the sacrament of someday [2012 in review]

IMGP1745 Betty Ann stands before us, congregation of bric-a-brac denomination, she with eighty-three years of stitched together patchwork grace, telling us what it has been to journey a life hid in Christ. She speaks of breaking down dogmatic walls, of stretching, of leaning hard into the God of Mystery. Eventually, she circles around to the entrenched thesis: "A psychiatrist about thirty years ago was up here at the camp. He looked at me and said, 'Betty Ann, someday you're going to be that person you most hope to be all the time.'"

She speaks of seeing herself, a few years later, standing in front of a mirror and liking what she saw. Grace. Wisdom. Gentleness. Now not wish but will, ordinary moments of being.

I drink this in, this sacrament of someday, this promise, because when I hear her speak, I know Betty Ann speaks Christ to me. Someday, I too, someday.

"What is it you want God to answer in the next few days?"

Lauren Winner sits with me in the small room off the side of the library. We have spoken of bread making and table building. We have laughed. She has more than once pointed the convicting knife of the Holy Ghost toward my heart.

"How to be a person." I eventually murmur this, surprised. "Between book, blog, Kickstarter, and all. How do I be a person?"

It comes to me later, hours later, when I'm on my knees in the ceramics studio that only I have opened, cleaning up spilled red water, burnt umber from the young earthenware clay. As I sop up with a sponge the burning flames of burning bush, where Moses asked, "Who am I?" I come circling back to myself and see. I am this person, this person who kneels and sops up spilt clay water. This is me.

I am also snarky. Sarcastic. It is likely that if I love you dearly, I've thought some ugly things about you when you frustrate me. I'm short with my words, have a wit to wound by a half. This is the other pole of who I am, this is the person that I most easily find myself being, though it leaves me exhausted, annoyed, frustrated.

I am also this other person, this person who kneels, this person who found himself saving a spider and in my spirit apologizing to it---ridiculously!---for the Fall of Man that should turn it to biting and stinging and to be killed. I am also this person. I am this person that would, along with Ann Voskamp, hold out an open palm and say, "I am a seed in the hand of God." This is the person that leaves me exhausted from joy, content in ordinary grace. This is the person I want to be more often than not.

But I have let myself slip more away from holding out my hand and seeing myself as seed, because it is easier to sit in the snark, in the sarcasm. I long for earnestness, to show this part of myself that meets God in the kneading of bread. I long for this person to not show in glimpses and moments, but in consistency, in will and not wish.

Someday. This is the sacrament. Someday.

On Sunday, Lauren makes the X over the bread and wine, "unto us the Body and Blood," we cross ourselves, we line ourselves, we wait. When I come forward to receive, it is Betty Ann who holds out the bread as I cross myself, put right hand over left.

"Preston, this is the Body of Christ, broken for you." She places Him into my hand, and I resound, "Amen," again and again throughout my being. Amen, amen, amen. Someday, full of grace consistently; someday. For now, this moment, again, when I take Body broken for me, kneel on the floor of the ceramics studio, apologize to the spider, and await the Bridegroom off in the fields of the gentle labors.

I'm away at my best friend's wedding and then with family for the holidays. I'm sharing the best posts from this year in the interim. See you in the secular new year!

for i trust the hands of the potter [2012 in review]


Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?

-- Isaiah 45:9

Clay fights you. In ceramics yesterday we entered our second day of throwing on the potter's wheel, a process that I thought for much of my life was relatively simple. It's not. It's quite hard. You wet the wheel gently as it spins, stop it, take a lump of clay and form it with care into a ball in your hands, then trust in the power of angels and God's providence of gravity that when you smack it down on the wheel, it will be close to center.

It's never perfectly center.

It takes the handling, slow and deliberate, left hand against the left wall and right hand over the top pressing down, feeling in your arms and thighs the way the clay moves, wobbles and dances, until in the midst of your hands comes the moment of epiphany. Wobbles stop, clay slips quietly against cupped hands, and you have found the center.

