Tuesday, January 27, 2009

If it's good enough for Plutonians...

Well, I'm doing it again... posting a link to someone else's blog that I "heard" something from today. Twice in one week!

I've had a number of recent conversations about how God works (or doesn't work) in the world, and about knowing God's will. Does God listen to prayer? Is God really as micro-managing as we make him out to be? What does God want me to do? What if I make the wrong decision?

God's agency is a hard thing to wrap one's mind around, especially in the middle of pain or confusion. I like little 4-year-old Calvin's conclusion at the end of his lunch conversation with his mom about God's relationship with the Plutonians (the residents of the planet, or dwarf-planet, Pluto). I think both God's agency in the world and his will for my life are well summed up in his conclusion: "His plan is to turn the bad guys into good guys." It is coming slowly in this stubborn heart of mine, but it is coming. Maybe one day I will look back at this foibling drama that is my life and see something beautiful. In that day, I will not question God's agency in the world.

"He can turn the bad guys into good guys with just his voice. He must have a really powerful voice to be able to do that. But he won't ever turn good guys into bad guys."

Amen. Come Lord Jesus!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Man is Dust

Back when I was in college and he was homeless, Benedict taught me a lot about human dignity and what it does to a person to be stripped of it. There are many examples of interactions with him I could think of to show the lesson; I use this one because it was the night when I first started to hear him.

I sat at my regular table of my cozy, mountain-lodge-esque coffee shop near campus one winter night of my senior year, trying to let the rich smell of coffee evoke my journaling catharsis after an emotional fight with a close friend. Weary of writing, I glanced out the window and suddenly saw dear Benedict waving cheerfully at me from outside. Though his weariness broke my heart more than any of the other homeless people I had come to know, his presence always lifted my spirit. Eagerly, I waved him inside, and he hesitantly acquiesced.

“I was just walking by and wondered if you’d be here,” he explained when he arrived at my table, cheerfully but nervously, as if he just ran into a dear friend in a closely-guarded prison camp. “I just came to say hi.”

“I’m glad you did!” I chirped enthusiastically. “Please sit down!” Benedict eyed the chair as if there were a bomb underneath, but he finally obeyed, sitting across from me uncomfortably.

“I just came to say hi,” he repeated as if I were demonstrating my not having heard him the first time.

“Have you had anything to eat tonight?” I asked my friend. “They don’t have a lot of food here, but I think they have some sandwiches and wraps, and certainly plenty of muffins and cookies.”

“I’m fine,” he asserted firmly, firmly enough that I knew not to press him, even though I knew that “I’m fine” often meant “I’ve gone without food before” when it was spoken by Benedict.

“Well then, can I at least get you something hot to drink? I know you don’t like coffee, but they have hot chocolate and tea, and they have an amazing apple cider...”

“I’m fine,” he repeated with a firmness that had a little more bite in it.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “It’s a cold night out there, and there’s nothing like hot drinks in a cold throat...”

“Stop!” he commanded, or perhaps pleaded, and I finally heard him. “You can’t do this. People will think I’m begging.” The last word came out in a near-whisper, as if it were unspeakably profane.

My hospitality collapsed into something more akin to childish whining, and like a toddler asking “Why?” I struggled to understand. “But you’re not; I’m offering. You’re my friend, and I come here and have coffee with friends all the time.”

Benedict softened his tone while maintaining his firmness. “I know that,” he assured me. “But...” he gestured around the room with his eyes.... “she doesn’t know it, and he doesn’t know it, and he doesn’t know it, and she doesn’t know it. They don’t see me as someone who might be your friend; they just see me as a lazy homeless person who wants their money.”

I knew he was right, and it broke my heart. I sat there sadly, fingering my coffee mug with a strange sense of shame, watching my friend fight to maintain the dignity that I never had to earn.

After a few moments of silence, Benedict tried to lift the mood. “One day, I’ll have a job. Soon. I promise. And in that day, we’ll sit and have coffee together. Okay?”


Any regulars on my blog have heard me talk about Benedict before, how the slow, up-hill battle of getting off the streets has been both heart-wrenching and hopeful in a time when change is a buzz-word that cynics like me may doubt. He has not been homeless for the past three years, but, with the economy the way it is and his 50-year-old body less capable of manual labor than it has been and his police record unjustly tainted with a felony, he is unemployed again for now.

I got a call from him last night.

