We were standing in the Sacramento train station waiting for our train to Reno. Not counting Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm, I had never ridden a train. It was a 5-day get-away that offered us a break from stifling humdrum. We were with my cousin and his wife and were busily chatting about the joys that lay ahead. Suddenly, through a crowd of standing passengers all waiting for their train, like peering through a clump of trees, I saw her. She wasn’t there a minute ago, and now she sat crumbled, head bowed, dressed in black and wearing an old fashioned cap a train conductor might have worn ages past. She bobbed and weaved imperceptibly as if orchestrated by a subtle breeze, her weathered right hand clutching the bench’s wooden arm.
She was so tiny and unobtrusive she caught my eye. Mysteriously, my heart instantly trailed after her, curious to know who she was. Frail and vulnerable, she sat crinkled up as if praying or sleeping, almost like a fixture of train history. Next to her was a white-haired man with a long white beard. He was whispering things to her as she sat quietly.
I approached and, in a turn-style conversation I quickly learned he was Richard, her grandson, and she was Doris. She was 96, a lover of trains all her life, and Richard was treating her with a train trip to San Jose.
She wore her train outfit (long black coat) as she had always done. Dark purple train tracks coursed up her sleeve. Richard said she had started a train club decades ago, where friends of like minds could share the adventures of the tracks. Richard introduced us: “These nice people are ‘training’ to Reno, and want to say hello.” We did. Her neck struggled to lift her head as she responded with a sweet endearing smile. Definitely not sleeping, her eyes twinkled. She then nodded her head, nearly resting it on her knees.
Unnoticed by the many, special nonetheless, this small time-traveler thrived under the radar, leaving her mark on life’s wandering destinations. I was touched by Doris. Life bequeathing its fingerprints to generations in far-distant places, I sensed a special moment with a unique being granted me by the God who controls this show we call life.
Where does such a sweet creature come from? What is it about life – her time on earth – that led her down that special railway? What is it about being that leads any of us to the destinations to which we aspire? Something divine about this time journey. Doris never expected to inspire a random stranger so late in her ancient life, but that is what happened. This begs the question: Are we aware how our lives affect each other, even strangers? Perhaps we need to spend more time closely listening and watching what our presence on the planet means and what great value the outsider can offer.
This whole existence experiment can’t be for nothing. If we fail to realize the sanctity and mystery of waking up every day, of breathing, of the human touch, then we live in vain and we travel aimlessly.
I thought of my own ordinary status. Doris followed her dream, I suspect, with little thought of being extraordinary or distinctive. Have I followed mine? Have I been content to live outside the limelight? Am I satisfied with my time on this earth? She sought what gave her joy and found existence satisfying and fun, with no apparent consideration of her ‘place’ in the world, other than on a seat of her favorite train. Diminutive, humble, quiet, no splash, no marching bands, just humming down the tracks with a smile on her face. Is not this contentment a kind of inspiration? And perhaps being regular folk is its own poetry? Family and friends, a day at the beach, a ride on the roller-coaster, a walk in the woods, a day on the job, or a cracking camp fire, a hug from your spouse, or a story with your grandchild—all these things are just everyday stuff, but hidden within are the magic and wonder of being alive. How vast is this number of average people who inspire without knowing it? How God must marvel after them.
In Matthew 25:45, Jesus refers to caring for the ‘least of these.’ Just exactly who are the ‘least of these?’ Perchance those who never receive acknowledgement or applause, and who society or church deem ‘less than;’ these are the ‘least of these.’ Yet these are the very ones who catch the Savior’s eye. Typically, we assign ‘ordinary’ to those who plod along, earning a meager living, trudging through the mundane, making no waves, as if they are not as important or valuable as the star celebrity or notable politician. We esteem regular folk as boring, dull, and dreary. They are predictable and stale. We worship notoriety. ‘Look at me, look at me,’ we cry, hoping to climb out of our anonymity.
Jesus flips that notion on its head. It is these ‘little ones,’ the ‘least of these,’ the insignificant and lowly, that win His heart. The tiniest of statures, the weakest among us, those we regard as ‘low-life’ or of questionable worth, are the very souls Jesus takes in His arms to reassure and comfort. He arrived as a baby to demonstrate He is not oblivious to the least of us, and He died with criminals on each side of Him to say even the worst of us are included in His far-reaching salvific embrace. But ‘everyday people’ can also be considered ‘the lesser ones,’ unconcerned about fame, or public notice. They exist getting from one point to another. These too are the ‘least of these.’ They go unnoticed in the crowd, but not by the God of the Universe.
