Thursday, October 30, 2008

Imprisoned by Goodness

"Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee..."

Ever strike you as an interesting image?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


The week after my college graduation, I wrote a series of 13 meditations inspired by incidents from my time with the homeless during my last year at the university. I wanted to write it quickly, before my fresh, 22-year-old perspective became more balanced with time and cynicism. (Most of you who know me have read it; if anyone else would like a copy, I could email one.)

As almost a necessity to even enter the experience, I had closed my ears to certain warnings involving my safety and potential uses of any money I might hand out. The experience had its blessings and its frustrations, one of the former being the chance to enter into the lives of people I still keep in touch with, and I never actually regretted ignoring the better judgment of others.

But last week as I sat in the group mentioned in the previous post and the topic of the homeless came up, I heard some of those same warnings I had closed my ears to years before. Three years later, the accusations of drug-addiction feel different to me, and I decided to write an epilogue to my story.

For those of you who didn’t read the story itself, there were three significant characters:
  • Lawrence – a man I brought to church and to whom I gave the raincoat off my back a few days before leaving for the summer after my junior year of college, and came back to find him clean and off the streets.
  • Barbara – a girl my age with a new story of (expensive) tragedies every day, who asked me to teach her to read during my last week before finals and stood me up every day.
  • Benedict – a man who struggled to maintain his dignity, who allowed me to give him friendship but little else, whose only begging was begging the shops for work.

A Lesson in Drugs
As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.
-Fyodor Dostoyevsky
In theory, I believe in a God of perfect wisdom and perfect compassion. As a young, idealistic student I became enraged at the fallacy of those who argue against compassion on the basis of wisdom. Perhaps my indignation was justified, though one way or another I knew in the back of my mind that I was committing a fallacy of my own. Their wisdom may have been no less genuine than my compassion, and my disregard of it may have been no less errant as a disregard of the other. My decision of which side I would rather err on may have been the best decision I could muster, but it was no less a decision to err.


Soon after I graduated, Benedict ended up in jail for an armed robbery he did not commit. There was no evidence to convict him, other than his meeting the description of a “scruffy-looking black man” on a dark street that night. His state-appointed attorney assured him that no jury would believe his innocence despite the lack of the alleged gun, especially because (as I learned from Barbara) he already had quite a number of drug charges on his record. Benedict took his advice and pleaded guilty.

When he left prison seven months later with a felony on his record, he asked to be put in a halfway-house, that it be in another part of the state, and that it be Christian. When he was settled into a small rural town working as a day-laborer, he took out the scrap of paper he had kept in his wallet during his time in prison and called me. I received the call on my break while I worked as a coffee-shop barista, and I wept to hear his voice again.

Two years later, Benedict has a full-time job with benefits and is reconciled with his family. His mother and brother have come down South to share the lease with him, and they are working together in hopes of eventually buying a home. I visit them often.

In one of my visits he made vague references to things in his past that he chooses not to tell people, and I decided to go out on a limb.

“Benedict,” I said earnestly, already guessing what some of them were from allusions Barbara made about him, “I hope you know that I would still be your friend even if I knew those things.”

Benedict emphatically declared that he did, that he knew beyond any doubt that I had shown him unconditional love that would not be daunted by his mistakes. I was satisfied, and did not press him for details.


In the second year after graduation, I was walking down Franklin Street and heard a woman scream my name. I had not recognized Barbara. Between the haircut, make-up, clean clothes, and 30 extra pounds, she looked like nothing like the girl I had known.

“I need to talk to you!” she dramatically pleaded like she had so many times years before.

But this time it was not a dramatic story about an expensive tragedy. “I need to come clean with you about all the ways I lied to you.” She proceeded with the details of her crack addiction (I remembered her blood-shot eyes), her time in rehab, and her current attempt to build up an honorable life. “I know there is no reason for you to forgive me,” she continued, “but I thought you should at least know the truth.”

I found myself less surprised than confused. There was one part of her story I did not understand, as I remembered feeling as though my grades were being sabotaged at the end of my time in college. “Why did you ask me to teach you to read? It was the end of the year; I had already been giving you money for a long time. You weren’t getting anything out of the deal to have me waiting for you every morning for two weeks. Why would you do that to me?”

