In 2010, I wrote this as a submission to a book project best left forgotten. However, I have always been fond of it, even if it isn’t how I would write the same story now, and came across it recently while doing some digital housekeeping. I hope you enjoy it. – HH
I have a confession: I love Johnny Cash. I know, I know, everybody loves Johnny Cash. Now. But not many people were showing him any love back in the early 1990’s. He was washed up. Forgotten. Out of date. Just plain… old.
But I was a true believer. I have always loved Johnny Cash, even when it looked like his career was over. I have digital copies of his entire discography.
Every. Single. Album.
I know the words to all of the songs, even the bad ones (If there were bad ones – a point I am not entirely willing to concede).
I love Johnny Cash.
And I also love my wife. But while my wife and I, like any married couple, have our ups and downs, Johnny and I have never had a bad day. It’s always been smooth sailing between Johnny and me. Johnny has never been upset when I forgot the milk. I have never snapped at Johnny because I couldn’t find my shoes.
But that is because Johnny and I don’t have a real relationship. I never met Johnny Cash. He never knew my name. All I have is his music and the meaning I place on that music and the feelings and emotion I put on him. It turns out, Johnny and I hate the same people.
Meanwhile, my wife and I have a real relationship. On some days it is a lot like heaven, and other days it reminds me of the other place. Sometimes, it’s an act of sheer will to reach the end of the day. But that is because it is a real relationship, involving real people and real pain and real feelings.
In the Gospels, Jesus says the entirety of scripture can be summed up in just two statements:
Love God with all you have in you. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Love God, and love your neighbor. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? I mean, who can be against loving your neighbor? Hearing this over and over in our liturgies and our devotions for over two thousand years, we have lost sight of the radical nature of what Jesus is proposing.
Because it’s not just “Love your neighbor”. It’s “Love your neighbor as yourself”.
What does our loving our neighbor have to do with my love for Johnny Cash?
Simply this: I don’t love Johnny Cash – just the idea of Johnny Cash. And we’re much better at loving the idea of our neighbor than we are at actually loving our neighbor.
In The Brothers Karamazov, a young widow is speaking to the wise old priest. She confesses her dream of serving the poor, of tending the wounds of the sick, of feeding the hungry. But she is concerned: What if the poor are unappreciative? What if they are rude? What if they are petty and demanding? The priest tells her that “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams”.
It is into this harsh and dreadful reality that Jesus calls us.
* * *
Erica is a pain in my ass.
No matter what spin I put on it, she just isn’t a very nice person.
Erica is one of the many at-risk people I work with every day. She is constantly on the brink of homelessness and several times a year ends up in a physical relationship where she gets physically abused. To protect herself, she has learned to be the abuser, not the abused. She is rude and angry and, often, very drunk.
On Saturdays and Sundays, we have ‘Breakfast in the Park’, our little meal sharing initiative where we bring coffee and sausage and biscuits to the park and share with whoever comes. No agenda, other than sharing from our abundance and performing the Gospel in public.
When she shows up, however, Erica always has an agenda. She breaks in line. She pesters folks for money. She bitches about the color of the free jacket we gave her or that Stephanie got a nicer one than she did. If you don’t watch her, she will get back in line, ostensibly to get another jacket or pair of shoes for her ‘cousin’, which will actually end up on Martin Street, traded for her drug of choice.
If that was not enough, Erica is a first class bigot, too. She yells at the Latino men she imagines are trying to cut in front of her. Since Erica is black, this adds a delightful bit of racial tension to our little gathering.
I often wish she would just go away.
Just before Christmas, it hit a new level. Samir is a delightful Indian man who always lives in that gray area between housed and homeless. He is always smiling and happy, and I have seen him take shoes we have given him and give them to someone who needed them more. He is not just a guest of ours – he is also a volunteer, helping us set up the tables and unpack the vehicles. I wish I had 100 volunteers just like Samir.
Erica was at the head of the line. Samir was wrestling the coffee urn from the car when Erica shouts “I don’t want that A-rab touching my food. He looks like a terrorist or something”.
I blew my top. “Shut up! Just shut the hell up!” I shout at Erica. “Samir is my friend and our guest – just like you are. If you don’t want food Samir has touched, you can leave.”
She mumbled something under her breath – I am not sure what it was, but I am pretty sure it was not “I love you”. She took her food and coffee and marched away, quietly, for which I was thankful.
The next week, I saw Erica coming down the sidewalk toward where we were setting up. Samir, who was unloading the coffee, saw her first and pointed her out to me. I thought, “Oh Boy! Here we go again…” I had this bad feeling in my gut – like when you see the train wreck coming, but really can’t do anything about it. But she surprised me.
She comes up to me. “Hugh”, she said. “I owe you an apology. I am sorry for the way I acted last week. I was wrong, and you were right to chew me out. Are we still friends?”
You can look at this one way and believe that nothing has changed. Erica is still a liar and a thief, and her presence still brings tension to the group when she shows up. On another level, she at least owns up to her end of the relationship, and that is not a small thing at all. And I have come to realize I had not loved Erica as I did myself – I only loved Erica as I wished she was. I loved my idea of Erica. No wonder she kept disappointing me.
Several weeks now into this new aspect of our relationship, Erica and I are not yet pals, but we are civil to each other when we run into each other, which is often. Last time I gave her a biscuit, she said thank you and I didn’t want to punch her, so maybe she has traveled a bit farther than I have. But we are working on it.
John the evangelist tells us that God is love, and that God loved the world. If the world has any hope of redemption, that redemption is only going to come about because of love. But not the love of dreams, but the harsh and dreadful love that only comes from real relationships with real people.
Long before we can ever learn to love one another, we are going to have to get to know each other. Even when it is hard.
Maybe especially when it is hard.