I am new to this space. Contrary to the usually polite tradition of such occasions, let me introduce myself with an admission: despite the titles of writer and teacher, my ignorance is both broad and deep. I thought I understood parables and metaphors and language; I understand nothing. Not that I need many reminders of my multiple failings, but there’s this little gem from a few months back:
Ahead of me, two cars were pulled over, their drivers out, leaning on half-opened doors, staring across the street. I stopped, mostly because I had to. The subject of everyone’s attention was a half-dressed man lying prone in front of a ramshackle house. He was bleeding (well, possibly: there was blood on his arm of unknown origin).
Pittsburghers tend toward friendly, but no one was helping this guy. With more curiosity than compassion, I started across.
“Careful,” said one of the drivers. “He kinda went off on the last guy who tried to help.”
“He’s not right,” said the other. “I already called 911.”
So we stood there, silent. Cars came by, slowed, stared, sped up.
This is ridiculous, I thought, so I ventured across. Suddenly the man … woke? Is that the word? … and saw the three of us staring at him. He looked at me, the closest to him. For a split second our eyes locked. We were both very, very afraid.
Then he ran into his house. Then the cops came. Then I drove away.
A man is bleeding on the side of the road. Sound familiar?
People pass by but won’t stop. Ring a bell?
Then a stranger comes along and … calls 911. Stands there. Does nothing. Well, tries to, but mostly does nothing.
I am not a biblical literalist … or so I thought. Now what? What happens when, confronted by a parable where every word comes alive, where I am cast as the protagonist, I blow my lines, miss my marks? What then?
Metaphor is a dish best served cold, preferably frozen and unmoving. Reality, on the other hand, is warm and gooey and alive and smells weird and holds up traffic. Metaphor helps us see through things, see around things; reality is a half-opened door of a still-running car, ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
Reality is awfully inconvenient. Apparently I prefer the world of words where things don’t bleed, where I don’t lock eyes with another, where I’m not afraid of my own skin, where I think I understand something instead of nothing.
The bleeding-man saga is merely one (albeit dramatic) example of many such failed interactions. I am increasingly confronted with an inability to act, to even know what to do. In the (ironic) words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are unknown unknowns—you’re unaware of what you don’t know. I realize I don’t know Mandarin; what about the countless languages I’ve never heard of, even the strange dialects of my own tribe? My mother used to communicate her deepest disappointments in silence. We’d guess at what she thought of us, never really sure. A seemingly happy-go-lucky student recently confided in me his darkest demons. I never would’ve known what went on behind those eyes, and Christ knows I should have. At moments like this, Socrates’ famous “I only know one thing: I know nothing” seems cute but useless. (It also makes me think Socrates put the clutch in my ’94 Toyota. That would explain a lot.)
Maybe the peace that passeth all understanding is just that. Nouns, verbs, objects fall away … we’re left without pronouns, without possessions, prepossessions—just us in our ignorance, in our struggle.
As a writer, I am thrilled by the power and economy of the two-word sentence: Work hard. Dream big. Be yourself. Forgive others. Move on. But my faith deserves an object to balance this crucial noun-verb duet, popular on billboards and bumper stickers: Jesus Saves.
Jesus saves whom? When? From what?
Maybe from sin. Maybe from earthly desires. Maybe I don’t care because right now I need Jesus to save me from me. From my presumptions. From having to name everything, answer everything, know anything.
And that’s grace, I think, both broad and deep. While I am a vessel of undeserved grace, that vessel is in a perpetual state of leak, a rusty bucket, a sieve. I have been given untold lessons—revealed to us through prophets and sages—and then I was given the chance to act, and I did not. I was a witness to parable, then witness to my own leaden feet.
I failed at being the Good Samaritan, and I need to live with that. But “the fullness of time” is long indeed, and I will be given that chance again. Miraculously, the rusty bucket will emerge from its ancient well astonishingly intact, full of grace, and in my sudden wisdom I will do The Right Thing. I know, because I have at times done The Right Thing—buoyant, alive, true witness, present tense. Maybe I’ve been saved this time in preparation for larger missions ahead, ones which require faith and grace and …
… and maybe that’s what hope is, too: broad and deep and awkwardly present tense. We know we’re but players in a constant, sloppy rehearsal, holding onto the divine promise of tomorrow’s better selves.