life: unmasked -- all this fumbling doubt

Today, I share a post about life: unmasked, a blog meme started by my sensational friend, Joy.

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"Wait. What did you just say?"

"Pamplet."

"What?"

"Pamplet."

Isn't that how you said pamphlet?

"Why do you keep pronouncing it that way?" Antonia started to laugh. The teasing, joyful laugh. "It has a soft ph sound."

I made a comment about her minor in English.

"No, no." She insisted, all furtive grace even in laughter. "Trust the girl who used to hand out tracts."

It was later, when we were all crowded on the bench outside the restaurant, emotions high and wavering, when the homeless woman came over and asked if she could sit with us. I got up and sat on the floor against the brick wall. Antonia talked to her, listened, asked her the quiet things.

Eventually we had to go inside. The woman asked us if we had any money because she was trying to rent a room. She showed us the business card of where she was trying to go, told us the exact amount she needed, showed us her driver's license, said she would be 63 in two months.

None of us had any money except for debit cards. I had a single dollar bill. I gave it to her. I asked if she was hungry. She said yes, but it would have to be soft food. She wouldn't come inside, but she would sit there on the bench and wait.

We ordered it to-go. For some reason it took longer than our own food and I sat there, at the table with the people I love, with the people who are fragile and vagabond in their own ways, and I turned over in my head the woman outside and wondered if she would be there by the time the food came.

And I wondered about the past week. I seem to run into the hungry or the possibly hungry often now. If this is the silence of God, it is a funny kind of silence.

I took the to-go bag outside and found her, as I breathed a quiet prayer of thanks, still sitting on that bench. I handed over the food and nearly walked away, because I didn't know what to do.

I felt blood pool in my feet and I sat, looking over at her and asking her name.

Willa Mae.

She smelled like lilly of the valley. She cried. She told me that she felt like she knew me and she began to cry more. She hugged me for bringing her food. She told me that since she felt that we were close she could share that the one thing that hurt the most was the way people looked at her.

And I didn't know what to say. I didn't know how to help. I didn't know what to do.

I asked her if she knew the church that was close by, but she was so worried about getting that room it didn't matter. But I didn't have money. I didn't think I had anything.

I had forgotten the protocol. I had forgotten the rote training of evangelism that said all a person needed was Jesus, that little sentence prayer, and it would all be alright. I kept wondering if I was supposed to do that, if I was supposed to put to Willa Mae the trite Gospel of forgiven sins but no place to rest her head.

I remembered when I used to think people were fixed by handing them a pamphlet.

I felt peace. I felt the peace of the silent God that I felt Willa Mae already knew.

I asked if I could pray for her.

It has been nearly four years since I volunteered to pray aloud and in front of and for a perfect stranger. I have prayed for people that have not known I was praying for them, have prayed for those I have met a few times, but it has been since the days of rambling glory and hope church camps that I reached out to a perfect stranger and asked to convey an intimacy too great for speech.

She asked if I would. So I did, jagged and struggling words. I prayed for her highest good, since I didn't know what exactly that was. I prayed she would find a room. I prayed that her family would be alright. I prayed that she would be fed often. (And I meant, by that, feeding in every single way.)

When I was done she hugged me tight and I smelled lilly of the valley again. Lilies, like the flower representing the Virgin Mary and the hope of Christ, which solemnly but quietly spring from crucifixion scenes in the Renaissance.

And then I had nothing else, she had nothing else, so I went back inside.

An hour later, our small band of bric-a-brac grace and hard won love walked out of the restaurant to find Willa Mae still there.

"I'm $-- away," she called, "It was your prayer!"

Maybe. Maybe it was.

Who can fathom the mind of God? Who can know what the Spirit or the angels work for the simplest good?

Willa Mae with the kind eyes and the smells of summer. Willa Mae who only needed a place to rest her head.

It's so hard for me to hear Him right now.

Had I given her a stone to sleep on by only putting food in her hands? Had I missed the call to look after the poor? Had I missed the moment in which I was supposed to share the Gospel, lead her in that sentence prayer, guarantee her eternal soul?

Willa Mae was smiling. Damp eyes and turned up lips, smiling. Peaceful smiling.

Later.

