God go before you to lead you.
Words from a familiar blessing came to mind when I learned that a student was taken by ambulance to a local hospital for an emergency appendectomy. It was dark and raining when I got on the freeway to meet her in the emergency room.
God go behind you to protect you.
When my front left tire went flat on that freeway, a mile and a half from the hospital, I just kept driving. Because along with the words of that blessing, the thought most prominent in my mind was: I need to get to some light.
And so I found myself, on this dark and rainy night, driving what sounded like a broken washing machine that kept pulling to the left. The car shook as though it were panicking. And it should have been panicked — Lord knows I was.
God go beneath you to support you.
I made it to a gas station just off the nearest exit. Just far enough away from both home and my destination that I felt alone despite all the cars and people passing by. And then I realized my phone was dead. And maybe it was just my imagination, but I think it started raining a little harder.
God go beside you to befriend you.
That’s the line of the blessing that I love the most — the thought that God might actually befriend us, people who barely have it in us to befriend one another.
I went inside the gas station. There was a taxi driver speaking in Arabic with a woman behind the counter. Neither of them knew how to change a tire. But the woman took my phone. “I can help with this,” she said as she plugged it in.
Do not be afraid.
It’s repeated twice. Perhaps this is because too many of us are far too panicked for our own good, and those are the words we need to hear most.
Do not be afraid.
I went back outside, and I asked for help. And the words of the blessing took on flesh.
A man with a shaved head wearing basketball shorts and construction boots said he’d changed plenty of tires. Did I have a spare? A jack?
Tattoos ran the length of his arms. And when he bent down to assess the damage, I could just make out the letters JE scrawled in a gothic font above the collar of his shirt. He told me his name, but I just kept calling him Jesus in my mind because, well, he was.
His girlfriend came and stood next to me, her straightened hair becoming curly again in the rain. She offered her phone. We could wait in her car if I wanted. I called her Jesus, too.
Another man came over from an old green truck. His wife and two kids, crammed into the only seat, waited and watched. He spoke only in Spanish. We needed a jack. “Tengo uno,” he said. Immanuel, I thought.
The taxi driver kept watch from inside the gas station. His thumbs-up through the window spoke the question: “Are you okay?”
I needed to get to some light — I found more of it than I expected.
May the blessing of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be upon you.
I’ve never thought much about gas stations or the people there. But I did that night. There I found a blessing in the flesh — it wasn’t just words. God the Father, Son, and Spirit was there in that small, flourescent-lit corner of the world. God the Father, Son, and Spirit, in basketball shorts and curly hair, in rolled Rs and raincoats, dead tired and a little cold. It was God in people who knew things about cars and in others who didn’t, in parents with their babies in tow who had places to be but still stopped and lit up the night with their kindness. It was a blessing in the flesh, by rain-soaked strangers — my neighbors who befriended without fear. Through them, each of them, I was reminded of our radiant potential to give a care in this dark world. And how bright it is when we care for each other without fear.
Do not be afraid.
It’s the message stressed by my Christian faith. Over and over the Bible commands: do not be afraid. From the lips of angels and of the God-Man himself, to the prophets and the persecuted, to the faithful and the failing, to those who are tired and in the dark. Do not be afraid. Because a God who befriends, who leads, who protects is ever near.
It’s a word of blessing for us — all of us — in a corner of the world that’s grown a bit dim these last few months. Darkened by the words of those who seek to divide and demean and deceive. Who stoke the fire of our national anxieties for their personal gain.
I can’t help but think: we need to get to some light.
But I wonder where we expect to find that light and in whom we expect to see it. I wonder if the brightest lights — the kind potent enough to light up this dark world — don’t come from places of power or people in power.
I wonder if we remember that Jesus Immanuel speaks Spanish and Arabic, sometimes wears steel-toed boots, and often has a family crammed into his one-seat pickup truck.
I wonder what light we might find if we reached out to this Jesus Immanuel and asked for help.
Or, so let it be. That’s how the blessing ends.
That night, my tire was fixed. Amen is what we said when it was done, with our handshakes and high-fives and thank-yous. Amen.
Amen is the word I prayed with the student when I finally reached the hospital that night.
And it’s the word of that blessing that sticks with me now.
Because amen that we might bless a little more and fear a whole lot less.
Amen to giving a care in this dark world.
Amen that we’d be for each other a light in the darkness, a blessing in the flesh.
Amen that we would see Jesus Immanuel when we just need to get to some light.