One City One Story

Have you ever felt hopeless in communicating God’s love? Have you ever hit a barrier of apathy or antagonism and stopped dead?

What if even people who reject God still need what he offers? What if we can meet this need, and even create recognition of it, with pure compassion?  A type of kindness that could lead to repentance?

Even a city with leadership as secular as Boston can leave clues of what their needs are, if we are a watchful people. Recently they published a short story called “Relativity” by professor and author Daphne Kalotay as part of their “One City One Story” campaign. It’s linked to the Boston Book Festival, an annual event that celebrates everything literary and provides a context for Bostonians to self-congratulate on how cultured we are.

Little did they know they were sowing a type of gospel seed.

I imagine it’s hard to find a story that is fit for all. Our city includes hundreds of nationalities, every socio-economic group, and plenty of history. So “Relativity” stays safe: aging holocaust survivors and a decent man who has just lost a child. How many people can’t find something to connect with there? It’s like the literary version of This Is Us.

Unfortunately, the safety was a noticeable constraint on the narrative. The prose was undistracting, but not beautiful.  The characters were likeable, but I didn’t care what happened to them. Still, there was one remarkable scene, one moment I didn’t expect.

The main character, Robert, has a flashback to the hospital where he and his wife despaired over naming their just-born daughter. The baby’s death is imminent due to birth defects. It’s not that they don’t value her; they love her immensely. But the act of naming feels cruel, pointless in the face of death.

The father remembers an encounter with the hospital chaplain. We are primed to not take him seriously, as he “looked to be in his late twenties, with an unlined face and a shaggy haircut that curled at the tips…an air of leisure about him, as if he had just come in from a round of volleyball.” What does this guy have to do with weighty things? Yet, to Robert’s surprise, his wife calls the young man in.

Now, as the resident of a city that either ignores or rejects Christianity, I was prepared for a caricature. Instead I found a description of what the work of Jesus can look like.

The chaplain looked at the baby, “and it seemed he was no longer simply performing a ritual, nor the automatic motions of his day, but seeing, taking in, their child.” The chaplain fights back his tears and tells the parents that their daughter is like a little jewel. Precious. Robert spends much of the story trying to make sense of his tragedy, and the first sense we get that progress toward healing is made is because “this other person had held some portion of their grief.”

He saw, and he blessed. 

Though we serve a God we cannot see, we serve a seeing God. Seeing reflects his desire to relate to us, his intention to pursue us. One of my favorite places this is expressed is at the end of Exodus 2. Moses paints how Israel got into their predicament of slavery after having been so blessed in Joseph’s rise. Right when things seem to be at their worst, with Moses’s pathetic human attempts at salvation crushed, Israel cried out. What happened? God heard. God remembered. God saw—and God knew.

When Robert’s wife called the chaplain over, she asked him to look at her daughter. It was her specific answer to the chaplain’s question of if he could offer any help. Of course the young man can’t save the girl. He can’t provide silver bullet theology that will take the edge off—nor should he try. But still, the ministry of truly seeing and knowing was one of power. It grieved rightly, and dignified rightly. The chaplain honored that family, and brought relief.

If we know Jesus, we have experienced being seen, and known, and loved. We have his Spirit and all we need to bless in this same way, even in antagonistic places. What person would reject a blessing for their child? Do we think that our coworkers and neighbors wouldn’t respond to being seen, known, dignified?

The gospel of Jesus’s forgiveness-earning death and transformation-securing resurrection is the power of God to save. One City, One Story. In longing to see those around us swept up into the strong love of Christ, the act of seeing can introduce, or remind, the human heart that it aches for this from God and not just from his image-bearers. God has put into your life people only you have access to to bless in this way, and invites you to join him. As Matt Chandler says, if your Christian life is boring, you have only yourself to blame.