I lived in Madison Wisconsin for about twelve years. During that time, I spent seemingly endless hours riding around on the Madison Metro bus system. Typically, I could get to my destination more quickly on my bicycle, but traffic was less terrifying, rain was less wet, and heat was less hot on the bus. Besides, during the years that I was in school, I felt obligated to use the “free” bus pass for which I had actually paid about $200 at the beginning of each semester, when I wrote out a check for student activity fees.
Riding the bus was a boundless source of entertainment, if I could stave off motion sickness and claustrophobia long enough to observe and enjoy the stories unfolding around me.
Sometimes, hilarious things happened, as in the case of the two guys and their cell phones.
Everyone on the bus except these two men knew that they were talking to each other from opposite ends of the bus. As people around them started to giggle, it must have slowly begun to dawn on them that something odd was afoot. Finally, the guy at the back of the bus said “I’m on the bus; where are you?”, to which his friend at the front of the bus replied, “I’m on the bus, too.” As most of the rest of the riders on the bus tried to suppress our laughter, the guy in the back of the bus said “Which bus?”, to which the guy in the front of the bus replied, “The number 3.” The guy in the back of the bus, with great astonishment in his voice, replied “I’m on the number 3, too.” Our collective laughter drowned out the rest of their conversation.
Sometimes, annoying things happened, as in the case of the people who habitually crammed into an already seriously overcrowded bus to ride one block, or the case of the drivers who occasionally refused to pick up riders whose fastest run wasn’t quite fast enough to get them to the stop on time.
Sometimes, sweet things happened, as in the case of the riders who almost inevitably joined in solidarity with the runner trying to catch the bus, insisting that the driver stop to pick up the lost sheep, or the case of the young, strong college students who consistently took the time to help elderly or disabled riders get on and off the bus. Or the case of the homeless man who hefted my clunky old Trek hybrid bicycle onto the bus’ bike rack at the end of a long day when I just didn’t have the energy to lift a 30-pound bike. Or the case of the driver who allowed a homeless man to loop for hours around the city on his bus at no charge because it was well below zero and windy that day.
Sometimes, unexpected things happened, as in the case of the old man who stopped on his way out of the bus to tell me that I was a beautiful Child of God. Or the case of the three of us (driver included) who got to enjoy a breathtaking view of the Blood Moon and a bit of awe-struck companionship as we waited for fifteen minutes at the East Transfer Point on the last run of the night.
Sometimes, terrifying things happened, as in the case of the woman who screamed such violent and apparently unwarranted threats at the driver that a couple of brave and brawny people at the front of the bus actually removed her from the bus at the next stop. Or the case of the driver who decided to make up for lost time by careening downhill on narrow, icy streets five miles per hour over the speed limit. At least he blared his horn the entire way to warn pedestrians and other traffic of his looming, zooming presence. (No, in case you’re wondering, city buses don’t have seatbelts.)
Two or three years into my bus riding experience, I discovered Joan Osbourne’s 1995 recording of the Eric Bazilian song “One of Us.”
“One of Us” asks the listener to consider the possibility that God might be “a stranger on the bus, trying to make His way home.”
It’s a reasonable proposition. After all, Jesus Himself reminded His disciples that whatever they did for the least among them, they did for Him. The song put my bus-riding experience in a whole new light.
If you’ve ever taken public transportation, you know that there is a weariness in the air of the bus at the end of the typical 9 – 5 workday, and the weariness increases as the night wears down to the last run of the day. The drivers’ shifts often start around 4 pm, so the late afternoon / early evening drivers are usually energetic and often try to perk up a wilted crowd of riders with engaging smiles, jokes, compliments, or commentary on traffic, weather, and the scenery flitting by outside the windows of the bus. But even the most perky of drivers couldn’t really lift the mood of the riders trying to make their way home. We were somehow isolated and lonely in the middle of a crowded bus. We were somehow forlornly convinced that we would never actually make it home.
“One of Us,” in being permeated with the same forlorn loneliness of the evening bus ride home, paints a powerful image of God as one of us. God is immersed completely in the human experience, feeling lonely in the middle of a crowd. God is skeptical of this ride – will it take the riders safely home? What will God find when (if) the bus ride does deliver God and all the other riders safely home? Will someone be home to welcome God with love and joy? Or will God arrive to a dark, empty house? Where are the members of the human family whom God loves so well? Where are the children of God’s creation? Are they at home to welcome their Mother/Father? Are they open to love God? Or are they too busy riding forlornly on the bus, trying to avoid the gaze of the strangers beside them?
In isolating themselves from the strangers on the bus, are the Children of God isolating themselves from God?
The stranger on the bus is a smelly homeless person. How could God be a smelly homeless person? The stranger on the bus is a woman who mutters to herself and seriously needs a hair brush. How could God be a woman at all, let alone this woman? The stranger on the bus is a sticky child who won’t stop screaming. How could God be a child at all, let alone this child? The stranger on the bus speaks a foreign language, has skin of a different color than mine, wears the symbols or garb of a religion that is different than mine: how could God be any of these people? And why should I love them?
Love them because God really might be (probably is) that stranger on the bus, feeling a bit lonely, a bit forlorn, and wondering if the homecoming at the end of the ride will bring more warmth and love and companionship and joy than the ride itself.