My daughter left a few days ago on a road trip with her best friend, to help her move to Florida. She told me about it a month ago, and my first reaction was “Oh boy, I don’t think this is going to be as much fun as she thinks it is.” A few seconds later, I was remembering my first road trip with my best friend, who had also moved away. I was about my daughter’s same age, actually. The memory cut short my reply, and instead I smiled and said, “That’s really nice of you to do that for Sam.”
After she left, I smiled to myself, knowing that she would probably really hate parts of the trip, like moving the boxes and unpacking. But I also knew it would give her a lifetime of memories, that it would build character (couldn’t resist this truthful cliche!) and that it may even be a life changer. My trip was, but I didn’t realize the impact until many years later.
My trip changed my life on the ride home.
My friend had moved to Albuquerque, NM, and had been home in Wisconsin for a short visit the summer of ’86. I drove back with her to Albuquerque and stayed in the house she rented with a group of other people. While I was there, she took me to her non-denominational evangelical church where I listened to her pastor, named “Skip” preach my very first non-Catholic sermon. How do you end up being a pastor named Skip? I wondered. It was a far cry from my Catholic upbringing. Plus they had drums in the church. I wanted to look at Donna and say “Did you know they have DRUMS in this church? Are they going to play drums? In church?” but I certainly didn’t want to be the country mouse so I kept silent, although I am sure the size of my eyes betrayed me.
Skip preached on Psalm 23. I think I had heard this psalm a few times – I can’t remember if I recognized it or not. What I do remember is Skip explaining how God is the shepherd and we are the sheep. I was fascinated by his explanation of the shepherd’s staff, how he used it to fight off wild animals, to herd the obedient sheep and to rescue the silly, wandering, stupid sheep, that fell into crags and crevices and couldn’t seem to get out of their own stupid way. I was one of those sheep, I realized. And I truly felt comforted by the idea of God – big, strong, powerful, intelligent GOD, walking by my side, brandishing that bad ass staff. Nothing, I realized, could touch me, when I was walking next to him.
The rest of my visit passed with us doing some fun things, none of which really pertain to this, other than to say we had a good time and soon I had to go home. Being too afraid to fly (I never had before), I bought a bus ticket. Greyhound. From Albuquerque, NM to Green Bay, WI. My fear of flying had me riding a bus for two and a half days, traveling thru the worst parts of every major city because even in 1986, buses were becoming outdated modes of transportation, and most bus terminals were in the oldest parts of town. I think I saw every smoke stack and train yard in existence in those 1500 miles.
I remember being scared the first night on the bus, staring out the window and pretty much having an anxiety attack – wanting to be home so bad. I remembered Skip’s sermon, and I pictured God, with his wolf beating staff in hand, and I felt a bit better. I thought back on that sermon quite a bit that first night. After that, things got a little easier – I made some friends on the bus who let me hang out with them in the terminals or would help me find my next bus if I had to switch.
In Tulsa, I met a woman who was very nice to me. She seemed kind of hard, and a little weird. She had a tiny tiny burn hole in her top – probably from cigarette ash- that niggled at my brain for some reason. I can still see it. Anyway, she talked to me all the way from Tulsa to Chicago. It made the ride pass faster. Once in Chicago, we found a fast food restaurant with some other people from the bus, and we all sat down to eat. I made my bathroom break in there as well. During the meal, many of the people left to go on with their journeys but this woman stayed with me. Her stories began to get stranger and stranger – she talked about being kidnapped and chained in someones room and her apparent rescue and all the horrible things that person did to her. I became skeptical – her story began to wind in on itself and my questions brought unsatisfactory answers.
Still, I didn’t break off conversation. I wasn’t frightened – I just thought she was looking for attention. I let her follow me down to my bus and sit with me there, and she continued to talk to me (Seriously, I know you are all screaming at me right now, but I was very naive). She then asked me to go to the bathroom with her. I told her I didn’t have to go. She asked me again. I still said no. At this point, I wanted to be home so bad, that I was not budging from my gate until the bus came. This was the last leg. I had not bathed in 2 days and I was talking to a weird lady with a cigarette burn in her shirt. She said she was going to go then, and she would see me later.
About 10 minutes later she was back. She asked me AGAIN to go to the bathroom with her. Finally, I dimly saw the bright red flags flying. This woman just came from the bathroom. Why did she want me to go in there with her again? I again said no, and this time, I wouldn’t talk to her anymore. She eventually gave up, and walked away. I don’t remember being scared though. I understood something was up, but really had no inkling as to how much danger I could have truly been in. My bus came soon after, and the rest of my ride home was full of excitement over seeing familiar holstein cows and clapboard farm houses. Being home never felt so good.
I look back on that bus ride now, and realize God the Good Shepherd was with me the whole way. He kept his naive little sheep from going off with the wolf, from falling in the crevice, from getting stuck in the brambles, without me even knowing he was there. It was the beginning of my adult faith journey, which has blossomed and grown despite my best efforts to derail it. Sometimes I wonder if Skip is still preaching. I hope so. Turns out God can use a guy named Skip to reach a girl named Sue, and I’m so very thankful he did.