Monday, December 8, 2014

Meeting John-the-Baptist on the Jesus Bus

On a July afternoon this past summer I was behind the wheel of black Chevy Camaro convertible driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in the beautiful state of Oregon.  Like many days in that region of the country, the morning’s fog and drizzle had given way to sunshine and a gentle breeze; providing a perfect opportunity to put down the top on my rental car.  With the magnificent scenery, the spectacular coastline views, and the fascinating small towns dotting the highway, I was in a state of perfect bliss and contentment.  This was exactly what I envisioned my vacation to be.

It came to pass (a wonderful sounding biblical phrase, isn’t it) that I happened to spy an old school bus parked along the side of the road.  It was impossible to miss because the vehicle had been painted in a wide array of bright colors.  Hand lettered messages and signs covered almost every available exterior inch.  4x8 sheets of plywood lined the side of the bus facing the road.  They had just been painted purple with large pink letters spelling out “NO WAR  YES JESUS”.  How did I know it was freshly painted?  Because the bucket and brushes were sitting out and paint was dripping from the signs onto the dirt and gravel pull off area where the bus was parked. 

Now, when I go on vacation I feel a certain obligation to my many, many fans to post on Facebook interesting and (if possible) humorous pictures of what I am doing.  I my mind’s eye I could imagine a picture of my black Camaro convertible parked alongside this crazy bus with its billboard-sized message and I knew it would make all of my followers howl with glee.  By the time I made the decision to do it I was several miles down the road, so I turned around and headed back to the bus.  I had just enough time to “think” (and I use this word here rather loosely) through my imminent encounter.  It occurred to me that I could not just pull up next to the bus and tell the owner I wanted to take a picture to make fun of it.  I realized I would need to fain an interest in the owner and what he was doing. 

So I pulled up, parked, and got out of the car.  I heard a dog barking in the bus as I began to survey all of its signs and messages.  A hand-written note taped inside a window caught my attention: “NO PICTURES.”  This mission was going to require some of my best, most shrewd work.  The owner appeared looking, well, exactly as you would expect – disheveled, unshaved, poorly dressed, and in need of a less than gentle scrubbing.  “This is some bus,” I said.  “I’ve never seen anything like it.”  “Haven’t you heard of Jesus people?” he replied.  “Well, yes.  They were around in the 70’s,” I said and then I threw out my trump card: “I am an Episcopal priest from Virginia.  I’m out here on vacation.”  “Oh,” he said, unimpressed.  “Your bus caught my attention.  Tell me about this sign,” I said, referring to the “NO WAR” message.  “Jesus put it on my heart last night to write it.  There is just too much war.  We’ve got to stop it.  That’s what Jesus told me to tell people.”

He took me to the other side of the bus where he had painted Jesus’ name in something like thirteen different languages.  I used my every charm to keep the conversation going, all the while trying to figure out how I was going to snap my coveted picture.  He described how he had been kicked out of a state park the night before for soliciting contributions.  That was when I noticed several old milk jugs affixed to the bus that asked for donations and I thought I had my chance.

I asked if I could make a donation and he said sure.  I took out my wallet, found a dollar bill, and put it in a jug.  “That church must not pay you very well,” he said to me.  “They treat me alright,” I replied.  “Why would you say that?”  “Well, all you can afford to give me is a dollar.”  I had a sudden, screaming sense that the tables were turned and I was in real trouble here.  “The other day a homeless family gave me a $20 bag of food for my dog.  Why is it that the poorest people are always the most generous while rich people don’t do much at all to help others?”  I stammered to make even a feeble response.  “Do you mind if I take a picture of your bus?” I asked.  “Help yourself he said,” as we came back around to the front side.  “Is that your car?” he asked, gesturing toward the Camaro.  “It’s a rental,” I said rather defensively, as a snapped a picture and hustled away.

I spent the rest of the day’s drive angry and defensive.  Who is he to say I’m not generous?  He has no idea all the good things I do to help others.  How dare he ruin my picture-taking fun by making me feel bad.  Heck, I don’t even believe in his ‘painted sign school bus ministry’, so why would I give money to support it?

At some point the thought crossed my mind that I had encountered a John-the-Baptist like figure in the wilderness.  His appearance, like his method and manners, was just a little bit odd.  I went to stare at him, as many people did with John.  And like John used to do to his gawking audience, I got told off in an ever so pointed yet polite way.  I wonder how many of the people who sojourned down to the Jordon River made the trip back home with their tail tucked between their legs.  How many of them were had by a wild man who saw right through them? 

As I drove south on the 101 the words of today’s collect rattled around in my brain:

Merciful God, who sent your messengers to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our redeemer.

Had God ‘sent’ the bus owner as a messenger, and, if so, what warning was I supposed to heed? 

In my pondering I came to understand what you probably already see.  This issue was not one of generosity.  It would not have been different if I had given him $5 or $10 or $20 or even $100.  The real point was I had failed to recognize and respect his humanity.  I saw him as nothing more than a means to get a laugh; a joke waiting to be told.  It dawned on me that I am one of many, many people who have approached him over the years from the same posture and perspective.  It occurred to me that he saw me through from a mile away and I got exactly what I deserved.

Believe it or not, the bus and its owner have a Facebook page.  I looked at it the other day and discovered that the painting process is an on-going work.  There is a picture of the bus parked in sandy area surrounded by other cars and enclosed by dunes.  The ocean is off in the distance.  The picture was taken from some distance away on a vista overlooking the setting.  There in the middle of it all, looking quite at home, is a mostly purple school bus with a brightly colored message written in large, swirling letters “Jesus YYY U.”  You can read it easily from half a mile away. 

I am sure he continues to draw in the scornful and contemptuous, folks just like me.  And I hope he has the opportunity to send them on their way wondering just how they got put in their places.  But, in this age when so many have turned away from religion altogether, at a time when an Arizona pastor makes headlines by suggesting we could eradicate aids by Christmas if we killed all the homosexuals, I hope that good and decent folks who rarely darken a church door approach the bus and encounter a strange man to be sure, but also a person who strives to live out God’s love as best he can.  I think the world could use a few more people like him. 

If I take an honest look at myself, I know that God is going to need to send a lot more prophets and messengers my way if I am ever going to be the kind of person God calls me to be.  And nothing personal, but I pray that God sends a messenger or two to each one of you.  Every now and again it does the soul good to get shaken up by a wild person in the wilderness.