lenten journal: only human


    Last fall, when we were just getting the restaurant at Duke going, serving fifty people felt like a busy night. We wanted to be busier than that, but when we were averaging about thirty-five, fifty felt like a lot. Last Wednesday night, we served one hundred and eight people in a little over one hundred and eighty minutes. It was the third time in three weeks we had gone over the century mark. Needless to say, I came home tired. Our slow nights now are in the sixties; average closer to seventy-five. Tonight we served over ninety but the new thing was it didn’t feel hectic and busy like the other nights when got close to a hundred covers. I knew we had sold a lot of food, but my body didn’t feel tired like it did last week.

    I suppose it has to do with what we have gotten used to, or what we have come to expect.

    Roger Bannister was the first person to run a mile in under four minutes, which he did in 1954. No one had ever done that before. Within a year of his breaking the barrier, sixteen other runners had done the same thing, as if he had found some sort of gate in the fabric of time and left it open. The current world record for the mile is 3:43.13, set by Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999. In that record race, the person who came in fifteenth ran the mile in 3:53.64. So much for four minutes. Another couple of years and people will start talking about breaking the 3:40 barrier. And someone will.

    We all those that’s-as-far-as-I-can-go lines in our lives; probably more than one. We see the horizon as a limit, rather than an invitation. It’s as far or fast as we can go, as good as we get.

    When I was in seminary, I took voice lessons because I wanted to learn to sing better. I was not a music major, but one of the professors was willing to take me on. After a couple of semesters with him, I continued taking private lessons from one of the doctoral students. One of the lessons that stuck with me was how she helped me visualize a way to sing higher. Rather than talking about reaching the note, she experimented with other metaphors until she found one that let me relax and blow through my own barriers. When I began to think of myself sinking into the earth, grounding myself, and letting the note rise up out of me, I relaxed and hit the notes without strain or struggle.

    It still works.

    One of the most helpful ways I think about Jesus is to see him as the ultimate human being. For me, to take his humanity seriously is to see him as the most human that has walked the planet. We’ve let the word human mean faulty or broken, like the old Human League song: “I’m only human, born to make mistakes.” (Man – I can’t believe I actually made that reference.) Jesus’ self-awareness, integrity, compassion, intentionality, focus, open-heartedness, kindness, forthrightness, and grace were human traits. They are in us as well, much like the sub-four minute mile is in every runner who has ever broken the barrier.

    Being truly human is being whole, not broken.

    Tonight was easy, not because we were somehow exceptional this evening, but because we managed to catch a glimpse of what we are capable of doing. And we prepped hard. And we’ve worked on how to set up the kitchen and talk to each other and plate the meals. What we did to make the evening easier was to be cooks. Good cooks. We did what cooks ought to do and found we could do even more.

    While I was in seminary taking voice lessons, a book came out called The Seven Last Words of the Church, which were, “We’ve never done it that way before.” In all the church-world blogging that goes on – emergent, mainline, and otherwise – there are a lot of good ideas, yet I’m often troubled by the tone. We somehow feel we need to castigate who we are as the church (or what someone else is doing) in order to think about who we are becoming. We come up with new labels, new buildings, new models, new slogans – all of them with historical antecedents. The discussions are good and interesting and, sometimes, even hopeful. Yet I hear the same mistake as the song I quoted (dare I label it Human League Syndrome?), because we keep talking about how flawed the church is because it’s made up of human beings.

    What if we chose to look at our congregations of people as the reason for hope, rather than that which has to be overcome, or corrected, or fixed. What if we chose to be as human as Jesus in our dealings with one another? We might find love and trust are way more original that sin has ever been.

    Should you be tempted to write me off as an idealist, let me say this: I can think of nineteen places I would rather go than a church committee meeting. Part of the reason I am no longer in vocational ministry is my own impatience with the pace of change in most churches. And I believe in the church, that same church, when I’m most in touch with my true humanity.

    You see, I got from the kitchen to the congregation because, on this night when things went so well and we were at our best, I was working on the line with Chef #2, whom I have had to learn how to humanize, as (I think) he has also had to learn to do with me. We have both worked hard and we now work well together, even enjoy working together. My attitude changed when I began to see him as a person, rather than a problem. Writing him off was the easy unoriginal act; finding him and letting him find me has been full of creative, human things, changing both our cooking and our connection. We’re a sub-four minute kitchen, if you will, and still gaining speed.

    Who knows where we’ll go – after all, we’re only human.



    1. “What if we chose to look at our congregations of people as the reason for hope, rather than that which has to be overcome, or corrected, or fixed.”

      We did testimony night tonight at church and I walked out of there feeling incredibly . . . something, something just a bit beyond words for the moment (though, as usual I gave it the old college try!). Then I read the above line in your blog. Thanks for reaching across half a continent and naming that experience. Powerful.

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