March 26, 2009

Today I had one of those revelations that seem so…elementary. I was reading Matthew 18:21-35, the parable of the servant who has been forgiven a great debt yet refuses to forgive a small one. Like any human over age 3, I’ve had to deal with (un)forgiveness in my own heart. Sometimes it’s small, like letting go of my right-of-way at a four-way stop. Sometimes it’s been enormous; it seems difficult to forgive someone “from your heart” when what they have done has distorted your heart’s shape beyond recognition. But I’ve never let this story work on me from the inside out. Yes, I knew that this story was for me. I know that in my mind. I’ve just never let it become personal. This was an object lesson, and I left it in the classroom.

Today when I read it, I was struck by the violence of the servant. The way I remember the story and what I actually read today were to different versions. I remember the servant leaving the court, probably feeling lighter than he’s felt in years. Finally, after a debt hanging over him that threatened everything he held dear, he was back at a fresh start. He had a clean slate. A balance of zero, instead of negative one million. And suddenly he remembered that someone owed him money. This was his chance to actually get ahead, to secure a nest egg for his family instead of living paycheck to paycheck. So he did what many Americans would do; he called in the collection agency to have his debt collected. What he did was legal and justifiable. At least, that’s how I remembered it.

But here’s what I read today: “[The servant] seized [his debtor] and started to choke him, demanding ‘Pay back what you owe.’” Now that’s personal. Nothing legal or justifiable there. This is underlined by the reaction of those who saw it. “They were deeply disturbed and went to their master and reported the whole affair.” And two things occurred to me.

First, this isn’t just for me; this is me. I look like that man must have looked sometimes. Thank God for the husband and friends He gave me. I’ve seen the look of one “deeply disturbed” in my husband’s eyes when I decide to take matters into my own hands when another driver offends me on the road. I understand why, now. I am as ugly in that moment as a low servant strangling a fellow human being, pretending I have more right to my own way than royalty. And when I hold a grudge over a loved one, I am choking out their life. I am in their face with my hands wrapped around their neck. Not a pretty picture.

The other thing that struck me is the “from your heart” bit at the end. I always thought I knew the moral of the story, so I kind of read over that part quickly. Big mistake. I’ve always had trouble with the idea that God wouldn’t forgive me unless I was forgiving; I thought I was forgiven by His grace alone, right? But this makes more sense now. “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.” Put that together with “From the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks,” and you have something. Like any work, forgiveness is merely a sign of the faith inside. A heart touched by the gospel will overflow forgiveness. Period. If my overflow is demanding what is owed to me, I don’t understand the gospel. Period.

So does that mean that I’m a saved parent (I can forgive my kids) and a damned driver? 🙂



March 5, 2009

Some other day I’ll explain what I consider to be the task of human life: nomenclature. It’s honestly been a lifelong task for me. From childhood I desired to name and to define. And from childhood I’ve had a working “definition” of love. Love is putting all of your own resources at the disposal of someone else, for their benefit. Love means being willing to spend yourself and change yourself for them, but only to the point of your own soul’s core. Love never sacrifices the integrity of the lover on the altar of the beloved. In a word, one who loves makes themselves vulnerable.

And this is one of the things I love best about God. It’s one of my favorite attributes of Christianity. With Moses, we see an all-powerful, unchanging God bending His ear, listening to a man He loves plead on behalf of a nation He loves. After Moses’s intercession, a pitiful human reminding God of His own reputation in the world, begging God to preserve that reputation (as if God needs good press here on Earth), God agrees. His presence remains. He is moved by His beloved. In Isaiah He so desires intercourse with His wrecked and self-destructive bride that he says “Come, let us reason together,” as if we have anything to bring to a conversation with God. In Hosea, He suffers the shame of the cuckold to keep His own honor and makes material and emotional sacrifices to be with His beloved.

And what is Christ, but the picture of God’s vulnerability to us? That great bodiless power in whom the world holds together put on skin. He took on the ability to be pushed, caressed, starved, sated, and torn. He became as vulnerable as we are. Because He loves us.

I’m not a Catholic, so I didn’t grow up with all the prayers so many Christians take for granted, but as my daughter learns them at a parochial school, I have benefited. Yesterday I was looking at the Anima Christi online, and I saw a side-by-side version in Latin and English. One line of the prayer says “Within Thy wounds, hide me.” This is poignant enough as it is. We think of God as a fortress, a bulwark, the Shield of David and the horn of Abraham who shelters us in storm, strengthens us in battle, and champions us in victory. When we are broken and worn out emotionally, we seek the downy shelter of His wings and remember that He is tenderer to us than a nursing mother. But “Within Thy wounds hide me?” It reminds us that one of His strengths, the one that makes Him “mighty to save,” is his very vulnerability to us. By His stripes we are healed.

