I’ve been enjoying gettin’ a little funky (for a pasty white guy) with NPR’s Snap Judgment Radio Show – “Storytelling with a Beat”. Their recent episode on Absolution absolutely floored me. Host Glynn Washington told an autobiographical story that made for an incredible illustration of grace, of love begetting love. Glynn was born in Detroit but his family moved to the Michigan country side when he was little. The story begins with little Glynn waiting for the bus on the first day of school:
I stepped on the loud bus and it got real quiet. See, we were the only black folk for miles around. I went to sit down next to a toeheaded boy and he spit in the seat where I was supposed to sit. Everyone did. I kept walking further and further. The bus driver is yelling at me. I finally get to the back of the bus. There’s a little girl with her backpack in the empty seat. I can’t turn around, I just cant. She slides it to the floor and I sit down. We don’t say a word, but we ride. But every day, we never speak, just ride the bus. I find out her name is Mary Jo.
Half way through the year, they switch up the bus route and instead of the last one picked up, I’m the first. I get on an empty bus! And force of habit, I go back to my normal seat. This is rural Michigan and it gets cold in the winter and some people are so poor that their pipes freeze. They don’t have water when they’re getting ready for school. No bathing. You’ve got two choices. You can go to school, stinking of farm, or you can try to mask the smell with cheap perfume. Mary Jo went the cheap perfume route. It smelled like rotting flowers pressed on top of barn filth. Like someone slapped you in the face. Everyone started hollering. She held up her head and looked at the back to the bus, and I turned my head away. I hoped she’d get the hint. I wanted her to sit with someone else. Then she was there, looking at my backpack blocking her. For a long moment, I looked straight ahead. Then, I was so ashamed, I moved my bag to the ground and she sat down right next to me. The bus kids turned around to hold their noses and made fun of her. And they screamed at me, sitting next to her. And for the first time I didn’t care. I didn’t care what they thought, if they punched or swore. I wanted to say something, I wanted to say “I’m sorry” so I said “Hey, my name is Glynn.” And Mary Jo said “I know your name!” And we talked. Two little kids in the back of the bus talking.
We can commiserate with the apostle Peter on this one. We want to associate ourselves with the rich, good looking, successful, hardworking, overachievers not so much the meek carpenter from Nazareth riding in on a donkey and maybe even stinking of “rotting flowers pressed on top of barn filth”. Not wanting the pain, suffering, and persecution that comes with associating ourselves with Jesus. We get a glimpse into our real motives in that moment. Our real theology… one of glory and victory.
And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.”
Yet like both Peter and Glynn, God is gracious. The only thing that can overcome the gravitational pull of control and reputation and glory is being loved in our weakness. The “prior love” that Glynn had experienced from Mary Jo was what inspired him to “take the hit,” to love in a way that he had first been loved. Real victory, in the Gospel sense, is not glamorous. It is anything but. It comes by way of paradox. As usual, Gerhard Forde says it better than I ever could in A More Radical Gospel: “Loser Takes All: The Victory of Christ” (98).
Here’s a raw reading of Forde’s words with a sprinkling of some muddy Delta Blues from Skip James.