Getting Hauled Back By the Gospel
Updated: May 25, 2020
I would like to briefly set before you what I’m thinking with a blog like this, a blog where I combine the contemplation of Scripture with a reflection on my week as a Street Pastor.
More than a few of you know that not very long ago I was not doing very well. When I was getting better, I asked for the Lord to be clear about what I was supposed to do with my life.
What the Lord told me was simple: to work patiently alongside Word and Spirit for the building up of God’s people. When he told me that, it was not a sound or a thought. It was, instead, my favorite way God talks to me: an understanding in my heart.
I had begun, by that point, to understand myself as a very limited creature, and to not hate myself for it. I was bound by a fearful heart and a mind that worked in fits and starts. There was a lot, it seemed, I could not do. But there was something I could do. I could wake up. I could put on pants. I could go out and meet people on streets and in soup kitchens. I could read my Bible patiently, thoughtfully. And I could serve a Word that was not bound.
And so if these reflections are anything, I hope they are that patient kind of work.
These reflections have certainly been good for me. They have been, in some ways, like walking with Peter, James, and John to the Mount of the Transfiguration. I’ve come away from my weeks, sometimes, more confused than when I started. But it’s the good kind of confusion, the kind after Jesus shows you what you had not expected and then smiles at you before disappearing.
I write on Monday and on Fridays, for twenty or thirty minutes in the morning and afternoons. I write in the time between prayer and work, between work and home, when I don’t seem to be one thing or another, the times when I’m as close as I can get to just listening.
I try to be consistent with the writing, to make a schedule of it. A schedule, any sort of schedule we can actually follow, is a kind of miracle. A regular meal time, a regular time of prayer, is a stake driven into the ground, a still point outside of how we think and feel. We need those. To only have what we think and what we feel is to be really and truly alone.
I wait patiently for the word of God to bear Christ to me, or to blind my week with Christ. I wait to have the week laid bare, a week discerned, transfigured by the Word of God. To have my week read by Scripture. And I wait for my sullen week and I to wind up with Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration.
And it’s hard, but I like it. Until I have sat down in my office and made myself write, until I make myself do it, the week does not feel handed over. The week does not feel like Christ’s.
It all works something like this.
Mondays I need a map. I need to know where I’m headed with this whole Street Pastor thing. On Mondays I make my way slowly through First Peter. First Peter--and the time I spend reading and praying over First Peter--is the Gospel set before me as Watchmen—illuminating the ordinary so I see it as the terrain of Sin and Death. Helping me see the present tense as the Cross that it is. So I can clearly mark it and make my way through it. First Peter is for people, young and old, trying to figure out how to live as ordinary Christians in the Land of Sin and Death.
But by the time Friday rolls around, even with my best intentions, the week has disfigured me. Even with the best of intentions, by the end of the week I am either a god or a stranger. And my week has become, maybe like yours, a confusion and a lie.
So Friday, I meditate on one small scene from the Gospel of Mark. When I read and study and pray through Mark, I do not feel like I have Christ’s teaching or any his deep theology, but the elusive, hunched, and sovereign figure of Christ himself, skulking in and out of the wilderness of my week (to quote Flannery O’Connor) and hunting me down as the stranger and deformed god the week has made me.
When I read and study and live my week through Mark, I have the Gospel as Subversion and Intervention. Flipping tables, overruling the verdicts I’d made over myself and others. I have the Gospel as the Overturning Word.
At that point, Christ usually comes up to me as someone I meet on the street.
“John Bryant,” Christ comes up to me and says. “Repent and believe in the gospel.”
Each week the human heart waits to be hunted down and dethroned by the Gospel. Each week the human heart waits to be lifted up and found by the Gospel.
And how will Christ cast down and raise up the week I’ve had? And me with it?
Our hearing is the place where he does it. Our hearing is the place where we meet Christ again.
In the hearing of the Gospel, Christ makes his way again into the far country, the mission field of the human heart, hauling strangers back as guests, and kings back as servants. False kings and strangers, prodigals both, are always being hauled back to the feast at our Father’s house by our Brother. And we are hauled back by being spoken to.
The point is not to get to be such a good person where this doesn’t happen, but to make sure this keeps happening. That it’s always happening.
