Sit Tight

December 22, 2010

Sometimes I think the crazy just follows me around. Many of you will have heard of the recent tract escapade. For a brief bit of background, there are some regulars at Smokey Row who are a bit obnoxious about their Christianity. They go to a church in town that encourages them to evangelize to everyone they meet, and that’s just the beginning of my issues with this particular church and their theology and group dynamics. Baristas have to deal with these folks constantly chatting us up about Jesus while we’re working– whether or not we express interest. Fatima, a Muslim, has to grin and bear it while she’s steaming milk and one of these folks attempts to tell her how great Jesus is, apparently unaware that Jesus is sort of a big deal in Islam. Michelle, a Jew, has had the whole “Jewish guilt” thing pulled on her. No wonder she works in the kitchen most of the time! And Morgan, a Catholic, is apparently not quite good enough, so he’s subject to much badgering. Those three are the most targeted, but everyone has had to to smile through an attempted conversion, even our other customers.

All this to say that a few weeks ago when I received a tract in lieu of a proper tip, I was in no mood to be gracious. Over my break I sat down and scribbled notes in the margins, correcting contextual errors, providing alternative translations for words– particularly Hell, and setting the historical stage for various passages. In short, I savaged this thing. And then I left it out for the conversion vultures to see. Later I was approached about my notes and responded bluntly, “I like my Jesus just fine; I do not want to meet yours.”

At first I thought to myself, “HA! Bet you didn’t think I had that in me.” The moment really was cathartic, and I’ve noticed that I’ve been given a bit wider birth by certain members of this particular group when they’re in. I was reminded of the Inara George song, “Surprise,” in which she sings, Sit tight; I could be full of surprises.

But I don’t think that this is really the lesson I should be taking away from this.

Instead, I’m reminded that people are vessels of infinite depth; we contain multitudes. First, as a way of illustrating, I’d like you to listen to two songs, both sung by the same musician, a few years apart.

From the same man, a heartfelt expression of devotion, and a biting ode to doubt and defiance. I recently finished a collection of Maxim Gorky’s short stories, and have rarely been more frustrated by an author. I swung from being amazed at Gorky’s ability to distill the struggles of working class Russians into emotionally laden passages to being horrified at his sexism and anti-Semitism. Mostly I felt like screaming, “Why won’t you let me love you!?” History should have taught me this lesson, though. Historical figures are never what we think they are. President Grant probably did more to advance the cause of racial equality than any post-Lincoln President before LBJ, but he also made pragmatic concessions to the Reconstructing states that ensured that Jim Crow grew in strength. For all his excellence as a President, Abraham Lincoln had to be dragged kicking and screaming into abolitionism, and probably died thinking that blacks were inferior to whites.

Sit tight; I could be full of surprises.

Kierkegaard wouldn’t have been surprised, either. In Works of Love he insists on loving humanity as we find it, without preconditions, so as to better see the spark of God that each person carries. A love this freely given opens up the multitudes, shows our contradictions, and continues loving. It may not be easy when I’m being given tracts, but I have to keep reminding myself, Sit tight; we’re full of surprises.

600 human voices are a powerful thing, so when they opened tonight with, “Of the Father’s love begotten/ E’er the worlds began to be,” the tears came. And they kept coming over the next two hours. Luther College knows how to put me through the wringer.

I make a big act of being a scrooge at Christmastime, but the truth of the matter is that I love the sort of Christmas I experienced tonight. (It’s all the shiny trappings that bring out my inner Ebenezer.) I sing at least one Christmas carol to myself every day during Advent, a season that prepares me for the shock of Christmas– Immanuel. “How lovely shines the morning star! O, what a radiance from afar that gives us light and comfort.” I think it utterly appropriate that this season in the church calendar takes place in some of the darkest time of the year here. What better symbol for a God that just won’t stay away from us than a star lighting up the night?

So all night long I let holy words wrench tears from my eyes. I’d give just about anything to be the walls of that auditorium, so I could hear it again. All my anger and rage stood no chance against the peace and comfort of incarnation. I’ll be mad again. I’ll probably be mad tomorrow. But tonight, “the peace that passeth understanding” makes a little sense to me.

I’ll leave you with a text from Tennyson that they sang tonight. And yes, this one made me bawl.

Ring Out, Wild Bells!

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,
But bring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.