I recall riding in street cars—no, not cars on the street, but streetcars. Yes, I can remember that far back, to my earliest childhood.
Streetcar or trolley is North American English for what Europeans call tram. Most of the original urban streetcar systems were dismantled in the mid-20th century. Today, only Toronto still operates a streetcar network essentially unchanged in layout and mode of operation.
Hand in hand with my Czech live-in grandmother, Frantiska, we would walk two blocks to the streetcar stop. As a first grader I was along for the ride because grandma didn't speak English. I was her translator. Streetcars fascinated me. My mother recalled streetcars pulled by horses or mules. They were called bobtail streetcars. The advantages of eliminating animal drive power included dispensing with the need to feed the animals and clean up their waste.
By the time I was born, streetcars had become propelled by electricity. They had no motor and couldn't come to the curb to pick up passengers because they had to stay on the tracks in the middle of the street. They had to stay connected by a rod or trolley pole extending through their roof to an electric line that was suspended above to receive its power.
In the streetcars I was familiar with, both the wheels and the tracks were made of metal and together they keep the streetcar grounded. I didn't know the intricacies of how it all worked when I was a child. I only knew that at the end of its run, the uniformed driver with a distinctive hat needed to insert a long metal pole through a hole in the floor to switch something on the tracks so that the streetcar could go in the opposite direction on the same tracks. And he had to push the woven straw backs of every seat in reverse so the people seated could face in the direction the car was headed.
The driver rang a bell with his foot as we approached intersections. I liked putting my nickel into the metal box at the entry doorway beside the driver. There was always a “ding-ding” as the nickel dropped to the bottom. The streetcar would begin to sway back and forth as we gathered speed. Fun!
A few years down the line the streetcars had morphed into rubber-tired vehicles that didn't have to stay on tracks, but they still needed to stay connected to the overhead power source. They could glide to the curb to pick up passengers. By the time I became a teenager, streetcars disappeared in our Iowa heartland town and buses with engines replaced them. They were not nearly as much fun.
But enough about the operation of streetcars—I want to make a spiritual analogy to our communication with God. He has ordained places where we meet with Him and worship Him collectively. Besides churches, there are personal places we establish where we habitually pray and listen to the Lord in quiet seclusion to receive His power for living. Of course we are in God's presence at all times. Jesus promised that He never leaves us or forsakes us.
In some sense our communication with God should be as easy as our ABCs. We who know Him are “in Christ” and He lives in us. Jesus taught us that we are to “abide in Him and He in us.” Abide means to dwell permanently. It is unrealistic to imagine that we go in and out of His presence. “Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence?” ( Psalm 139:7-12) We are not to leave Him behind as we go off independently on our own power. We soon come to a standstill as would the streetcar if the trolley pole connection were severed.
The open secret is that we can and should live continually “in Christ” like the streetcar that is entirely dependent on being united to the power available above it. We must learn our ABCs: “Always Be Connected” to God's power. “Without Me, you can do nothing,” Jesus declared. “Pray without ceasing,” Saint Paul taught. Therefore, it must be possible to dwell in and to abide in Christ 24/7. Is it not possible to be in communion and communication with God through the Holy Spirit constantly through an awareness of His presence? To “practice the presence of God,” as intimately as Brother Lawrence so clearly explained in his classic book, no matter what our ordinary day brings? Can't we, shouldn't we carry on a spirit-to-spirit mental communication with God in both directions, speaking to Him and listening to Him continuously? Consciously or unconsciously, simply walking heart to heart with God regardless of what we are engaged in?
The streetcar has a spiritual lesson for us, if we have ears to hear, a mind to receive, and a heart to obey. Our communion with God need not be such a formal, compartmentalized struggle. As we maintain our connection with Him, we are propelled along joyfully and smoothly on His tracks in His foreordained direction. We have instant power available in time of need. We are kept in a position to obey His slightest nudge of guidance, to hear the slightest whisper of His Spirit.
Surrendering ourselves to stay on His tracks doesn't take away our free will. It is our decision whether or not to "step into His streetcar," to go in His direction. We don't have to deposit our nickel for the ride either—it is free to us, but it has been costly for Him; He paid the price at Calvary.