If only God were solid, I think. If only he were like rugs and pastries, like a freckle-faced boy on a bike. If only he meandered the streets, be he five feet tall or fifty, I’d take solace in that. It’s not that I want to see God (who truly would?) but I’d like him to have the connection to my life that the market has. I’d like him to draw my eyes, my fingertips. I’d like to feel some warmth coming from him. I’d like him to scrape my palms like tree bark. The thought of him interrupting my senses in any old way sounds a good deal more comforting than his current nebulous ubiquity.
To market, to market.
Most towns within sensible distance of good-hearted farmers and creative types will stage a regular market of some sort in the summer. Lincoln, Nebraska is no exception. The market is held blocks from my front door, so I put on boots and a t-shirt and venture out with last night’s tip money burning holes in my jeans. Bottles and cigarette butts, plastic bags and newspapers, heartache, strange kisses and true love – the streets are still smoldering from last night. Crows come calling, what have we here? Clouds spin through the sky in thin threads. The sun’s throwing off his blankets, letting ‘er rip. It is unabashedly warm. People are taking their first broad steps into this new season – sunglasses, dogs on leashes, short skirts with pale legs shooting out of them. We’re being funneled from our homes to downtown, something in the air like love, something tingling in our teeth – the cold’s over. Spring’s here.
I pull a dandelion. I call a friend (he’s already at the market.) I buy my coffee from Becca, who calls me “darling” and I tip big. The market is hopping with buyers, but sellers are still limited. Harvest season isn’t for weeks yet, so the stands are decked with fresh bread, honey, woven rugs, fruit juices, flaky pastries, beaded necklaces, daisies, sunflowers, bottled spices, meats, sauces, and seeds that will help you get a move on your own garden. There are more colors and shapes than I quite know what to do with.
And the people. Musicians line the corners, sighing on saxophones and jogging their fingers along guitars. Jugglers juggle and puppeteers perform. Curly-haired kids dash through the narrow aisles. College kids meander along, counting pennies. Older folks stroll, hand-in-hand. Sunshine runs through the streets, and summer nibbles at our necks. The world in pieces.
I buy two jams and a bottle of honey and start to walk home. A man asks for me for a smoke (I’m out) and then for a dollar. I suggest sharing a breakfast instead, and he refuses – so I give him the dollar. “God bless you,” he says, and I ask if he really believes in God.
“With all my heart.”
“Do you believe in Jesus?”
“Yessir, I do.”
I wait for one more second and he is no more forthcoming about his beliefs, which is fine. He walks away, a smile on his fuzzy face. I had another exchange with a homeless man some years back that started much like this one but took a vertical turn. And that day left me a fumbling, wide-eyed mess.
It was in Chicago, where I spent not quite a year among the homeless, that I had the encounter with a young man whose name I never caught. His face is seared into my brain like a scar or the mark of Cain.
“Spare change?” he asked me and my friends. We were just outside of downtown, waiting for a train. Chicago’s downtown buildings poked the sky in the distance, all sharp angels and flat sides.
“Come on, guys – I’m hungry.”
We really didn’t seem to have any, and our train was coming. Heads shook mournfully. I genuinely had nothing, and I don’t believe anyone else did either. We were good college kids, attending a Christian school where we were being trained to love God and man, and were easily provoked to doe-eyed guilt over our privileged upbringings; our pockets generally emptied themselves at any opportunity. But, here they were, already empty. Sorry, we said. Good luck.
“Well,” he said, “God bless.”
“Wait,” said one girl, particularly brave. “You believe in God?”
He turned fiercely and looked at us with stubborn courage, as if he was being sent to the lions. “Yes,” he said, “I believe in God.”
“Do you believe in Jesus?” she pushed. Whatever she could possibly have been thinking, I don’t know. Maybe she did this a lot.
He frowned at us, incredulous. “Do I believe in Jesus?”
“Well, do you?”
“I believe he is the Word,” he responded. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all mighty believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
“He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood, nor of the will, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The man spun on his heels and left the platform. Our train had come and gone during his recitation of the first chapter of John’s Gospel. The next train came soon enough, the doors slid open, and we all filed in and took our seats. People on the car read books and listened to music. Some stared vacantly. We ourselves turned our attention inward. There was little to say. Chuh, chuh. Chuh, chuh. Chuh, chuch – the train rocked back and forth down the tracks, needling tunnels and announcing stops and advice: standing passengers, please do not lean against the doors. And please keep your luggage off the seat next to you. They might have started dishing out divine wisdom as well: The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Word became flesh. The Word became flesh. I do not believe it would have shocked us in the least.