She looked as if she were prepared for the question. “There’s no good reason. Honestly, it was just a game. We all played it. I once got a group of people to drive me all around town believing I was blind. You have every right to hate me. I’m not even asking you not to; you just deserve to know.”

I was less convinced than ever of whether or not I had fought the battle in the right way; I was more convinced than ever that I had been fighting the right battle.

“I’m doing better now,” she went on. “I’ve been off crack for four months. They told me that if I left rehab as early as I did I’d be back on in a week, but I’m still off. They told me that if I went back to my old friends I’d be back on in a day, but there’re the only friends I have. Sometimes they offer it, and I just tell them no. I don’t think I’ll have any problem staying off at this point.”

I was not feeling as optimistic as Barbara. But wherever she was on the journey of sanctification, there was at least evidence that she was on it. I did not know if I had played any major part of that journey, but I was glad for the privilege to have witnessed it.


A few weeks later I was walking down Franklin Street again and made eye contact with a man sitting against a building with a beat-up cardboard box of change.

“No!” I nearly screamed when I recognized him, freezing in horrified disbelief.

Lawrence seemed as startled to see me as I was to see him. “I just ran into some hard times,” he explained. “Give me two weeks and I’ll have a place to stay again. Don’t worry.”

“No…” I continued, tears forming to see my early story of hope so quickly evaporated. “Lawrence… no!”

Lawrence looked like a big brother trying to console his little sister. Our roles were reversed; I no longer had any gospel to present to him, but entreated him for the hope of the Gospel that seemed to slip through the holes in his cardboard box.

“It’s not so bad,” he tried to insist. “I’ve gotten off the streets before; I can do it again. Two weeks; I promise!”

It was a hard day for me. I called Benedict’s cell phone that night for consolation. He was in the process of taking his collard greens off the stove and getting ready for dinner.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Defined by the reach, not the grasp

I met a fellow at a coffee shop last month. He was sitting next to me reading The Brothers Karamazov, and, knowing that to be among the best novels of all time, I couldn’t restrain myself from alerting him of that fact. We spent the next half-hour immersed in conversation regarding the many common authors we admired and the religious views we sympathized with but didn’t share. By the time he needed to leave, we had exchanged email addresses and were mutually hopeful for future conversations.

The next time we saw each other, he had gathered a group of thinkers of various religious persuasions to discuss various editions of NPR’s Speaking of Faith program. Initially he wanted to discuss the program regarding Shane Claiborn and a movement of intentional Christian communities called the New Monasticism, and later he settled on a program about Jean Vanier and a community called L’Arche in which developmentally disabled people and their assistants live together and share life.

I listened as my friend spoke of these communities with wonder and admiration, but the conversation felt awkward for me. As much as I agreed with the philosophies and theologies behind these movements, they could not feel the same for me as they did for my wide-eyed friend for two reasons:

I recently lived in a New Monastic community, and one of my best friends works at a L’Arche community.

It’s been odd to get an outside picture of something I’ve only ever known from the inside. On the inside, I know these places are built of well-meaning but broken people whose selfishness and hang-ups often get in the way of the very ideals they long to follow. I’ve struggled to live with housemates and have questioned their decisions, my own Jesus-complex coming into conflict with theirs. I’ve listened to my friend’s frustrations at co-workers who seem unwilling to accept some of Vanier’s fundamental teachings: “We all need help, and it's only as we discover that 'I have a handicap,' that 'I am broken,' that 'we're all broken,' and then we can begin to work at it.”

It’s been very odd. Odd enough for me to look up an old video a missions conference once recorded at my old community and various programs NPR recorded with an old housemate. I am trying to see my community from the outside, remembering that its fumbling members are no more or less well-meaning and selfish than I am. It’s odd.

It’s especially odd because infamy will not remember these communities like I do. It will remember them the way these articles and radio programs and videos do. And in a strange way, it is right when it does; despite the failure of our grasp to extend to our reach, the story seems to be defined by the principles rather than the accomplishments.

Maybe God is already re-writing his own story.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Education: let's get it on

I once thought that the education system was supposed to teach kids, who would be in class in order to learn. I have an idealistic picture of the study of literature involving a group of students being led by a teacher to sit at the feet of a given writer and hear what is being said.

From what I can tell, however, education is considered successful when the students are led to express what they already think. In some ways, we are taught not to listen.