I have a story that I hope says what I mean:
Last week I was riding around on my bike on one of my regular rounds as street pastor. I was tired, grumpy, struggling with the idea of myself as a minister who rode around on a bike meeting and listening to people.
I was walking with one of my friends who wasn’t doing well. He maybe looked a little rough, but he was just one of the people I’d met walking and riding around.
He was walking with me, talking, looking back on his relationship to drugs, himself, and the Lord. We were both, I think, wishing we felt better about where we were in our lives and what we were doing.
Then it was 4:30 in the afternoon. 4:30 in the afternoon is one of those stubborn posts driven into the ground of my fragile life. Every week day at 4:30, no matter what, a friend of mine from a care home downtown calls and we do a service of Evening Prayer over the phone.
I asked my friend I was walking with, who looked a little rough, who I really didn’t know that well, who I was worried was a little too cool to be doing this with me, if he would just stand here on the sidewalk and listen with me.
He nodded and then there we were, on a sidewalk downtown, two men just listening, to a voice coming through in fits and starts. We stood still as a man in a care home announced the Gospel of Jesus Christ to us on speakerphone. The wind blew, we leaned in. We got as close as we could to just listening.
“Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” he read to us.
“See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
I thought the problems in my life were things not lining up, things not working, the Lord not being clear, the people I work with being stubborn.
And the problem was I didn’t have a heart the Lord could work with.
I would need a new one.
But, we are lucky, or blessed, to have Gospel pronounced to us over phones as we stand on sidewalks. Because a new heart is the creation of the Word of God.
“Why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.”
And with that, by simply putting my head toward that crackly voice of the phone, I was returned to my first love.
The God who on the first day stood over the cliff of an empty universe and said, “Let there be Light,” and there it was, now stood over the cliff of an empty heart and said, “Let there be Repentance and Faith.”
And there it was.
Because the Gospel is not just instruction, or information. It is creation. It has the power to create the heart again.
We (I) cannot get so wrapped up in serving the Gospel that we forget our first love is to hear It.
It is funny. When this man calls me at 4:30, or when I call him, I almost always initially feel it as interruption. That I have been yanked out of my life.
Sometimes, I think, “I was just praying, thinking, and now my life in Christ has been interrupted.” The idea, for people in ministry, filled as it is with interruption, is that now I must get up and leave my life in Christ to take care of something.
But of course, this is silly. To stop what I’m doing, to offer myself to somebody, is to be in Christ. To stand in the street with some rough looking guy I barely know, to lean in to hear better, is to be in Christ. Is, in fact, with such small moments as that, that we are transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of the beloved Son.
My life as a Street Pastor is full of small moments like that. When I do not have those small moments I am not doing my job.
And with moments like that, maybe it is not that we’ve added an epiphany, or acquired new knowledge, but that we’ve gone back to the Father’s House. We’ve realized, with a sigh of relief and a note of happy regret, that life is not what we thought it was. Through a phone call on a sidewalk, through the words spoken by a friend over the phone, through the people we thought we were ministering to, we’ve been hauled back to the Father’s House. We sit at the Table again, servant and guest.
And we see, at the Table, that life is not managed or figured out but offered. And so we stay, while we can, at the Father’s House, and lay down our little life at the Table where Life is offered.
Our little life, even when it is awful, is always more than awful, because it is always something that can be laid down. And that means life, even its awful parts, can always be transfigured.
“This day is awful,” I once wrote in my journal. “But the day is more than awful; it is Christ’s.”
With that phone call, with that time of prayer over the phone, my friend had not interrupted anything. He had only ended a world that ended at the cross, and invited me to the Table that is God’s world.
Because the struggle each week is for it to be a week that is offered. More good than bad, we hope. More happy than sad, yes. More peaceful than turbulent, of course. But above all offered. Because when it is offered, we are in the Father’s House.
And it can only be offered by a heart that offers it, and that kind of heart is and will always only be a creation.
Because the Gospel, especially when spoken out loud, especially when it is spoken out loud from the mouth of someone who isn’t us, continues to have a power over our hearts we do not have. It continues to have the power to create the Heart That Offers.
Writing, I hope, is a way that my life is not a Fight or a Grasping, but an Amen to that kind of Gospel.