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One evening earlier this year, I was giving a half dozen folks a ride home after a particularly fine meal at one of the Grace and Main hospitality houses. We had had one of our perennial favorite meals: chili with baked potatoes, tortilla chips, plenty of shredded cheese, and more black coffee than you’d likely think reasonable. The potatoes had seemed to bake all day and the chili really had been in the crockpot since about 7 that morning. The coffee was extra strong, just like our folks tend to like it – especially Todd, who counts strong, black coffee as one of a very few things he cannot live without. As I snaked through the neighborhood in the golden minivan we call “Lee,” dropping friends off at their homes or a nearby store if they wanted to get some shopping done before going home, I turned the radio on and began to lapse into a silent reconsideration of the night’s activity interrupted intermittently by contented conversation and warm “seeya laters” as we dropped off each friend.
For whatever reason, I just couldn’t get past the noise and activity of the night’s meal. I had heard so many words, both joyful and despairing, and I couldn’t really find a way to make sense of them all. I look forward to our shared meals, but I often find that I come away with a heart full of other’s worries and fears to mix with my own. I love our community and what we get to do and participate in, but it often brings me into communion with heartbreak that I simply can’t explain away.
I recalled a pair of conversations about shelter: one friend who had new, stable shelter for the first time in a long while; the other friend who had unexpectedly lost their shelter because of a crooked deal with a predatory landlord. Another one of our regulars had had to remind me about how he needed some clothes and I had promised to find some for him with a local partner. “I forgot,” I confessed, “but I can do that tomorrow if you like.” I made a note on my phone, but I continued to turn it over in my mind.
A new guest at our meals, who had only been eating and praying with us for a little over a month, had been especially boisterous at the meal and seemed eager to prove himself to the gathered crowd. With a pat on the shoulder, one of our longtime regulars had quieted his nerves and invited him to share a cigarette on the porch. A few of our developing leaders had let me in on some of the neighborhood news that hadn’t yet reached my ears and alternately gave me a laugh and caused some mild concern for a neighbor who might be sick.
All of this was undergirded by the constant chorus of my dear daughter doing animal noises on request, with special attention given to lion and dinosaur roars. The noise of the meal and the many conversations followed me into the van that night. I decided to drop Todd off last, because we don’t always take the most direct route and because he enjoys the quiet. “Maybe in that companionable silence,” I thought, “I might find some meaning in all of the noise.”
So, we rode along with the radio on and paying little attention to whatever forgettable song was playing. As we rounded a familiar corner on the way to Todd’s apartment—the apartment we had helped him move into after we helped him and other leaders get their slum apartment complex shut down—Todd clapped me on the shoulder with a big grin and said, “The Spirit just came over me, Josh.” Just a few seconds later, with the hint of laughter at the foundation of his deep, bass voice, he added, “You know how that happens sometimes?”
Shocked out of my hurried recounting of the night’s activity, I worried that I had missed something in my inward reflection. Anxious that I might have missed some holy moment and eager to catch up, I stalled with the first question that popped to mind: “Just now?”
“Yeah,” Todd responded, with a quiet, common place confidence. “Yeah, just now,” he repeated through a satisfied smile.
“What did the Spirit say, Todd?” I asked, eager to keep Todd talking and hoping that maybe Todd had the words to make all of the disparate parts of our night stick together.
“Nothing much,” Todd admitted, nearly laughing, and added, “just a feeling that it’s all okay, you know?”
“Yeah,” I responded, thoughtfully, and not sure I really did get it. At least not in the same way that Todd did. In the midst of all of the noise of the night, Todd hadn’t found the Spirit like a golden thread running through a dozen conversations. He hadn’t found the Spirit in the holy intersection of God’s lavish providence and the world’s inexhaustible need. He hadn’t found the Spirit in the voice of a friend or a stranger, waiting for him there with a truth of which he needed to be reminded. No, the Spirit “just came over” Todd.
Todd didn’t find the Spirit, the Spirit found him. And when it found him, it didn’t draw meaning out of the noise – not this time – but left him with a wordless confidence in the goodness of all that had come before and all that was coming. In my search for a word or words to ponder in my heart and make sense of our work, I missed the wordless Spirit that came over Todd. But to my great benefit, Todd was paying attention and willing to break silence to share something holy. Todd is teaching us to listen to the hum of a dozen conversations and a noisy, shared meal and know that the Spirit is saying everything will be okay, even if we can’t find the words — especially when we can’t find the words.
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