Having guts…and the Spirit

Having Guts
This year for Christmas my soon-to-be-brother-in-law, Brian, gave me Stefan’s Sagmeister’s latest work, Things I Have Learned in my Life so Far. The Austrian-American graphic designer is as insightful as he is creative, and it’s easy to see why he’s Brian’s favorite artist.

The book itself is a piece of experimental art; it’s comprised of 15 booklets in a box whose cover is a cut out of Sagmeister’s face. So whatever booklet you place in the front completes his portrait in a different way, and the booklets themselves are based on various art projects he has done over the years. And although I dig the graphics, it’s his short reflection on each project that has captured my imagination.

Today I read the reflection in the booklet titled, “Having guts always works out for me.” This project consists of seven photographs (one for each word in the phrase), beginning with the photo at the top of this journal entry. Here is his reflection:

“Twenty-five years ago I was sitting in the Vienna subway, riding the U4 from Karlsplatz to Meidling, when I noticed an elderly woman take a seat on the far side of the car. She must have been over eighty, dressed in an all-black suit under a black Persian lambskin coat and sporting a giant black hat brimming with red roses. She looked spectacular. Reminiscent of a classic Hollywood star, she carried off the haughty grandeur of Katherine Hepburn and the idiosyncratic warmth of Ruth Gordon…I was overcome by the urge to tell her how terrific she looked but lacked the guts to do so. As I was sitting and contemplating whether I should or should not go up to her, she left the train. Just as the doors were closing I jumped out of the train (it was not my station) and ran after her: “Hey lady! Sorry, sorry…I just want to tell you how fabulous you look.” Her eyes lit up; her entire face broke out into a smile. She loved it. I decided then and there, from that point on, I would do this all the time.”

I love this short piece from Sagmeister, his story just makes me feel good. And it led me to do some theological reflection: Is there any correlation between what Sagmeister calls “having guts” and what the apostle Paul described as “life in the Spirit”?

So here’s a story of my own. I was in my last year of college and living in an apartment with my friend, Matt. Our tenant was a short, lively woman in her early forties whom I hadn’t interacted with much. One day I was heading to class but took a minute to drop off my rent money in her office. I handed her the check and left, yet after walking about 10 steps I sensed that I was supposed to go back and pray with her. (I use the ambiguous word “sensed” which is similar to Sagmeister’s “urge” because it’s at this point that our language begins to break down. We’re not entirely sure how to describe this.) My first reaction was to ignore this feeling and just go to class. I was in a rush, not to mention how silly it would look if I walked back in her office and said “hey, I think we’re supposed to pray together” which would probably translate into “hey, I’m sort of creepy.” But the feeling was overwhelming. So I did it. I walked back (feeling goofy every step of the way), opened the door and said, “I know this sounds kinda crazy, but I think I’m supposed to pray for you. Is there anything going on that you need prayer for?”

Can anyone say awkward?

She stood there for a moment…then did something I didn’t expect. She walked to the door, locked it, pulled down the blind, then slowly turned around and started crying. With big tears in her eyes she looked up at me and said, “Ten years ago today my dad committed suicide.” She went on to tell me that she felt like she was slowly dying on the inside because of the enormous grief she had – yet she didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. I listened for a long time, she cried quite a bit, we talked for a while, then I prayed for her. I missed my class…and I’m pretty sure I was supposed to. A great friendship began that day between me and my landlady.

The urging or nudging that I felt is what Scripture and the Church has taught me to call a “prompting of the Spirit.” And I think this has to do with what Paul meant when he spoke of “life in the Spirit.” You experience this sort of life whenever you’re hypersensitive to the reality of God’s Spirit and you respond to his holy nudgings. Paul’s words and my experiences have convinced me that it’s possible to live and move in rhythm with God’s Spirit.

So it’s natural that I would think of this story when reading Sagmeister, for after the experience with my tenant I decided that whenever I felt that sort of prompting again I would follow it right then and there.

