Paul Simon once wrote that “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.” I know this to be true. Sometimes divine guidance comes where you least expect it, from the marginalized, forgotten, and overlooked, from people whom you would never expect to be sources of wisdom and insight. God’s inspiration is broadcast far and wide. The obvious purveyors of divinity may be least likely places where God chooses to share a word of grace. Not in cathedrals, prosperity gospel televangelist crusades, new age celebrities, or the pomp and circumstance of Oval Office prayer circles, but in unexpected encounter by one who may not even think he is a revelation of God.
It was dark morning in Springfield, Massachusetts, as I walked solitary claiming the friendship of darkness as the womb of reflection, sauntering from my hotel in search of stillness and inspiration, and a cup of coffee, in the wake a three-generation sojourn to the Basketball Hall of Fame. There he was waiting for the first bus of the morning. Two of us, white and black, walking and standing, eyes meeting, and then he spoke, “Would you happen to have some money for a meal and bus fare?” just as I had passed the bus stop. I stopped and looked back, and our eyes met again. I found a few crumpled bills in my wallet, giving him what I had less the price of a Starbuck’s coffee. Noticing the large book I was carrying, I suspect, he presumed it was a Bible – it was the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson! – he then advised, “You’ll find everything you need in there. Look up Jeremiah 33:3.”
Believing in the synchronicity of life, I stopped and scrawled his counsel in my book. Perhaps, there would be a hidden message for me. I paused a few blocks later and consulted my phone app and wisdom there was – the words of the prophets uttered from the bus stop: “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.”
My morning encounter gave me a prophetic word it will take the rest of my lifetime to decipher. I will never meet him again. If I did, I wouldn’t recognize him, a man down on his luck like so many, and he would not recognize me, a passing stranger from another race and class. As I reflect on the incident, perhaps it was a revelation, a word of guidance for a theologian and pastor who trades in words and wisdom. “Don’t fence out revelation! It can from anywhere – from an elderly man that the unperceptive passerby would assume to be one of the faceless homeless, likely an alcoholic; a member of the vilified caravan of immigrants heading northward; an iconoclast’s graffiti on a bathroom wall; an exclamation from a bed-bound woman at a nursing home; or a shout from an exuberant child. As the author of Hebrews counsels, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2)
And, so “Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.”
Bruce Epperly is Senior Pastor of South Congregational Church, Centerville, MA and a professor of Theology and Spirituality in the doctoral program at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington D.C., and the author of over forty five books including “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World,” “The Gospel According to Winnie the Pooh,” and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.” He can be reached at email@example.com.