Social Graces

 Some years ago I flew from New York, where I lived for several decades, back to Oklahoma, where I grew up. I stopped at a Starbucks in Oklahoma City, knowing I wouldn’t see another until my return trip. When it was my turn at the counter, I told her what I’d like, size of cup, kind of milk, sweetener (none for me), flavor (ditto)—as one does at a Starbucks. She looked at me and said, “How are you today?”
    I’d forgotten that step.
    We don’t ask people, back in New York, how they’re doing. We don’t have time; it’s part of the pulse of the city, it keeps going and if you can’t keep up you probably should move elsewhere. A hamburger joint (that was it’s name, hamburger joint) had a handwritten list of options for your burger, followed by the admonition that it you didn’t know what you wanted you should go to the back of the line. It was rude and wildly popular; one almost never found an open seat.
    But in Oklahoma and places like it (Texas, for example), you don’t start with what you want, you start with that social grace. It’s a courtesy that recognizes the humanity of the other person, and even if the courtesy is merely formal, it still does good. That is to say, the young Oklahoman at Starbucks who inquired how I was doing probably asked her question without it being, as it were, a serious question. Still it was a pointer to the reality that I was more than a mere consumer, and she more than a mere dispenser.
    It’s an interesting term, “social graces.” Grace is a gift, unearned and undeserved. Social graces are the gifts that we give each other in society. When we are at our best, we give them to others for no other reason than that we are fellow human beings. Social graces are lubricants that carry us forward, even when we are distracted or bothered.
    What do we say? They “take us out of ourselves,” which is itself a peculiar conception. For where do I find my “self”? Is my self somewhere inside my skin, perhaps in my chest, or maybe in my head? It might be better to say they take us to where our self really is, which is not inside us, but in communion with others.
    Of course, the most fundamental grace of all is the gift when God calls our name and says, “How are you today?”
    Out & About. My sermon on Pentecost—which, on baptism, is really on the strangeness of God who both speaks to us and “blows” us—is here: With thanks to Robert Jenson, the Trinity becomes interesting indeed.

Mad Scientist

“Has anyone ever told you you look like a mad scientist?”
    It was coffee hour. The questioner was maybe 20 years old, maybe 15. I can’t tell anymore.
    Hearing a negative reply, she said, “Well, you do.” And after a bit of silence, she went on: “And that’s a compliment.”
    Compliment received, I inquired their names (she was with a young man, younger than she to my eyes, but again, I can’t tell anymore). And I wondered what it meant, to look like a mad scientist, and for that to be a good thing.
    Well, I thought, at least they didn’t say I look like Jesus.
    But what does it mean to look like Jesus?
    Jorge Luis Borges, the great, blind Argentinian writer of short stories, has a parable called “Paradiso, XXXI, 108.” The title references a line from Dante—“was this, then, the fashion of thy semblance?”—a question posed by a traveler who beholds the image of Christ on the cloth with which, in pious story, Veronica touched his face as he carried his cross. Borges’ parable is about our loss of the face of God. We once had the image, but now it is gone. There are hints, but we lack the full image. “Paul saw it as a light which hurled him to the ground; John saw it as the sun when it blazes in all its force: Teresa of Leon saw it many times, bathed in a tranquil light, and could never determine the color of its eyes.”
    Yet there is a marvel that Borges sees in our loss of Jesus’ image. Anyone might be a bearer of some feature that was also Christ’s. “A Jew’s profile in the subway is perhaps that of Christ; the hands giving us our change at a ticket window perhaps repeat those that one day were nailed to the cross by some soldiers.”
    Indeed, “some feature of that crucified countenance” perhaps “lurks in every mirror.”
    To look like Jesus is a possibility latent in every human being.
    How does Jesus look? He looks human. In him is revealed what it means to be human. All of the rest of us fall short; sin keeps us from being fully human. But despite falling short of full humanity, we still carry the possibility of looking like him.
    Even if we look like a mad scientist.
    Out & About. This Sunday, the Day of Pentecost, I am to preach at Incarnation, 3966 McKinney Ave., Dallas, at the traditional services at 7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m.

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The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: