faith, homelessness, life together, marriage

Washed and worn

We weep because we’ve lost the road that once rolled clear before us. Because we see pain we can’t allay, or because we know we caused the hurt and harm. We weep when we feel ourselves pregnant with sorrow, admitting that we are heirs to robbers and thieves. We cry ourselves to sleep, and the tears fall like rain over battlefields in our dreams. We weep stones and jewels and seeds, so hard even in their beauty. We weep because a new day is coming, and we don’t know what its name will be. We turn to stone, and still the tears fall, washing away the proud outlines of our faces and pedestals.

But sweet, oh how sweet, when, washed and worn, flooded and found, we find ourselves small again, able to glimpse a peace that no dry eye has ever seen.

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faith, homelessness, logic, marriage

The first day

By late August, summer exhaustion has settled in: all the vacation reading has been devoured, and it’s much too hot to enjoy being outside. Even in Indiana, where I grew up, late summer feels parched and sluggish, bug-ridden and overripe. I feel it now as strongly as I did as a child: it’s time for a new season, a change, time to rouse from the sluggish summer haze. For twenty-six of my thirty-one years, this new season began on the first day of school.

It might even be more accurate to say that every summer of my life has eventually given way to the autumn joy of returning to school. My parents have been parachurch ministers to college students for more than thirty years, and so the rhythms of an academic calendar oriented our entire household. Even as I toddler I began “playing school” with my dolls. I would pull all the thickest books from my parents’ shelves, arrange my classroom, assign impossible amounts of reading, and then end the lesson with a tea party. When I actually began kindergarten, in 1989, I cried at the end of the first week because mama had to tell me that I didn’t get to go back on Saturdays.

For a naturally shy child, the structure of a school day felt secure. There were rules about where to sit and how to play, there were instructions about when to talk to the other children. I loved the order of it all: having a special hook for my backpack, knowing that today was the day for playing with the blocks but not the play-dough. And I was good–really good, I later realized– at the schoolwork itself. Anything related to words and stories came naturally to me, and I had enough curiosity and respect for my teachers to work hard at the other subjects. Little introvert that I was, I even loved the quiet, workmanlike intensity of standardized test days, the feeling of being surrounded by a roomful of friends, hard at work even as I was.

There were, of course, hard days, even years. Graduate school tested my love of school in deep ways, but no matter how stressful or disheartening one semester might be, sometime of my child’s faith in that first day of school lingered. A fresh start. new habits, new goals and hopes. When I finished my PhD and began teaching full-time, the delights of the first day only increased. Now I was able to welcome the hope of a new year not only for myself, but for others. I could bring students into the world I loved, sharing with them the knowledge and practices that I knew had value.

But this year, for the first time since I was five years old, there’s no first day of school. There could have been: I have said no to three part-time teaching positions in the three months since I moved here. According to professional logic or our household budget, this choice makes no sense. It feels risky, even foolish. And yet, I made this choice out of hope. Hopes for a marriage in which my husband and I are deeply involved in one another’s work, rather than supporting one another as spectators. Hopes that I can answer the call to write, both as a scholar and a storyteller, with unprecedented intensity and purpose. Hopes that my skills as a teacher and writer could become a part of what the Community First! Village is doing to revolutionize the church’s response to homelessness. Hopes that I might live the sort of stories I’ve always loved to teach.

Already it has been hard. I am like a child again, unsure of where to sit, timid in the face of the other kids and the games they play. And apparently there are no report cards or degrees, no confirmation that all the work has been worthwhile. And yet — I have brought my hopes to the workshop of this new life. The dreams are half-formed things, and the tools to refine them feel awkward in my hands. I have neither syllabus nor schoolbook to guide my days, but I am wide awake, and there’s work to be done. Today is the first day.

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faith, homelessness, life together, marriage

The work of the gods

“To organize a space is to repeat the paradigmatic work of the gods.”

I first read this somewhat obscure line when I was a freshman in college. It was comforting to a clever girl who liked things just so, who wanted the books on her shelves and the essays she wrote to be as ordered as the stars in the heavens. I would quote it blithely to my roommate, who never seemed to catch my enthusiasm for straightening up our dorm room. And yet, this insight–from Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane–is not some cant about tidiness being next to godliness. Rather, it means that the way we create and inhabit physical spaces tells a story about how we see the world: who is welcome and who isn’t, what is valuable and what rubbish, what secure and what dangerous. Architecture provides some of the best examples: a house dominated by its enormous garage, for example, tells a very different story from a house with a wrap-around porch.

