The gas station is just a half mile from our house on Island Rd. Of all the modest looking Shells out there, with dirt and exhaust visibly creeping up the sun-bleached yellow signage, this one is perhaps the most forgotten by its corporate overlords. Still, the dingy fueling station sits against a backdrop of pristine forest and glowing blue mountains: a vision of natural beauty that makes even the locally despised Dollar General next door seem almost pleasant.
It was late afternoon when I left my car filling up at pump number two and slipped inside the minimart to collect a bottle of Wildcraft cider for a dinner party later that evening (a posh beverage that they inexplicably carry, defying both the absurd remoteness of our location and the dingy obscurity of this tiny gas station store.)
There I am with my snooty cider in line, but no one in front of me is going anywhere. It seems the girl at the front of the line is chatting with a middle aged woman behind the cash register. The cashier has glasses and stringy, damp-looking curls. Her long nails are cheerfully bedazzled, making tiny clacking sounds as she lifts items off the counter. Some gum, a Snapple. Several brightly packaged Airheads. I squirm in my spot in line, impatient to get back out to my car. I can hear the cashier talking to the young woman checking out.
“Is the radiator fixed yet?” The cashier looks up over her glasses at the young woman. The girl sheepishly leans to one side, fidgeting with her long dark hair that’s piled on her head in a messy bun.
“They said it would be ready later this week.”
“Did you really have to walk all the way from Callahan?” The cashier glances at the young woman with eyebrows raised, an expression that makes me think they must be related biologically, or at least socially. “Did you talk to your dad while you were out there?”
“Yeah,” the young woman replies. “I cussed him out the whole way for not helping me. I had to walk halfway back to Etna before someone picked me up.”
Their conversation drags on about the car repair and I suddenly have to pee. Social hour at the gas station is wearing my nerves thin, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll have time to whip up a side dish before my dinner party. I imagine the girl in front of me trudging down Highway 3 in her slipper boots and sweatpants, yelling at her father into her giant sparkly-cased cellphone: a sight that seems eye-rollingly familiar in this area.
“Did you actually pass by the spot?” The cashier leans toward the young woman, pulling down her spectacles to look the girl straight in the eye.
“I stopped by the place it happened.” The young woman smiled, “I told my dad that I wish he was still around to help me fix the car. If he were alive I would have never overheated the radiator, so I joked with him that it was really his fault I had to walk.”
“Your dad would have never let a radiator get overheated.” The cashier murmurs. “I’m glad you cussed him out for leaving us so early.”
Both women laugh and the girl finishes paying for her snacks. When she leaves it’s my turn to pay for my cider, but instead of stepping up I blink stupidly at the cashier, stunned.
“Bummer her car broke down.” I remark lamely, setting the cider on the counter and fishing awkwardly in my bag for my wallet.
“Her dad was killed in a car accident last year,” the cashier says casually.
“I’m so sorry.”
“She’s a tough kid.”
We wrap up our transaction and I step out of the minimart into the brilliant sunshine. I am squinting, blindsided both by brightness of the afternoon and by the reality of my astounding ignorance about the people all around me.
I may not think of myself as a judgmental person, but perhaps worse than the snap judgements and the moral shortcuts is just the fact that I can go throughout my day without actually seeing anyone else at all. Every day, stories I can’t even begin to understand are spinning all around me in the lives of the people just outside the periphery of my vision. Only when I collide with a small, yet profound piece of someone’s story do I even notice others exist.
Perhaps the most confused Jesus’ disciples become in the New Testament is whenever Jesus is talking about who is the most important in his kingdom. Jesus was constantly welcoming little children, connecting with the poor and those with unflattering career choices: Jesus said his kingdom was among the marginalized.
I totally empathize with the disciples, I can see how Jesus’ apparent lack of focus could drive a disciple insane! How will children enact the 12 step plan to reconquer Israel from the Romans? How will tax collectors and prostitutes present an on-brand message for our trendy new platform? Why does Jesus always stop in the middle of key publicity events to heal one of those obnoxious poor people?
Don’t we have more important things to do, Jesus?
Jesus’ actions don’t make sense unless we understand what Timothy Keller calls the “upside down kingdom.” While the “right side up kingdom” of normal people are driven by the here-and-now demands of their comfort, power, and security, Jesus acts with radical compassion and self-sacrifice because he knows that his eternal comfort, power, and security are safe with God.
Our natural inclination is the right side up kingdom, which is wrapped up in task lists and agendas attempting to secure our finite, temporary place in this ever shifting world. It’s what Solomon called in Ecclesiastes, “chasing the wind.” Inversely, Jesus’ inclination is always moving towards the people who’s hearts are open to love like flowers opening to the sun. It’s like he did everything throughout his day with one eye scanning the crowd for somebody on which to shower the love of God.
When I’m stand in a dingy old gas station, or the grocery store, or the park with my kids, there is another plane of existence occurring at the same time. In this kingdom the dinner party dishes, fancy ciders, laundry that needs switching, or other tasks that need doing are far less important than the eternal souls all around me. My prayer is that the Holy Spirit would open my eyes in the way that they were suddenly jarred awake that afternoon at the Shell station-that I could see people the way he sees them.
About the Author
Allie Hymas is a mother, writer, and textile enthusiast raising two kids and a little herd of Icelandic Sheep with her husband Justin in Etna, California. Allie is passionate about worshipping God through music and gathering people around delicious food.
Allie is a guest worship leader for our church.