Tuesday, December 02, 2008

advent journal: someday face to face

I was a little over halfway through my first semester of seminary when a college friend called to say he was passing through town and wanted to take me to lunch. About halfway through the meal, I found out he was selling insurance and was hoping I would become a customer. I wasn’t really in the market, so we finished our food let it go at that. Eight or nine months later, I got another call from him and another invitation to eat. This time, I found out he had changed companies and had another sales pitch to make. I still wasn’t swinging. Another year passed before I heard from him again, with an invitation to play out the scene yet once more. Instead of going to lunch, I said, “If you want to get together for lunch because you want to get together, I’m glad to do it; if you want to sell me something, I’m going to pass. I want to be your friend, not your customer.”

I never heard from him again.

I thought about him today, though, as I read Mary Ward Brown’s story, “A New Life,” in God: stories on my coffee break. She tells the story of Elizabeth, a woman just a year beyond her husband’s death, and her encounter with an old friend and his wife that leads to them befriending her to try and get her to come to their church. Their concern feels honest, but they show their hand when Elizabeth finally tells them she’s not going to be a part of their church and they leave. For good.

My brief summation doesn’t do the story justice at all, but it’s enough to get me to the thought that hung in my mind for much of the afternoon: friendship suffers when there’s an agenda. So does faith. And art. If any of them becomes a means to an end, they become, as Paul said, “a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.” What I mean by agenda is the artist intends you to do something specific or respond in a particular way to what he or she has created. All of a sudden, both The and Truth are capitalized. It’s one of the reasons I’ve struggled to connect with much of what is marketed as Christian music. I don’t want someone telling me The Truth, even if the melody is catchy.

In my songwriting days, when the songs I wrote with my friend Billy circulated in that same Christian market, I learned again and again how hard it is to write and sing about what matters without using a sledgehammer for the percussion. I also had occasion to know a good story when we wrote one and let it speak for itself. One of those was a song called “Someday Face to Face” on Billy’s record, Watermarks. We were talking about Paul’s words, “Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face.” The words we put to Billy’s melody were story, not explanation.

he woke alone in bed
the lights were on downstairs
she was sitting by the window
in her grandma’s rocking chair
he stood and watched her from the doorway
and never made a sound
and the rain was coming down

little move so she would hear him
she glanced across the room
he said baby what you doing
she stared back at the moon
when he tried to say I love you
he hardly made a sound
the rain kept coming down

someday we all shall see and
someday we shall be known
but now it’s trough a mirror
a cloudy pane of glass
someday we all shall see and
someday we shall be known
when love and understanding
bring us to each other face to face

he climbed back into bed
she followed him up the stairs
she would not let the silence
speak for all her fears
and they held each other all that night
and listened to the sound
as the rain kept coming down

someday we all shall see and
someday we shall be known
but now it’s trough a mirror
a cloudy pane of glass
someday we all shall see and
someday we shall be known
when love and understanding
bring us to each other face to face
In any conversation I’ve ever had about the songs I was a part of, I’ve never had anyone say, “’Someday Face to Face’ is my favorite song.” I’m not sure I’ve ever talked to anyone about it other than in a conversation I started. Yet it came back to me today after I read about Elizabeth and thought about my college friend and wondered aloud to myself how much good faith and good art seem alike to me because they are both invitations rather than impositions. It came back to me, not because I’m staking my claim to great art or faith, but because it’s one of those moments where I brushed up against the art and faith I want to live out.

Because I saw myself in the well-meaning friends in the story as much as I did in Elizabeth. As much as I want to see myself as progressive and inclusive, I’m quite comfortable being right. My opinions are as strong as my voice is powerful. Each time I opt to be the Strong One, I learn again that power and force can’t carry love the way a story can. The mirror will not be unclouded by force or will, correct theology or righteous indignation, but by love.

As I try to figure out how to end this post, I’m working hard to do something other than write a do-you-get-the-point-there-Chuckie final paragraph. I’m going to lean into an old literary friend for help. In her poem, “Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver writes:
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
And we are another day closer to the Manger.



Real Live Preacher said...

I'm kind of glad he never called you again, because by that time, did you really want the friendship? That's my problem with this. Once that kind of thing happens, I'm not interested in the friendship either.

Jeanene once helped a family through the demise of one of their newborn twins. One died and one lived. As a chaplain, she was there for the whole thing. And the end, the husband pulled her aside and asked if they could get together with us sometime for coffee or something. We were willing.

Turns out he was with Amway and was trying to sign us up. His child is dying but there is a part of his mind still working the contacts.

I don't have enough time in life to spend it with people like that.

Sydni said...

Ouch to Gordon's comment.

Love this post.