As my husband and I unpack our tiny new home, I’ve been struggling to articulate what story we are living into in this corner of space and time. Eliade’s line has been a motto of mine for years, and with every apartment, classroom, and office I’ve inhabited, I have tried to organize–even to consecrate–spaces that bear witness to the image of God. In these first days after the honeymoon, however, I have often felt found my efforts to “repeat the work of the gods” frustrated at every step: not enough cabinets in the RV kitchen, disagreements about where the skillets should live, no way to put up curtains. I could no longer rely on muscle memory or habit to tell me where the trashcan was, where to find a dishtowel, much less how to drive to the post office or grocery store. Having to switch to a new cell phone felt like the final insult. “I can’t find the exclamation point on this stupid keyboard!” I sobbed to my bewildered spouse. “It feels like everything is broken!”

These frustrations, though trivial in themselves, have been emblematic of a much larger disorientation. I still feel myself bewildered on this new ground. From our little window each morning, I watch parades of workers roll into the village: construction crews laying cement, volunteers building tiny homes, future residents coming to tend the gardens, even my own husband walking and dreaming about the best way to make this place home. I watch, and I envy them. I envy their purpose and certainty, their knowledge of what to do now, and next.

To organize a space is to repeat the work of the gods.

But we are not gods, none of us. Our ability to order the world, creating that gives our lives meaning, is painfully, blessedly fragile. The job falls through. The long-awaited pregnancy surprises everyone. The house burns. We fall in love. We walk through days, each looking much the same — routine hours, tasks, and dreams. We might proceed for ten, twenty, thirty years, secure in our own vision of the world, until — something breaks.

This summer, instead of simply quoting Eliade, I have gone back to read the rest of his argument. In his spare, calm prose, he asserts something I had forgotten: that before a cosmos can grow into life and order, the old order must break. This break might be terrible or beautiful, climax or tragedy. Regardless, it interrupts our path, interferes with our clocks, leaves the well-ordered room in shambles. No longer can we claim that time and space are all one thing, predictable and uniform. Eliade argues that this break is what allows us to really see the world, to enter into a story bigger than ourselves, a story that does not leave us broken, but re-orients us according to the true center of the world. By shattering the old certainties, the experience of rupture “reveals the fixed point, the central axis for all future orientation.”

Of course, like all deep truths, I actually learned all of this long ago in Sunday School. It was there I first heard the thrilling injunction, “Your life should make no sense without the Gospel.” Christ has come to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, and this Gospel is both εὐαγγέλιον — “good news,” and σκάνδαλον — a stumbling block. In our first month of marriage, I have felt my heart tearing and growing in this tension. Our house is an RV–it trembles under heavy footsteps, and looks–to my fretful eyes–terribly transient. And yet, it is a space we have organized, consecrated, for the sake of a mission that makes my heart rise up: to repeat–in our trembling, tiny way–the work of the God we worship, who “settles the solitary in a home,” and who created earth as a beautiful garden for mankind to cultivate and keep. We are living here because I fell in love with a man who proposed by saying, “Let’s be ministers of homemaking,” and we have set up our household on the broken, hopeful ground of a place called the Community First! Village. Here, side by side, among the chronically homeless and the people of Austin, we hope to set a table, provoke conversations, plant gardens, make books and babies, find and share good work in ways we never could elsewhere. This space–our home– has high windows and sunflowers on the table. From our door, we step out to join the countless men and women who arrive daily, giving their hearts and hands to help build a true community for those who are alone. It is a place where my husband can walk home for lunch, where friends and future neighbors have already stopped to sit, laugh, and walk with us. It is a space where I can write, and it is perched on beautiful ground: home already to trees and breezes, hares and goats, chickens and children of God. To the extent that I notice and name these things, it is a place where every morning, my envy gives way to hope.

The homes I organize will never again embody my private vision of what is lovely or good. They will be far more complicated, in turns deeper and more demanding. In marriage and in community life, my work will take place in communal, vibrant, maddening, inspiring place, grounded on the fear of the Lord and centered around the love of his living Word. I am terrified and thrilled, grieving and in love, timid and hopeful all at once. I cannot do the work of the gods, but I know how to tell a story. Believe me, friends: this is going to be a good one.

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education, faith, homelessness, life together, scripture

A pint of misery

“What do you do with a pint of misery?”

When John asked us this question, we were sitting on the sidewalk outside of the ARCH, the downtown homeless shelter in Austin, Texas. The ARCH had closed its doors for the night, and we were among those who would have to find another place to sleep. Behind us, an argument was mounting, finally erupting in a full-blown fight, one combatant kicking the other in the face. The security guard had conveniently vanished. John eyed the brawl warily, then turned back to us. He was in his late forties or early fifties, lean and brown from the sun. As he spoke, he crouched toward us, blue eyes looking directly into our own.

“You go down to that University of Texas, where they know it all, and you ask them.” John swung his arm wide, gesturing to all the men and women crowded on the sidewalk, “These people have known nothing but misery most of their lives. Ask them what to do with it –with even a pint of misery?”

