My Faith Story - Sarah Burns
I’d like to preface my faith story with a few facts about myself. The first is something that I expect is common to many of us – my belief about how God speaks to me has evolved greatly over the course of my life. As a child who went to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School and who was well-versed in the classic Bible stories, I used to believe that God would speak to me in large, noticeable ways: burning bushes, tongues of fire, voices from heaven, choirs of angels. As I’ve matured, I’ve realized that God speaks to me in very quiet, subtle ways. I often don’t realize it in the moment, and it’s only when I have time to reflect that I understand the power and message of my interaction with God.
The second fact about me relevant to my story is that I’m a people-person. I like people but, I’m told, people – and in particular, strangers, really seem to like to talk to me. And, even more particularly, strangers who might be considered a bit odd. My friends and family tell me that this is unique – that strangers don’t just approach you constantly and strike up conversations. I remember sitting in Borders one evening trying to read a book and being joined by a man who told me, among many other things, that he was a poet laureate. I remember a time when I was traveling for work and eating dinner in a restaurant by myself and being joined by a woman who asked to share my table. I rarely was able to read or listen to music when I commuted by bus in Chicago. I clearly remember carrying on a conversation on an entire plane trip when I was about 10 and flew for the first time by myself. I like to credit my friendly, midwestern upbringing with my thinking that these conversations with strangers happen to everyone, but my northeastern friends assure me this is not the case.
Anyway....my faith story. It’s quiet. It’s subtle. It involves a stranger. But it is one of those moments that comes back to me often.
It happened a few years ago in Farmington in Dunkin’ Donuts. It was crowded. It was hot. There was a long line. This particular Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t have much in the way of seating – just a table or two along the windows at the front of the store, and the line wound back and forth by the tables several times. I had Charlotte with me – she was probably 2 or 3 years old. Those of you who know
Charlotte now perhaps know her as an outgoing and chatty 5-year old, but when she was 3 she was much shyer and more reserved. There was a man sitting at one of the tables by the window. I’d guess he was in his 70s. Not clean-shaven, not dressed in any way that would make him unique or make him stand out. A stranger. When we passed by his table the first time, he tried his best to engage Charlotte. He said hi to her, waved, asked her name, but Charlotte wasn’t really into responding to him. Again, she was a little shy. When we wound by his table again, he began asking me questions about Charlotte. He honestly came across as a little aggressive – and although I am happy to chat with strangers, I’m a little more cautious sharing information about my children. And he was asking her name and her age and what sorts of things she liked and it struck me as just odd. So I engaged only cautiously with him. As we started to walk up to the counter to order, he said to me, “She reminds me exactly of my daughter.” And I responded something like, “Oh, that’s nice!” And he looked at me and said, “I lost her 20 years ago. And I’ve never gotten over it.”
And then I had to step away and order. And then I had to wait for my order. But I couldn’t stop the little voice telling me to go back. So I went back and asked if Charlotte and I could join him. It wasn’t a long conversation, but I asked him to talk to me about his daughter. And he shared his beautiful memories. He cried, and I cried, and Charlotte sat in her 3-year old innocence and witnessed. I asked if I could hug him, and he said yes and we hugged. And Charlotte, in her 3-year old innocence, got over her shyness and gave him a hug. And that was it. We went on with our day. Quiet. Subtle. A Stranger.
I’ve realized more and more about this encounter over time. God acted through Charlotte, reminding this stranger of his loss, not the he needed any sort of reminder.. God acted through this stranger, urging him to reach out to me. God acted through me, whispering to me to go back. God made me a mourner and a comforter that day. God reminded me of the beautiful gift of my children that day. God resurfaces this story for me frequently, reminding me of the power of the stranger, and the quiet, subtle moments in which God acts.