Which brings me to another story that happened a couple of years ago when I lived in Miami. My heart had been growing for one of the rougher parts of the city called “Little Haiti,” so I began once a month having a friend drop me off there for the weekend. I took nothing with me – no watch, cell phone, money, or I.D. – and I’d stay with my homeless friends, many of whom were old men addicted to crack. We’d sleep wherever we could find dry ground – behind a dumpster, under a bridge, or (my favorite) on the overhang of a Payless Shoes store.

One time a couple of friends from my church joined me for the homeless weekend, including my non-blood sister, Liz Matos. Liz is one my favorite people – she’s a fiery Cuban with a deep love for God and his children. During the weekend her and I spent some time with a prostitute that had worked the Miami streets for 30 years. We sat with her, said a little, and listened a lot. (I spent the majority of these weekends just listening to my homeless friends since many of them haven’t for years had someone treat them like a human being. And as we know, listening is probably the best way we communicate to a person that they’re important.) While she was telling us her story a car with tinted windows slowly drove up and pulled into a near-by alley. The lady immediately knew she had a customer so she told us to give her a few minutes and she’d be right back. (Liz and I hardly noticed the car, but then again, we’re quite amateurs on how this business works.) We both got a sick feeling in our stomachs – one moment we’re talking to this woman and treating her like a child of God, the next moment she’s performing some cheap trick for a dirty John who’s treating her like a throwaway commodity.

But to our surprise she returns after less than a minute. She says to Liz, “This guy wants you to come over to the car, he says he knows you.” You should have seen the expression on Liz’s face! Her sassy side kicked in as she replied that there’s no way on earth he knows her cause she doesn’t work the streets and there’s no way on earth she’s going to his car. The lady begins pleading with her to go because the man promised her $5 if she brings back Liz.

And that’s when I got the nudging again. The sick feeling I had in my stomach turned into an overwhelming urge and I was sure it was the Spirit.

So I told the lady we’d both come with her. Liz looked at me with her big brown eyes wide open. I took her hand and we began following the lady. Liz whispered, “What the heck are we doing?!” and I reply, “We’re going to go tell this man that what he is doing is wrong.” But actually I didn’t have any idea what we were going to do. I just knew we were supposed to go.

When we got to the car a big man inside rolled down the window, pointed to Liz, and said to me, “Is she working?” So he thought I was her pimp! I replied, “No, she’s not working. Neither of us are. We’re both pastors who are down here hanging out with our homeless friends. But what are you up to?” He didn’t know what to say to this. He stuttered for a couple of moments and then asked us if we were cops. I told him no and repeated what we were doing, then asked him again what he was doing. The woman started demanding and hounding him for her $5 so he relented and handed her a bill. She immediately took off to go get a fix. Now the man was left with just me and Liz. I reached into his car with my hand and extended it for a handshake. While he slowly shook my hand I told him our names and asked what his was. He said Angel. (I love the irony). Then I said, “Well, Angel, I want you to know that everything that has just happened is not random, it has all happened for a reason. And the reason is because God wants to say something to you right now. He wants to tell you that he has better for you than what you’re doing.”

The man just looked at me for a moment…then his whole countenance changed. He began apologizing to us and saying that he was sorry for what he was doing. I told him that God is a God of forgiveness and grace and then repeated that “God has better for you than this.” The man thanked us and then said he was going to leave that part of town.

Sagmeister says that having guts always works out for him. I can say that responding to the Spirit’s leading always works out for me.

To be honest, I’m not sure if I can distinguish all the time between whether it’s my “guts” or a “prompting of the Spirit.” However, I’m not sure if it’s all that important that I be able to distinguish, for I’d like to be a person who responds to and acts on both. The first is intuitive and deals with courage, the second is spiritual and deals with obedience, and both are a bit scary and require risk.

I want to be a person who has guts…and lives in rhythm with the Spirit.