I was on a bus recently, at the tail end of the morning rush hour, when an older woman – smart, 60-odd – moved towards the doors to get off.
As she did so, she said in a quiet and casual manner – almost as if she was checking whether this was the right stop for Sainsbury's – 'Jesus loves you all. Whatever you're going through, He loves you and will take your burden off you.' Then she got off, and the doors closed behind her, and the bus moved on.
Nothing new there. Declarations of love on public transport? Many of us have been there. Particularly, I would venture, the females – although it's true to say that these affirmations are less often the honeyed murmurings of a beloved, and more the highly flammable exhalations of a florid-cheeked, dribbled-chinned madman who has chosen you – lucky, lucky you – as his bus date for the duration of your shared journey. Or, not necessarily worse, some dead-eyed, slack-trousered murderer in waiting.
Similarly, many of us have experienced unbidden invitations from strangers to welcome the Lord into our hearts. I, let me tell you, no longer answer my doorbell. Partly because I don't live on the ground floor and I'm quite lazy. But principally because the number of times the caller turns out to be two well-meaning ladies with religious leaflets and a comfy shoe swiftly lodged between door and frame, as opposed to a postmen handing me a parcel I have ordered, is a ratio in which the Lord very much has the upper hand.
But there was something about this particular cocktail of god and good wishes that I found oddly warming. A spiritual mulled wine, if you are a mixologist who also enjoys a laborious analogy/metaphor/whatever.
I think it might have been because the woman on the bus was playing it kind of cool. I liked her 'oh and by the way' approach to spreading the Word. It's no big deal or anything, but I'm just letting you know. Ooh, before I go, I should probably should mention... She was nonchalance carrying a shopping bag. At no point did she thrust a pamphlet against the panes of my glasses or pin me to my seat with the hot, pungent breath of zealotry. She just slipped out of the double doors without a backwards glance, leaving me strangely disarmed.
If you have faith – and I'm not sure if I do – you expect it to find you, to come for you, in your times of high crisis. Those are the occasions when you wait for that thing you believe in to assume the kind of three-dimensional identity that would allow it to push a giant lever in the direction of 'Things are going to be OK'. Some arms, I guess, would be useful in that three-dimensional identity, whatever it is. Or really strong, supple legs.
But in those times of terrible, fathomless darkness, your friends also come for you, and your family. Chances are they're not quite up to performing miracles (and honestly, who is? bad things happen all the time and no one stops them). Still, there they are with their tea and their company and their desperately wanting to make you feel better. But understandably, they don't always come for you on the 185 bus on a Tuesday morning, somewhere around the Denmark Hill area. They're busy people. We all are.
On the bus is where I do some of my best thinking. But it's also where I do some of my worst. Glum, unflinchingly pessimistic state-of-the-Jones-nation thoughts. The rhythmic roll and stop of a journey through the traffic lights of the city often lulls me into exactly this kind of meditation. There is comfort in routine, of course – in bus rides and supermarket shops and the like – but there is also drudgery and relentlessness and you, on your own, trying to get on with things.
And then Ms Public Transport Preacher came along with her guerilla goodwill and made me feel ever so slightly better.I didn't really think this was the start of Something between me and the Lord. Some salesmanship from a stranger and my pre-existing obsession with Christmas carols does not constitute a conversion. I wasn't seriously expecting Him to relieve me of my burdens. Realistically, He was unlikely to step in and cease the escalating hostilities that were erupting between me and the Penge branch of Homebase at that time, or tell me how to fix the broken lock on my gas meter cupboard which I had learnt was my own responsibility and not that of British Gas, even if you offer to pay them to fix it and ask really nicely.
But like I said, she – and by extension He – made me feel ever so slightly better. And feeling ever so slightly better is no small deal.