Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Come Sit at the Table, Come Taste Grace w/ Langston Hughes

Thank You, M'am by Langston Hughes


... "Eat some more, son," she said. ... In 1958, the great American poet and playwright Langston Hughes published a short story that traces the shape of grace with astounding clarity and richness ...


Langston Hughes has always been one of my favorite writers since God flipped the switch in me and I actually began to enjoy reading about a dozen years ago. As a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes' jazz poetry brought a verve and fire to writing I had not encountered before and have not forgotten since. 

One of the recent books I enjoyed immensely is David Zahl's 
Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It. In the last chapter, he shares his reflection on one of Hughes' short stories, "Thank You, M'am" (click on the link to read some thoughtful considerations and notes alongside the 3-page story in the PDF), to provide a fresh consideration of what grace is and does. 

The relationship between the woman and boy in "Thank You, M'am" reminded me of Jesus' calling of Matthew (see our Gospel of Matthew series), and the lyrics from the song "Come As You Are" by Crowder that can play on repeat in my mind when I serve the Lord's Supper, " ... Come sit at the table. Come taste the grace. ... "

I needed to read Hughes' classic with these lyrics in mind again as I consider the power of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps you do, too, today.

"Thank You, M'am" by Langston Hughes via David Zahl in Chapter 9: Seculosity of Jesusland from Seculosity


In 1958, the great American poet and playwright Langston Hughes published a (very) short story that traces the shape of grace with astounding clarity and richness, "Thank You, M'am." There are only two characters in the story, a boy named Roger and a "large woman with a large purse" named Luella Bates Washington Jones. Luella is walking home alone late at night when Roger runs up and tries to steal her purse. Before he can get away, Luella grabs the boy and won't let him go. He's in for it, we think. She seems like the kind of lady people used to refer to as a "battle-ax."

Luella asks Roger why he tried to snatch her bag, and after telling a couple lies – which she calls him on – he comes clean: he wanted money to buy a pair of blue suede shoes. Hughes wants to unburden us of our sympathy for this boy. Roger wasn't acting out of hunger or desperation
 – he was acting out of greed.

Roger assumes that Luella's getting ready to haul him into jail, but instead she brings him home with her, washes his face, and tells him that she knows what it's like to want things you can't get. Then, in lieu of a lecture, Luella cooks him a meal, complete with dessert.

Her unexpected behavior has a strange effect on Roger. When they entered her apartment, Luella had laid her purse on the daybed where he could easily grab it and bolt. But curiously enough, he finds that he no longer wants to. Instead, he hears himself ask Luella if she needs someone to go to the store to get her milk. She demurs, filling his plate again:

The woman did not ask the boy anything about where he lived, or his folks, or anything else that would embarrass him. Instead, as they ate, she told him about her job in a hotel beauty shop that stayed open late, what the work was like, and how all kinds of women came in and out, blondes, red-heads, and Spanish. Then she cut him a half of her ten-cent cake. 
"Eat some more, son," she said. 
When they were finished eating, she got up and said, "Now here, take this ten dollars and buy yourself some blue suede shoes." ... 
She led him down the hall to the front door and opened it. "Good night! Behave yourself, boy!" she said, looking out into the street as he went down the steps. 
The boy wanted to say something else other than, "Thank you, m'am," to Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, but although his lips moved, he couldn't even say that as he turned at the foot of the barren stoop and looked up at the large woman in the door. Then she shut the door.

What Roger receives from Luella is the opposite of what he deserved. He broke the law in no uncertain terms, yet Luella responds with warmth, welcome, and even reward. Her reaction lies so far outside the logic of this-for-that as to be absurd. Isn't she afraid of being taken advantage of, we wonder? What about consequences? Aren't her actions irresponsible? 

Luella doesn't ignore Roger's transgression or shrug it off. Nor does she punish him, as she would have every right to do. Because she sees herself in the boy, the intervention she offers goes beyond mere restraint, reaching into the depths of motivation. The counterintuitive treatment he experiences inspires a change of heart in the boy. Sitting there in her apartment, he no longer wants to do wrong. Luella bears the cost of Roger's misdeed, financial as well as relational, and it makes all the difference. 

In a few short pages, Hughes paints an indelible picture of something other than retribution. He captures, in narrative form, the only force with the power to inspire what the laws of control and enoughness command, the kind of love that succeeds where judgment fails, the deeper magic of grace. 

Take note: good behavior does not bring Roger into contact with Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, and it won't bring us there either. Only bad behavior does the trick. Poor performance, not flying colors. Failure. Which is good news for those among us whose scores on the test of life keep getting worse  even those of us who keep getting ensnared by the false promise of seculosity, despite knowing better.

Glimpsed through the lens of a cross, what looks like the end may be only the beginning. The birth pangs of a new pathology, one of mercy – for failed teachers and their flailing students, lonely pastors and their exhausted congregants, addicts and their enablers, Christians and non-Christians, you and me.

+ from pages 180-183 within "Chapter 9: The Seculosity of Jesusland" in Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It by David Zahl

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan 

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