Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"I will change!" Part II

So far, I’ve only voted once. I was 21, was spending a lot of time traveling between France and the rural South, was a part of a mostly-conservative Christian organization and the by-definition-liberal Black Student Movement, came from a historically Republican family and had a staunchly Democratic roommate. I felt like there was a war going on and I had friends on both sides.

I made the best decision I could, voted, walked back through campus, and found a tree somewhere to sit and cry beneath. It was a terrible day.

That anecdote is meant as a disclaimer. I am not making a political statement. I haven’t even registered to vote.

Yesterday I got a phone call from Russ, whom I’ve mentioned before, my ol’ KKK friend, the only person who has ever called me some of those racial slurs I’ve only heard in books like To Kill a Mockingbird, who seems to be in a race with himself to see if he can kill his liver or his lungs first. I haven’t heard from him since the Eve Carson shooting, when he called to rant about how that foul young fellow might not get the death penalty since he was too young. I don’t normally look forward to hearing from him.

Russ announced my name (he doesn’t say my name; he announces it) and began. “I’m calling to talk about this here election,” he stated. I took a breath and waited for him to continue. I used to think Russ talked to me and my old housemates to get us riled up. Then when I realized he knew we wouldn’t get riled up and talked to us anyway, I assumed he talked to us to convince us or to have an educated political discussion. Finally, I think I’ve concluded that he talks to us simply because we’re the only ones who listen to him.

“I think I’m realizing that, out of all the damn candidates out there, there is only one who is worth anything. McCain is gonna be another damn Bush, and I don’t want to see him giving all our money to the damn Israelis. Hillary…I don’t know what to think about her. I think Barak Obama is the only candidate out there who is worth voting for.”

I wished I had been chewing something so I could have choked on it.

“Russ…” I started, but didn’t know how to continue. “Well Russ, I had thought you had already done all the surprising me you were going to do, but this is about the most surprising thing I’ve heard all year.”

The 61-year-old Arian Nationalist who has spent 30 years in jail continued to talk about how Obama seemed to be the only one who might be open-minded in international politics and keep us from making so many enemies, and I sat dumbfounded.

I know some people who think Obama is going to be America’s savoir. I know others who think he is the antichrist. Both positions seem just as unlikely to me (and I am amused that the former is given so much more credibility), but hearing a former klansman declare his full support behind the first black presidential candidate seems like it could support either case. One way or another, it spoke a simple message to me in this Resurrection season:

People can change.

Russ is nowhere near a full transformation, and Obama is not going to be the man to give it to him if he ever gets it. Redemption is slow, and it is only ever partially complete. But somehow, maybe partially due to 30 years in prison, maybe partially due to his friendship with a group of young idealistic Christians living in community in the inner-city, maybe due to none of those things, the man who was brought to tears as a boy when he saw his city was going to “go down the tubes” with integration was able to consider a black man to be not as hateful as the other candidates.

If Russ can consider Obama as even a possibility, maybe I, little 25-year-old me, am not as permanently flawed as I often believe.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Surprised by Unrefinement

In the middle of end-of-the-semester chaos and after trying to force myself into the spirit of the Resurrection season after a seemingly endless season of Lent, I found myself deciding to read through my favorite part of scripture--the prophets--in the present tense rather than the future. The redemption they proclaim has happened, or so I am trying to believe.

Somehow that put me in the right posture to listen to an obscure passage in Isaiah with fresh ears. In the center of my most frequently-read book of the Bible, God promises that the plowing, crushing and threshing are not eternal. God the farmer has no desire to destroy his crop.

It is an obvious message, but one I rarely receive. I, unlike God, seem all too willing to thresh the hell out of my soul, assuming the furnace of affliction needs to be awfully damn hot to burn out all the dross. Having come out of some of those fires surprised by unrefinement, I am starting to wonder if God's methods might be a little softer than mine. This passage from Isaiah 28 seems to suggest more moderate methods of refinement. I've never noticed it before.

