Thursday, July 06, 2006

a floral print dress, a camouflage fedora and two stories that really don’t connect

a number of years ago, while escorting a certain girl around a small midwestern town so that she could pick up her floral print dresses* at the cleaners, i decided to unfold. i don’t know if it was whether the girl was interested in me or because i was desperately lonely that i considered her a “safe” confidant, but such details are probably extraneous in stories such as these.

anyway, somewhere along kankakee drive i told the girl, in hushed tones, about how sin and failure had shaped me. i confessed that i spent more hours than i would like to admit curled in a fetal position on a dusty tile floor and spoke of my tottering between faith and nihilism. i’m sure i sounded as melodramatic as an early, uncut counting crows song, but i trusted that she would listen well and lay off the advice since, as john gray told me years, such is the strength of woman.

of course, i was wrong.

instead of simply receiving my anguish and embracing me with silence she immediately said “have you ever considered praying about this?” at that moment, i felt like striking her in the face. i would have been less surprised if she told me to ingest two michael w. smith cds and call her in the morning. needless to say our friendship did not last much longer.

“have you ever considered praying about this.” i still can’t stand how people think we can paper over the complications of our existence with simple, no-frills spiritual practices. when you’re caught between the rock of depression and the really hard place of despair, simply scratching up your knees and placing oneself before the divine vending machine probably isn’t going to provide the answers you need. at least this approach has rarely provided me with practical solutions.

where am i going with this? i suppose this is a round about way of confessing that i’m once again confounded. i’ve spent my too many of my days thinking that as a pastor i’m called to be a martian – providing abstract theological answers to convoluted relational problems and helping people (okay, i admit it) paper over personal complications with no-frills spiritual practices – when, in reality, i’m beginning to think that my orientation is much more venustian – insofar as i’ve lately felt led to simply walk with people through life and serve them along the way instead of trying to transform myself into some sort of incarnational key that will help them open up the pandora’s box of life.

whew. could i be more obtuse? somehow, i doubt it.

by this point, you’ve probably stopped reading, so i suppose i can name the true source of my ministerial angst. armand. believe it or not, that’s the man’s name. in fact, the first time we met I asked him to repeat himself twice and he simply said, “it’s just like arm and hammer.” to which i tersely replied, “okay, got it.”

from all appearances, armand is a fun-loving, self-sufficient character. he currently spends his days working with his hands, his evenings sipping beers with buddies and his nights sleeping under incredibly vast new hampshire heavens. as you might guess, armand is by no means a rich man, but the couple of times we’ve shot the shit around the campfire and have tried our hand at tying down tarps had somehow convinced me that he’s a relatively content fellow.

but, last weekend, little by little he revealed a few chinks in his armor. although i honestly thought he found the self-sustaining little life he’s built for himself at the state park satisfying,** he mentioned that he would like to buy a little piece of land and have a house of his own. at another moment, he spoke briefly of his divorce and referred obliquely to the mystery that seems – to the both of us – to define a woman. moreover, there was simply something about his eagerness to spend time with us and his constant willingness to provide us with any number of the camping basics we were without (including rope and a lighter) and serve beside us as we tried to string our tarps and sustain our camp, that seemed to suggest that he’s as lonely as many of us and perhaps searching more than most.

i don’t know if the latter part is true, but it sure seemed to be and it left me wondering how we could best serve armand. of course, as an evangelical, my first thought was that maybe we should “share the gospel” with him. while he said his mother was an incredibly devoted catholic he seemed to speak of faith as something that was somewhat distant from, but not completely disinteresting to him. but my bent towards incarnational ministry render me incredibly reticent to proclaim the faith in a merely propositional way, so i didn’t speak of salvation, forgiveness or substitutional atonement in any indirect or even scarcely veiled sort of way.

since i didn’t feel like slapping on my evangelical face i seriously considered sharing the social gospel with him. after all, if he was really interested in purchasing some land, i was sure there was a hud program he would find helpful. moreover, if he ever wanted to take a stab at a more ordinary form of life i was almost certain that he’d need some form of treatment that would help disentangle him from any number of substances. surely such resources were only a call a way. i thought quite a bit about such social ministrations of grace, but in the end left those undone as well.

after our three days were up, we said our good byes, broke camp and returned armand’s tools along with a little expression of our gratitude that may or may not have included six bottles of miller high life. in the end, i’m glad we spent a few hours with armand and truly believe that even such a brief experience of christian community can expose someone to the beauty, goodness and truth of God.