Then comes the rest of the work. One finger pokes into the middle to form a hole which is slowly pushed to the bottom. A cup, a bowl, an urn, a vase, all begun by the single intrusion of one finger into the midst of the clay. There's a trick though, in that the clay fights you. The clay doesn't want the hole, the clay doesn't want to be centered. Slowly it starts to warp, push out, and you need your other hand to be against the outer wall as you push in, keeping the clay in the center, always in the center, or else the pot warps. Sometimes the pressure against it must be so soft, you barely feel it. Sometimes you have to press hard, perhaps too hard, and you think for a moment you've lost the shape entirely as it groans against your discipline and slashes at your hands.

Once the hole is made, hands are free to brush against inner and outer wall, carefully moving in tandem, pulling out and up, forming interior, exterior, width, height. All the while the clay fights you. It wants to move from its center, it wants to warp itself and spin freely. But it makes a horrible pot if you just let the clay go. You, as the potter, know this; you feel it between your hands, you intimately know the clay even better than it knows itself, because you have in mind what it is supposed to be. But it fights. It wants to be something else. And it's all you can do just to keep it in the center, never mind all the other myriad shapes and forms you might hope it to take once it gets there and stays.

It's slow work. Every action is painfully deliberate, quiet, purposed.

And I  am like this clay. The fight is not what I become. The fight is to keep me in the Center.

Because I fight the Potter. Because I think I know. And all this while, I keep straying from simply being Centered.

Interesting thing about throwing on a wheel--there comes a point when you can't change the clay any more without destroying it. You've used all the water you can, opened it so wide, pulled it so far, you have to let it go. Another touch would cripple the whole thing. You step back. You accept it. Off-center, warped, a vessel of wrath. It wanted to be something else, it wanted so badly to not be in the center. Eventually, because it had gone so very far, after you had tried so very gently to keep bringing it back, you have to give it over to itself.

Another thing, a more important thing: it hurts the hands of the potter. Clay has so many disparate particle sizes within it that it cuts against the flesh of your skin as you try to mold it. You walk away chaffed, scratched, wounded by the very beauty you are trying to create. Ever so often, a particularly large particle breaks through and it seems that your hand has been pierced. And it stays with you. The scratches and the chaffing redden your hands and repetitions of lotion only take you so far, can only be repeated so many times.

Because, the hard and simple fact is, you have to accept the hurt if you want to make a pot.

Our Potter accepted the hurt. Pierced hands and all. And His hands are on this earthenware life, pulling back and pushing in, ever and always to Center.

And today, I am leaving so very many prayers and questions behind. I am asking, simply, quietly, achingly--

Bring me back to Center, for I trust the hands of the Potter.

Bring me back to Center, for I trust the hands of the Potter.

Bring me back to Center, for only the Potter makes common clay into art.

I'm away at my best friend's wedding and then with family for the holidays. I'm sharing the best posts from this year in the interim. See you in the secular new year!

when she asked if I thought she would go to hell [2012 in review]

Louvre - Women with books!  

We were out late one night, just over a year ago, walking beneath the low-hanging trees alight in Christmastime. An ordinary shopping strip, planned as an open-air market, a patch of verdant blades in its center softened by stony copper faces, children cast in metal at play, a small donkey on the outskirt, which no one seemed to be able to account for.

She had dated a boy, maybe three or so years ago, who was Roman Catholic. He had tried repeatedly to convert her and I remember a particular day like this one, only years before, when we sped down the highway and she told me this. I don’t remember what I said. She the liberal Muslim, I the conservative Christian; we were close to best friends for a time and I’m sure, at some point, I said something about Jesus.

I know I did.

At one point, I gave her Francine River’s Redeeming Love because I heard it being recommended with frequency.

She read twelve pages and then set it aside. I didn’t understand why, until I read six pages and did the same. I admit, now, that I wanted the book to convert her.

But that had been years before, now behind us, and we had just seen Black Swan in the little art house theater and now talked casually about our time away from each other at university.

