The BBC recently covered a New York state retiree, Phillip Patterson, who wrote out the entirety of the King James 1611 Bible by hand. 788,000 words, penned with care and purpose. It’s an astounding story, especially given that Mr. Patterson doesn’t consider himself that religious. Still, when you watch the video (and you should watch the video), it’s hard to picture him as anything but religious, at least in the sense of one being open to the greater mystery of life and meaning. This is where the language of religion, and the word “religion” in particular, fails to do much good — but that’s another post.
Patterson says “I wondered what was in the Bible. And I knew I didn’t have the… intellectual bandwidth to read it and retain it.” He’s a man searching for knowledge and understanding of a text that speaks so much to the nature of what it means to be in this world. It’s especially interesting that he labored over a text which he feels “is not accepting of [his] lifestyle” as a bisexual man with AIDS. It’s impossible for me to see his work as anything but a sacred pursuit of divine knowledge. When you hear him say, “I would sometimes be sitting and writing, and all of the sudden, it’s like the top of my head opens up and I understand, suddenly, how small our beliefs are. I’m not a slave to what’s written in that book. It’s like everything else in life. Do you believe everything everybody tells you?”, you know - Phillip Patterson, the not-so-religious man who happened to write out the Bible, is a mystic.
As I revisit this man’s story over and over, I am continually struck by the instant kinship I feel with him. He, too, is a seeker, a wanderer in the Cloud of Unknowing. Patterson is working towards knowing by not knowing, by opening himself up to possibility through an experience with the unfamiliar. I feel keenly that the mystic pursuit is a path by which those of us who find ourselves wrapped in lost-ness can emerge into some of the richest parts of our religious traditions. I suppose it’s easy for any person to feel like they don’t fit the movement of their times (the zeitgeist doesn’t have handles, man), and this wanting for place, for name, for identity, can become suffocating. Though when you look at someone like Patterson, or to writings of the past from the likes of Julian of Norwich or Pseudo-Dionysius, you begin to realize that being lost doesn’t have to be a terrible thing. Rather, it can be the very circumstance needed to encounter that which is true, divine, and lovely.
It leaves me lamenting the passing of the mystic as a vocation. The work of pursuing mystery, residing in thought and contemplation in a non-academic, non-analytic way, is both critical and something I feel drawn toward. In some ways, the vocation still exists; I could pack my stuff, head to a monastery, and hermit it up. But for those of us who naturally lean toward relationship and practicality, we are left wondering how to encounter meaning in the felt aimlessness of our journey.
The quick answer for many is “religion.” But, as we saw with Phillip Patterson, those structures and beliefs represented by the word “religion” aren’t for everyone, and they’re not always for me, either. This is where mindfulness practice provides solace. Using physical action to become present, to encourage myself to inhabit my space as wholly as possible at any one moment despite all the confusion and fear that rises from the feelings of not belonging, is to participate in the idea of the modern mystic. It’s what Patterson was doing all along. Still, even the practice must be handled with grace and patience, as being present is difficult; the awareness of how un-present we tend to be is actually hilarious.
I’m lost, and the possible solution involves holding my beliefs with care and examining them, noticing their faults, their quirks, and their value. Mindful awareness, the act of resting in what is, can lead to uncovering and dusting off the beliefs I hold – about religion, about myself, about everything – and thereby allow me to put my tension and my hope in conversation. In those moments, I can begin to notice how “small my beliefs really are” and how much potential resides in the looking, in the lost places, in the act of noticing my breath even when I can’t get a grasp on anything else. I, too, can become a mystic by resting in the notion that knowing can come from not knowing, and that truly, “not all those who wander are lost”
Since moving to Denver I’ve been active in a church called AfterHours Denver (AHD). It’s weird. We meet in a bar three times a month for fellowship and to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to be included in sack lunches. Every day AHD and its partner groups meet in Civic Center Park to distribute up to 150 lunches to the people who congregate there or who are passing through. Communion is also offered in the form of bread and grape juice.
That’s it. It’s weird. There’s no building. There’s no paid staff except Jerry. There’s service and there’s fellowship in the name of Christ.
A common criticism of AHD often comes in the form of a question: “What are you doing to address the root causes of homelessness? The poor don’t need a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” It is an important question. It is a question that I, myself, have asked. It is also a question that can be cynical. When I have heard it, it is often delivered in a tone that says, “so what?”
The answer is, ‘nothing.’ “What are you doing to address the root causes of homelessness?” Realistically? “Nothing.” So, if the answer is nothing, then who cares? Why continue to do it? I mean, other than the fact that most people like to have something to eat for lunch?
What I intend below is a quick look at AHD and its mission as a movement of Christian hope.
I follow Soren Kierkegaard’s (SK) expansive treatment of hope in his book Works of Love. In it he deals with hope not as a feeling but as action. For SK, hope is “to relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of the good” (249). Importantly, SK points out that hope cannot be put to shame. Even if what is hoped for does not come to pass, still, hope remains intact. This is because the action of hoping for the possibility of the good, a good which may not exist in present time, itself creates the good (296). In the face of crushing poverty this is perhaps not quite satisfying. But hopefully the sandwich adds some tangible satisfaction.
Hebrews 11:1 teaches that faith is the constancy for what is hoped for. To ask the question alone, “do the poor need a PB&J,” and not to participate in hope is to hope nothing at all, is to lose faith, and indeed is to sink into despair (248).
Going out into the park every day, sustained by the Spirit, in communion with homeless women and men, springs out of a constancy of hope. It is a work of love from love, an act of faith from faith. Far from doing nothing, this daily action creates out of nothing a new reality, community, and awareness.
Without public meetings among the poor, the root causes of homelessness will not be addressed. Awareness is the very beginning of the movement to address social problems. In a society in which most wish not to see the poor, in which individuals dismiss an area as dirty or off limits because homeless women and men sleep in doorways — some actively go to the poor, ask them to gather together, and interact with them as individual human beings and blessed creations of a loving God.
The best case scenario is that those who gather are brought to a new consciousness. They come to be awake. If the Spirit of the divine is involved in the least then their being is transferred into a state of aletheia: unconcealedness, disclosure, all truth. Their world experiences an apocálypsis, not a literal destruction but a revelation that destroys preconceived notions, an un-covering, an end to a time in which the reality of the world as it exists was hidden to them. They may experience a re-birth and perhaps take a step on the road toward Christian Discipleship. They may ask, “why do these conditions of poverty exist,” “why have I not come to terms with them until now,” “why have they been hidden from me?” This new awareness may lead toward action addressing homelessness itself.
Worst case scenario? Someone who’s hungry gets something to eat.
When I was small, my dad would occasionally wake me up on Saturday mornings and ask if I wanted pancakes. It was a wonderful question, though an unnecessary one, because what kid turns down pancakes for breakfast? “That’s alright, Father. Just my regular toast points and cottage cheese with a side of honeydew. Fresh squeezed grapefruit juice if you’re so inclined to earn my love this day.” (I hate everything in that meal except toast, by the way. Toast is boss.) So, I would respond like a child who knows maple syrup is manna from heaven/Canada, hurriedly dress, and wait impatiently at the dining room table. He would bring out the utensils first, then the butter, and finally the syrup. This was key, because while he brought out the other accouterments as he was cooking, the syrup came out only moments before the pancakes themselves. He would carry a plate holding a steaming tower out of the kitchen and set it on my place mat. It sat there for a moment, fogging up my glasses as I inched my face closer and closer to take in the aroma, and then my dad would start cutting. Taking a fork and knife, he sectioned off the stack into neat, orderly rows and columns, leaving a stack of perfectly square pieces. It was beautiful. Carefully poured syrup would slide so neatly between the cuts, touching each piece on its way to the surface of the plate below. Each individual bite was as good as another, and I savored them all one by one.
I still cut my pancakes this way, and I’m convinced they taste better when the ritual is followed. Logan visited me in Nashville recently, and he became noticeably excited when I suggested we get breakfast out one morning because “I get to see you cut pancakes.” It’s a running joke for those around me, and I’m okay with that. It is a bit ridiculous, but it’s my ritual. And that’s what makes the difference here, the ritual. It’s a tiny one, but one that still represents so much. I don’t think about its meaning each time I sit down to a short stack, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. My father, unwittingly I’m sure, instilled love and care into a simple meal and its even simpler preparation on random weekend mornings so long ago. I know he did it to make it easier for me to eat, which is why parents cut up any number of foods for their kids. But I still do it; not for convenience, but because it’s a ritual that holds meaning. And really, any ritual worth its salt is inherently about meaning-making. I started thinking about this after hearing a delightful interview with Jerry Seinfeld on Morning Edition last week as I drove to work. I found myself nodding and smiling the entire time he spoke about his relationship with coffee as something that has an elegant way of positively shaping one’s time socially and personally.
Coffee has become that for me in adulthood as well. Seinfeld’s right to note how we use rituals like sharing a coffee and a conversation with someone to set these wonderful spaces apart from the rest of the day. If you let it, the ritual carves out a niche where you can simultaneously hide from the world and be more fully part of it. You’re in it; you’re giving definition to your time and the act at hand. Rituals, especially the little ones that we connect to things and people we love, are constantly pushing us to shape how we navigate the myriad of choices and options open to us as modern, busy people. So, even though cutting pancakes into crisp, exact lines or letting the slow wafts of steam envelop your face before taking that first sip of bold, black brew are tiny exercises in making meaning, they are fraught with meaning nonetheless. And honestly, that’s about as holy and pure as anything else I can think of.
Today was an interesting day, church wise.
I’m a member at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Denver, Colorado where I’m also the volunteer coordinator for the Sunday Meal Program (SMP), which needs a new name. Each Sunday morning St. Paul’s serves an average of 150 meals to the homeless and food insecure of Denver.
Monday through Saturday around 40 locations are available to grab a free meal across the Denver metro. That number drops to 5 or 6 on Sunday. Why such a dip on Sunday? Without delving into it, I’m not sure if religious obligation trumping the command to be merciful is at play here, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I won’t go down that tangent for now, but suffice it to say St. Paul’s program is a vital resource for those who might not otherwise find a place to eat on Sunday.
Much of the food we typically serve at SMP is sourced from food banks. While this allows us to provide a meal each Sunday at a very low cost, often the food itself is low quality, and it is almost never what anyone would call “breakfast food.” Honestly, it can be a pretty dreary affair. No one is particularly overjoyed to be there. Considering what the very part-time chef has to work with, it’s kind of amazing that the food is ever better than simply edible, but it can still be pretty so-so.
Let’s just say it isn’t exactly going to lift anyone’s spirits.
So, as a test case, this Sunday we wanted to take out all the stops and provide breakfast for our guests, with the goal of having real breakfast every Sunday. With the help of a member or two, a good guy named Adam who is passionate about serving those in need, a big donation from out of state, and a lot of work by some free range Gunnison, Colorado chickens, we were able to serve 170 meals of scrambled eggs, french toast, cheesy potatoes, and biscuits and gravy, with coffee, orange juice, milk, cookies, syrup, and ketchup on the side.
Our guests raved about the meal. I’ve been helping coordinate SMP for a few months now and I’ve never heard anyone say, “great breakfast.” We get thank-yous. But today not only did I hear “thank you,” I also heard, “That was the best breakfast I’ve had… ever,” and “My favorite breakfast is the ‘big breakfast’ at McDonalds, but this blows that out of the water,” and “I think I’m in a food coma,” and “Gimme some more a them eggs, bro,” just to quote a few. Simply by providing breakfast foods, coffee, and orange juice the spirit of the place lifted, conversations became livelier, the space filled with joy and noise from everyone talking and laughing.
It’s amazing what a few (28 dozen) eggs can do.
We didn’t solve any of the problems of homelessness that our guests deal with each day, but we did create a safe space for a few hours, filled bellies, lifted spirits, and — I hope — saw each guest as an individual loved by the divine, so they might feel love that they so rarely feel when objectified in the eyes of the world as the poor, dispossessed, unwashed, and unwanted. It is a start, at the very least. And it is also our end.
After finishing the disembodied beard, the design gracing the top of this page, I immediately thought “stickers”.
Today I’m pleased to announce: we have stickers. They come in 1.5” and 3” varieties, available from Zazzle.com. I have some and they’re great. Shipping is a little expensive, unfortunately, so you may want to get more than one sheet at a time.
In future, I’d like to find a cheaper option where we can print this and other products in bulk and sell them directly without a middle step. But for the time being this is how we’re going to roll. If you get some and you like them, please show us what you deface (face?) with them and we’ll share it with the rest of our readers.
We love to share.