I’m not the sort of person who uses the words miracle and piss in the same post. I’m not the sort of person who uses the word miracle, but that’s what you’re getting today.
A few Sundays ago I took the train down from St. Andrews to Edinburgh with friends to visit a church as part of a class assignment, to consider architecture and a liturgical community’s interaction with space. We got into the city around 9 that morning and broke off to our respective churches. I misread the church I was supposed to go to and walked fourteen blocks down to the arts district holding a cold cortado and my iPhone listlessly, and between the galleries and the paint supply store I realised I had gone the wrong way. Or, really, I had no idea where I was supposed to be going.
Defeated, I searched Google Maps with the vague descriptor Episcopal, because it was last August I had felt at home in a church and had yet to do so in Scotland and this day was, irrationally, the day that I most needed it to work, for church to happen, be felt, be known.
Well, for Him to be. He was silent those days. (Is still, though that’s another story.) I read my Bible. I prayed. I wound the clock. Nothing. I thought I had dealt with this, had reached the place of accepting His silence with some sense of sophistication, but I hadn’t, I was pissed and tired and over it and I needed Him to show up. I told Him as much, there between the gallery and the paint supply store.
I chose St. John’s because Joan Didion’s church in New York was St. John the Divine. It was twenty minutes away on foot and I hastily began the walk back out of the arts district toward the other side of downtown.
I don’t know why you need to know this: Didion, New York, twenty minutes, but there is something that feels necessary about the remnant details, that in a post where I shall speak of miracle I’d better be sure I also speak of ordinary.
You left the front door open again.
She's standing at the stove with her back to me, left hand resting on her hip, right hand stirring slow a big pot of something that smells like pork belly and molasses and a bit of clove. Her carmel skin glows softly in the afternoon sun, a sun that seems impossible for March in Scotland when it snowed the day before. She's opened the false balcony to let the breeze in, and when she first spoke it was because she sensed me in the doorframe, and I had interrupted her low hum of There is a Fountain.
She doesn't look up from the pot but keeps on stirring, lifting her left hand off her hip, jerking her thumb toward the table, upon which is a large bowl, some flour, a yeast starter, eggs, heated milk and butter, and a larger wooden spoon. Don't just stand there, child. Rolls need making. Get to it.
My arms are folded. A burden on my right shoulder weighs it down. "You have a key, you know. I made you one. You didn't need to see if the door was open."
She turns, halfway, looking at me at a slant. True, but we both know that you've been leaving that door open a lot lately, so there's not much point of that key if just anybody can walk in here.
"It looks like Anybody did."
She laughs. Don't forget who gave you that wit, child, and don't forget who teaches you how to use it. I've already had to shoo away that old trickster crouching at your door. Now, rolls. Get to it!
I cross over to the table, unshoulder the burden I have carried with me, a tangle of books and words and identifies and shames and worries. I push it with my foot against the wall, free the space around me to move. I stand before the table for a few minutes, motionless.
Temper the eggs with milk and butter, then add the yeast.
I look up at her. She's not looking at me, but down at the pot that she keeps stirring, slow, beginning to hum again.
"I don't know how I forgot that." I mumble, whisking the eggs fast as I slowly add the milk and butter.
You've not been baking for a time now. She keeps stirring, keeps her eyes from me. Sounds like you've forgotten a bit. Been spending all your time telling everybody about all you've accomplished. Lot of that going around right now---
"I lost my publisher. I lost an agent. I had to restart. I keep having to restart. I keep trying to be this person of grace and this person of conviction and you keep not talking to me---"
Well, I'm talking now, so you may want to spend time actually doing some listening---
"I'm thinking about becoming a confirmed Anglican."
She stops stirring. She slowly pulls the spoon up from the pot, bangs it twice on the lid, rests it on the lip, and turns to face me. Now, why in Heaven are you thinking of doing that?
"Something about how I keep forgetting. If I belonged somewhere, then maybe I wouldn't forget as much." I reach for the salt, the sugar, and the yeast starter and begin to whisk them in.
Looks like just bothering to talk to Me has you remembering already. So, why are you really thinking about it?
I pause for a moment, nibble my lower lip. "I want to fit somewhere. I'm tired of having to defend my disjointed spirituality to everyone, I'm tired---"
You're tired? She snorts. Honey child, do you know what it's like to have your own tell you that they're tired of talkin' about all the right they're doing when they ain't spending a lot of time doing right? When I came to you that Ash Wednesday, did I ask you to settle down?
Did I ask you to defend your path to anyone?
Then why do you feel so burdened with always doing my job for Me? Why do you feel everybody you meet has to know exactly what you believe? Why do you think it's your job to be My Spirit? Were you there when I asked Job, 'Were you there?'
She turns, picking the spoon back up and starting to stir, slow, once more. You want to become Anglican because you think it will solve that restless heart of yours. You'll do anything but actually settle down in Me.
I'm about to object, but she's raised her left hand. She's humming again, deep and low, and she's not listening to me right now. She wants me to listen to her.
I start to add the flour, a cup at a time, stirring firm with the wooden spoon until it seems too much to keep on with. "Why can't I stir the pot? Why do I have to knead the bread?"