She was north of me, in another world and time, and it amazed me that life should go on for each of us without a sense of interruption. She was finding difficulty balancing faith and relationship, a struggle I knew intimately. We chatted about this, about genetic disorders passed through the mother--she is a scientist, at the time, she was a research assistant for a large, NSF-funded study, about something we had both read recently in The New Yorker.

We talked a bit about the movie, too. I said it brought to mind the cycle of sin, how something takes hold, takes root, and then eventually blossoms. Blossoms, then gives you over to death.

We talked about Jesus. I talked. She listened in a detached sort of way, a question itching. I think I made mention of something in John 4, the woman at the well, my favorite story, and then she broke in--

“Do you think I’m going to Hell because I’m a Muslim?”

And in a fraction of a second, I failed her. I paused and looked sober, which I felt full and true, and murmured, “I wish you hadn’t asked me that. Yes.”

I hurried to fill it in, but it was said. Truth. But not all truth is love. At least, not in every context.

I don’t remember much of how that evening ended.

I think it was on one of the benches in that open-air market, overlooking that verdant patch of life. I think we said something to each other about our shared belief in love and Love. I think we made mends to ripped hearts. I think we said some important things, which now float beyond my reach and live, somewhere, in that place of hope that is always just beyond the circle of my reach.

I have replayed this evening in the past. I have taken each moment carefully to account. I looked up the article we had chatted about from The New Yorker, a piece about the HIV crisis and the problem of contraceptive measures in third world countries. I searched the name of the study she was working on, which I came to learn involved mice as test subjects and was concerned principally with diabetes.

I gathered all the facts. I have all the evidence.

But I cannot undo what was done.

Where was Christ in those moments of fragment conversation? Where was Christ for me? Not for me in the sense of His obligation to me, but for me in my sense of obligation Him?

I wonder, because I think if I should have been faithful in showing Him, the question of Hell wouldn’t have been what was asked.

I’m not sure what I should have told her, but it wasn’t what I said.

I’m not sure what I should have shown her, but whatever I did show over the years wasn’t what I should have.

We talk now and then, half hoped plans, but we don’t really see each other anymore. I still have that article from The New Yorker in a folder somewhere in my desk, along with a recipe for lemon squares.

I bought a Qur'an a few weeks after that conversation and began to read it. It’s now numbered in a pile of books in my room, next to a book about medieval feminism and another about Baptist roots in England.

On days I don’t know how to pray for her, I pull out that Qur’an and hold it against my heart, ask the Father of us all to show Himself in the incarnate Christ to her, and weep for those things said when the heart couldn’t trouble the words from an imprudent mouth.

Christ have mercy. Christ have mercy.

I'm away at my best friend's wedding and then with family for the holidays. I'm sharing the best posts from this year in the interim. See you in the secular new year!

because it's not hard to be a Christian universalist [2012 in review]

Hills overlooking the Abbey.

For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all. (Romans 11:32)

I'm in Common Grounds mid-April, running finger slow under this line in my Bible. Rain whispers against the window, cappuccino cup is half-drained, over my shoulder, an order is called and an espresso is pulled. I read the line again, a third time, and sit back on the stool and feel feet dangle idle as I ponder.

It does say all. All have been condemned, all may be redeemed.

The rain picks up a bit and I see myself in the window reflected. I feel old in this moment, beholding self, realizing that were this thought to cross my mind four years ago, I would have recoiled. Now, I feel a resolved sort of understanding.

Madeleine L'Engle's devotional peeks at me from the book stack beside my arm. She told me this morning that God seeks out every soul. She was a universalist, a Christian one at that. Only through Jesus, she said, but when and where that happened, in this life or the life beyond, that was the property of God.

And the words echo in my soul:

The other passages, the other Scriptures, the places where allwholeentire spill out over page, word of God. I understand it. How it happens, how those alls and wholes and entires, along with all our mortal longing and wanting and desiring, to this sort of Christian universalism, the Body broken for each and every, received into each and every.

I read Rob Bell's book when it came out. I wasn't much impressed. His Greek is weak and his argument circuitous. Others have said the same, but better. Others that I have read, heard, listened to, shared a meal with once or twice.

