed as not offering anything new. So, I had sat with it, prayed through it and then there it was. I noticed that in this Psalm the author moves from “He” to “You” and the point at which the author says he is walking through the “valley of the shadow of death.”
The other thing I noted is that this Lord was leading the psalmist even into and through the darkest of places and that at the darkest point, the Lord was closest. As the Psalmist wrote: “…for You are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
On that day, this reached into my heart as an insight. It felt new, substantial. The darkest times were the most intimate times. Those were always the times of greatest growth.
This was not “rocket science” or especially deep theology, but I knew, that if people could be led to see this, it could impact their relationships with the God who is with them, intimately connected to them and walks before and beside them. I felt ready with all the other preparations that had been done, for this funeral.
As sometimes happens at events, things didn’t go as planned. Leadership shifted and changed during the event. I felt like I was more of an MC for multiple things than the pastor. The things that did happen at the funeral were beautiful in and of themselves, but I think like a kid with a special present planned who never got to give it, perhaps, worse, like a toddler frustrated at a change in plans, I ended up having to truncate my thoughts to the point of absurdity for other things took precedence. This left me frustrated. The brief, five minute, and the very summarized message I offered felt cluttered, not clear, and certainly not impactful.
I had to leave immediately afterward. I drove to the airport kind of kicking myself as if I could have led differently. I felt I could have communicated better perhaps beforehand which would have waylaid much of the issue I felt had happened. I was frustrated with ministry by the time I got to my parking place, and with this brooding, kicking myself attitude, I boarded the economy parking Blue Airport Bus at M, the first stop.
Usually, I am a chatty passenger. If no one else is on the bus, I will chat with the driver. But on this day, with a dark cloud over my head, I sat down in the section of seats in the first half of the bus, nearest the luggage, as the sole passenger.
The bus driver, a strong woman about my age, with curly blond hair, looked back, smiled and said, “How’s your day going?”
Who does she think she is, talking to me? I wondered. Clearly, I don’t want to talk. I’m not looking up! I am not happy! My day is not going well! I am having a pity party. Don’t interrupt!
I bypassed all the internal shouting, and responded, saying:
“Well, It has been… ok.”
“Ok, huh?” She said, seeing right through my answer.
So I ventured,
“Well, I’m certain it will improve.” But I actually was not expecting it to improve at all.
To which she said,
“Are you heading toward something or coming from something hard?”
Who sent this woman? I wondered as we had passed P and Q and were driving down to the next section of stops. I knew there was no avoiding a conversation. No one was yet on board the bus with us. So I opened up, pried open as with a can opener, I told some of my story, of the funeral, of the connection to the dear woman who had died, of my frustration.
She connected right in.
“My dad is 85. I am anticipating the fact that I don’t have him too much longer. And he doesn’t have any connection to Christ. You are a Christian, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am a follower of Jesus,” I replied.
She continued, “I thought so.” But I was thinking HOW ON EARTH? I’ve not been acting anything like one!
She said, “I couldn’t do this life without Him.”
“Me either,” I said, thinking about what I had learned from Psalm 23, about how this Shepherd is most intimate when things are toughest.
So I shared that.
Just sharing that brief portion of the 23rd Psalm and what we might learn about the Lord that that language of the Psalm changes when the path gets dark. And with that, the insight came out, about how in the darkness, in the toughest path, the Shepherd, the Lord is most intimate, closest, called “You” by the Psalmist instead of the more distant word, “He.”
And God showed up on that bus, around stop U, and the bus driver began to cry.
“That’s so true,” she stammered out through tears, and then said, “I guess I can’t talk and drive!”
“Ok, I said. I think driving is really important now.” At which she laughed.
And finally, there was someone to pick up. I marveled that for probably 10 minutes, it had just been the driver and me so we could finish that conversation. As this tall woman in long green trousers, red shirt and loose-fitting blue jacket got on the bus, at stop W, the driver greeted her, welcomed her onto the bus, and this woman sat down far from me in the back of the bus. And then we picked up more and more people until it was standing room only as we headed for the terminal.
After we reached the terminal, I stepped forward to the driver, thanked her for the conversation, saying how she had encouraged me.
She affirmed the same and said,
“Would you be praying for me?”
“Absolutely,” I told her. We exchanged names.
Then, she started to say something more but started to tear right up again, so said, “Oops! Better stop talking.”
I got off and walked into the terminal, through security, astounded at how my day had changed, at how near God had come to me in the place that felt dark, having prepared fertile soil in this woman’s heart, for the seed of that Word given.
