Friday, December 4, 2015

The Hard Truth About Real Love

We met on Wednesday evenings, at the park just a stone's throw from our front door. Without fail, those afternoons found me frantic, scrambling for hot dogs and buns and oh, maybe I'd better buy a watermelon and those cookies we baked turned out a bit misshapen and hard, but we'd better haul them over, too.

We wanted, no, needed the company of each other, food and two hours to be not-alone were our only agenda. And if we needed this, we figured our neighbors must, too. So we gathered in our mid-week ordinariness, grocery store containers of deli salads open along the weathered edge of the picnic table. An invitation. Come on over, grab a plate.

Our time was designed around an element of surprise, but the hard truth is, I'd always prefer a clean list of names ticking down a sheet of paper. I like knowing how many forks will be needed, how much lemonade. I worry about not having enough, and I worry even more about ending up with too much. What will we do with all this food? It makes for pricey left-overs, if you choose to look at it that way. And I often do.

Heading up the hill one evening, I saw them there on the park bench, two women who struck me as wearisome dinner companions. It would be too much awkwardness for so late in the day and besides, what if we didn't have enough chicken?

Lodged in the pit of my stomach was a stone I couldn't shake loose - I will never outrun Olivia. I wonder and write about the love that would compel me to those at the fringes. I want that love. I do. But she is everywhere, and for every step I take toward her, there is at least one where I veer off to the side and hope she doesn't notice.

There are days I mean what I say, but there are others when I want to run back to when it didn't even cross my mind. The trouble with trying is the persistent failing.

Returning might be the only thing I did right.

We gathered last summer on Wednesdays, ate potato salad and pie with plastic forks, asked questions and listened because we're new to each other; there's so much to learn. The kids ran wild. We welcomed the ones who showed up, the smudged-eye teenagers, the young men who filled their plates then sat with their backs to us. Once, thanks to the most impossible misunderstanding, a text invitation accidentally went out to a complete stranger, a town a way, and he came.

All the while, I felt the hand of God at our backs, nudging us further out. I heard his promises, that trusting the haphazard way of Jesus would always be worth it, and that he would turn our hearts toward him if we dared to find his face in the storied eyes of our neighbor.

It's December now, and my doubts haven't wrung themselves out. My part in the scheme of Emmanuel still feels paltry sometimes, like a day-old tease. He came to be with us and hoped we'd follow him into this withness that cuts to the heart of things.

I want to believe breaking bread and passing plates can really be communion, God's love kissing dirt.
It would be so much simpler if I could remove myself from the equation, because I can't seem to stop defaulting to the ease of sitting with people who make my kind of small talk.

In his book Red Letter Revolution, Tony Compolo writes, "My only defense is that I'm not as unfaithful today as I was yesterday." 

This is all the hope I can muster, to grow in faithfulness degree-by-degree, while the burgers go cold and the slaw warms, everything feeling upside-down and cockeyed as we sit in the fellowship of sweat-stained saints and the night closes in.

This is the tension of living somewhere between the one long life we were given and eternity. We wait, smack dab where the green meets blue. Maybe the kingdom of God is exactly the way Silas used to paint a landscape - a thick band of grace between two thin streaks of sky and grass, our mess tethered to Heaven by the wide promise that we can't ever screw this up enough to miss what matters most.