Delivered at the Universalist Unitarian Congregation of Halifax, January 27 2008
It was the fall of 1994, and I made my bed in a green VW microbus with a pop-up top and manual steering. I had spent the summer in northern Wyoming, living in the bus with a boy named Jack. Jack and I worked in Yellowstone National Park, doing scut work in the kitchens of the lodges forty hours a week, spending the rest of our time hiking and camping and generally whooping it up in a VW microbus sort of way.
As the days got shorter and darker and colder we decided to head for warmer climes. Luckily, our home was made for moving. Unluckily, it had been made in 1978 and had a breakdown on average of once a week. More often if we were actually driving it. We were short on money, and rural Wyoming was even shorter on classic VW auto parts. Our muffler pipe, to give you an example, was held more or less in place by a variety of materials, including but not limited to gum, duct tape, and pipe cleaners.
We never knew what was going to break next, or where. For some reason we didn't allow this state of affairs to deter us even a little bit in launching off on our adventures. First we spent a few weeks in western Montana staying with some fly-fishing buddies who worked as chefs at a 4 star resort. We happily ate 4-star scraps in the kitchen and snuck into the hot tub in the wee hours, balancing our bodies at the junction of hot steam and cold mountain air, gazing for hours at the stars and snowy peaks. After a couple blissful weeks our feet got itchy and we started to meander vaguely in the direction of Illinois, where we hoped to get a few home-cooked meals and perhaps a little cash. I knew my father would be profoundly disturbed by our automotive state—and I’m sure he would have been, had we ever made it home. Instead, we got held up along the way. Several times. This is the story of one of those times.
On an unseasonably warm November day we decided to visit the Battlefield of Little Big Horn. Jack drove through the Crow reservation of southeastern Montana to the entrance gates. To approach the battlefield, one must drive up a large, steep hill to an entrance gate that is poised at the highest point in the surrounding landscape. From this summit you can see for miles in any direction. It was here that the bus died.
Over and over I turned the key in the ignition--to no effect--as a line of vehicles grew, stretching down the hill behind us. Many of the relationships contained in those vehicles had grown a bit overripe after enduring close quarters all the way from Los Angeles or Calgary or Rockville, Maryland, and as we struggled to budge the bus in one direction or another a growing chorus of overripe commentary floated up to us.
Eventually so many of the disgruntled passengers walked up to see what the problem was that the crowd was able to get the bus turned around. We coasted down the hill in neutral, slowly rolling into the parking lot of a gas station/shopping complex on the Crow, or Absaroka, reservation below. With great relief I maneuvered into a parking space in front of the gas station. Jack wiggled beneath the microbus and diagnosed it with a bust alternator. With the help of the phone book we found that we could get a replacement part in town the next morning.
Feeling awfully lucky to have a solution in the works, we decided to splurge and spend the big twenty-five bucks on a room in the hotel down the road. I was pleased to take a break from the bus—which had many charms but neither heat nor running water. Before leaving, however, we decided to stick our heads in the gas station, explain our circumstances, and ask permission to park the bus in their lot overnight. The manager poked his head out the door and looked speculatively at the big green monster. "Sure," he said. “Although you might want to move it to the other side of the lot. Right there by the entrance isn’t the safest place. Someone got hit there just last week." No problem, we figured. Jack pushed the bus while I steered it into a more out of the way space between two other cars. For some reason I found it harder to steer than usual. Perhaps I was just tired. But I found myself cutting a little too close to the car I was trying to park next to. "Jack!" I cried. "Make it stop!" "You're driving!" was his panicked reply. "Step on the brake!" But it was too late. Crash. A man came running out of the souvenir shop. "Hey Brenda, somebody hit your car!"
Brenda shot out the front door with a panicky expression on her face, followed by about a dozen of what turned out to be intimate friends and family members. They had all been enjoying a cup of coffee together in the gift shop café. Brenda seemed a little too upset to talk to us herself, but she called her husband to come deal with the situation. While we were waiting for him the reservation police stopped in to see what the fuss was about. The officer driving the police car tried to take a report of the accident. That turned out to be a complicated process, since each of the friends and family members present claimed to have seen it occur from the windows of the café. Listening to their accounts, I kept looking over my shoulder to see just how many windows that café had—a lot of different ones, apparently. A spirited argument ensued. I got the feeling that they had been sitting there just waiting for something to happen, and were quite pleased that I had obliged them. As the heat of the debate rose, the language of discourse switched over from English to Crow which didn't help me and Jack any in sorting it out. From time to time someone would turn to us and say incredulously, "and you say the car wasn't running when this happened?" I would sheepishly nod, the questioner would shake his head, and the argument would run on. The parking lot slowly filled as people from the surrounding community came to see what the fuss was about.
