I have something of an aversion to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Just hearing his name has, in the past, made me feel disgusted. But my disgust, I am realizing, is for myself, that I am not myself Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. His very existence has seemed a reproach to mere mortals such as myself, and I had never intended to be a mere mortal, so the reproach is doubled. And then I have detected a disdain for me in his few interactions with me that I have, in all honesty probably projected on him. So when I say, “Read the latest article by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in the Christian Century!” it is not the inevitable endorsement from a raving fan-girl, but on the contrary, something of a conversion, or at least the beginning of repentance.
I first met Jonathan in Divinity school. I was starting my third year of seminary, serving as senior leadership for an orientation program called Project Bridddge – and he was one of the incoming students. He and his wife requested veggie burgers, and I made the completely asinine comment, “Hey! I used to be vegetarian, too!” Apropos of nothing. Moving in for the quick conversion (my interpretation, obviously), he asked, “Why don’t you return to it?” And I parried, “Oh! I’m standing on the promises.” Like the flip antinomian that anyone who knows me half-well would know that I wasn’t. He gave me the same look of shock and disgust that I felt for myself in this moment. Which means that today I can’t be sure if he really was giving me that look at all, or if I had chosen him to be the mirror for my self-hatred.
Why didn’t I return to vegetarianism? Because my body wouldn’t allow it. Because my hypoglycemia demanded high quality protein five times a day – protein that it would be possible to obtain as a vegetarian if I spent all my energy in that direction, but I was spending 50-60 hours a week on graduate school. So I tried adding fish (in the form of canned tuna and filet-o-fish sandwiches) to my diet and blew past the maximum weekly consumption of mercury in a day. Chicken it was, then. Why didn’t I return to vegetarianism? As Jesus opined over his sleeping disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
I had hoped to get to know Jonathan better – not least (let’s be honest) to correct whatever mistaken impression he might have of my Christian convictions. We had a tradition of first-year Bridddgers (as we called ourselves) meeting with members of the leadership team on a regular basis, as a support group for one another during the stressful transition into seminary. While this was in the hands of the second year students, I was intending to come to meetings occasionally – I love meeting new people, and especially felt gifted for helping shepherd new students. But then, during the first weeks of the semester, I received an abnormal Pap smear result. It was cancer, the nurse practitioner said. Well, not exactly cancer, she backpedaled. Not yet. It would be if we didn’t operate right away. It would be easy, outpatient surgery. No need to call school to a halt. I scheduled it for the beginning of Fall Break, hoping to avoid missing school at all. Instead, I would miss most of the last eight weeks of the semester, due to unforeseen complications – and I would spend every free moment of my last semester finishing my incompletes from the fall. I was so involved in simply getting by that I missed the opportunity to get to know anyone in the Duke Divinity Class of 2006 well. And so Jonathan never became a dimensional person for me, but calcified as a caricature of my failure to live into my Christian convictions.
It was not the first time that my health had gotten in the way of my ability to do the Christian-y things that I had intended, if you include mental health events – and, as my family doctor once reminded me, “Your brain IS a part of your body, you know.” I have suffered from chronic anxiety and depression since childhood, and only relatively recently (in the past 5 years) discovered a medication that works tolerably well for me. I cannot count the number of meetings and classes I missed, projects I did not complete, relationships I sabotaged because of this inadequately treated “mild” mental illness.
But it was the first time that some other part of my body turned on me so significantly that mental stability couldn’t make up for it. The years that have followed have been measured by an accumulation of such bodily insults: another lengthy recovery from an ostensibly “easy” outpatient surgery; gestational diabetes; childbirth; three additional hospitalizations (one for a stroke); one additional outpatient surgery; 4 orthopedic injuries; shingles… Meanwhile, from what I could tell, Jonathan was busy becoming famous for being an outstanding example of Christian doing.
As a cradle Methodist, I was raised to be a do-er. My Pockets magazine was filled with stories of the heroes of early Methodism: feeding the prisoners, preaching to miners in the coalfields, riding horses dozens of miles through snow and rain to visit far-flung frontier churches. I grew up intending to be a hero myself – I would be a do-er! The harvest was plentiful and the laborers few! Stand up, stand up for Jesus!
I was never prepared for the possibility that, more often than not, I might be the one in need of radical hospitality, rather than the one offering it. I can affirm from personal experience that it feels far more blessed to give than to receive – but doesn’t giving require a recipient? When I can’t stand up, is it possible for me to lay on the sofa for Jesus?
I have resisted being honest about who I am and what I am capable of for so long – I have spent far more time alternating between resenting the Jonathan Wilson-Hartgroves of the world and resenting anyone who I could blame for “holding me back” from being a radical new monastic superhero for Jesus. But I am beginning to quiet my own insistence on what color my super-cape is going to be, and instead to listen for what God has done, is doing, and desires to do in and through me – wounded and weary me. And that has opened my ears to hear that Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove doesn’t worship at the altar of his own outstanding Christian example – he doesn’t even feel like he is getting it right all the time – he struggles, too. Imagine that. I can read an article he has written and as a result grow in grace for both him and myself. That is a sign of the kingdom coming.
When we sing to God in heaven, we shall find such harmony, born of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony.
Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.
– Richard Gillard, The Servant Song