Guest commentary by Joyce Munro
To the young mother who let me get behind the steering wheel that day while you sat calm, cool and chic in the passenger seat and your three small children squirmed in back: Please accept my sincere apology for wrecking your car.
I told you I couldn’t drive, I’d never driven in my life. You just laughed and slow-drawled, “High time, girl. Nothing to it, just go easy on the gas pedal.” You swore nothing could happen on a dirt road in the middle of a cotton field. But something did happen.
It was near the end of that pivotal summer between college freshman and sophomore years – a time when I should have been in some dreamy, faraway place having adventures worth bragging about come fall when I was back on campus. Instead, my days were spent in the Sandhills of South Carolina swatting mosquitoes and doing ho-hum jobs — waitress in mornings, babysitter in afternoons. Taking care of three rambunctious youngins who woke up from hot naps wet-headed and mischievous. Youngins whose idea of play was “wrastling,” then smacking me with kisses on my arms, legs — any body part they could reach as I wrenched them apart. Meanwhile, Mama, lovely in pastel linen, was off to luncheons and shopping sprees, leaving me to fetch popsicles and grab at clammy bodies and preach nonstop about how Jesus wants us to be sweet to each other. Come to think of it, maybe all that talk of sweet was what inspired them to plant kisses on me.
There’s a metaphor for God in this. I know that now. At the time, I didn’t realize those button-nosed youngins were showing me anything Godly. Not until I read the work of authors who are inclined to look for God-metaphors, like Carolyn Jane Bohler (“God the What?”) and Lauren Winner (“Wearing God”). I thought only extraordinary events offer images of the Divine; events of biblical proportions, iconoclastic and earth-rattling. Or catastrophes, intensely personal, soul-rattling, that leave us groveling incoherently. Times when “God of all being, throned afar,” comes near and only a metaphor will do. Rock, fortress, tower. Sturdy images for the mighty mystery that is God. And what imagery does an ordinary event offer that could possibly reveal the presence of Almighty God?
Imagine the event: A college student (aka babysitter) is sitting in the driver’s seat, a seat she’s never sat in before. Her employer gives step-by-step instructions on how to turn the key in the ignition: This pedal is for gas and that one is the brake. The youngins in back are busy slurping popsicles, kicking the front seat with their dirty bare feet. The student cranks the engine and shifts into drive, per instructions. She gives it the gas and off they roar down the dirt road. Suddenly, a telephone pole appears from nowhere and she can’t locate the brake. Car swipes pole, children gag on icy pops, Mama bolts across the seat and jams her foot on the brake. Sand whisks into car windows and they sit there blinking and coughing. Mama asks, “Everybody okay?” They mumble, “Yes ‘um,” and she says, “No harm done then.” The student’s heart pounds, her teeth chatter. Cold salty sweat pours down her face… or maybe she’s crying. She can’t see, can’t breathe, can’t let go of the wheel. That’s when the youngins start screaming, “You drived the car! You drived the car!” and they lean over the front seat and splatter cherry-flavored kisses on her cheeks and ears, twirl popsicle sticks in her hair, pat her with gooey fingers.
Kisses for a broken headlight, cheers for a busted grill, pats for a dented bumper. Undeserved reward for wrecking my employer’s car. I offered to pay for the damage by sitting the youngins for free the rest of the summer. An offer she declined, thank God: “Absolutely not. You need money for college.”
And where did God fit in? Nowhere, at that moment, except a wordless prayer of relief that I had not injured anyone, that I wouldn’t have to pay for damages, that I was going back to college soon – very soon. Then as the dust settled, I heard the eldest youngin reciting, as fast as his quivery little boy voice would let him: “GeorgeWashingtonJohnAdamsThomasJeffersonJamesMadisonJamesMonroeJohnQuincy…” And with that invocation, we let loose the unrestrained laughter of the close call.
An incident long ago and far away. Not forgotten, but never examined. However, over time I’ve taken incidents such as this out of my memory bank for reconsideration. And I find that some of the most insignificant times of my life contained God’s essence and I didn’t know it. If I only had a more imaginative faith, greater wonderment about the divine, a bent toward manifestations, I would have seen it. If I only had conceptions of God more particular to me than omni-powers learned by rote in Sunday school.
As a student at a college whose curriculum was heavy-laden with the notion of sola scriptura, my life was fairly bereft of images, icons, symbols. But I could exegete Scripture. Well, maybe a few passages in the New Testament. Rightly dividing the word, the phrase, the sentence, the paragraph. Layers of meaning that add up to God. Why else take Greek and systematic theology? Only, my parsing skills did nothing for me on dirt roads. Too much objective transcendence, not enough imaging the Logos.
Then comes the Sunday that my pastor Agnes W. Norfleet preaches on the saga of King David and how important it is to engage in “sacred remembering.” Agnes, a gifted pastor who is inclined to deliver metaphor-rich sermons (the kind Trygve Johnson describes in his book, “The Preacher as Liturgical Artist”), helps me see God in my saga with this simple declaration: “God is always involved, and in the most unexpected ways.”
God, disarming, artless as a child, was there the day I couldn’t drive worth a hoot down a dirt road in a cotton patch. And I found myself on the slobbery end of grace. Bestowed with sweet holy kisses that left my face red-stained.
JOYCE H. MUNRO is a former college administrator, now an essayist and member of the Outreach Council of Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania.