I'd like to steal from myself this week. I've been thinking about how God can move within us and not just outside of us — change more than our minds, but transform our minds by reshaping our hearts. I remembered a story that I'd written about before, and I felt like I wanted to share it again. So here it is, a story retold. It's excerpted from Where the Light Shines Through (Brazos Press, 2005), pp, 16-18:
I knew an Englishman I’ll call Reggie. He told me of an event that still puzzled him. I knew Reggie to be an intelligent and committed person in general, but in telling me this story he appeared more aware and attentive than usual, full of consciousness and sensation. Now Reggie had for some time been an active member of the SWSO (called “Sweezo”), the Socialist Workers Student Organization in Britain. His membership in this organization was a well-considered expression of his theologically formed commitment to social justice. One afternoon (maybe a Saturday cleaning day), he was handing out revolutionary pamphlets to folks in line at the local unemployment office — recruiting for the revolution. Handing out one after another, he was halted by a woman holding a child tugging at her shirt. “I don’t want your pamphlet,” the woman told him. “I want your attention. Here! I want to talk to you. I need you.” Reggie tried to get away to continue handing out his pamphlets. But the woman pulled him back and looked him in the eyes, breaking through his nerve. (It was now time for the brass to be polished.) Reggie pulled himself away and moved down the line, only to turn and see the woman still looking. He walked back.
“What are you looking for?”
The woman seemed to answer by asking where Reggie’s heart resided.
Reggie told me that he had not handed out a pamphlet since. He dropped his pile right there, gave the woman his telephone number and began helping with shopping, errands, and the other challenges of living as an unemployed single mother. He met the woman’s friends. He found himself helping them as well. And a new kind of living began. Reggie began feeling differently about many aspects of his own living. And he knew he was learning to hear the voice of God.
Now, lest you declare the wrong sort of victory here, know that Reggie never really changed his politics. He remained as committed as ever to revolution, but his sense of revolution, both theologically and politically, was expanded beyond imagining. The Holy Spirit was doing something far newer in him than simply changing his beliefs. The Spirit was inserting a texture of responsiveness in him and a readiness to hear that was more like faith than theme. His was a new method for a different purpose.
God happens like that, not first of all in opposition to grand narratives or theological visions, but in the midst of them — upsetting, awakening, making sense. This happening is a touching of sorrow, a hearing of the word, a tasting of food prepared by another, a smelling of who knows what, a seeing of the marks of glory in what we normally consider to be ordinary.
In talking of these sensual implications of the call of God, the mystic Evelyn Underhill put it this way:
His call is very simple, but so very exacting. The response is equally clear. ‘Send me’ doesn’t exactly mean, ‘I’m going that way anyhow. Is there anything I can do for you?’ It means the delicate balance between freedom and surrender, that self-oblivious zest which is the salt of the Christian: will and grace acting together on ever higher levels of cooperative action.
That “self-oblivious zest,” tensed by the simultaneous experience of grace and will, is the experience of God-sensed. It is the inescapable companion to God-thought.
Note: Evelyn Underhill quote is from The Way of the Spirit (Crossroad: 1990 Reprint), p. 151.
Note: My references to Saturday cleaning days and polishing brass are to a parable by Soren Kierkegaard of a coronation of the King of Denmark that is interrupted by a woman with bucket in hand and simple clothing who starts polishing the brass, "because she always cleans on Saturdays." It's a parable of the intractability of the ordinary even as we think only the extraordinary counts sometimes.