Chicago Diarist: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

(I wrote this in January, 2007)

My literary production, such as it is (and as far as I may use the term without self-mockery), is highly dependent on the CTA. Back when I still tried to write poetry, a conversation about a dead man overheard on a bus furnished the matter of one of the few poems I finished (or abandoned, as Auden would put it). A lot of blog posts here started as CTA stories or observations, and more importantly, I’ve written a lot of my sermons on the train. Something about the rhythm and the motion sparks my thinking, I guess, and out comes the Moleskine for some crucial paragraphs. When and if I leave for the suburbs or the hinterlands of missionary work, I don’t really know how I’ll get my sermon writing done.

Much of last Sunday’s sermon started on the Blue Line, but I put it through a final draft on the #49 Western Avenue bus on Sunday morning as it crawled from my home on the Westside to my church in Lincoln Square. It was not one of my better efforts, but it wasn’t bad. It was on Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles, as represented by the wise men. The story also includes Herod’s scheme to find and murder Jesus. My sermon was about how both the magi and Herod are, in different ways, paying tribute to Christ and thereby manifesting his glory. Lately I’ve been prone to grandiosity in the pulpit, and this sermon drew to its end accordingly:

What Epiphany asks us is this: How does Christ manifest himself in and through us? How do we “make open acknowledgement of what [we] believe in [our] hearts?” We’ve had twelve days of Christ in the manger—we know what do with him. The songs give it away—“bring him incense, gold, and myrrh; come peasant, king, to own him.” But what about Christ in the pew next to you? What about Christ in the street or in Baghdad? What gifts will we bring to make him known? What role will we play in the unfolding of his glory? For it will unfold. Love, hatred, bafflement, indifference—Christ will have glory from all of it. What will our Epiphany be?

As I cut unnecessary phrases and added a few last-minute touches, I became aware that a woman near the front of the bus was either intoxicated or going through some kind of withdrawal. She could hardly keep her head up and did not seem well at all. Her face, not an old face, was pocked and scarred. I was afraid she would fall and hurt herself.

I’m hardly a busybody, but nothing could have been more obvious than a person’s obligation to at least offer help to this woman. For various social and psychological reasons–fear, timidity, the anxiety of social contact and contamination, a mind-your-own-business ethic of deracinated urban life–it is hard for most people to act on this obligation, but that hardly moots the obligation. To make matters worse, I was poring over a sermon of my own production that would, in less than two hours, prod people to see their obligations more clearly and without fear. Not only did my own words testify against my timidity, but they allowed me the pathetic shred of an excuse that I had a sermon to work on. If only a lay person who heard this sermon were on hand! Thankfully, I didn’t even dignify this thought with completion.

I settled for the unhappy compromise of watching her to see if she passed out or seemed in any way near harm. While I was feeling crappy about this, she roused herself and got off around Armitage. The bus pulled away.

One of the most irritating things about liberal protestant preaching in America is the frequent juxtaposition of our romantic, quasi-Franciscan, even radical notions of social solidarity, God’s grace found at the margins, and so on with our utterly middle-class lives. I swear, if I have to hear one more sermon about how we have to tear down walls and engage in radical hospitality from some pastor who’s going to go home, lock the door, and put her feet up by the fire afterwards, I’m going to scream.

To paraphrase Kierkegaard, we preach huge cathedrals while living in a shack behind the rectory. This is not a matter of hypocrisy, an overused charge in any case; I think the pastors and seminarians (including me) who preach this stuff really mean it, or want to mean it. Rather, we are sometimes apt to let our high ideals excuse or, perhaps more accurately, obscure the modest but hugely consequential privileges we in fact enjoy.

There is also the increasing emphasis on “professional boundaries” in ministry, something I for the most part applaud. The pastor can’t, we are told, be everyone’s pastor. We are encouraged to find ways to escape the demands of our vocation from time to time. This is fine. As I’ve told everyone close to me, I will need to distinguish between Pastor Ben (who thinks that God loves you for the sake of Christ) and Ben (who thinks you’re a jerk), and that distinction is useless if Pastor Ben doesn’t leave the stage now and then.

But, as my spiritual director points out, there are no sabbaticals from baptism. No study leave, no vacation, no days off after a busy Holy Week. Pastors as pastors are not responsible for the world, but pastors as Christians are. And this is not in the nature of discharging a minimal ethical duty, but of bringing one’s charity into the heart of social interactions. It’s easier, and not ignoble, to see the destitute and suffering in terms of their needs. But what baptism binds the Christian to do is to see not the need but the person–to acknowledge the other as a subject, not an object.

So beyond my own self-involved notions of failure, I find myself wondering what has happened to this troubled woman, and even more, who she was before she got to that state. I have no illusions that I could have helped her in a significant way, but I could have given her reason to feel less than ignored. Who knows what she might have given me? Better luck next time, to her and to me.

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