January 23, 2013 / Creative Writing
“She could no longer hold her flesh together,” observes Tania Runyan in her description of a bronzed statue of a woman carrying “the heft of the commandments,” her mouth open in a silent, graven prayer.
December 15, 2011
After dinner I get a call from one of the homies: towering and tattooed Teddy. While working as a jail chaplain with Tierra Nueva in Washington State’s Skagit Valley, I found myself being adopted as the pastor of a network of Chicano gang members. The first two times I met Teddy at these midnight gang meetings, he nearly assaulted me. He was drunk at the time, but that same boldness is what he would need in the coming years to break from the gang lifestyle. It is what he would need to fearlessly go after the love he sought. Now he lives in our ministry apartment, in my old room. As the phone rings I put on my coat and take the phone, with my glass of wine, out on my small porch.
Maybe a month ago, and almost overnight, Teddy began experiencing a vibrant presence, what charismatic Christians might call strong manifestations of the Spirit. After years of accompanying Teddy—through the streets, courts, and jail, regularly praying with him as his pastor— something finally caught fire inside of him when my coworkers prayed for him only a few weeks ago. Teddy called me stammering that first night.
“What the hell is this?”
I tried to name the mystical phenomena. Sensations of bodily heat, uncontrollable laughter, weeping—anything can happen when you connect with high wattages of holy love. I confessed to him that I’d never personally felt the waves of “electricity” he was describing to me, almost with fear.
“Shutthefuckup!” he marveled.
The next call I got was Teddy telling me he wanted to formally leave the gang and then that he wanted to move into the Tierra Nueva building as his permanent family home. I used to text message him when I worried about him, when I couldn’t find him. My texts would buzz in his pocket, out in the night somewhere, often drunk and despairing. But now he texts me—with theological questions. Tonight he had another one for me.
“What up, fool? What’s cracking?” he greets me casually. I tell him it’s snowing outside. The world is blanketed and quiet. Teddy makes me laugh with an improvised rap about how much he misses me, and then he gets to the nitty-gritty. Which is normally my move.
He asks me what I think about the Second Coming.
“So, do you think it’ll be in our lifetime or what?” he asks me with a little intensity.
Like abortion or gay marriage, I know how the matter of Christ’s Second Coming can become a divisive issue, a spiritual litmus test for different religious camps. Damn it, I think. Right after an authentic encounter with the Spirit, the end-times zealots got to him.
I take a deep breath and try to engage the question. I attempt to emphasize the mystery of it all. I tell him that it’s about the waiting. Like Advent before Christmas, where we rehearse the anticipation for the Messiah who first came to us as a migrant baby to a migrant mother.
“Uh huh,” he says patiently.
I tell him there are a lot of ways to interpret the return of Christ, though, even within the New Testament.
“Yeah, I see what you mean, bro. But like—” and I think we’re already hitting the same lame stalemate that has slogged down too many tired Christian debates in my lifetime—tense combats that leave little room for wonder. My heart sinks. But Teddy’s voice picks up energy: “I guess what I’m saying is, if Jesus Christ, in his own physical body, dawg, was right in front of you—what would you do? I mean, what would you say?”
I try to imagine my wonder: standing before the Jesus I proclaim, study, and try to imitate, like a hero. My chest begins to throb as I visualize the Galilean walking down the street toward my porch. But I catch myself. In my undergraduate thesis I argued that most people today, in both conservative and liberal circles, and especially Christians, would not recognize Jesus—just as God’s own people didn’t recognize him the first time. Though it’s temping for us Christians to think we’d welcome our Savior with high worship, falling on our knees like the hymns teach us, I’ve often thought we’d more likely see him as a blasphemer and an arrogant threat. I fear that we would lobby to get him arrested in order to preserve our tradition and values and way of life. The book of Revelation says the Lion will again come as a Lamb, and lambs get slaughtered. This is the terrible judgment upon us.
But before I can figure out a way to share this with Teddy, he’s moved on. He’s already caught up in the thrill of what he awaits. I missed my chance.
“Fool!”—his voice is gaining that breathy excitement I have heard other times when he gets really worked up about something—“I’d be like—damn—like ‘Wassup, fool!’”
I can tell he is not trying to be cute or funny. Teddy’s sincere voice cracks to a high pitch on that last word, like a little puppy’s sudden yelp when it sees the caretaker who loves it finally walk through the door. Teddy’s voice trips over itself in the same way, in his giddy imagination.
“I’dbelike—I’dbelike—fool, wassup, nigga!” (Is it OK to even say that? I think) “and . . . and . . . I’d give him a big-ass homie hug. I think I’d cry and laugh and, I don’t know, maybe pick his ass up and throw him in the air! I’d be so happy.”
I have to set my wine glass down in the snow, I’m laughing so hard. I’ve never heard eschatology like this. Not sentimental nor cynical. Teddy was not interested in the End of the World, necessarily, only when the person of Jesus might be arriving. It was an Advent hope that took my breath (as well as his, it sounded like) away.
“It sounds like how you’d greet a best friend who you haven’t seen in years,” I say as I smile and take another sip.
“Yeah, I mean, pretty much. I trip out just thinking about that, you know?”
As I walk with the phone out into the snow, I start thinking that in the First Coming, the Second Coming, and every coming in between, the Son of Man has probably longed to be received in this way. I know what it’s like to be picked up by Teddy. To see him light up like he’s won the lottery and give me a love-throttled roundhouse handshake that nearly knocks me off balance before he grips my hand and yanks me into his large, very teddy-like torso. That’s why I call him, why I seek him, why I give him everything I have at times. Same with most of the gang members who I’ve met through my work with Tierra Nueva: that’s why they go home to the gang and not to their parents or girlfriends or to their teachers’ classrooms. To be received in such a way can change everything.
Maybe that is why the angels first appeared at night to the shepherds. Or why the grown-up Jesus spent so much time with the outcasts. Or why he says that when he comes back he’ll come “like a thief in the night.” He knows who he wants to bump into first.
Chris Hoke recently moved to Missoula, Montana, for a one-year sabbatical with his new bride, Rachel Beatty. He has spent recent years working with gang members as a chaplain in the Skagit County Jail with Tierra Nueva Ministries. Chris is currently corresponding with his friend, a Chicano gang leader in solitary confinement, to co-write their first book, Thicker Than Blood: Gangs, Trauma, and the New Family of God.