I privately studied Doris as she quietly waited for her train. Whatever she accomplished in life, it had come down to this: enjoying a ride with her thoughtful grandson, with family and the hobby that kept a smile on her face. Crunched by a life long-lived, petite-framed Doris must be one of Jesus’ favorites. Hardly conspicuous in a public place, Doris reminded me of the anonymous woman, lost in the throng, who touched the hem of Jesus cloak (Matt. 9:20). Though disregarded by the faceless horde, Jesus sensed her life and acknowledged her.
Miles down the tracks, gaining on Reno, I continued to think of Doris. It was her smallness, her apparent triviality that impressed me. Can anyone be ‘insignificant?’ And who gets to decide one’s significance? Society’s social status is dictated by wealth and fame, yet it is so callous and shallow, and unfortunately, how we are valued.
Out to enjoy her being by riding her favorite past-time, Doris gave me a reward. Her insignificance by worldly standards, her verve in spite of the small space she occupied on earth, showed me that in God’s eyes, none of us are less-than, or insignificant. She bequeathed a random stranger insight into what is really important: people, all people, regardless of station or position or sexuality or gender or possessions or fame.
Ordinary people are the median of humanity. They don’t share the celebrity of stars nor do they fall among the broken. They dwell in obscurity, caring only for their circle of friends and their personal world. That is not to say they are self-centered and uninterested in sharing with the less fortunate, but it is to say they live under the rave of public esteem. They are the unspoken backbone of our culture, the silent majority, who inconspicuously go about their lives seeking neither acclaim nor approbation. They might be Thoreau’s ‘men [and women]…of quiet desperation…who go to their graves with the song still in them.’
The term ‘ordinary’ lacks luster, charisma, and assigns people a kind of ho-hum status, as if we can get along without them. They are ‘filler’ in the strata of what’s important, but they are real people leading real lives. Doris underscored that. She was unaware of being ordinary as she grasped her unique life and fashioned it into meaning, stamping it with her authenticity. And I found her anything but average by looking behind the portrait of ‘stranger.’ Perhaps that is what is needed: viewing people as more than mere aliens or foreigners and, instead, investing time to discover their journey and story. Listening to the stranger in the seat next to you is not unlike God listening to us as we silently pray; it is a divine act. Doris’ rare interest in trains and her obvious passion for family as reflected in her grandson, Richard, made her rise from the realm of the non-descript into someone I wanted to know. I would not have known that had I ignored her as stranger.
How many tiny fragile women call ‘trains’ their passion? Anything but mundane, she was special. Though I would guess Doris represents an infinitesimally small number of female train aficionados in America, I was blessed to have discovered her before she rides her last ‘all aboard!’
I wondered about ordinary people, like Doris, and what describes divine. The magic she created with her small life, was that Divine? Was it a kind and generous Maker who led her down those tracks, awarding her much satisfaction and pleasure? And do we measure what is godly in religious context only? Do we miss the expansive heart of God when we do? Does one have to preach or witness or work for the homeless or write religious articles or go to church to exemplify what is divine? When our Lord commands us to become disciples and go into all the world spreading the Gospel, is He only talking about making people into believing Christians? Could that command include making life interesting and meaningful, using the gifts bestowed on us by the Creator? Is raising a loving family noiselessly, without fanfare, also Gospel? Is there not something ‘inspiring’ and divine about that too? Can the Gospel encompass discovering the godliness of quotidian life?
We frequently compartmentalize our experiences into acceptable religious categories of what is a ‘God-act’ and what it is not, and usually our standard is myopic, and our definition of ‘God-inspired’ narrow. We lose much by doing so.
Trains are often metaphors for life, and so is Doris. Trains poetically remind us of destinations, journey, and hoped-for arrival. The metaphor means something: it tells us in a capsule that life is motion, dreams, adventure, excitement, and discovery, and that part of its wonder is the ride itself. To miss that is as sad as missing the beauty of being a follower and fellow-traveler with the Lord. My view of life and people, of destiny and meaning, found a new metaphor in wee Doris.
She reminded me of life’s purpose, of the joy of existence, of Creator and Jesus, and that for me, is divine. If only my life does the same.
Greg Prout is father of three, grandfather of two, and has been happily married for 30 years to Mary Ventresca. He was a pastor for 4 years, Bible teacher for 8, and realtor for 32. Greg describes his spiritual experience: “I trail after God incessantly for He/She is the most wonderful, fascinating, mysterious Being who has never failed me, loves me well, has unlimited patience and understanding, abundant grace, and loves the surprise.”