by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
There is much to cherish in the latest contribution to the The New York Times’ Modern Love column. And, even as I’m writing this, I’m struggling to commit to a single idea or quote from Kim Barnes’ "That Delicate Membrane, the Heart."
My first inclination was to publish this “quote post”:
"At the end of our four-hour conversation, he said, ‘Do I want you to publish this book? No, I don’t. Do I think that you should? Yes, I do.’ It was an incredible gift, a moment of grace I had not foreseen."
At first glance, these two sentences are the sweet hook — gripping and intimate, paradoxical and human. You see, I gravitate toward deeply flawed characters who are difficult and unwieldy. Characters who are hard to like, impenetrable, with a complexity and depth that surfaces in rare moments of redemption.
But, it’s the following passage about Barnes’ father that reminded me of our mission here, that life-altering moments are often informed through faith and a conviction and willingness to submit to that faith. The lesson and true empathy can be learned in the lead-up to these revealing moments:
"We were living in the woods he loved, in the small, isolated community where he worked as a logger and where our family was deeply involved in Pentecostal fundamentalism. As surely as we believed in God and his Heavenly Host, we believed in Lucifer and his legion.
It was during a time of conflict in the congregation that my father was awakened one night by the suddenly cooling air. What he saw in the doorway, he later claimed, was a demon: darkly cloaked, green eyes gleaming, filling the room with its stench.
It was my father’s violent trembling that woke my mother, his quest for enlightenment that led him to lock himself in our makeshift tool shed, fasting and praying, until he heard the voice of God telling him we must leave the woods and never return. And so we did.”
Her father’s decision to move, based on a dream, lays the groundwork for all the events to come and the development of their relationship.
This narrative reminds me of a conversation Krista had with Mel Robeck in a hotel room in downtown Los Angeles a few years ago. He’s a practicing Pentecostal and church historian who told his own version of a vision that came to him in the night:
Prof. Robeck: Well, at that particular time, I had been elected president of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. It was in 1982. And I was really struggling with what to talk about. I was concerned about a particular split between an older group and a younger group of scholars and how they didn’t value one another. And I had been praying and asking God, “Please help me to give a word that will bring some sense of healing in this rift within the society.” And, you know, I was awakened in the middle of the night with Jesus standing at the end of my bed saying to me, “Mel, I want you to talk about ecumenism.” And I said, you know, “Lord, I …
Ms. Tippett: Which is reaching out to other churches.
Prof. Robeck: Yeah. I don’t know anything about this and how is this relevant? You know, I went back to sleep. And He woke me up again with the same words on the same night, saying, “I want you to speak about ecumenism.” And I said, “Lord, you know what our bylaws say. Here I am in the Assemblies of God, and I’m going to get in trouble if I do what You’re asking me to do.” And I went back to sleep. And He woke me up a third time with the same words. And I finally thought, you know what? Here I call myself a minister of the gospel, and if Jesus is asking me to do something, I’d better do it. I mean, this is what I’m supposed to do, huh? And so I said, “Yes.” And I went back to sleep.
I witnessed this exchange in the hotel room and remembering feeling slightly uncomfortable. Why? Mostly my own failings. Being trained to distrust unverifiable narratives like this with supernatural elements, dismiss them as crazy talk.
But we had an editorial discussion about including this story, a deliberation that has had a tremendous impact on me as a professional journalist and a caring being. In this context, it doesn’t matter whether I can verify his story or whether I even believe it to be true. What matters is that Mel Robeck had this experience. Karen Barnes’ father had his experience. And their unique visions were catalysts that prompted them to act, to move forward in a new direction.
These men acted on their instincts and a willingness to step into the breach of the unknown. They set aside a life of certainty and proceeded without a road map, without the knowledge that things would get better, but with hope that circumstances would change. Those are traits I can admire.
(illustration: Christopher Silas Neal/NYT)