This is a beautiful morning in Birmingham. The usually smoggy sky is clear providing something like a stage backdrop for the dancing green leaves growing on the old hardwoods still populating the neighborhood. Last summer, a Ford F250 of urban foresters came through and cataloged all of the old trees, what condition they were in, and their suspected ages. Winged Elm (ulmus altata) split like praying hands to accommodate power lines, common Chinaberry looming protectively above my cottage. Actually an Ent, I believe.
Derrick and his mother came down the street now accompanied by a new baby in addition to the sister. Corduroy growled. That, said Derrick's mom, is not a nice dog. I wanted to come off the porch and do something aggressive. Later, the Holy Spirit said What was it you were going to do, huh? Toddle off the porch and waddle around her a few times? And I laughed. And now I'm laughing at the startling familiarity I have with a God who makes fun of me from time to time. My God. The binder of quarks and the ruler of worlds. Amen, hallelujah.
A few weeks ago, I walked past Derrick's house and saw a bloodied and blistered muzzle pressed through a hole gnawed through the front steps from the dark basement below. A dog left to gnaw his way to sunlight from the dark basement where he lives. His pink nose sniffing fresh-aired freedom greedily as if it were a rare steak just beyond the scope of his reach. Several calls to the animal cruelty office of the BPD and I haven't seen him again. I hope he is ok. I hope the children are ok. The front porch is littered with discarded toys, trash bags, food containers, broken baby equipment. The house is overrun with clutter.
As un-Christian as it is, I think I hate this woman. Gone are the lofty ideas I had for loving her and the hopes I had that her burden would somehow be lighter so that she would feel the freedom to stop calling Derrick names and start being a good parent.
Now, I'm left to consider the cold possibility that rather than working-class stress, her inability to function at a basic level is the result of a not-so-rare-but-not-so-very-politically-correct-to-mention combination of selfishness, commonness and stupidity. In some ways, she's a metaphor for the slow death of my own idealism. I came to this neighborhood for a no-longer neighborhood church that I don't attend anymore with some kind of half-baked hope that I could make a difference here. I recognize the ingredients of that hope now: three parts Wendell Berry, two parts Tim Keller, and half a part each of white guilt and arrogance. My hope fell like a chocolate soufflé baked in a basketball gym.
I didn't expect to be here by now. I didn't expect for God to make a way for my family to thrive here. But he did. And here is where I am. If it's possible, I love this place more than I did before. I love the quirkiness of the city. I love the green of the leaves. I'm learning to love a new church community. And I am grateful for my unanswered prayers. Slowly, slowly, slowly, I'm growing into a new kind of hope for my city that settles not on the vain philosophies of poetry and big-city wisdom dripped down the Mississippi past the Mason-Dixon, but on the notion of the Sovereignty of a God who was and is and is to come. His ideas of urban renewal haven't changed. His ideas of what it means to be a Christian haven't evolved past what I recently heard referred to as "the kind of Christianity that deals with obedience." We've changed. And maybe not for the better.
But now I see that this is the place where I don't pretend I don't hate my neighbors. And this is the place where I don't deny that I'd rather be left alone. And this is the place where I don't try to convince people that it is safe to live in this neighborhood or that I don't feel intimidated when I see a car with tinted windows cruising slowly down my street.
Here is the place where I put to death the hatred and the ungodly introversion, and the fear and exchange them for a raw kind of obedience that does what it should when it doesn't want to. I put death to judgment, to condemnation, to hatred. Of myself and of my neighbor. And I get on with the business of being a Christian planted in an unfamiliar garden, at least for awhile. I repent for now. I'll be back to do it again before lunch.