“Guess what?” he asked enthusiastically. “I just got a nicotine patch! I’m ready to try to quit smoking.”
“That’s great!” I gushed, my spirit lifting to hear his joy.

“I want to ask you to pray for me,” he urged as his tone got more serious. “This is very important to me. Can you ask your family and friends to pray for me too?”

I was struck as I hung up the phone that he doesn’t ask me to pray for him very often, though I frequently promise it anyway. He hasn’t asked me to pray that he’ll find another job. He hasn’t asked me to pray for the agonizing process of running through the bureaucratic obstacle course necessary even to learn how much he owes the government from old traffic fines and child-support from two different states that are accruing interest in the mean time. I pray for him regularly for these kinds of things, but he doesn’t ask for those prayers.

He asks for prayer for freedom from nicotine. He can only take one hurdle at a time, I suppose; freedom from debt or from unemployment dependency will come in time. But for now, he asks my prayers as he tries to quit smoking. I think it touches his dignity somehow. For a man who has spent years being looked at as crack-addicted street litter, the need for freedom from a mild drug is more immediate than freedom from debt, the same way that the need to sit in my coffee shop as a friend and not a beggar had been more important than the need for food in his belly.

And he asks the prayers of my friends. And so I’m asking you to pray for him. Benedict is not his real name, but I’m sure God will figure it out.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Listening to blogger

I don’t normally post other people’s blogs, but these two both made me cry today. Since this is a listening-blog, I though it would be appropriate to post the links.

Jennifer at Conversion Diary posted a story about a telemarketing prank gone wrong in her college atheist days. I've spent my adult days going back and forth between different worlds that can’t understand the different languages spoken: Here’s to college-atheist-Jennifer for hearing the man on the other line enough to be changed. Here’s to the man on the other line with the vulnerability and humility to let her mockery go over his head. Here’s to hoping we all become better listeners.

My dear friend at Two Square Meals posted a story about her son Calvin, who is very dear to my heart as well. Though this is technically a mothering post, and though people in many of the circles in which I travel do not connect well with pop-psychology, I connected to this story as the four-year-old Calvin. Perhaps others out there who hold wounds longer than most others seem to will understand. May I hear the voice of Grace speaking the words of my friend.

And God speed the day we all get thrusters on our feet and can fly!

Monday, January 19, 2009

The prayers of a righteous man

In one of the earliest accounts (1588) of the life of Saint Thomas More, Thomas Stapleton narrates as if aware that he is writing hagiography, the life of a saint. In a chapter dealing with More’s piety, Stapleton tells a story of one of the More’s miracles. (There are several, and they all deal with prayer.)

A certain citizen of Winchester, the story goes, “was for a long time troubled by the gravest temptations to despair that prayer and the advice of his friends seemed of no avail.” Finally, on recommendation from a friend, the man went to More for advice. Under the council of the saint, the man found freedom from the bondage. Stapleton interjects that “it was not by his words but by his prayers to God that More at length obtained for the man relief from his grievous temptation.”

The man remained free up until the time More was taken to the Tower of London and inaccessible, at which point he became bombarded with the temptation “with still greater force than before,” and found himself “in misery without hope of cure.”

Finally, when he heard that More was sentenced to death, he sped to London in hopes that, risky though it may be, he could hazard some words with the doomed martyr. He ran to More while the saint was being taken to the scaffold, and cried, “Do you recognize me, Sir Thomas? Help me, I beg you: for that temptation has returned to me and I cannot get rid of it.”

More answered, “I recognize you perfectly. Go and pray for me, and I will pray earnestly for you.”

According to Stapleton, the prayers of both men were answered; the saint died with his integrity, and the despairing man was made whole.

It is an odd story, and its peculiarities are what I find delightful. I love the image of More approaching the scaffold praying for another man’s despair. I love that the man’s inner conflict is treated as gravely (no pun intended) as More’s martyrdom. I love the humility of the saint in the midst of his “illustrious martyrdom” (to use Stapleton’s phrase) who asks for prayer of the man who came to him for help, and in so doing honors him. And, as much as it is good to admire saints, I love imagining that More, after all of his heroic boldness before Henry VIII, feels afraid and needful of prayer as he approaches the scaffold. I love that he receives the prayer from a despairing man.

