Thursday, April 30, 2009

But our citizenship is in...

And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.
I chose that passage from Mark to open up with because I was afraid to even think of the Matthew counterpart: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Yikes.

And as scary as it is (now more than ever) to think about my forgiveness of sinners being so intimately connected to God’s forgiveness of me, I might be beginning to understand it (now more than ever). Christ, we must remember, was not talking to people whose greatest trespassers would embezzle their company’s money or ruin their child’s high school career; many of these people would be killed or watch their families being tortured. And until I watched someone destroy a friend’s life, I never realized how offensive forgiveness can sound in that context.

In that context, as I am forced to live in a world where this person exists and in which I may bump into him from time to time, the thought has dawned on me that I don’t want him to be forgiven. I don’t want God to welcome him into the fold with loving arms. I certainly don’t want God to do that if he keeps sinning seventy-times-seven times. I like the thought of the Kingdom of God being built on the forgiveness of the down-and-out, on the lifting of the underdog; but I have a hard time thinking of so much as sharing citizenship with forgiven killers and rapists and scoundrels, at least when it is my loved ones they might have killed.

On the contrary, if those people are ever to be forgiven, I want it be only after they have realized the extent of their sin. I want them to come face-to-face with the realization of their despicable crime. I want them to bear the responsibility for it at the very least as much as those they hurt bear the effects. I want justice.

I suppose I want a place a lot like hell.

“Hell has been broken,” Christ tells me. “Do you want in?” Forgiveness is a “yes” to that new citizenship, a citizenship that puts me beside forgiven evil people. It is mine for the taking.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

It would figure

Last summer I made it a point to pray for the well-being of my friends and family every day while I was overseas. When I got home, three of my friends went to the hospital (one with leukemia), two were in prison, one lost her mother, and one was walking away from his marriage. After a summer of praying for them by name every day on my walk to class, I felt like God got his wires crossed.

But last night when I had dinner at the home of my friend whose marriage has been healing, enjoying continuing my friendship with his wife and three-year-old daughter, I wondered if no one’s wires were crossed, neither mine whose heart was urged to pray for him as he entered a dark few months nor God’s who uses destruction itself to bring healing, who can use marital crisis to strengthen the very family at risk. I used to imagine that we pray in order to urge God to act; now I wonder if we pray in order to open our eyes to see the ways he is already acting.

Maybe both. Maybe the epic story of history is ultimately a story of redemption, regardless of our own agency; maybe we pray and obey in order to audition for our roles and the roles of our friends. When tragedies continue to come upon my loved ones, I pray that they get to play the parts of healed bodies and released prisoners. As that happens, I am in a good position for the role of a redeemed doubter.

After all, my doubts could hardly intimidate a God who uses death itself to bring life. Sometimes we are called to have faith in God’s goodness without evidence; but then when we find that no amount of effort on our part can conjure the thoughts and feelings we imagine are tantamount to faith, sometimes God gives faith itself as the evidence of faith.

Last week I bumped into my old formerly-homeless friend Barbara, once a crack addict and street prostitute, now having been clean for two years and married for two months to one of the men she met at a homeless shelter. I realized after our impromptu lunch that my cynical heart that is no longer shocked by tragedy is applying the same sense of inevitability to the redemption of those inevitable tragedies. Of course Barbara is being redeemed. It would figure.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Like a trumpet underground

The year I was living in an intercity commune was one of my most memorable Easters. My housemates and I got up early and made breakfast (“Come and have breakfast,” the resurrected Jesus tells his disciples), and Paul made sure to cook some fish in honor of Easter. Then we sat on the back porch to eat and have a makeshift sunrise service.

Our house happened to be on a busy corner of the neighborhood. In the night it was a major drug corner. But at 8am on Sunday morning, the only people up were the slowly stirring church crowd, a couple of whom were making their way to the Baptist church a few lots down from us to prepare for the service, but most of whom were just beginning to show their faces on the front porches that were a vital part of neighborhood social relations. Some of these porches were connected to the same houses that were buzzing late into the night with the more dubious activities of nocturnal family members.

We read some scripture and prayed, waving our ‘hey’s to neighbors as they trickled by, and Paul pulled out his guitar.
Was it a morning like this
When the Son still hid from Jerusalem,
And Mary rose from her bed
To tend the Lord she thought was dead?

What is a morning like this,
When Mary walked down from Jerusalem,
And two angels stood at the tomb,
Bearers of news she would hear soon?

Did the grass sing?
Did the earth rejoice
To feel you again?
Over and over
Like a trumpet underground,
Did the earth seem to pound:
“He is risen!”
Over and over
In a never ending round
“He is risen, alleluia, alleluia!”
Indeed, the grass does sing and the earth does pound, but it is not the noise I expect to hear. On the contrary, that Easter morning as we sang, Arleen’s ten-year-old might have been at grandma’s house so she could spend the weekend getting high, or the boy might have been hiding Arleen’s bottles in the house as if he were her father. I want the Resurrection to charge its way into Creation ripping the dead from their graves, perhaps like Christ’s first disciples wanted it to reestablish the Jewish nation, and when it doesn’t I assume God is waiting for the Second Coming.