Finally, Brenda's husband Sam arrived. He had the good sense to take Jack aside and come to an agreement: the following day we would go into town together to get estimates on the damage and we would pay him the lowest one out-of-pocket. This was a great relief to us, as we also had a little proof of insurance issue complicating matters. Furthermore, as long as we were going to town, he offered to take us to the auto-parts store so we could pick up our replacement starter and be on our way. Sam informed the now huge crowd that we'd come to a resolution and, with a few grumbles of disappointment, they slowly dispersed.
The next day Sam picked us up at the motel as we had planned. We had a pleasant conversation on the drive about work and family and the weather, and I felt utterly relieved that I'd had the good fortune to inflict my unique driving skills onto such a pleasant person. And then he asked The Question: Are you saved?
I first thought: “Saved from what? Yes I'm saved, you're saving me from hitchhiking into town" before I realized what he meant. Now Jack had grown up in a particularly southern Baptist part of Texas. He didn't need any help with this question. "Yes, SIR!" he replied enthusiastically, although the closest he'd been to a church in the time I'd known him had been drinking at a microbrewery across the street from one. Sam's eyes turned expectantly to me in the rearview mirror.
Was I saved… was I saved? As a Unitarian Universalist I had a complicated idea of what this meant to me. Should I say yes, and then explain that I thought everyone was saved in some communal, non-original-sin-involving, humanity embracing, hippie love kind of way? But I didn’t think that this wasn’t the question Sam was asking. He didn’t want to know what my out of the box theory of salvation was, or how I saw it fitting into the larger Western culture. And while I didn’t want to anger him and risk getting thrown out of the car before we had transacted our business, neither could I bring myself to be dishonest about this. So I said “no.” And then, while Jack was in the auto parts store for—I don’t know, seemed like about ten hours--I got quite the sales pitch about Jesus and his love.
The first time I told this story from the pulpit, about 7 years ago, I concluded that yes, I was saved, that we all save each other through acts of intentionality and kindness every day. I no longer agree with that, however. In the Unitarian Universalist tradition of lifelong growth and change, my answers have changed with time. And the more I think about how to answer, the more I think it’s the wrong question to be asking.
I don’t believe that I am saved. I believe in luck, or the absence of luck, absolutely undeserved in either case. I may be in desperate need of help at times, but never of salvation. You save something that is lost, or ruined. I don’t think those are appropriate words to apply to living beings. Salvation too often seems to exclude the possibility of you helping yourself, or on the other hand recognizing that your situation cannot be helped, simply endured as possible. It minimizes the role of sheer happenstance in life—that someone who knows Rumplestiltskin’s name will just happen to walk by, and you will luck out for no reason at all.
Sam asked me a question, from his understanding of the world. I perceived loving and sincere intention in it. Still, his question was nonsensical within my framework. Over time I have become much more interested in having meaningful conversations with strangers of all kinds and much less patient with salvation. I know they call it the good news but salvation has never sounded like very good news to me. “Good news! We can lance that hideous boil on the back of your head!” (What? What boil?) Well, it’s certainly news. I’ll give it that.
Perhaps I would have been best off cheerfully replying, “Yes! You’re saving me from a heck of a lot of trouble. Thank you for the ride from the bottom of my heart.” But I also could have asked, “What does salvation mean to you?” and explored his framework together. Too late now, I’ll never know. I made a lot of assumptions about what salvation meant to him and I may have been right. Perhaps he would have enjoyed exploring that himself. I wish I had not let the fear of our differences put the kibosh on authentic conversation.
In the years since my wandering hippie days I have come to view “salvation” as an inherently unbalanced concept. It starts off with a bang, assuming that our world is broken due to original sin. I believe the world is neither broken nor perfect, neither bad nor good. I don’t think that thinking of the world in terms of being good or bad is very helpful for making sense of why things happen or how we might be able to affect them. We make meaning out of what happens. Meaning does not descend upon us from on high, although sometimes it feels as if it is pressed in on all sides. The act of making meaning is part of what makes us human. Making meaning connects us beyond ourselves.
“Good” and “bad” are hard words to get away from in our culture. They leave a great jagged gap in their stead which begs to be filled. In recent years I have started to think more in terms of whether something works, or not, or how well. And I have found that the words “good” and “bad” tend to distract my energy from being open to workable solutions to problems. Asking the questions, “What does everyone here need?” and “How can those needs get met?” frees me up to reframe problems in a number of ways. It allows unconditional love to flow in where judgment used to stand
Now I know some of you are sitting there saying, “The title of the sermon is two Christians and a Microbus. So we have Sam and…who is the other Christian? It certainly wasn’t me. No, it turned out to be Jack, who returned to his Baptist roots after many adventures abroad and now lives in Texas, living the word of God as he interprets it. I call him up from time to time and we argue lovingly about the state of the world. The bus is still sitting in his driveway, and I hear he takes it out for a spin now and again. We both remember Sam with loving gratitude.
May love guide us. May we marvel at the way life can be wonderful, without being good. May the stirrings of compassion that sing in our heart lay the groundwork for loving relationship. May we create meaning in the way that we care for one another. We have but to listen and hear the cry fear won’t still, the dreams, the heart’s call to will. Ours is to respond.