I understand them, their hearts, their big and full and loud hearts. Loud hearts like mine.

I understand, because it's not hard to be a Christian universalist. Read those passages that particular way, hold the Scripture close with that big desiring love, and it can happen to you. That big loud heart and all those people you've watched lowered into the earth, between the two, you can count up each and every all, whole, entire. You can find yourself there.

This is a roundabout way of saying something that needs saying: we need to have a different kind of conversation.

I am not a Christian universalist. I'm not even that close to chancing my hand at becoming one. But when I read the Scripture, I sit back some mornings and think, I see it. I see how they got there.

I don't agree with them, but I see it.

Recognition is a grace.

I see how people could think Jesus wasn't incarnate God. I see how people could think the resurrection is only a metaphor. I see how people could think the God of the Old Testament isn't like the God of the New.

And I disagree, hard and fast, but I see it.

I don't much enjoy apologetics. It has a place, but it's not my calling. I with cappuccino cup and fogging windows need the space to invite someone to sit beside, to rest their heartbeat against mine, and in our disagreement still recognize other, made in Image of God, and our commonness that brought us to this leaning against.

I'm not a relativist. What's True for you has to be True for me, or else there isn't Truth. (A different topic altogether, but mind where I'm going.)

But the conversations we have need to start here, with this: is this more plausible than I have let myself believe?

Is it possible that this other loves Jesus as much as I do?

Is it possible that this other is trying as hard as I am to love Him right?

Because, if I'm honest, it's easy to be a Christian universalist. Even if I'm not.

I'm away at my best friend's wedding and then with family for the holidays. I'm sharing the best posts from this year in the interim. See you in the secular new year!

the patient mystery [2012 in review]

DSC_4668 It started with a simple comment during our Great Texts Capstone course, where we sit around the big, boardroom table and drain coffee cups and complain about dialectic.

"It's not like Aristotle can hear us."

"Maybe he can."

I said it offhandedly, perhaps flippantly. But I've thought about it since. I wonder if Aristotle can hear us.

Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

I am not interested in a kind of Christian universalism. The revelation of Christ marks a clear point in which the standard of salvation emerges, that we must call on the name of the Lord to be saved, confess with our mouths the reality of the Redeemer.

But what of before?

As the lectionary has taken us through Genesis, it is interesting to trace God's revelation of Himself. While He calls Jacob in Chapter 32, it is not until Chapter 35 that God begins to clarify who He is. Even then, Joseph takes a wife from the priests of Egypt, and it seems for a time that the One God is nothing more than a god out of many. It is not until the Exodus, it is not until tablet commandments and mountain descents, that Israel hears the Lord is God and God is One.

Again, I do not want to present this as a sort of Christian universalism, a byway by which we reconcile all our questions with the tidy presumption that mercy dictates permissiveness. Rather, I should like to consider the mystery of God's patience in His revelation. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the One God, was less concerned with being the One God to the people He revealed Himself to until much later. There were other things to worry about. There were other parts of the Story that needed writing.

So what of Aristotle or Plato? We know that they both concluded that there was a Force behind all things and that such a Force was also good. Given the culture of most pagans of the time, the idea of a deity that was also good and benevolent and just was a bit absurd. And yet, by way of natural reason, so they concluded. What does it mean? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps they simply perished into Sheol.

... in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah ...

I wonder why this bothers us. I wonder why we feel the need to ask. Is Aristotle in Heaven? Perhaps. Perhaps he is part of the communion of saints. Perhaps he can listen in on our conversation around that boardroom table where we pick apart his dialectic and miss, in the process, that he perhaps knew something of this One God, this God who reveals Himself slowly, who chose to reveal Himself slowly.

Perhaps this is a patient mystery. Perhaps there is more of a question mark over some of those souls before the mystery of God through the Person of Christ was revealed than we realize.

I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.

Maybe. Perhaps, at least, we should keep the question closer than we are comfortable with. The action of grace upon our hearts is a patient mystery, too.

I'm away at my best friend's wedding and then with family for the holidays. I'm sharing the best posts from this year in the interim. See you in the secular new year!