I had no answer for his stark question, and so I looked from John to Steven, my fiancé, who has worked for and with the homeless for years. Steven simply nodded, then, noting John’s frame and posture, asked, “Were you an athlete?” John said yes, he had been a football player in west Texas, years before. Soon, he was telling how he came from Odessa to the streets of Austin.

While they talked, I wondered what I would have said to John had I been alone, had I been there without Steven. I had no answer for this question either. In fact, it occurred to me that without Steven, I wouldn’t be outside the ARCH at all. I would be back in Alabama, tranquilly preparing for a normal week of school. I would be sitting in my office at the university, where the terrible question, “What do you do with a pint of misery?” might remain safely conceptual.

But I was not in my office. I was here, sharing a “street retreat” with Steven and several others from around Austin. Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which employs Steven, hosts the retreat, and the goal is simple: to live on the streets for a day or more, seeking the face of Christ.

I was already footsore and hungry before I began to wonder, “How will I know when I see his face? What sign will reveal that Christ is here?” There are a thousand answers to such a question, but that night, I only needed one. When you look into the face of Jesus, he often asks a question that turns your world upside down. Christ’s baffling queries fill the gospels. When his family comes to see him, he asks, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” radically linking kinship to obedience, rather than to blood (Matthew 12:48). When a man asks how to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells a story that discredits pious prejudices and exalts mercy. “Who of these was a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?…Go then and do likewise” (Luke 10:36). Knowing Simon betrayed him in his hour of need, the risen Christ asks, “Do you love me?” (John 21:17), and then makes this humbled, failed disciple the rock upon which the church is built. None of these questions or answers made sense to the world that crucified Jesus. To many ears, they are still hard sayings, shattering certainties.

And so, I knew I was seeing Christ’s face when I heard John ask a question I could not answer. What do you do with a pint of misery? It haunted me as I fell asleep that night–curled up on the edge of a parking lot–and found me early the next morning. Steven, his friend Alan, and I had risen well before sunrise and found a coffee shop. As we enjoyed the consolation of hot coffee and tea, another homeless man approached us. Perhaps because we carried backpacks and looked far grubbier than the rest of the clientele, he saw us as his people. His face was bandaged but still bleeding, his arms covered in red and black marker like some kind of self-inflicted stigmata. We invited him to sit with us, and for the next half hour he did, spilling words as incoherent as the writing on his arms.

Unlike John, this man had no hard edge or argument. His words were a jumble of pain and fear–a heart condition, demonic temptation, attacks in the night, visions of the end times–and yet, again and again, he would return to the name of Jesus, the only anchor against the tempest of his words.

I had no balm for this man’s agony, and so I did the only thing I could in that moment: I listened. As I strained to catch the mumbled words, I thought about Steven’s talk with John the night before. Steven had not evaded John’s question — what to do with another man’s sorrow–but had asked to see more of it. He had asked John about himself, and his life, returning the man’s challenge with an act of loving curiosity and concern. He listened to John’s story, accepting the glimpses of misery–addiction, depression, divorce–that John was willing to show us. Steven did not turn away.

As our morning guest rose to leave us, he asked me my name. When I said, “Bethany,” he nodded. “I know that place, and I have been like Lazarus–dead and raised again.” With that, he left us.

When I move to Austin, my friends and neighbors will come from these streets. They may be men like John, and they may be men like this latter-day Lazarus from the coffee shop. Most of them have known so much pain, and I, who have known so little, am afraid I will be too stunned, too scared, to know how to love. How can I learn but by looking at the wounded face of Christ?

When we began the retreat, Steven did not say, “We’re going to plot a solution that will answer all these problems. “ Nor did he say, “We’re going to find someone to rescue.” Rather, he told me, “We’re going to seek the face of Christ.” And so we did, and when we found Christ, he asked, as he has asked for two thousand years, if we would take and drink from the cup that is filled with his “blood of the covenant, […] poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27).

What do you do with a pint of misery? You take it, and you drink.

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faith, homelessness, life together

My Broken Saints

As 2015 begins, I am making my home with two broken saints.

The first was a housewarming gift from my mother. Buying Beth-Haven was one of the loveliest hours during a long season of triumph: completed PhD, wonderful job, and now, a perfect little cottage to call home.  St. Francis was to serve as a token of welcome, a sign of hope for all creatures great and small who might come to share the house with me.

Unfortunately, when we opened the box we found him broken. I had neither the skill nor materials to mend him, but I could not bear to toss him into the trash.  It hurt to look at him, knowing that my mother had wanted to give a perfect gift, and realizing that we had no way to repair him. Broken Francis stood between us, embodying the fractures in every human relationship, even the most loving. What do we do with such signs of pain? Cast them away? Order a newer model?

At first, the best I could do was to station Francis at the front door. He wasn’t pretty enough to set upon the mantle, but he seemed content in his humble place. Sometimes this is the best we can do with painful relationships: sometimes it takes all our strength to keep them in the house, to look at their broken faces each day, to acknowledge that we are still at home together.