I let you stir the pot this summer, if you'll remember, but you kept forgetting to come back to it. You let the bottom burn one too many times. So it's back to bread for now. You need to work those hands into some dough. You need to feel it again.
I close my eyes. I don't know if it's frustration anymore, if it's annoyance or a graceless heart. I just know that it's a ball of tensioned resistance, a tangle of self and not-self, the feeling of othering, the suffocation of---
Stop thinking about it so much and do something. She doesn't look up from the pot. She keeps stirring, slow, steady. Uncoil, Preston. Put your hands in that dough and uncoil. You'll remember how.
The first few minutes are awkward and disjointed. I am pushing dough across a table, worried more about it than I am the tangling, but there is a moment when I feel something give way, and she stops humming There is a Fountain and begins This is My Father's World and I find the dough in my hands beginning to turn elastic, to slowly feel like the loosening tightness in my heart, the uncoiling and unraveling of worry and doubt and anger over things I don't even understand.
That's it, child, that's it. Keep going. Slow. Purposeful.
"Our Father, who art in Heaven ..." it comes back in a whisper, in the quiver of fingertips and purposed focus. It comes back, the way of seeing, the way ahead.
The nuns taught you there were two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace. She lifts the spoon out of the pot, tastes the broth and lets out a low, deep sigh of pleasure. Oh, child, I do make all things beautiful in their time. She turns then, looks me square and places her hands back on her hips. We going to talk about it?
When did I begin crying? Perhaps somewhere around asking to not be led into temptation. I try to form words but she shushes me, makes the difference up between us, comes to my side and wipes away my tears. Now listen here, Preston Gregory, listen here: did you do wrong?
Did you ask My forgiveness?
Did you go ask forgiveness of those you wronged?
You readin your Bible?
You sayin your prayers?
Then, mercy, child, mercy! I do not condemn you. You leave that burden right there at My feet and you take a song away. She kicks at the bag against the wall softly with her foot. This is My way, sweet child, walk in it! I did not ask you to go behind or before or to either side, but in My midst. You're not ready to stir the pot again just yet, but you still remember how to bake. So bake. For right now, what I want from you, is to bake. And don't you say a thing about books or agents or PhD programmes or rent money. I want you, right now, to bake.
And she stands on her tip-toes and kisses my forehead. She closes the false balcony doors and then takes my burden by the handles and pulls it, effortlessly, over her shoulder. She lingers for a moment over the pot on the stove, turning the heat down just a bit to let it simmer. It smells like the true things. She smiles softly and then begins to head out the kitchen door.
"Wait!" I stop kneading. "Does the pot need stirring? Will it burn?"
Peace! I know what I'm doing. You keep kneading. The pot will take care of itself. You'll know when it's time to stir again.
And she's gone, through the doorway, or I think she is. Instead, she pops her head back in, all smiles and green-glass eyes, I'm going to lock your front door on my way out, by the way. Just thought I'd remind you. She winks.
Then she's gone. Her scent lingers in the kitchen and I realise her scent is the scent of that pot on the stove and so I knead and keep kneading, slowly beginning to sing,
His goodness stands approved, unchanged from day to day; I'll drop my burden at His feet and bear a song away.
Author's note: The above is a fictionalised account of how sometimes I imagine my conversations with God look like, this one just yesterday. I want to acknowledge immediately that some will take theological offense that I chose to depict God the Father at all, let alone as a kindly black woman in my kitchen. I do want to give a hat-tip to The Shack for introducing me to the idea, a novel that while I find plot-wise problematic otherwise is quite enjoyable. I can't belabour a defense of this too much, because I don't exactly have one, other than this: there have been more times than not when I have needed to see God as other beyond the otherness of Spirit or the otherness of not human. I have needed some sort of way of getting at His heart. So there have been seasons, more than once, when it's helped me to see Him as a kindly black woman in my kitchen reminding me how to bake, which, I hope is clear, is a metaphor for prayer and faithfulness. In case someone walks away confused by this, I do not believe that God is a kindly black woman. But He's also not a kindly white woman, either. Or even a He. Or a She. But that's a topic for a different day. And, a further note, for readers unfamiliar with my context, it's worth noting that I grew up in Texas, surrounded by multiethnic persons and diverse cultures. What you may accuse as stereotype here is actually reflective of some of the women I loved and were raised by in church when I was growing up. Not all black women are like this, but some of them are, just like some white women in the South are. Texas is a different world, y'all. Best be remembering that. Further, what gets under my skin with the accusation that she is Mammy-esque is that to say that is to say that some of the black women I owe a portion of my Faith to are Mammy-esque. There's nothing alright in my mind about doing that. It denies them personhood, denies them complexity, denies them who they are and who they were. I shouldn't have to write that I sent this post to black friends and asked for their honest thoughts before I published it, which I did and those thoughts were positive. I shouldn't have to point out that I wrote God here in such a way that it reflects the loving correction these women particularly showed me. But because we've sterilised culture and regional identity to the point that we think any recognition that there is some and that we appreciate it is somehow an act of privilege, we can't talk about it. I grew up in the major cities and in the tiny towns of Texas. My schools were never all-white. My churches were never all-white. My daily life, until I moved to Scotland this year, was never all-white, which I lament frequently. I'm not colour-blind, which I think is perhaps the most indignant and offensive things to be, because it refuses the uniqueness of a cultural heritage or identity. Rather, I'm aware of diversity, particularly within racial groups, and if you find me gobsmacked when you accuse me of a Mammy-esque characterisation, it's because to say that is to say the women I knew and know are Mammy-esque. They aren't. They are who they are. They are brilliant, wise, and fiercely loving. Just like the other women and men of colour I know who hate cooking and baking and would never set foot inside a kitchen, who went to med school and law school, who became pastors and priests. And they, too, show me glimpses of God I have not always seen well, just like everyone does who calls upon the name of the Lord. So what you see here is a glimpse of some of the people who raised me up in the Faith. I don't want to do them the injustice of pretending they're different than they are. They speak this way, act this way, love this way. Trying to ignore that, trying to write them off into a category of archetype, radically ignores the complexity of their own stories and hearts. So I'm not going to do that. I'm going to keep on celebrating their uniqueness and integrity and I'm not going to spend time defending how people chose to express themselves, which forever left an imprint of love upon me.
