Wednesday, October 2, 2013
The First Question Was How I Should Sit
The first question was how I should sit. Should I read? Cross-legged? Surfing the web on my iPhone instinctively seemed like poor taste. Though I had brought my Bible out with me, I decided I would not read it. I would sit with both feet on the ground, hands in my lap. I would smile gently, making eye-contact, but not staring. I would not speak unless spoken to. By disciplining my presence in this way, I hoped to model the gift I intended this hour to be. Open it if you want it. No strings. (1) My prayer and goal an was action explainable only by love, which meant I had to risk looking foolish. (My wife assures me I am good at looking foolish.)
I tried not to expect anything at all going into it.
I reminded myself of how much I was asking of passersby: a conversation with a stranger on a very crowded street about heart-level things. Things some people don't talk about with anyone. They would be crazy to stop.
That I was dubious about my prospects for conversation, however, does not mean the invitation wasn't genuine. It does mean the invitation wasn't necessarily about getting someone else to screw up their courage to pray with a stranger; it was about my finding the courage to make an offer, coming out of my faith, that left me vulnerable. The fact that I could not know if anyone would stop was a part of the vulnerability. I was immensely grateful for the prayers of friends across Madison - and the country! - who reminded me that, though vulnerable, I was not alone. (2)
That said, the hour was not just - or even primarily - about my own vulnerability. I wanted to find a way of acting that would witness the Church's acting vulnerably for others. I am well aware that the a growing number of people - inside and outside of the Church - are not at all convinced of the effectiveness of priests for the flourishing and building up of the Church. Many clergy no longer wear the clergy uniform - the black shirt and collar - when in public places, because they both 1) intuit this doubt and 2) experience the collar as a barrier to relationship. It's simply easier not to visibly represent the sins and broken trusts of the Church over time. For many, the collar represents the twin desires to collect money and control people (desires, it should be said, by no means unique to clergy). By sitting in the chair next to this sign for an hour, I wanted to open the hands of my Church in a way that would gently and generously challenge the desires others have rightfully learned to expect of the Church.
"I'm here because the Church is called to bless others with what we have been given," I told a stranger who asked.
Part of my prayer for exercises like Monday's is that the collar might be reclaimed as a symbol of the availability of prayer for all people. That is, I wouldn't mind if some of the passersby remember me as "the guy with whom I could pray." The larger part of my prayer, I think, is that St. Francis House would continue to grow in our imagination for blessing one another and others, and that we would remember that the blessing we have to offer beyond our own power is prayer. Monday morning was my seeking training for becoming a leader of a community true to that prayer.
On a practical note, two handfuls of friends stopped by and waved from distances, most of them workers in the buildings on our block who have become friends. Additionally, the event became the occasion for a relational breakthrough with the union workers who have been protesting just down the block from us. Though I had gone out to them on several occasions with water, invitations to use our facilities, and an interest in them as people, it was the chance for them to see me doing what they do - sitting by a sign - that finally broke the ice.
Two students stopped for prayer. In both cases, they came up the steps making small talk. Because they did not directly ask for prayer, I asked them if I could pray for them. "Of course," they both said. "That's why I'm here." In these encounters, I re-learned the lesson that if I have offered a thing, it is possible - indeed, likely - that the offer remains close to the heart of the person who comes close, even if nothing in the person's appearance or speech betrays this hidden hope. The Church must kindly keep offering, even when we think we have made the invitation clear.
No strings. Ever.
Sitting in that chair invited a hard consideration of the strings we Christians have practiced into habits. But here is the hope: if we can choose new habits that witness the stringless grace of God, we will leave those around us with nothing with which to account for our actions but this: "They must believe it's true."
(1) In fact, a few minutes after the above picture was taken, and reading the mistrust in the eyes of pedestrians, I scribbled, "No strings. Ever." under the question on the sign.
(2) This was my only exception to my decision not to read: every 20 minutes, when the foot-traffic slowed, I would take 30 seconds to hop on Facebook and read your notes of prayers and encouragement.
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