But the grass does sing and the earth does pound. The cosmos have shifted, and the forces that were pulling everything apart are now bringing them together.
  • Russ, a crumbling old KKK veteran whose harshness has driven away any family or friends he might have once had, calls me out of the blue to tell me that he wants his body given to medical research after he dies in hopes that it could help someone. It is a strange call.
He is risen!
  • Benedict drops in to see me when he is in town for a ceremony with his special needs daughter whom he can finally be a father to after his year on the streets.
He is risen!
  • Tia, who is my age but whose development has been stumped somewhere under the pressures of an abusive adoptive family she may never escape, mentions to me that she is reading a book and liking it.
He is risen!
  • Herb is finally out of jail and trying to hold down a job, when I had believed he would spend all of his young-adult life there. Maybe that gives some hope that Sonny will get out and return to his distraught mother one day.
He is risen!
  • Fida, my Muslim friend, calls me one night and spends the whole conversation assuring me that God is redeeming her situation. The next week, it is the so-often-despondent me who is assuring her. Between the two of us, we just might believe.
He is risen!
Over and over like a trumpet underground, Creation is proclaiming that it has changed. Entropy has gone the other way. He is risen! Alleluia!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A stumbling block

For the LORD spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: "Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken."

Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.
One of my favorite posts I’ve written came from reading one of my least favorite books I’ve ever read. After suffering through painful pages of Austen I pondered whether the stereotypical format of an Austen novel might follow the story of Grace: everything gets worse and worse throughout the whole story, finally climaxing with the Unspeakable Tragedy, which to everyone’s shock puts all the pieces together with remarkable speed and completeness. Grace trumps all. Evil gets consumed by reverse entropy, the force at work in the world that puts everything together. Death is swallowed up in Victory. It becomes part of the very gears of redemption.

But in the tragedies of this year, reverse entropy does not sound as comforting as it did when I first wrote the term. This spring marks the first time in my twenty-six years as a Christian that I have been scandalized by the message of the cross, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” I like the notion of everything getting consumed by the great snowball of Grace and Redemption, until I realize what is getting consumed in it. Evil becomes part of the wheels of redemption? Murder, rape, child abuse... these become instruments of good? It sounds victorious when it is an abstract idea; it sounds downright scandalous when it is a real-life situation. I don’t know if I like that kind of redemption.

Evil becomes part of the wheels of redemption? The Cross... it becomes an instrument of good? Humiliation, torture, the suffering of the innocent... are part of the gears of redemption? Until this spring, I never realized what a scandalous, offensive, shocking redemption that is.

A Catholic friend of mine enthusiastically told me the other day, “We ask for bread, and he gives us Eucharist.” Maybe it is a good thing we don’t know what we’re praying for sometimes. Who would ever pray for Daily Bread, not to mention the redemption of Jerusalem or of ourselves, if we knew at what cost it would come?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!

“Do you believe that?” my Muslim friend asked me after my brief abstract explanation of one of my Christian friend’s theology of redemption. I was struck by the question that had an obvious right answer, and struck by the fact that I didn’t know if I could give it.

It was an Evangelical Christian’s dream come true: my friend was in a terrible time of personal crisis, and the Christian notion of a God who was involved in the muck of our lives transforming it into something beautiful was both directly applicable and entirely foreign to her. All I had to do was give the right answer that I knew almost as early as I could say the word “yes.”

But it was not a good Evangelical she had with her that night... it was a girl whose faith was defined by the changing ways she railed at God over the years, and at that moment the rail had to do with this particular friend’s hell that God had seemed absent from. I wished I was any other Christian in that moment.

“I don’t know...” I stammered honestly. “I want to believe it. I try to believe it. Sometimes I think I do, and then things like last week happen...”

It has been a hard Lent for me. The world feels so much more unredeemable when one is swamped in an unredeemable situation. My brother quoted to me an Orthodox priest who said, “If one where to solve the problems of Jerusalem, he would have solved the problems of the world.” Sometimes I feel like if God could redeem even one of these broken lives I enter, he will have redeemed the world.

But that thought, the comparison of my friend’s hell to the grand picture of redeeming humanity, became a challenge for me in the next week. Over and over, I was struck by these small glimpses of redemption. They don’t look like redemption because they are so comparatively weak in comparison to the evil that happened; but they are like small glimmers of sunlight in a dark forest that let you know something greater is behind it. And I began to wonder if slowly, imperceptibly, God was indeed redeeming my Jerusalem.

Maybe he is. In the mean time, he can’t get upset at me for weeping about it all... he did indeed weep over Jerusalem, after all.