I've been thinking about systemic sin lately. I've been thinking about why we get loud. Why we tweet. Why we blog. Why we do all of this.
On Monday, I went into a bit of what I was told was just a rant on Twitter, the whole of which you can read here. I hesitate to call it a rant, though, and I resent the tendency we have to excuse what we say as somehow not as serious as we meant it to be, as if claiming, authentically, that we actually do believe certain things is somehow dangerous. We call them rants to soften the fact that what we may actually have been doing was singing truth and freedom and Gospel.
It wasn't a rant. It was a moment of watershed, of realising that I have the freedom to be honest about theological things that concern me. When someone tweeted a glib response that passive-agressively questioned the salvation of Catholics, I decided to not only respond to the problem of that reasoning but also to a larger attitude in the Church as I've experienced it, and the larger Church as I know it thanks to the diversity of readers who comment in this space and who keep in contact.
I laid it all (well, a lot of it) out: I said women were equal, that conservative theology needs to love LGBT members better, that a consistent ethic of pro-life doesn't mean abortion but capital punishment and war, too, that Calvinism makes God a monster, that the earth is not 6,000 years old, that we should be grateful when bloggers stand up and call child abuse wrong and the systems that enable that abuse evil.
That last one, given the news around evangelical circles lately, that was a sticking point.
I've been in an incredibly uplifting and challenging Bible study focused on the book of Ephesians this semester and, having concluded it last week, I went back and read the epistle as a whole on Monday morning.
What struck me, what stuck in me, what became a thorn in my side, was this, from right near the end:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in fthe strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against ithe schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against lthe cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
See, this is why we blog. This is why we tweet. This is why we get loud or we rant. Because we're responding to this present darkness.
There's a trend in some Christian circles to play the unity card. We're not supposed to ever rock the boat---doing so introduces discord into the Body of Christ, which means that the person who raised a red flag of awareness is secretly trying to usurp the Kingdom of God. I have enough emails that I get daily to promise you that people play this tactic often: calling something problematic publicly or engaging a public comment with direct criticism is really a move designed to shame the Kingdom of God.
Unless, is it a recognition of what Paul is saying in Ephesians, that what some of us are concerned with in the Church is not just about individual sin? Is it that while individual sin matters, what matters too is collective sin, cooperative sin, sin that infects institutions, sins that create systems of demonic power, systems that oppress, systems that contribute to this present darkness?
I'm beginning to have a hard time engaging theology that has decided that all that matters is eternal destinations. The Gospel is bigger than that. It includes it, but it does not end there. The Gospel is larger, wilder, louder, and it's going after institutions that enable sinful people to keep on sinning, it is going against the forces of this present darkness, our present darkness:
the darkness of patriarchy
the darkness of slavery
the darkness of racism
the darkness of war
the darkness of poverty
the darkness of hunger
the darkness of sexism
the darkness of transphobia
the darkness of homophobia
the darkness of classism
the darkness of disabalism
the darkness of ecocide
the darkness of exploitation
... and so many more. Darkness is bondage, friends. Darkness is enslaving hearts. And these institutionalised sins are running wild in our world.
We sometimes think God's biggest concerns are reducible to whether someone can check the box YES on their will I go to Heaven? membership card.
What if, beyond that, God cares about dethroning the demonic forces of this world that keep women in captivity, that make children slaves, that threaten victims with violence, that hate based on identity, that destroy the good creation?
What if God cares about all of it, all of us, the whole damned-becoming-blessed thing?
What if some of us are called to be a little bit louder, to speak a little bit more directly?
To call out the hell in the midst of us as much as the Hell that may await us?
What do we fear?
I think we fear that we'll start losing our power.
I think we fear that we may be dethroned.
I think we fear that we are more part of this present darkness than we realise.
But then again ...
... this is just a rant.