Give ear, and hear my voice;
give attention, and hear my speech.
Does he who plows for sowing plow continually?
Does he continually open and harrow his ground?
When he has leveled its surface,
does he not scatter dill, sow cumin,
and put in wheat in rows
and barley in its proper place,
and emmer as the border?
For he is rightly instructed;
his God teaches him.

Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge,
nor is a cart wheel rolled over cumin,
but dill is beaten out with a stick,
and cumin with a rod.
Grain is crushed for bread;
he will surely thresh it forever, but not forever;
when he drives his cart wheel over it
with his horses, he does not crush it.
This also comes from the LORD of hosts;
he is wonderful in counsel
and excellent in wisdom.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

"I will change!"

Last year, when my nephew was two, he begged my brother to allow him to join the rest of us in the Ash Wednesday service. My brother explained to his little son that it was a “very serious” service, and if he sat with us he must be very still and quite. The two-year-old gave his word and became the youngest member of the congregation.

He really gave it his best shot and did well during the music, scripture readings and sermon, but by the time the extended prayers of the people rolled around he started getting antsy. At such a somber time in the service, leading up to the extended confession and the institution of the ashes, my brother could only whisper a couple warnings before taking action. He picked up the boy and prepared to take him to the nursery.

“Noooooooooooooo!” the congregation heard my nephew wail. “I will be quiet! I will change! I will be a new boy! Let me stay in the church!”

In a service that emphasizes repentance, what could my brother do? The munchkin repented his way back into the congregation.

I have certainly echoed my nephews wails many times (I once wrote of his longing for “the disobey” to be oooooooooooover… amen to that!). When confronted with my own sin, I am shocked, horrified, and eager to repent. I may not be able to undo my sin, but at least give me the chance to change!

But now I wonder…

What if part of the Gospel, among all the ways it transforms and sanctifies us unaware, is that we do not change? What if those mistakes I repeat year after year will never completely be eliminated, and that is actually good news? When my three-year-old nephew sits in the Ash Wednesday service the following year and requires just as much hushing the second time around, what if that proclaims the Gospel more than his perfect obedience would have?

The resurrected Jesus shouted at his fishing disciples to throw their nets on the opposite side of the boat. They obeyed the potential stranger just as they had three years earlier, and didn’t recognize their Lord until the obedience produced a catch of 153 large fish. I’ve heard many a sermon chiding their continued lack of faith, but Christ (who doesn’t hesitate to chide Peter’s lack of faith that faltered while he walked on water) does not mention it.

Even if they are disciples, they are still fishermen. Even if Peter is the rock on which Christ will build the church, he will stretch out his hands and someone else will dress him and lead him where he does not want to go. Even if my nephew repents, he remains a toddler.

As actors in God’s great drama of redemption, maybe our flaws make us all the better equipped for our roles.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Always Lent but never Easter

I mentioned once that I am much better at Advent than Christmas, with waiting for my Redeemer than rejoicing that he has come. It is even truer that I am better at Lent than Easter, with being broken over my sin than being resurrected in a living hope.

This year Easter didn’t seem to come at all, and I had an overwhelming feeling of being stuck in an eternal Lent. I began to wonder if the redemption I had been awaiting would ever come at all, and for a short horrific moment became almost sure that it wouldn’t. The White Witch has cast her spell as she did in the Chronicles of Narnia, and it is always Lent but never Easter.

In an effort to shift my gears into an illusive Resurrection season at a time when the only thing that seems to be resurrected is my sin, I have been reading the resurrection story from a different Gospel every morning. Today was Luke’s turn, and I read the story of two disciples on the way to Emmaus having heard rumors of a resurrection they had not seen for themselves.

“But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel,” they told the disguised Jesus when he encountered them on the road.

And so did I. I had hoped that he was the one to redeem the city where I lived last year and the flawed soul of mine that stumbles around clumsily into the same shortcomings.

Perhaps when I stumble upon the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, in the midst of my own disappointments of a redemption that never seems to happen, he may “interpret to [me] in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Perhaps my own understanding of the Messiah needs as much modification as those of his confused disciples.

When he bumps into me, I pray my unaware ears be open to allow my understanding of the Gospel to be rewritten.