"I think she knew." Antonia said on our way back, passing under the intermittent lights of the underpass like so much glory to glory. "Call it the old charismatic in me, but I think she knew."

Gospel. This is gospel. Willa Mae knew the Saviour. Somehow.

Sometimes, all we have is the specter of uncomfortable grace. The moment in which we feel all of it is wrong: cosmos, words, and most of all ourselves. And in that space, the Holy Ghost enters and turns all this fumbling doubt into food for years to come.

At least, this is the great and alarming hope.

"I think she did too." I said. "I felt it too."

And we continued on into the night, under the watch of the stars hidden behind late winter clouds, but which shine all the same.

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It is my joy, with Joy, to share here words that expose life honestly, openly, and messily. Some days my posts for this meme are about this chaos of being, other days I manage a bit more gentle words.Would you join us in sharing the vulnerable times, the unordered times, the unkempt rooms? 

Life: Unmasked

the patient mystery

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.

absurd mercy, letter twelve, preston to hilary

Today, I bring you the continuation of the blog banter Hilary Sherratt and I have doing, in which we write public letters to one another back and forth and invite you to join us in the comments. Read the letter I’m responding to here. Dear Hilary,

"I forgot that we are dust."

I did too. I forget it often. And I know when you wrote it you didn't mean abasement, that you speak of the reality we overlook too often, that however hallowed and blessed we might be, we are ultimately inspirited earthenware. (This has come to mind most acutely when I work with clay in ceramics, when I think to touch by clay myself, ridiculous as it may seem, by feeling that dust from which we were formed, to which we return.)

You wrote of the fragile self, of needing to begin at Ash Wednesday. I think you're right. These past days have been a challenge, abiding in the silent space with God. I am coming to understand that what He wants of me now is the obedience in the quiet, the sort of faithfulness that comes only when I dare to be still, to imagine a world in which nothing has been given but Him and that must, absolutely, be enough.

Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding, Whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check, Otherwise they will not come near to you.

The rub of this, isn't it? The call to not need the Voice from the cloud each time we step forward, but to walk in His midst with an integrity of heart that longs for the right, chooses the right. But how to cultivate such quiet faith, such simple obedience?

I thought today about the ordinary grace of mixing the smallest amount of paint with the largest amount of water before hurling it with a kind of controlled--the word that occurs to me is violence, but it's not violence, because it's good, strength, perhaps--and to be completely surrendered to the pattern it makes all on its own. You've left it to gravity and angels once it flies, all your planned arc and angle only influencing so much. But when it works, when it flecks like spilled joy, you breath mercy. Mercy from such a simple thing.

That is where I am being led. I wrote about walking out of my own Ash Wednesday service because I felt Holy Ghost, or I thought I felt Holy Ghost, move me into motion. I have begun in that place, in the place of learning to follow even when it feels the steps are uncertain, when the hungry man might not be hungry after all. I am learning to take joy from paint spatter and words formed well, the curve of a g when written by hand and the things that should be and are, on their own, ridiculous.

But if they are held in tandem with the presence and glory of the Creator, if they are truly in the midst of His being, then these ordinary things are the vouchsafe promises of abundant grace.

But now we do not yet see all things subjected to Him. But we do see Him ...

By impasto and paint speckle, by sandwiches and gs, I see Him. I see the hands of Creator. No pantheistic sentimentality or spiritualistic vice: these are the pierced hands, these are the wounded, resurrected hands belonging to the One in whose image we are made.

For we need them to be, you and I. We who feel the lonely spaces acutely and know this world is tilted farther to the wrong than the right most days, as we yearn that "what is mortal will be swallowed up by life." Until then, until that swift and grand moment when all this comes to glory of its close, we breath mercy by the humility of our hearts when we realize paint spatter is grace. It's absurd mercy. It is maddening. But goodness, isn't it wonderful?

Love,

Preston

rend your heart, not your garment: today at deeper story

Today, I'm sharing over at Deeper Story. Everything about it felt wrong. We filed into the nave, passing by the stained glass saints keeping vigil over this generation, living in another century only inches from where they watch. We were a small group: the one like a brother, the one who makes me laugh wildly, the one who spills grace with each word. It was not they who were wrong, but I.

Me, with all these past months of the silence of God, with the living in the shadow of the joy, the other side of the grace. I felt wrong; I felt out of place; I felt the exhaustion of not hearing.

