We’d taken a road trip to Memphis to hear Guster play at the New Daisy Theater. Rebecca‘s parents offered to let us crash at their house. Driving back to Nashville on Sunday afternoon, I tried to catch up on some homework. My Faith & Fiction class with Dr. Matt Hearn and Dr. Gary Holloway was reading Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal.

The book is Nouwen’s long mediation on Rembrandt’s painting by the same name. The painting changed Nouwen’s life, and his meditation changed mine.

I’ve spent the better part of my life believing that I am a constant disappointment to God.

He gave his only son to save us, and I repay him by cheating on him, fooling around with other gods. I always imagined him sighing like the parent of a college flunkie:

“Son, your mother and I have made sacrifices so that you could get the best education possible. This is the third semester in a row that you have failed your classes, and frankly, I’m disappointed in you. I’ve about had enough. We’re going to give you one more shot, but if you let us down again, you’re on your own. We’re pulling the plug. Do you understand?”

I felt like I was letting God down on the time. I tried and tried to do better, be more disciplined, keep a tight rein on my sins, but as Paul so eloquently explains sin at work within us in Romans 7: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Put simply, the Spirit used Nouwen’s warm, generous words to help me understand and experience my belovedness in God’s sight. He welcomes me into his heart. He tells me that I am worth the blood of Jesus. He calls me by name. He has been watching for me for months, and when he sees my familiar figure in the distance, He lays aside his dignity, picks up his robes like a skirt, and sprints for me. He embraces me, showers me with kisses. He pours out his extravagant love, and I am overwhelmed.

How can YHWH, the Creator God, the Alpha and the Omega, invite me to dine next to him at the wedding feast of the Lamb? When I slip through the door, believing that I am unclean and unwanted, He shouts, “Austin, come over here. I’ve saved you a seat.” He runs over, locks an arm around my shoulders, and introduces me to all the guests, “This is my adopted son, Austin. He is like no one else you will ever meet. He is one of a kind. I am so proud of him.”

The romantic poet William Blake, who is himself one of a kind, talked about bearing up under the ray’s of God’s love for us.

We will spend the rest of our lives learning to receive God’s love.

Nouwen sharing his heart was a turning point on that journey for me.

Riding in the back of that car on the way back to Nashville, I cried tears of joy, for God’s love is true. His love is Reality.

The parable in Luke 15 is really a story about a loving father. The gospel story of our loving father. Jesus is the way home. A phrase from the book put words to a vague ache I’ve felt for as long as I can remember: “the yearning for a final return, an unambiguous sense of safety, a lasting home.” We are all haunted by an existential homesickness. Whether we know it or not, we long to rest in God. He is our true home.

Nouwen understood this, and for that, I am thankful. I look forward to meeting him one day.

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Bratislava

March 7, 2009

I wanted to spend the last of my Slovakian korunas before we left Bratislava, so I bought some pipe tobacco I didn’t want. Who knew when I’d be back. We found a restaurant called the Blue Moon Café and ate dinner outside underneath a striped awning. Dusk fell on the street. Still fresh to new to the art of being respectful in other culture, we were too loud and attracted attention. People looked right through us as though pretending we didn’t exist, or they stared openly with smugness or disdain. We were noisy primates at the zoo, rattling our cages. Their unsmiling mouths and sharp eyes communicated no curiosity. I guess they thought that they already knew all about us—ugly Americans. We carried cameras. We ordered too much food. We spent money just to get rid of it.

We rarely encountered open hostility. Most of the time, we could slide through the open spaces without feeling eyes on us, without feeling self-conscious. I got the feeling that to the Viennese, the Parisians, and the Romans American tourists, especially college students, are a necessary evil, helping the economy while spoiling the local flavor.  

We were young and green, as far as traveling graciously and inconspicuously goes, and we wanted to enjoy ourselves, to savor our Wiener Schnitzel and knödel, to smell the zinnias in Salzburg and the roses at Schönbrunn.

However, while I was developing an appreciation for tapas in Madrid and Bernini’s sculptures at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, I was also developing a taste for anonymity. If Herr Ober wanted to pretend that this flock of caffeinated college students abroad had not just seated themselves and ordered cheese pizzas and tap water, then we could pretend his long absences were a very professional austerity and respect for our privacy. Being ignored is a sort of freedom. Even more, what if after awhile we just blended in? What if we spoke in German?

We finished dinner at the Blue Moon Café, and I walked with Josh Elmore and Brandon Lokey back to the train station. People were waiting for their buses in the sheltered stops. His back to the road, a homeless man had pulled himself into the fetal position to fit on the bench. His pants had come down, and his dirty butt crack frowned at us.

A few benches closer to the station, a woman sat with her knees far apart bracing herself with her arms on the bench. She had a look of concentration fixed on her face, but she was gazing at nothing. Another moment, a few more steps, and I understood why. I heard a sound that did not fit in—water hitting a hard surface. The woman was urinating—in public, in plain view.

She sticks in my mind like a splinter. I cannot say I thought much about it then. I’ve seen plenty of homeless men relieving themselves behind dumpsters, in parking garages, and against the nearest wall. So, we passed by the woman, made sure not to stare, and found the bus that took us to the other train station across town where we could catch a late train back to Vienna. I was happy to hear German again.

I did journal about that woman later:

Another, a woman, fastened her eyes somewhere far away until they glazed. She sat with her hands propped on either side as if she would fall without the support. Her rigid form would not have attracted our attention had she not been urinating. Liquid splashed to the ground through the slats in the bench, spreading a dark puddle on the concrete. She wore a sweater and skirt. My heart sought to help her somehow, but I could not, for I was intimidated by something I had never witnessed and never wanted to witness again.

