“Excuse me,” the voice said from off to my side. “Can you help me?”
She was an old woman, perhaps in her 80’s. Her bones looked small and fragile. She wore a dirty coat. For some reason the coat really bothered me. This woman shouldn’t have been out there in the cold. She should have been in a home; in a warm, clean place. She should have been cared for. But instead she was on the sidewalk beneath the Sur la Table, calling me to her.
“Yes. How can I help you?”
Perhaps she wanted money. I would have given it to her, no questions asked.
“Could you help me stand up? I need to get turned around so that I can walk up to Whole Foods.”
She was sitting, hunched over the walker about half a block from the grocery store. I placed my hands under her shoulders as gently as I could and lifted her up. She moved as though my speed might break her, so I let her set the pace. Once she was standing and redirected she thanked me, and headed on her way. It was a simple goodbye. All she wanted was that small bit of help and nothing more.
I turned to see my husband with tears in his eyes. That’s his natural response to seeing people in pain, or dogs without homes, or whenever he thinks about kids so poor that they might not ever get a gift from their parents.
I pulled him close to me.
After a few minutes we made our way back toward our original destination, Powell’s Books. We were just a few feet into the store, climbing down the stairs towards the bookshelves when it happened. Into my head came the thought,
“I’m just going to go ahead and believe in God.”
My first response was to think,
“What? What does that even mean?”
The thought felt like it was mine but also not mine, as though there was something outside of me motivating it. It’s like the thought happened to me. It didn’t feel like some kind of clouds-parting conversion experience. It was just a calm, still voice making the declaration that I was going to believe in God.
In the Patheos article, What Is A Christian, Marcus Borg unpacks the etymology of “believe” in a way that sheds light on what this unexpected thought may mean in my life.
… The language of “believing” has been part of Christianity from the first century onward. But it didn’t refer primarily to believing the right theological beliefs. It meant something like the English word “beloving.” To believe in God and Jesus was to belove God and Jesus. Namely, it meant to commit one’s self to a relationship of attentiveness and faithfulness. Commitment and fidelity are the ancient meanings of faith and believing.
Even the two most frequently heard Christian creeds, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, reflect this understanding. They both begin with the Latin word credo, most commonly translated into English as “I believe.” But the Latin roots of credo mean “I give my heart to.”
Looking at it now I think that this is what happened in the moment those words came into my mind: I gave my heart to God. It was hardly an altar call experience. In fact, it didn’t feel like something I was making a choice about at all. It was just the natural response to this encounter on the street.
My heart has not been the same since that woman reached out to me. Something inside me feels differently, as though my capacity to feel was just increased exponentially. The thought of people in pain, people without food, people without the feeling of love in their lives — these things have been affecting me in a way that they never have before — even during my pre-Paganism Christianity.
God likely doesn’t need my help, but this woman did. And others like her do. The lesson I take from this experience (perhaps the first lesson of many) is that through serving others I experience the love of God. Through giving freely of myself I come to better understand Christ. When I serve, I experience the Divine within myself and in others.
This woman called me back to beloving God by allowing me to serve her. It’s a calling I cannot deny or easily dismiss.