A few weeks later, some of my friends’ children taught me an even better way. While the grown-ups talked, they went foraging for azalea blossoms, which cover south Alabama in the springtime. After everyone had gone home I found that they had found my broken saint. Rather than fear or pity him, they played with St. Frank, filling his hands with flowers. My timid fidelity has resigned Francis to a dusty corner, but they had more courage: if they could not mend what was broken, they could find other ways to make him beautiful.

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And so my first broken saint became, after all, a sign of hope, encouraging me not to give up on problems I could not solve, hearts I could not mend. Lesson learned, right? Apparently not.

I had nearly forgotten about my front-door saint when two of my college friends announced the birth of their second child, a daughter. I found a beautifully illustrated version of St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Creatures,” and I decided to make a St. Francis softie to accompany the book. I loved the idea of a little girl growing up to cherish Francis’s reckless love for God’s kingdom and all its creatures.

I bought the fabric from a friend’s Etsy shop, embellished the saint with some simple embroidery, and then stitched and stuffed him. Before I could send him off to his new home, however, my hound-dog decided he must be a gift for her. I came home to find bits of his stuffing all over the dining room floor. The saint himself was missing an arm and he boasted enormous gashes across his face and halo. Distraught, I posted a picture of the carnage and appealed for sympathy. What’s the point of making something, I pouted, if perfect is impossible?

My friends, however, insisted that all was not lost. One of the most compelling comments came from the mother whose baby was to have the toy. “Scars and stretch marks tell a story,” she wrote “especially in the story of mothers and babies.” Several other friends pointed out that Francis himself, a patron to animals, would probably laugh to know that an exuberant hound had taken such joy at his expense.

And so, I scrubbed the dirt away, threaded my needle with gold, and began to stitch the holes. Mending is tedious work, and to fix a jagged tear requires both precision and creativity. As I stitched, I remembered one of the first disagreements my fiancé and I had. We argued about the once-popular praise song that croons, “Brokenness, brokenness is what I long for….” I have hated that song since I was a teenager. I suspect it fools many people into praying a prayer they don’t actually mean. Even knowing that God can use sorrow, I don’t ever yearn for pain. I want to be whole, healed, strong, resurrected. And didn’t Christ, on the night he was betrayed, pray that the cup of sorrow might pass from him?

Yes, and yet he also prayed, “Not my will, but yours, Father.” He didn’t accept pain for its own sake, but as the culmination of his purpose: to reveal God’s saving love to mankind. He was obedient even unto death, and when he rose from the grave, he still carried the scars of his crucifixion. Do the scars point to some limit on God’s mercy or power? Certainly not. God could have raised Christ with each and every cell made perfect.  So why leave the marks? I won’t presume to know the deepest answer to that question, but I can point to at least one of the ways Christ used those wounds: in John 20:24-29, he holds them out to his grieving friend, Thomas. The flesh tells a story, helping Thomas to believe that Christ taught about the new life and the kingdom that is coming.

And so, while I could have ordered a new Francis and scrapped the old one, I chose to mend. I chose to hope that  the baby–who will, no doubt, gnaw on Francis with as much glee as my hound–will grow to love the humble and the broken of the world. That she would learn to treasure God’s saints not only in their glory, but also when they bear the scars of love.

IMG_6998Perhaps I need to pray that prayer for myself. I share my house with two broken saints: one mended, one broken but with flowers in his hands. I am beginning to think that they are not only saints, but prophets. They teach me that our love for another fails daily, but also that, by the grace of God, we can sometimes help one another mend. They also teach me that some wounds are too deep for my hands to repair, but that we can bring flowers, time, casseroles until the wounded hands of Christ come and make all well.

In a few months I will make my home with another Francis. This one isn’t broken, but he is weather-beaten. He watches over a parcel of land that is already precious to me. First, it will soon house a revolutionary ministry to the homeless. (It’s called the Community First! Village, and you can learn more about it here). It will also be the ground where my marriage begins.

IMG_6917I am sure that when I take up this new chapter of my life, I will find myself overwhelmed by all that is broken in my own life, in my husband’s, and in the lives of men and women who have spent years on the streets. Surely, there will be days I want to escape. Already there are days I rail at God for not fixing everything and everyone at once. I still won’t sing “Brokennes is what I long for,” just as I still wish, deep down, that my dog hadn’t mauled St. Francis. However, I will pray and sing for God’s kingdom to come. If that means making my home among so many broken saints, then God give me grace to love them well. If that means being broken upon the altar, then Spirit give me the courage to be thankful for that suffering. Christ, teach me to fill their hands with flowers. Help us ask one another for the stories behind our scars. Use their broken hands to stitch my own wounds up with gold.

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