Maybe for Catholics who are constantly repeating entreaties to their favorite saint to “pray for us now and at the hour of our death,” More’s humble and exonerating reaction to the needy man is quite natural.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Peace of Christ

“So, I just want to get this straight,” I asked the priest after mass one morning. “I can’t take the sacrament of the Eucharist, but my baptism counts, so I’ve had one of the Sacraments.”

“So far,” he answered with a smile, enjoying the fact that my friendship with him has given his brain more work than it has had to do since his seminary days.

“Are there any others I can do, or is Baptism the only one?” I asked. “What about Confession? Can’t I confess?”

He squirmed good-naturedly. “I can hear your confession; I just can’t absolve you.”

“Aw, that’s rotten,” I smiled. “You can’t proclaim absolution for a Baptized member of the Church?”

“That actually gets into one major difference between Catholics and Protestants,” he explained. “You tend to be very vertical in your faith; it is a matter between you and God, and confession and forgiveness is a matter of reconciling your individual self to God. For us, faith always must be both vertical and horizontal, so confession and forgiveness must also involve being reconciled with your brothers and sisters.”

Of course, there is good, sound theology behind that picture of the Church. It is why the liturgy includes passing the peace with confession. It reminds me of Ephesians 2, a major salvation-chapter. “For he himself is our peace,” Paul says, right after the famous passage of being saved by grace through faith, “who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross.” The horizontal and the vertical happen together.

I was thinking about that this week in the context of the difference between the Anglican and the Catholic prayers of confession. When I first heard the Catholic prayer, I thought it was missing a significant part, the part a three-year-old once prayed: “You have to forgive me for all the bad things I’ve done.” Perhaps a Catholic hearing our prayer would feel a similar significant hole.
Anglican prayer of confession
Most merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart. I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I am truly sorry, and I earnestly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on me and forgive me, that I may delight in your will and walk in your ways to the glory of your name.

Catholic prayer of confession
I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do; and I ask the Blessed Mary ever virgin, all the angles and saints, and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

Monday, January 12, 2009

His Stupid Mouth

On Friday night I went to a concert to support an old friend of mine. He and I have known each other for almost eight years now, which, at my age, translates into almost the entirety of my adult life. As I have watched his music career slowly progress over the years, I’ve learned that the most effective way of demonstrating friendship to him is to attend his shows.

“I’d better go,” I told him afterwards, excusing myself before the next band began.

“You don’t want to listen to these guys?” he asked. “They’re pretty good.”

“I’d better get some sleep,” I explained. “I have to get up early tomorrow for driving school.”

“Driving school?” his eyes twinkled teasingly. “Did you get a ticket?”

I nodded. “They say women are supposed to be able to get out of tickets,” I complained. “I never have. Maybe it’s because I’m not blonde.”

“Diet,” he casually suggested. “Your sister did.”

Initially, I was taken aback. But in our eight years of friendship, he has made many such carelessly hurtful comments. At some point I accepted that he doesn’t think about what he says, and normally feels bad about it later. He often suggests in his concerts that John Mayer wrote “My Stupid Mouth” with him in mind.

Thus instead of reacting to the insensitive (and somewhat odd) comment about dieting, I simply swiped his Grace credit-card. I ignored the insult and instead questioned his data.

“My sister did? I didn’t know that.”

He looked curiously at me. “Well, I don’t know how long she kept it up, but she did for a while at least. Wasn’t she blonde this summer?”

I blinked a few times as the pieces fell together. “Dye it!” I exclaimed. “My hair! You told me to dye my hair!”

My vindicated friend looked bewilderedly at me, unaware of his narrow escape from jerk-infamy. “Yeah... what did you think I said?”

And once again I find myself reminded of the need to extend Grace to those around us, as I’ve written about a couple times before. We are a race of fumbling creatures, bumping awkwardly about into one another’s pain and annoyances, and any kind of relationship is bound to frustrate. But we are also some pretty stunningly beautiful creatures, and without the Grace to put up with the awkwardness we would miss some of the richest gifts life has to offer. I for one am not willing to pay that price.

The Excesses of God

While 20th century American poetry is generally not my forte, I did manage to find some occasional gems when I took a class on the topic last summer. Among them was Robinson Jeffers.

