I saw him out of the corner of my eye as I stepped up to the coffee urn to refill my cup before heading home: he was backing through the door, soda cup and bag of food in his hands. He hesitated mid-step as he saw me, and then my attention was turned to not over-filling my cup. This happens to me a lot: between the “believer’s beard”, the hat and the suspenders, I elicit a lot of covert looks, open second takes, and wide-eyed stares from adults as well as young children. Often there is nothing more to the encounter (except perhaps a smile and a wink to a child).
This time, when I looked up a moment later, there he was right next to me, looming. He seemed about a foot taller than I am and a foot wider: a rock of a man who, if set on a solid foundation, would never be moved. He was wearing the sort of telephone that clips to one’s ear; it looked incongruously small attached to such a large man.
He hesitated for a moment, and then asked the title of the book I held in my other hand. “Engaging Scripture: Reading the Bible with Early Friends. It is about how early Quakers read the Bible and how we can learn to do that again.” This lowered the barriers, and he began to share with me how he’s seen that many of us read the Scriptures with blinders on (he covered his eyes with both hands) and don’t see what the Bible has to offer us.
He knew his Bible, and led me quickly and easily along a trail from the woman at the well to Mt. Gerizim to Sinai to the Law to the person of Jesus. Our religious and spiritual vocabularies were quite different, but I felt we were speaking, underneath the words, the same message: that without the person of Christ, I cannot truly understand what Scripture has to say for me, in my condition, in the present moment. Time became irrelevant, the world fell away, and we shared the joy we each feel when the Scriptures are opened to our understanding.
Suddenly he blinked and said, “I have to be going.” We shook hands earnestly and exchanged heart-felt blessings. He turned back to the door he had been about to pass through earlier, and I walked in the opposite direction to the door leading to my pickup. As I passed into the sunlight, I saw my new friend at the wheel of a large semi tractor-trailer – his size and the truck’s size seemed properly matched. He was a long-haul truck driver; it would be many hours before he had his next chance for a face-to-face conversation, with anyone. I found myself waving to every truck driver I saw on the drive back home.
It happened again yesterday. Somebody took the risk of initiating a conversation with somebody else who had taken the risk of inviting one. It has happened to me repeatedly since God started interfering with my wardrobe all those years ago, but each time is as fresh and as precious as the first. “If you build it, they will come,” says the line from the movie; if you risk being invitational, they will take the risk of accepting the invitation, says Radical Hospitality. In this terribly fractured, partisan, splintered time we live in, it is important to do both: to inspect our lives to see that they are invitational to all sorts of people, and to take the risk of accepting the invitation others may extend, knowingly or unknowingly, to interact in a way that builds community rather than breaking it down. Unexpected joy awaits.