And then I read it in Latin: “Intra tua vulnera absconde me.” Vulnerability, in its most literal sense, is the ability to receive vulnera, wounds.

When I can’t stand to see the pain I’ve cause You anymore…

When, with David, I cry, “Against You and You alone have I sinned…”

When I want to make a wall of invulnerability around my own soul, protecting myself from others and dampening the desire to give them grace…

Within Thy wounds, hide me. Make me one with them. Give me strength to take them on. Forgive me for inflicting them.


The Happiest Men in America

February 2, 2009

I remember a few years ago in the semi-finals…
Okay, wait. In case I haven’t mentioned it before, I’m a girl. Not only am I a girl, I’m THAT girl. The one they were talking about when they said, “She throws like a girl.” So when I say things like “semi-finals,” I know, I know, there’s a more accurate name in sporting nomenclature. Something like “AFC West championship.” I just made that up, but it sounds football-ish. So bear with me.
As I was saying, a few years ago, in some unspecified playoff game, the same year the Steelers won the Super Bowl, Jerome Bettis did something stupid and out of character, like fumbling. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I remember it could have cost them the game. And then, while he was on the sidelines, a defensive teammate did something on the field to reverse whatever mistake Jerome had made. I remember the announcer said, “…and right now, Jerome Bettis is the happiest man in America.” And my husband laughed and said, in the tone of one having an epiphany, “He’s right. He is THE happiest man in America. There is nobody in America that is happier than Jerome Bettis at this second.” Even being sports challenged, I understood that this was true. In that moment, a great player was rescued from the pit of lifelong goat-hood and delivered to a place where he could see his team to ultimate victory and secure a name among the greats of his profession.
Fast forward to tonight. Super Bowl 43. The Steelers win again. (Whether I want them to or not. Really, I don’t even like them that much.) But I’m always a little sad after the Super Bowl, watching the winning team laugh, cry, try to share the glory with each other and God and all the fans in their city. I look and them, and I know that there are no happier men in America.
But you know what? This is it. They may tell you that there are other, more important moments in their lives. Marriage. Births. Hearing words like “I love you, Daddy,” and “It’s benign.” But even those other, more important moments can hardly be infused with all the drama and intensity of seven months of practice, sweat, wins, losses, encouragement, and doubt all coming down to the last 25-second drive, followed by the release and rush of victory. They must stand there, thinking, “This is the best moment of my life. This is the greatest feeling in the world.” They must. It shows on their faces.
And five hours later, the stadium is dark, empty, and littered with paper plates and plastic cups. Five hours later they have showered and celebrated, and may even be asleep. And many of them know…
That was it. That was the happiest moment of my life. That’s as good as it gets.

It’s About Faith

February 2, 2009

Let me tell you right now, I’m a hypocrite.
During the past election season I said repeatedly that race didn’t matter in this contest. Not that race doesn’t matter in America, but that it didn’t matter in this contest, because the other questions on the table were bigger in the minds of Americans. And this year, the election would not be close enough to be swayed by any lingering vestiges of institutionalized racism.
And yet, on January 20, 2009, I found myself glued to the television like millions of Americans. Had you asked me on January 19th, 2005 before George W. Bush’s second inauguration how I would spend Inauguration Day, I would have had an intellectual answer, like “Huh?” But obviously this year was different, despite all my proclamations to the contrary. Not only was I sure to witness the event, but I was celebrating! Celebrating a presidency I didn’t even vote for. Why?
I’m not the only one asking. I know several people who voted for someone other than Obama (and not just for McCain) that simply can’t understand what the big deal is. They look at me like I’m a sell-out. Two months ago, I said race didn’t matter in this contest. What happened to me? Why, they ask, do I care now, after the fact?
I think it’s about Faith. The substance of things hoped for. The evidence of things not seen. Every time I said “Race doesn’t matter in this situation,” I believed it. I believed it so strongly that I voted according to my real conscience, not the guilty conscience of someone whose skin color has only been a liability to her once or twice in her lifetime, who has, unknowingly, unintentionally, and sometimes unwillingly benefited from all the privileges of being white, female, cute, and educated in the 20th and 21st centuries in America.
On January 20th, in a little box in my living room, I saw the substance of what I had hoped for materialize. And I celebrated.
There are still literally billions of situations, places, and interactions throughout American and the world in which race most definitely matters. But when it comes to electing someone to represent all of us in our country’s highest office, Hallelujah, it doesn’t matter. I can prove it. Now we live by faith AND by sight.
One down; billions minus one to go.