I love this week’s readings. They are graceful and abundant, and cause me to rethink assumptions. Look at Paul, in the second reading, for example. Paul gets a lot of flack and complaint from Christians of a liberal bent, and there’s a tendency, mentally, to shove a lot of the tricky thorny stuff of Christianity in the Paul category, leaving the Jesus category free to be whatever we are actually comfortable with. And I have my own bones to pick with Paul at times; I won’t pretend otherwise. But reading about Paul this time made me think about him in a different way. Here’s a man who had killed people out of the strength of his convictions—“I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant…” When he talks about being the foremost of sinners, he’s not putting on a show. He’s seeing himself, I imagine, collecting the coats while Steven was stoned, his back straight and proud. He is genuinely overwhelmed by something genuinely overwhelming, a sort of tangle of wrongs that feels like a spider web, which tightens around you until it is time to be eaten.
I have a hell of a hard time just being courageous and open and less fearful in the tangle of wrongs I move within from day to day, realizing that my movements cause pain to others, intentionally and unintentionally, realizing that reaching out in compassion could put me at risk, that others cause pain to me. I passed this man at a payphone on my walk home after work last night, and he was crying and angry and yelling into the phone, “I won’t sleep in that house! I’ll sleep on the train first! I’m not coming back in there!” There was so much pain in his voice, and I paused for a moment, confused. I wanted to touch his shoulder or ask him to come sit down with me in the pizza shop nearby or say, “You don’t have to sleep on a train. You can come home with me.”
I didn’t do that, of course. I know I can’t bring random angry crying men into my apartment, not if I don’t know them, not when I live with somebody else, and I wouldn’t if I lived by myself, either. But I was tangled up, right then, in the pain and in my fear to reach through the pain to find the person. And there’s Paul, in such a tangle, in such a horror, death and blood and arrogance on his hands (who among us doesn’t have arrogance on her hands, and its cringing twin inadequacy?) looking around at his life in wonder and saying, “This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ came into the world to save sinners.”
Then comes Jesus, with his mouth full of tender, searching, searing parables. Christ Storyteller, and I trust nothing in this world as I trust stories. God is looking for you as a shepherd for a lost sheep. God is looking for you as a woman for a lost coin. God will welcome you as a father does his wayward child. Tender and beautiful and hard to absorb. I remain fearful of opening my arms, thinking, really? God would search for me this way, with this focused attention, with this fervor, just when I am most lost? I know myself when I am most lost, and I don’t see myself as this precious treasure in those moments. I don’t see myself at all in those moments, really, just the hideous shadow puppets formed by my contorted cringing. But that, these stories tell me, is when God will throw down the book, turn away from the TV with the sound still on, let the sauce boil over, run into the street and crawl up and down like a person who’s lost a contact and is blind without it. The grace of such a thing is unimaginable, precisely because of when it comes. It comes when we are lost, when even imagining such a search for us is like trying to comprehend a language we have never heard.
If I could trust this, really trust this, what risks of love could I take? All of them, I think, I hope, all of them together.
There’s another piece worth considering, indeed necessary to consider, as the brother of the prodigal son reminds us in the gospel. It’s not just me God is doing this crazy thing for. It’s each person in their private tangles, each person in their own wilderness. That means the people who scare and anger me. My boss, when we are lost in a conflict and I feel so righteous and persecuted. The man who broke into my apartment and touched my breast a few years ago. Michael Enright when he stabbed Ahmed Sharif, his taxi driver, in the neck. Paul with his pile of coats, watching the life go out of a man and saying to himself, “This is God’s will.” Fred Phelps with his hateful signs outside funerals and his theology that I find as corrosive as acid. Mothers who kill their children. Men who steer planes into tall towers and call their deaths blessedly shattering. Along with everyone suffering from these actions, along with everyone lost in the results, God seeks these people as though they are precious, in and out of the moments in which they are most lost. God would run out into the street with the door unlocked, screaming their names, grabbing them out of the path of truck bearing down, clutching them against that constantly overexposed heart, which is thudding with life, with blood, with the depth of the mystery in a story like this. Picture the faces you hate, the faces you truly fear. Imagine them precious, cradled, a lamb in arms.
If we could trust this, really trust this, what risks of love could we take?
Rebecca Lynne Fullan is really enjoying the advent of fall weather in her wanderings, and is kind of excited that she and Paul have found some common ground. She wishes you peace.