We told the story to the other students, and they, of course, responded with disgust. I cannot remember where we were, if we were eating dinner or walking and smoking pipes or having dessert in a room with centuries-old frescoes and vaulted ceilings. We probably finished our coffee and torte at Hotel Sacher or Hotel Imperial and went outside to breathe the magic of the opera house, Jugendstil architecture, and Stephansdom. Pistachio gelato and Gustav Klimt, Red Bull and Kinderpunsch, shopping at the Rathaus Christmas market—we were too busy making memories.

Now, I wonder where the woman slept the night we told our story about her.

I was alive. I was awakening to see my childlike curiosity fallen asleep beside me. I nudged it awake, and together, with my friends and their curiosities, we rode the Eurail across our years of textbooks, through the history of our collective way of thinking. After sitting through two years of Latin in high school, I was standing three and a half years later in front of the Colosseum. Outside, vendors hawked beaded skull caps and postcards, and inside, tourists stroked the feral cats lounging in the Italian sun. I thought of tigers and mock naval battles and Christian martyrs. A spring semester of art history my freshman year of college then four months later, I saw, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the sliver of atmosphere between Adam’s finger and God’s. God’s breath jumped the lacuna and gave life to us all. The breath of life.

I was thinking recently about a phrase I have heard more times than I can remember, especially in prayers: the less fortunate. Please, God, be with the less fortunate. The least of these. “Please, God, be with those who have less fortune or no fortune.”

God gives and He takes away, but to some does He even give? “I need to refill the honeypot of blessings,” he says to the unborn soul, “but I’ve got to enflesh you before I can go out back. Too bad. Sorry. You were at the wrong place at the wrong time.” And these are the people, these children of God, who end up wetting themselves on a bench in Bratislava. They get the breath of life, but they do not get good fortune. The lucky souls hurry past to their hot meals and warm beds, to their glorious memories still so new that they cannot shake them or the colors will run.

Good thing I bought the Old Dublin pipe tobacco and Danneman Sweets. Did I really need the venison kebabs, rice pilaf, and orange Fanta I ate for lunch? The caviar and sour cream on crepes for an appetizer? The beef filet in herb butter with potatoes, ketchup, and fried champignons for dinner? A Coke? And for dessert blackberry jam wrapped in crepes and drizzled with blackberry syrup and topped with whipped cream?

Who is responsible for the man curled up on the park bench? Me or God? What about the woman urinating on herself in public?

I cannot shake the image out of my mind. I will never see her again, but I will see someone like her. I will do something about it this time. I think God gave himself to us in Christ so that we can give ourselves to the least of these.

Fly, Man, Soil, Girl

February 24, 2009

Two foxes from yesterday:

· A dead house fly on the sidewalk, his abdomen a lacquered black and his legs sprouting from it like tiny, crooked weeds. How did that fly survive so long in the cold? Where did he come from? Why did he catch my attention?

· An older homeless man with the heebies jeebies. By heebies jeebies, I mean his body was gyrating and twitching as he was walking south on Broadway. I’ve seen him before. Summer or winter, he is always wearing the same clothes—a long-sleeved blue button-up shirt tucked into dark slacks. Black leather shoes. He has charcoal skin, and his hair is gray wool. The way he’s dressed, you might think he was going to make a deposit at his bank, but if you watch him, you will think immediately, “He’s not right. There’s something wrong with him.” He gesticulates, throwing an arm into the air as if to punctuate the climax of an oration. He quivers, and his head jerks to one side. His flesh always seems to be moving. Something tortures him, writhes inside of him. He reminds me that scripture talks about demons. I want to pick him up and carry him somewhere safe. I feel my powerlessness every time I see him. Once, I walked right past him, huddled underneath an awning at Three Rivers Market, his shirt soaked to a dark blue, rain coursing down his face. He held his thin body and

doorway1shivered, and I wonder, What is God’s answer to the question of this bankrupt soul? What is my answer to that, my own question? I am not the Good Samaritan, but I want to be.

Two foxes from today:

· Workmen on Market Square came with tillers and churned the pale, withered grass and packed earth into a rich brown. Spring is coming, and I feel my spirit rise like sap.

· A yellow school bus held up the right lane of traffic as it stopped in front of Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries. A slender girl ran off the bus into the arms of her older sister. I’d never thought about that: homeless families with children who go to school and when their classmates ask, they have to say they live at KARM. They have to say that they’re homeless. I ask God, “Why are children homeless?” knowing that He may never answer. I may never understand, yet I believe that the Father desires that I ask and still trust His Goodness. Mysteries of Mysteries. Lord, please come lift that girl and her family out of poverty. How can I participate in your works of redemption here and now?

Dirty, white sweatshirt

February 19, 2009

I was driving down Broadway yesterday. I’d eaten lunch at home and was returning to the office. A drizzle had fallen all day, one of those days when I don’t mind working because the weather is nasty.

A man and woman were walking across the bridge where Broad arches above the railroad tracks. Each was carrying a black plastic bag in one hand. The man was closest to the road. He was black. His left cheek was swollen, and he had a purplish bruise underneath his eye. Somebody must have punched him.

She was white and pudgy with curly blond hair down to her shoulders. She was wearing a dirty white sweatshirt.

They were smiling. They were holding hands. The pair didn’t seem to notice the damp or the overcast sky or people’s pity or disgust as they drove by. 

The outcasts of our society. Chances are, they suffer from addiction, mental illness, poverty, or a combination of the three. They can carry all their belongings in one hand. Yet, they offer one another a simple token of intimacy. Love finds us all. 

I could be one of them. I was one of them, at least in the existential sense. We’re all searching for a home. We all want to find love. Their affection gives me hope for all of us.

I want to participate. Here I am. Send me.