Because I used to hear. I used to feel. I used to walk in the midst of Him, or rather, knew I walked in that space.

And rend your heart and not your garments.

Is it possible to do Lent wrong?

I was giving up Facebook. I felt no motivation to do anything else. Last year, I had heard the Lord speak clearly, and I gave up meat altogether except for feast days and, more significantly, abstained from the Eucharist. I had grown, deep and full, through such mortification, such discipline.

But this year, this year felt trite. Giving up Facebook isn’t much of a sacrifice, isn’t much a good that’s left to then return to in rejoicing once the fast is completed. Yet I had not heard otherwise. I had not heard, it seemed, at all. Giving up Facebook only seemed right. But that was all. It seemed right. It didn’t seem much like I had heard.

And I thought that perhaps, if the ashes were made on my forehead, if I took that sign to myself, then perhaps I would hear Him again, feel His presence burn into the sign of the cross made upon my face.

Continue with me on this journey, over at Deeper Story?

life: unmasked -- the journey back

Today, I share a post about life: unmasked, a blog meme started by my sensational friend, Joy.

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For the past month, my blog has not been my own. I was honored and amazed to host At the Lord's Table, a series of guest posts from a host of diverse Christians all sharing in their experiences, their aches, their joys in the beautiful but mangled Body we call the Church. Except for a slightly controversial Deeper Story post and a letter or two to Hilary, I have not written a word in this space for what feels like years. Tonight, when I sat down to put into ether all the things that have swirled in my head and heart while I was away, I found the words had calcified. Too much has happened, too much of me has gone on in silence, that I'm not sure how to simply throw myself back into the vulnerability of this space or, in particular, the prosody of rhythmed hope and grace.

What do I say of the journey back? Do I tell you about the days where I felt that it had all fallen apart? Do I tell you about how getting into St. Andrews only confirmed my fear that the feeling of emptiness, of potential worthlessness, was not and had not been contingent on material blessing, but was a deep and weighted kind of aching, a space that needed refinement and pulling and growing?

Do I write of taco runs or hugging Rachel Held Evans? Do I write of taking the plunge and selling art to try and pay for this ridiculous journey to graduate school? (Shameless plug.) Do I tell of how hard it has been for me to love others, to want to love them, to live in the pattern of grace I had thought was such nature to my being?

Do I speak of the evil day, when I knew myself for the depravity within me and gaped in fear at myself?

All this feels like detail to a painting that doesn't have a form yet. How do I brush out the final touches when the base doesn't even have its coat? What is it that I want more than anything to let you know about the past month? What is it I have to say that should make you want to come back, sit here, and stick around for a time?

I'm no longer sure.

The other night I sat on my bed with my best friend and prayed aloud to our God that I was not very inclined to call Him as Father that night. I was confronting the darkness of myself, I am confronting it, and the tiresome process of being faithful in spite of feeling had creeped in slow and cold. But I prayed. I prayed for all the things that should be prayed for, because the praying needed doing, the clock needed winding, the assurance of things hoped for but unseen needed pronouncing. By the end, He was Father again.

What I want you to know about the journey back to this space has been one littered with the confrontation of my own failing and fumbling and falling. It has been the irrational season, the time when the wound of my being is laid raw. I have many doubts about myself right now, I have many fears.

I could list them. I nearly did. But I want to hold back on that and say simply that they are your fears. The list you have in your head, the tape you play on a loop about how much you are not or how little you have to offer, these are the fears I have, these are the doubts I share.

The journey back has not made me feel more wise or capable, but has stripped me raw. I have faced my weakness so as to depend on His strength. I have felt my affliction so as to taste His.

But I have not always wanted to feel it. Today, joy was a struggle, faithfulness a fight.

But I am here. I have returned to you. Raw, cracked earthenware of self placed before you. It's good to be back. It's good to be surrounded by you all again. You, the great cloud of watchers, near and far, in and across time.

After all, the journey back is the journey Home.

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It is my joy, with Joy, to share here words that expose life honestly, openly, and messily. Some days my posts for this meme are about this chaos of being, other days I manage a bit more gentle words.Would you join us in sharing the vulnerable times, the unordered times, the unkempt rooms? 

Life: Unmasked