As I sat in the airport, I was quiet, drank tea, and ate some food. The interior voices that had been yelling on the drive to the airport all were silent. I was tired and quiet. Silent. Peaceful. I just sat, observed people, and prayed for others.
After about two hours, I walked to my crowded gate. I sat for a few moments, then stood and was stretching when as I looked across the gate-full of people, I saw this woman standing by the far wall, who looked surprisingly like our Bishop, and then I noticed someone next to her, and thought “Is that John Tucker?” He is a pastor in my geographic area whom I have known for years. He saw me and waved me over. Indeed that was our bishop standing with John!
I greeted Bishop Elaine, telling her about how I had seen “the woman who looked like the bishop.” And we had this random, joyful conversation. Karen Hernández was there and she had a story from the visit Karen and I had made to her church back in January. I connected with Gwen Drake and heard her plans for retirement. And greeted someone else there whom I didn’t recognize at first, but with whom I had worked on a board two years back. For someone who had been quiet for two hours, these conversations were a gift. I felt encouraged and more centered. Karen H. offered a ride to my destination in Boise with her husband Ed, if my ride didn’t work out. And then we boarded.
As I boarded the plane a girl got in behind me who was slender, wearing a blue stocking cap, with her shoulder-length brown hair sticking out from beneath it. She carried a green, lightweight backpack over her shoulders, was in her mid-20’s, wearing a nose ring, and wore a long necklace that looked like prayer beads. She had joyful eyes and a great smile. There were two seats on each side of the center aisle, and she sat in the window seat next to me.
As we sat down, immediately she began to talk to me. Introducing herself:
“Hi, I’m Alex. I always talk to people on planes. What’s your name? Where are you headed?” And we began to share. I was deeply grateful that God had used the previous conversation on the bus and the one in the airport with friends and colleagues in order to prepare me for this time now. I was thinking I would not have been as ready to talk and be present without them.
After a while, since she had mentioned that the beads were Buddhist prayer beads, I asked her to tell me her spiritual journey. That was a wonderful story of life. She had been on quite a journey!
She’d been blessed, as she said, by “Love in her high school Young Life group,” but had lost hold of the Christian faith in college and was migrating toward Buddhism. I prayed and I listened. I asked questions and realized how Jesus was very much still a part of her life. She was just needing to recognize Him there. She asked about our kids and grandkids. We talked about time and how it is fleeting. She asked what it felt like to hold a child’s child! “Surreal,” I told her. Remembering back to when I held our first granddaughter, Antonia,
for the first time and feeling like this: how was it possible that nearly 23 years had passed since I had held this child’s mother in the same way? (Cannot locate a picture from that season — trust me, it looked exactly the same, except I was younger looking!).
We began to talk about what it was like to walk in and through difficult times, the hard things she had encountered in her life, the places of pain, the friends who had dealt with abuse. And I told a slice of my own experience with sexual abuse.
I asked if she had heard Psalm 23 before, and shared it with Alex. As I shared about how it said how intimate and close the shepherd was in hard times, she was impacted. We shared more about dark and light, about hope and hopelessness and about how a Person, Jesus, walks with us in those places.
Then as our plane began its descent, she looked at me and asked, “What’s your favorite story in the Bible?” Seriously, that’s what she asked. I think I have dreamed someone would ask me that question for years!
I told her the story of the Bent Woman (Luke 13:10-17). She loved it. She had never heard it before. I asked her questions about the story. Could the woman had been doing something other than coming to the synagogue where people would have viewed her as having sinned to be in that condition? And what it might have felt like for this woman in that place? And what might we learn about her that that’s where she had chosen to come? We looked at how Jesus responded to the woman and then how the synagogue ruler reacted against the woman after Jesus healed her, “indignant that she had been healed on the Sabbath.” In all this, we discussed the story as the plane was landing, and then taxiing and finally stopping at our gate. Engrossed in the story, we hardly noticed. She began to apply the story to her own life. It was beautiful as Jesus took over and brought light to the Word for this woman, His precious daughter.
We deplaned and were standing beside each other in the dark, wind and rain, awaiting our luggage, and I got this picture of praying for her. So, I said, “May I pray with you?” She gladly received that. So, we prayed together all before the luggage cart arrived outside in the wind and rain. She hugged me and said how it had been a pleasure to meet me and then we got our luggage and parted.
As I was thanking God for that encounter, and praying for more Alex walking through the Boise airport, the Lord whispered, “I sent her to you.”
And I answered back, “Thank you, Lord.”