You never know who is going to be singing in the choir (Photo by
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images)
I’m about to get on a plane, but I wanted to share a postcard from American life that meant something to me. Y’all know that I live online, and the things that I write about almost always has to do with things that I’ve learned online. I am aware that I bring news to readers that they might not see anywhere else, and I try to highlight threats and suggest how we might deal with them. Lately, as regular readers know, I have been writing a lot about Social Justice Warriors and the way they use identity politics to make everybody suspicious of and hostile to people not like themselves. I’ve been reading the mathematician James Lindsay’s devastating Twitter explanations of how critical theory and “social justice” work. For example:
Correct. Critical Social Justice requires seeing people as representatives of identity groups and “constantly” taking stock of positionality (one’s group’s standing against systemic power). That’s how intersectionality plays into my tweet. It *exists* to evaluate positionality. https://t.co/lD7cdrmCyG
— James Lindsay, white dingus (@ConceptualJames) January 31, 2020
Let me tell you about the Pastor.
I’m in the middle of a flight journey to Rome. I ordered an Uber from my home in Baton Rouge to the airport. The man who picked me up was a cheerful black man in late middle age. It turns out that he is a pastor. We started the ride talking about the neighborhood, and how the 2016 flood in Baton Rouge drove up housing costs. I told him a story about how my wife and I had the bad luck to need a house at a time when the 2016 flood had driven home prices through the roof.
That prompted him to launch into a very funny story about how through his shrewdness, he helped his wife make good money off some New Orleans property that she and her late husband had owned, but that was ruined by Katrina, and that some unscrupulous carpetbaggers from the North who were trying to buy up at well below its worth.
The information in the story could have been conveyed in about two minutes, but the pastor stretched it out to take up most of the drive to the airport. He had me roaring with laughter in the back seat as he talked about how he played those speculators — and how much it delighted his wife. I realized quickly that this wasn’t really a story about a simple country pastor who triumphed over big-city slicks, but a story about how a man proved himself in the eyes of his beloved. The pastor’s wife suddenly saw him not only as the man she loved, but also as her protector.
This was a big thing. He said that when they first met, she was a widow. After they fell in love and talked about marrying, he had to confess to her that he had no money in his pocket, and that he was worried that she would think that he only wanted to use her. She wasn’t rich by any means, but she had a job, and her late husband had left her with something. More than the pastor had, anyway.
He told me the story of how they met. It was in church, of course. It wasn’t his own church, but his cousin’s. It sounds like he preaching there that weekend. He said that he was standing near the pulpit, looking at the choir. “The Lord said to me, ‘Look, there is your wife,’” said the pastor. “I thought, ‘Lord, there’s six women there who don’t have husbands. Which one?’”
The Lord didn’t say, but when one particular woman — the one who had really caught his eye — came forward after services to meet him, he knew when he took her hand in introduction that there was something special about this widow.
Later, the pastor had to have surgery, and was facing a long recovery. He had no one to care for him. The woman told the rehab nurses that she would take him in.
“We hadn’t so much as kissed!” he said. “And there she was, taking me into her home to care for me when I couldn’t care for myself.”
This went on for months. The pastor finally healed, and told her that he thought it was time for him to be getting back to his own home.
“You are home,” she responded. And that’s how they started courting.
They married. He was so grateful for how she had cared for him, and how she had decided to marry him even though he was poor. He looked for an opportunity to serve her — and then it came, when these two “mafia-looking dudes” drove up to their front door, looking for the owner of the distressed property in New Orleans.
The pastor’s wife let him handle the negotiations. When she found out how much he had been able to sell the property for, she started hollering. “I wish I’d had some earplugs!” he said, laughing. “Brother, let me tell you that I still have brownie points in the cabinet that I haven’t used!”
As we approached the airport, we started talking about how God works in our lives, and how grace is all around us, if we only open our eyes to it. At curbside, he helped me unload my bags, and said, “You tell that pilot don’t be making any unplanned stops on that flight, because he got a child of God on that plane.” We shook hands. I promised to pray for him in Rome, and asked him to pray for me. He laughed and said he surely would.
And that was that. I was glowing inside, all the way to the gate. I think it was the most important thing to happen to me all day, maybe all week. We did not have a theological conversation at all. The pastor just told a couple of stories from his life. But God was all over it.
This is real life. I tell you, I have got to spend less time on the Internet, and more time in the real world. Don’t get me wrong: because of what I do for a living, I can see threats to that pastor’s way of life that he can’t see at all. My job is to make them clear. But I tell you, that pastor knows not a thing about his passenger this morning, but I can say with confidence that he sees threats to my way of life that are invisible to me.
I’m in the Atlanta airport now, waiting for my connecting flight. I saw that James Lindsay tweet I quote above, and thought about the conversation between that black man and my white self, two middle-aged guys from south Louisiana who shared stories, and who ended up promising prayer for each other. What kind of poison would these critical theory types inject into that humane exchange? How would they try to make us suspicious of each other, and lead us to doubt the reality of that twenty minutes of simple brotherhood, mediated by grace?
It really is true: the only way through this toxic fog is to commit ourselves to seeing each other as individuals. All of us have some good inside us, and some bad. We are all the inheritors of the virtues and vices of our ancestors, and of the society around us. What we choose to do with that inheritance is the drama of our lives. When the devils come to try to steal from us, if we’re walking in the right path, we may yet triumph. When we are broke and lonely, the Lord may place in the choir a stranger whose love will change our lives.
You never know. But you have to be open to grace.
None of this negates the bad, depressing news that is part of our everyday lives. It would be a false sentimentality to say that a moment like the pastor and I had this morning made all the serious evils of this world — racism, economic exploitation, fear, political hatred, and so on — somehow okay. That’s not how it works. But it does remind us that we are not political manifestoes, or blank screens upon which others can legitimately project their own fears, anxieties, and hatreds, but rather human beings: men and women who share suffering, but also share love, and laughter, and the joy of life.
That conversation between the pastor and me will never make the newspaper. But there was good news in it, which is why I’m telling you. I expected a quiet ride to the airport, which would allow me to write some e-mails. Instead, I received an unmerited blessing. Maybe you will too today. I hope so. But you have to be willing to open yourself to it. The challenge to me is to realize that I’m not going to have the opportunity to receive blessings like that if I spend so much time in books and online, and not in the real world. This is a lesson I have had to learn all my life, and will keep learning until the day I die, looks like. But that fact too is part of the pilgrimage, part of the journey of our lives.
UPDATE: Oh, and speaking of grace, drop everything you’re doing and read Tara Isabella Burton’s breathtaking piece about the Virgin Mary and her own traumatic life. I am speechless. The divine broke through in her life in a catastrophic (but good!) way, first through seeing Will Arbery’s Heroes Of The Fourth Turning. Grace, all is grace!
UPDATE.2: Something I forgot to say in the first part: I really needed to hear what that pastor had to say, and what Tara Isabella Burton had to say, too. It’s not in an “oh, that’s nice, what an inspirational lift” kind of way. I mean it in the sense of: we live immersed in transcendence, and other people, other lives, are the means through which the transcendence — God — reaches us. The longer I live, the more I come to know the truth of that coffee-mug cliché: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
UPDATE.3:Look at this poem, “Micha-el,” by Jane Greer. It’s white-hot, and savagely beautiful. Excerpt:
Mercy is what you’ll get—His wide-armed mercy—
But you won’t like it.