encounters on the “L” train, and waiting for rescue

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my savior; my God is my rock, in whom I find protection. He is my shield, the power that saves me, and my place of safety. (Psalm 18:2, also 2 Samuel 22:2)

Sunday afternoon. The brown line “L” car was quiet, sunny, and warm.  As we pulled away from Kedzie and my sister’s North Park neighborhood, I thanked God for all the memories we’d shared throughout my weekend visit – from gaping at the Chicago skyline atop the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel to sharing red velvet cake from Café Selmarie in the middle of Lincoln Square.

And then I heard a voice: “Do you know what time it is?”

Across the car sat a grizzled man in a navy jacket with taupe trousers. When I gave him the time, he said “You’re pretty.” His accent was foreign, and he sounded Ukranian or maybe Russian, I couldn’t tell for sure.

“You have a lovely smile,” he told me. And then he said, “Are you happy?”

I told him, yes I was happy. He shook his head. “I’m not,” he said. Then he told me his wife had died, and he wanted to kill himself. This was accompanied by a hand gesture like a revolver aimed towards his temple. And then he asked me, “Is there a God?”

Wow. What words can suffice? All I could do was tell him how sorry I was for his situation, and then tell him, “Yes, there is a God.”

“Are you sure?” he asked urgently. “Do you know?” When he leaned closer I smelled cigarette smoke.

“I believe it with all my heart,” I told him, wishing I wasn’t a girl traveling alone, wishing he wasn’t so clearly intoxicated or high so that we could actually have a conversation that mattered. He gave me a fist pump. “Very good,” he said. “Hey. Nice.” He settled back in his seat.

This man reminded me all too clearly of the darker side of urban life – of the despair, addiction, and hurting not always seen by Michigan Avenue shoppers.

The day before, my sister and I had been on a hot pursuit of a dress for her homecoming dance as we explored Michigan Avenue, popping in and out of stores.

We’d passed a mother and her three kids begging for change on the sidewalk. When we walked by them it was chilly, and night was falling. We had nothing to give them. It gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. The night was chilly – I was cold, and I was walking. Why weren’t they inside? Why couldn’t they go to a shelter? I felt so helpless.

Later, I wished I had popped in a grocery store and taken them something to eat. I only hope someone else followed through with the wish I ignored. How difficult it is to resist enabling and “handouts” of cash that may not do any good, while at the same time recognizing a very real need right in front of your eyes.

This life – the loveliness and the glamour are right alongside the decay and the hurt. One encounters both in a thriving, bustling city like Chicago.

And as I read my Bible this morning, home again in my quiet college town, the images of the man on the “L” and the family on Michigan Ave sprang to mind again, and I wondered how to praise God in light of viewing such grief. Yesterday I told the man I believed in God. What evidence does God give of his existence to someone so sunken in suffering?

He reached down from heaven and rescued me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemies, from those who hated me and were too strong for me. They attacked me at a moment when I was in distress, but the Lord supported me. He led me to a place of safety; he rescued me because he delights in me. Psalm 18:16-19. 

When God delivered David from Saul and countless other enemies in 2 Samuel, he prayed this prayer, recorded in Psalm 18 but also in 2 Samuel 22. The prayer comes at the end of the book, not in chronological keeping with the book’s events but in order to “bookend” (the word my study Bible used was to be an “inclusio”) the writings of Samuel.

At the beginning of Samuel is Hannah’s prayer, full of similar themes, thanking God for his rescue:

Now I have an answer for my enemies; I rejoice because you rescued me. No one is holy like the Lord! …. He lifts the poor from the dust, and the needy from the garbage dump. He sets them among princes, placing them in seats of honor. For all the earth is the Lord’s, and he has set the world in order. 1 Samuel 2:2, 8

God’s heart is for rescue and deliverance. He loves to show up in a display of glory and pull us out of the disgusting mire of our lives, not because he is egotistical or flashy but because “he delights in me” (Psalm 18:19). Salvation is God’s specialty.

When I think of cities like Chicago, and the countless people and situations just waiting for deliverance there, I will pray for God to show up and rescue each person, each needy “L” traveler, each homeless beggar.

I will pray with hope, and with firm belief in the God’s existence who promises to show up.

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