that being said, i’ve been taught to be suspicious of sacraments that are ministered by osmosis and so wonder whether i did enough to truly invite armand into the embrace of God. of course, my calvinist leanings mitigate my guilt to some degree and the fact that the latter metaphor for salvation is also a title of a darlene zscech book makes me shudder. but you probably get what i’m saying, or you don’t.

it’s at this point that the long forgotten girl’s comically cliché advice starts to make a little sense. i suppose i can wrap myself into an existential fetal position by torturing myself with unanswerable questions about the part i played or didn’t play in armand’s life or i can continue to walk beside him by hastily inserting his name into my prayers and hoping we reconnect sometime next summer. as for the latter, i still wonder whether such a simple, no-frills spiritual practice will result in good returns from the cosmic vending machine. but i figure it can’t hurt.

* which, truth be told, i found vaguely attractive at the time but am now incredibly glad that such garments do not hang in my closet.

**with a generator powered tv/dvd player, a constantly stocked and stoked fire pit and a grill that would provoke envy in most suburbanites, armand and his friend paul are attempting to redefine “roughing it.”


josh said...

let's see cosmic vending machine. ingesting michael w. smith cds for cures. and a couple other witty responses sound eerily familiar to what i feel like sometime. good thoughts.

Agent B said...

Most of the time guys like me (and maybe you) get jealous of the life of guys like Armand. Few worries or responsibilities...

Sure, the Armands of our world have issues. But who of us don't? So why fantasize about dragging him into our miserable world when he seems fine with his?

Why prepare him more for the gates of hell (so to speak)?

I know this is so christianese and cliche', but knowing you and your cohorts, I'm sure a whole crop-o-seeds were planted his way. It ain't your job to make him into something. The reaping and sowing is now before him. Who knows how the CEO will show up in his life.

Maybe through a MW Smith CD.

Mike said...

man i resonate with a lot here.

i think, and james can attest to this, that one of my biggest stumbling blocks has always been other christians. i, being a broke mortal, have on more than one occasion had to choke back down the vomet and bile that rises up into my throat when someone tries to put a bandaid on a bullet wound.

once when i was in a deep, deep depresion someone gave me a list of verses that were supposed to be about having joy and blah blah blah. the problem wasn't that they gave me verses (well, yeah that was part of the problem) it was that the verses (and the persons world view) did not include the possiblity of depression as being part of the journey for some of us - something to be embraced not avoided.

as far as "sharing" the gospel with this guy, i have a hard time with that as well. i often think to myself, who the hell am i to tell someon about a loving god when that loving god isn't even providing the guy with a roof? it just seems trite, but then i get all conflicted cause in reality we are called to make disciples and that does include a verbal whitness. i guess it is all about how you do it and who you are. if you are sincere and can avoid the cliche i think maybe you could be ok.

and, well, a tv/dvd player? wtf? why didn't you just rent a climbing movie and watch that while using a stair master in an airconditioned room?

d10 said...

gentry, i relate to this too. last weekend, i ended up in a long conversation with a homeless guy, and he went as far as to ask me for advice. immediately the flood of verses about god caring for sparrows and flowers came to mind, but i was left dead silent over how i could even think of muttering these words to this broken man. how do you tell this guy not to be anxious about what to eat and drink? so i just looked him in the eyes and stammered something along the lines of "i don't know what to tell you"... so then we ended up just sitting together quietly for some time until something else came up. honest? yeah. incarnational? maybe.

g13 said...

thanks to one and all for your comments. i am always a little amazed when people find a way to connect with my incoherent ramblings.

this afternoon - while our system at work was down and i was continuing my rather lascivious surf through the web - i ran across this synopsis of reformed theology by mark driscoll on CT:

"reformed theology offers certainty, with a masculine God who names our sin, crushes Jesus on the Cross for it, and sends us to hell if we fail to repent."

there are still times that i would like to offer people a punchy, direct synopsis of the gospel like this (well, all except for the patriarchal part), but my understanding of the Scriptures and my experience of the Trinity's unexpected and scandalous operations of grace make it almost completely impossible for me to do so. instead of offering people concepts i am learning to walk with them as together we (knowingly or unknowingly) follow Jesus, participate with others (inside and outside) of the body as we seek justice and somehow find a way to polish and place my tile onto the complex and ever-growing mosaic that reminds us of the promise of and serves as our current messy, limited picture of God's Kingdom.

does that sound liberal or what? i suppose i need to set the internet aside for a while and start reading the institutes.

thanks for joining me on the journey.