One Good Phrase: Preston Yancey (People show you who they are)

One Good Phrase: Preston Yancey (People show you who they are) February 27, 2013

Twice I have had the privilege of eating a meal with Preston Yancey, one of the oldest and wisest of souls around this internet neighborhood. The first time we met in person he came to my house during the Crazy known as dinner time. He is the only (then) college senior male in the world who would have been willing to hang out with a mom of two in her home while little wild children ran like mad, and not be totally uncomfortable. If you don’t know him or his blog, I’m thrilled to introduce you to his brain (and his generous spirit). He’s a good one.

I’ve been play-acting at this way-of-grace thing for nearly two decades now, ever since YMCA baptismal waters and asking the incarnate Messiah of Israel to take up residence in a heart too small to know what it meant to be indwelt with the fullness of God. I say play-acting because I have a loud way about me, an awkward gait of pride and generosity, knowing myself a little too well and then not knowing myself just enough, I’m petulant and petty, but I can alliterate like a psalmist in the summer of God’s grandeur and, I suppose, that’s worth something, at least in those spaces where poetry is still currency.

When I was young enough to be unafraid, when things like tripping over self to co-found a church plant for college students seemed nothing more than a prayer request and an expectation of signs and wonders, when it all came fragmenting apart because people made choices that entangled all of us, choked the threads and then ripped them unravelled, the good word that rattled like copper coin in the tin of my heart was the subtle-stitched wisdom my father told me more than once when I was growing up a melancholy sort, disposed to see more of the dark than the light: People show you who they are.

It sounds cynical, as if from the vantage point of my prophetic security I could scrawl out elder pages of wisdom and preach at the city gate of our enumerated wrongs, call the resistance to my damnation song persecution, and content myself with malice masquerading as awe. I could throw hands up and say that it’s just how these people are on their merry way east of Eden, while my own feet, twisted, stretched, were swallowed in the mire of my malcontent.

But these words were not the cynic’s prophecy but an instruction in grace. When wrong came sweeping fast over the hills of our lives by the hand of those who had already shown us to intend ill, we were not to be surprised. When people who had already done wrong continued to do so, we did not despise them for it. We shrugged, got on with the business of being, kept setting tables and feeding, and didn’t shame the evildoer for his ways.

Play-acting at this way-of-grace.

I’ve come to realise that we have so little power in changing others. We are no one’s Holy Ghost and while we are called to speak conviction, I wonder if we spend so much time with our mouths moving wordless condemnation that we cannot hear Spirit whisper-shout against our own ears. If we could pause a moment long enough, perhaps we would learn that it is possible to go on being even when others are toiling in hate, lack of thought, self-indulgence.

Do you despise someone for being as they have always been? To what end? They have shown you who they are, they have shown you what they are about. What worth is it to wring your heart over and over when their changing is not in your hand? All you have is you, your measure of being, your space of grace.

So you get quieter. Less angry. Less upset.

When the church plant falls apart because people made choices as they had always made choices, you weep a time for the loss of something good, but you forgive them quickly because you don’t despise who they have chosen to keep being. You wait. You make tables, you feed, you open the doors wide and let them stumble stagger back in and you don’t complain about the muddy feet, because you’ve come to expect the mud.

People show you who they are.

And when there is a turn, a change, a moment when Holy Ghost sweeps in and they show a sign of something else, you laugh, and sing, and rejoice. Because He is good and He has done it, but you accept it as surprise. Delight. And if it fades, you don’t begrudge it. And if it continues, you keep on with the joy.

This is how I learned grace. Raw, shameless, grace. The sort of grace that lets people wrong you a few dozen times and yet you keep on setting a table before them, because your cup runs over, because you have been anointed with goodness and mercy, and because there was One, once, who called you home a half dozen times, accepted the mud because there is always mud, and never stopped with the joy.


Please note: I do not want this post to be misconstrued as saying we should not bring those who do evil to justice or that victims do not have the right to share their story. Far from it. I write here thinking of the pettier things, the simpler wrongs, and a way of perceiving suffering that also demands radical grace.

Preston Yancey is earning his Master of Letters in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from the St. Mary’s School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He was just offered an unconditional place in the PhD programme, which he is weighing against moving back to the States and teaching English Literature in a Christian private school. He runs on a diet of caffeine and God’s grace. His first book, A Common Faith: A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again, is under representation with Darrell Vesterfelt and being written now. He blogs here and tweets here.

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