Yesterday I stumbled upon one of his books in a used bookshop near campus, and as I flipped through it I reencountered a poem that makes a few of my recent blog posts seem unoriginal (but, after all, how much of what we say is truly original?). Since Jeffers beat me to three of the illustrations I used (stars, rainbows, and reproduction) to illustrate God’s gratuitous beauty and mundane magic in these fourteen lines, I suppose I should give him some credit for the idea as well.
The Excesses of God

Is it not by his high superfluousness we know
Our God? For to be equal a need
Is natural, animal, mineral: but to fling
Rainbows over the rain
And beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows
On the domes of deep sea-shells,
And make the necessary embrace of breeding
Beautiful also as fire,
Not even the weeds to multiply without blossom
Nor the birds without music:
There is the great humaneness at the heart of things,
The extravagant kindness, the fountain
Humanity can understand, and would flow likewise
If power and desire were perch-mates.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Why hast thou forsaken me?

One day, if I ever become a great writer, I’m going to write a short story about my grandmother. This story, genius though I am not, will aim at reading somewhat like Absalom, Absalom!, in that it will be made up of listening to the same story told at different times and unfolding in such a way as to make the actual facts unclear (and, truth be told, irrelevant).

Were I a genius, these stories would fill the air of my grandparents’ living room like the smell of stale tobacco and cat urine that a child’s brain could not isolate as a doctor isolates a disease but rather enters into unquestioningly every Christmas knowing that unlimited television privileges and brightly-wrapped cheap cardboard boxes await inside. My grandmother’s voice would reign in the dingy air of the dark family room like the royalty she knew she was by the proud merit of her suffering, of the mistreatment of her parents and the humiliation of their reputation that made her almost as low as the colored people, of the doctor who eloped with her on a cruise but was too much a coward to stand up for her before his mother’s demands for annulment of the marriage he would never know was already incarnating itself in her first daughter, of the navy men who pledged their troth to the belle with the babe until an explosion years after the War took her second husband who left her with her second child whom her second mother-in-law would likewise wish away as a monster under a child’s bed whose existence is dependent upon acknowledgement, of the last navy husband who drove her daughter away but gave two more in return along with bruises and a lost fortune and social humiliation by his drunken antics. My grandfather might enter and make a fondly sarcastic comment as he placed his weathered hand on hers to be harshly shooed away as a housefly my grandmother could never hurt no matter how horrifically repulsive, and would inhale another pack of Camels into his puttering lungs as she continued on with her recommendations to the world to sterilize all the poor people in Africa who couldn’t support the multitude they were breeding under the scorching sun of a god who had his chance and abandoned her like another ill-fated husband.

I am not Faulkner, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to weave those stories quite so seamlessly into the ones that follow as he would have. Perhaps if I could, it would not be true to life, because the old stories didn’t evolve as I grew up; they never existed. Instead, there would be stories of the man whose love for her could outlive her other marriages and his own engagement and survive long enough to give her some gold on their 50th wedding anniversary right before his faithful heart quietly stopped one afternoon as his spirit rose to be with the God whom she had always known would never let her down. Gramma does not learn from the past; she rewrites it.

“And what do you think of our new president?” the old Southern woman would ask me this Christmas, not as a question that suggested a response but more as a statement of intention to announce where the conversation was heading.

I might say something meaningless like “He seems like a decent fellow” that might as well be nothing more than a nod or a “Yessum” that allows her to continue.

“See, Sweetie,” she would chide me as if it were a point she had been trying to teach for years, “not all colored people are bad.”

And I would listen with mixed emotions, emotions that would never have the consolation that the Halleluiah-praise-Jesus-I’ve-been-delivered! of my grandfather provides its family but must instead stand amazed that a woman’s spirit could be large enough to encompass these two separate worlds, one in which colored people need separate bathrooms because they are naturally dirtier and another in which the first African American president is the best thing that happened to the country since Roosevelt himself, one in which she is married to a monster and another in which she is married to a prince, one in which she cries with the psalmist “My God my God why hast thou forsaken me?” and another in which she declares with the same psalmist “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken.”

Just like in Faulkner’s novels, I am not sure what the actual story of my grandmother’s life had been. But unlike Faulkner’s novels, I am sure it is redemptive, if only because the flavor of the past she writes has sweetened over the years, because the world she can hardly see anymore through her failing vision is so much more beautiful than the one she saw when her eyes were younger. The redemption that for my grandfather was a matter of the will as he put the bottle away and praised the God who delivered him is for my grandmother no less a matter of the will as she changes the past in the world she can no longer see. Or maybe in neither case it is a matter of the will at all.

