(Written for my congregation newsletter in Michigan in October 1997 after an encounter with a woman lost in a dark parking lot.)
It had grown dark. The brilliant sunset with which the parking lot lights had vainly competed was gone and the first stars of the evening struggled to break through the wispy cloud cover. The stillness of the early evening magnified the sound of my footsteps on the pavement. To me it was still that soft, kind darkness before the threats of the night come to haunt us.
But not to her. I saw her walking tentatively down the half-filled rows, stopping, turning, a few more steps, stopping again, looking, that dazed confusion that can’t quite comprehend what’s happening.
“Do you need any help?” I called across the two rows between us, not wanting to frighten her by walking towards her.
“Are you security?” she asked, taking a few steps toward me. I could see her weigh the risks of drawing near.
“No, I’m a pastor”.
She drew nearer, saw my collar, and tried again ”Are you a priest?”
“No, I’m a Lutheran pastor”.
“Are you visiting a parishioner here?” she asked, needing to understand who I was and why I was here in this hospital parking lot.
“My husband’s in intensive care. He just had lung surgery.” And the story began to pour out. Collapsed lung, difficulty inflating it, two weeks of ups and downs, finally surgery. Troubled now because a nurse had asked her to leave when visiting hours were over. They had not enforced the rules before. She had gotten angry. Had she upset the nurse? Would she now not treat her husband well? The lost gray Honda was only a symptom.
I offered to walk with her to security or, if she felt comfortable, to drive her through the parking lot myself.
I am always amazed at how powerful is the collar that she would climb into the car of a stranger in a dark and empty parking lot.
It humbles me. How heavy the burden of being worthy of such trust. Strangers pour their lives into your hands trusting that they will find kindness and understanding, trusting that they will be safe, trusting you will do no harm.
It is easy to look for a gray sedan whose license plate number you know. It is much harder to help people find their way out of the lostness of grief and anxiety or any of the other dark prisons that become our habitation. Fortunately, I do not have to be the good shepherd. Only the shepherd’s helper. Calling him to draw near where he is needed. Pointing the way towards him when we cannot find our way.