I just got through grading a stack of high school English papers. They read Marlowe's "Passionate Shepherd to His Love" and criticized it in a way I've already ranted about twice, read Herrick's "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time" and Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" to get a feel for seventeenth-century carpe diem sexual arguments, and compared all of them to a modern rap titled "Let's get it on" with clever witticisms like "If the spirit moves ya / Let me groove ya... good." From what I can tell, the thinking behind the assignment was this: If we talk about what students are interested in, we can get them to participate in a class discussion. Since I'm not the teacher I have no idea weather or not the assignment was "successful" toward that end, but I can imagine a teacher walking away from an animated discussion of rap lyrics thinking it was a productive discussion because the students talked, not because they learned.

Then I did work for my own graduate school career, in which our medieval literature class focuses specifically on the topic of rape. I feel like I'm suddenly in that high school class I'm grading for; my professor can sit back and feel satisfied about the productive discussion about Chaucer because a room full of female members of the intelligentsia have had an animated conversation about what they do not like about rape. To take the conversation a few notches deeper, we can even move into an analysis of what we don't like about the middle ages as it relates to what we don't like about rape. Education is successful because students have said what they think.

No wonder listening is so hard; we don't even do it in our education.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Sonnet upon her first election

October 28, 2004

Well, here’s my faith, such as it is, and here
Are hands that move therein. I give you all
My copper coins and turtledoves, and fall
Into your grace with chubby legs that fear
To fall elsewhere in times when all that’s clear
Is our own frailty, picket signs to call
Out names we throw like eggs against the wall
We cannot scale but try with grimy gear.

For what are dusty, mortal hands to you
Who tread the clouds? This fickle flesh I wear
Can hardly help beyond what it can harm.
A broken spirit… that much I can do,
And you are welcome to my shaky arm,
In faith you see the blood that flows in there.

I registered.

As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Election seasons make me depressed. I’m managing to keep in good spirits these days, perhaps because I’m living alone rather than on campus in the thick of political civil war like I was four years ago, but I still do look forward to it being over. I think I carry a set of ears for every world I’ve ever been a part of—the Evangelical church, the Black Student Movement, ex-pat communities, intentional Christian community, the agnostic intelligentsia, intercity neighborhoods, the Catholic Church—and however things go in November I know I’m going to be in conversations with dear friends who think the apocalypse has come.

But yesterday, after the third threat by a dear friend in varying degrees of seriousness to withhold friendship, respect or dinner invitations from me if I didn’t vote, I finally registered to vote. Rather than have my “voice” (whatever that means these days) end up in the statistics of young people who are “apathetic” or “unaware of the issues” which I am not, I thought writing someone in would at least demonstrate that I care.

So in the spirit of the season, I’ll take a poll: Who should I write in? In the absence of anymore creative ideas I think I’ll just put in “Jesus,” but I am open to suggestions.

In the mean time, to all of you out there with more clarity than I have, receive my blessings as you campaign, vote, and pressure disgruntled melancholics like me to register. But please try to keep a spare set of ears on hand for the naive and simple-hearted folks on the other side, who I pray keep a spare set of ears on hand for you as well.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

When he comes...

I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.
-John 4:25

The obvious irony of the Samaritan woman’s statement to Jesus is that she was talking to the Messiah himself. But the other irony is that she was wrong: she’s been standing around talking to the Messiah for a while now, and he is doing anything but explaining.

He is doing quite the opposite, from what I can tell. He asks for physical water, and then says that if she knew who she was talking to she would have asked him for “water” that would create "springs of water" flowing out of her. She asks about where one should worship, and he answers, “in spirit and truth” (Oh... there!). When the disciples come and offer him food, he says that he already has “food” that they don’t know about, because the “fields” are “ripe for harvest.”

Two thousand years later, I think I’m still expecting him to come and explain things to me. But he doesn’t, and maybe that is why it takes me a while to recognize him. Like with the Samaritan woman and with the disciples, he just keeps talking around my questions. From what I can tell of his interactions with these people in Scripture, there’s not really any way they could have figured out the secret hidden meaning from the context. Maybe there are times when you “worship what you do not know,” times when you believe in a Savior even though you are not really sure what you are believing about him.

There seems to be quite a precedent for that kind of faith. I suppose it puts me in good company.

...But I still wish he would come and explain everything to me.