Anyway, if David doesn’t have a problem declaring that he has never seen the righteous forsaken as he himself had cried out in anguish that God had done to him years before, I suppose my grandmother is in good company. That is enough for me.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Costly Grace

Yesterday was my little brother’s 21st birthday, which he celebrated by (among other things) waiting at the grocery store check-out at midnight to buy a cart full of drinks. Somehow that is my excuse for posting this story.

An old college friend recently contacted me. I was delighted. She and I had had a rocky friendship toward the end of my college years, and I had always imagined that if our friendship survived beyond college, it would last the rest of our lives. Once she graduated, I lost contact with her for almost three years, and I had almost given up hope that I would find her.

But there she was on my computer screen, and over Christmas break on her trip down South she swung over to my city to visit me. I was delighted, and (truth be told) a bit nervous.

“So, what about you?” I asked after some introductory framework about my current life as a student. “How has grad school been for you?”

“It’s good now,” she began. “Three months ago I joined Alcoholics Anonymous.”

Over our brunch that gave way to a walk around campus that gave way to tea in my cottage, she painted some broad strokes of the lost time, getting me up to speed with the past three years that led to her joining AA. In all the years I had known her, she had never looked so beautiful to me.

I mean that quite honestly. I had recently used the same adjective to describe a visit with Benedict (my formerly-homeless friend I’ve mentioned again and again on this blog), when I noticed that there is a brightness in him that I don’t see in many others. I think there is a beauty that comes from reaching out with frail arms from the pit of ones lowness, a beauty that doesn’t come any cheaper way. Benedict has that beauty, and my college friend is beginning to as well.

“Alcohol is not the problem,” AA tells its members; “it was the solution, until it stopped working.” Thus when the members introduce themselves as alcoholics, they are really admitting to their failure to find a solution; they are admitting their brokenness in addressing problems that the rest of us may find less visibly destructive (but equally ineffective and perhaps equally destructive) means of dealing with. And in that brokenness, in that frailty and failure to fabricate healing, is the door for the Grace we all need. In those cases, to the people who say "Hi my name is Em and I'm an alcoholic" at the beginning of an AA meeting, Grace costs every shred of dignity they once had had.

So here on the twelfth day of Christmas, I want to raise a glass (of coffee) to my beautiful friend. May we all learn to receive Grace as she is learning, even if it likewise does not come cheaply.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Brokenness and Grace

Rich Mullins, who no doubt influenced my adolescent faith more than was good for it, once said in a concert:
But my theory is that for those of us who are too weak to remain single, God gives us a spouse. For those of us who are too hung up to handle marriage, God gives us celibacy. So, pick your weakness. Pick your poison, I guess. But anyway, for those of you who do choose to be in love and stuff, go for it. And I think it's a good thing - I've heard a lot about it.
I thought about those words yesterday as I attended a wedding of some old college friends, looking at a small cross-section of my college friends represented in the ones who attended (and in some way the ones who didn’t). I found myself surprisingly struck by our brokenness, brokenness that showed its face in different ways among the different people represented.

I thought of the brokenness of those of us with too many grandiose dreams of serving a God we slowly realize we do not believe is gracious, and the brokenness of those of us who give up those dreams because we realize we are too lonely to serve God the way we wanted. I thought of the brokenness of those of us with too much idealistic cultural rebellion to slip easily into what looks like a pre-packaged life, and the brokenness of those of us who take the package and hope the ideals can fit inside. I thought of the brokenness of those who lose the girl and keep the friends, and the brokenness of those who get the girl and lose the friends. It made me want to weep.

And as we took communion, I thought about the Incarnation, about Christ entering the broken places of our lives and making them holy. Christ’s life sanctifies the broken pieces of the single life, and his first miracle sanctifies the broken pieces of marriage. Since we have been given a Messiah who takes on our pain rather than destroying it, perhaps in some ways he pronounces goodness over it. Far from simply healing our brokenness, he sanctifies it.

If that is the case, I suppose all the places that looked like brokenness become openings for Grace. Perhaps just as marriage can be an opening for Grace to those of us who are lonely, singleness is sometimes an opening for Grace to those of us with too many hang-ups. One way or another, there is Grace to the overly-strong, Grace to the weak, Grace to the idealists, and Grace to the idealess.

If that is the case, it is reason to rejoice, here on the eleventh day of Christmas.
Collect for the second Sunday after Christmas Day

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.