A Seat on the Bus

I travel around the world as part of my missionary career. I love it and I dread it. I love seeing new things and tasting new things; I get to practice keeping a straight face when scenes don’t look familiar and when my taste buds experience flavors far different from what they are accustomed.

There are deeper challenges and opportunities, too. Many times, those challenges are to my sense of identity and worth, which for me are closely tied to my need to “get it right.”

On one trip, an old woman offered me her seat on a local bus in Southeast Asia during a bright morning ride across town. After interpreting her gestures and smile as insistence that I take her seat, I finally acquiesced when she stood, refusing to give in to my return smile and head shake of what I hoped communicated “No, thank you.”

As I slid into the seat, I was warm with embarrassment and worry and failure. I assumed I was doing something culturally inappropriate or foolish in my standing on the bus and bracing myself with the hand straps. I thought I had been quiet and polite, standing where I was supposed to and not giving offense. My heart sank, since clearly I had blown it and this woman was trying to get me to stop being so stupid.

My friend and travel companion, a woman who was raised in this part of the world, sensed my disappointment. When I apologized to her that I must have been doing something wrong because a woman much older than me made me take her seat, my friend explained to me it was local hospitality. Age had nothing to do with it; I was clearly a visitor in this part of the world and this woman was caring well for me, as her upbringing taught her.

Then, another familiar sense overwhelmed me; once again, I had assumed the worst of me.

The bus ride was a crash of cultures and my own fallen heart. In my home culture, it’s polite for me to stand and make sure anyone older than me has a seat, especially a senior citizen. Here, it’s polite for anyone of any age to give up their seat for a guest in their country. With a moment’s reflection and a little more information, my mind can process the difference and appreciate the experience. But by then, my heart has to be resuscitated; inside, I always first process anything uncomfortable or unknown as failure on my part. My fallen inner voice tells me all the time that I am not enough and if I want to be loved (at most) or not a disappointment to God or anyone else (at least), I need to get every step and every interaction and every choice just right. When things don’t go precisely the way I expect or I don’t know what to do and there is the slightest chance I might stumble, I always first interpret the situation and my feelings as my failure.

It hadn’t crossed my mind that the elderly woman was being kind. It hadn’t crossed my mind to simply experience the moment with open eyes and heart, willing to observe and enjoy and learn. I was in full self-protection mode, only watching and processing my own actions, guessing at the impression I was giving others, striving to make sure that impression made people like me.

Granted, it was just a brief bus ride with people I will likely never see again, but it tells me something about my instincts and inner habits; when I live in self-protection mode, I miss good things. I miss relaxing in the warm smile of a woman’s kindness; I miss seeing others and their real intentions, obsessed instead with myself; I miss learning in real peace and trust, clinging instead to whatever I think will keep me most acceptable to people, a false peace.

Gratefully, I am gaining a better sense and habit of my already-complete acceptability in Christ. If I believe I am already wholly acceptable, it gives my heart space to process new information and new moments … and receive God’s sweet smile and generosity in the gift of a seat on the bus.


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2 responses to “A Seat on the Bus

  1. Tony (Husband)

    I suppose all of us had some similar experience at one time or another, especially here in Southern California, a true melting pot of so many cultures. It isn’t the “clash” of culture that is the problem, it is the disconnect of genuine feelings, one to another… at least in my experience. Even so, I continue to attempt to bridge the gap by learning what little phrases other languages afford as “ice breakers”. To some, this is a pathetic mimicry or false pretense on the part of a pretentious old man. But to so many more, it is the comfort in finding a common footing. Jesus is my model, especially with the Samaritan woman at the well. In fact, she was one of those who thought, “Here’s another smarty pants.” But his persistent kindness and genuineness displayed a real desire to know and be known. Yes, it may be best to focus a little farther than or own shoes. But do not be surprised if at first it is clumsy and unpleasant. Your kind heart and kind words will find the common ground.

    • Thanks, Dad (not sure why you are titled “Husband” up there; you’ve been my Pops for these 40+ years now!). The good news is, the woman on the bus and umpteen others don’t feel the pain I feel or experience any calamity; they see someone of whom they have very little expectation of behaving in a perfect way, and most folks have enormous grace to cover cultural slip-ups and missteps. The far bigger story and point for me is about the condition of my heart, and that whether it’s a bus in a foreign country or my own backyard, without my identity sunk firmly and warmly into the expansive welcome and love of God, I am a scathing critic of my every step, word, decision, and memory. Remember me telling you last Christmas, as you stood in a doorway and began apologizing for creating some kind of confusion about an outing you and Mom and I were about to take (and actually, I had been party to none of the previous 30 minutes of conversation with you and Mom, but whatever had happened had led you to think that perhaps I had been pained in some way as well) and you began with an apology to something I had no reference for, and a few minutes in I had to stop you and ask for clarification, and I explained that the good news for you, and everyone I know, is that if there is a problem (as there clearly was on this particular morning) I will ALWAYS assume it was my fault, so most of the time, no apologies from folks are necessary. If they like, they can cruise comfortably under the banner of “Kathie is a dolt” because they can safely rely on the fact that I am thinking the same thing. So, for me, the sweet part of this bus ride was a chance to reflect on my inner condition, where my heart and attitude typically veer, and the far better path on which Jesus wants to take my self-loathing and near-constant self-disappointment that keeps me in cycles of always wanting to take care of things myself … like making sure I know the right phrases or behave in perfectly proper ways that put others at ease so they will like me. I am almost always kind and generous in my outer behavior toward others; I am delighting in God’s ever-present invitation for me to also be kind and generous with my soul.

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