23 July 2015

Counting The Cost

I loved camping with my father.

Even when I was too young to comprehend that he really went camping to get away from the tensions of work or home, I sensed that the long drives to Death Valley and Amboy Crater were how my dad unwound. It was his way to find his center whenever he'd lost it. So even at ten or eleven I knew that camping was an escape for him.

But it was an adventure for me...

I loved just being with my father so I don't mean to downplay that aspect at all. When I was with him it was easy to find adventure most anywhere. But as a youngster, untorn by thoughts of divorce or abandonment, I took his presence more or less for granted...so adventure was built upon that.

Every trip, of course, had a moment where it turned a melancholy corner. It was the moment my outward point spirit was interrupted by the awareness that Dad had started to break camp. It could be any little thing like dumping out the left over water, rolling up the sleeping bags, or stirring up the campfire. The moment I caught wind of clean-up I knew the hours remaining were numbered and the adventure would soon be over.

I wasn't so young as to think we'd be out in the desert forever, it wasn't surprising in any way, but it sent an unintentional signal to my young heart. It said something like, "all that this campsite represents: the peace, the adventure, the way it centers your father..it’s an illusion. The real world is Back There and it will always overwhelm what you have here."

Breaking camp was, of course, a necessity. But what made it sad was the subtle signal that being in the wild cost my father and he was reluctant to pay. Some part of him probably wanted to stay and hunt for trilobites forever, but some other part wanted to get home and "get on with real life.” Part of him was twitching at all the myriad things at home that needed his attention while some other part couldn't get far enough away. Those two sides of him wrestled for dominance like they do in all of us and I could see it playing out. Not only while camping, but in the march of days upon weeks in his job and his home life. When we were camping it was in the way he prepared to leave, and how early he started, that I sensed the signal of how the war was going and my experience of how he felt about me was inextricably linked since I knew kids and camping were part of the ‘other’ life, the subtly less important one.

- Selah - 

I'm camping right now with my kids and it's always so very precious but tenuous. They are exploring a dense fir patch as I warm up the coffee. We'll need to head home today and I'm beginning to mentally list all the heading-home tasks before me. I feel that same part in my own soul  that wants to get back home, to get busy, and to continue tackling the world as it's
been given to me - for better or for worse - to go on to the next thing. That's the part that says real life consists of my job, my honey-do list, and my ten-thousand house projects. That part wants to roll up the sleeping bags now - because all of this, as good as it is, is an illusion.

But another part of me rejects that. It says the babbling river, the nuthatches and the way my children bound through the woods with delight - THIS is real life. While the other stuff is just the result of the fall and THAT part is the illusion, the price, the necessary evil. 

While this...this is real life.

05 February 2015

Where Are The Nine?

This is from "The Way of the Wolf" by Martin Bell...one of my favorite books ever.
How about a word or two on behalf of the nine lepers who did not return to give thanks? The gospel reads something like this: there were ten lepers cleansed and one of them - just one of them - when he saw that he was healed, turned back and in a loud voice glorified God and fell down on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks.

And Jesus answering said, "Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine?”

Ten lepers were cleansed and one of them returned to give thanks. That must be a nice thing to be able to do.

What about the others? It's simple, really. One of them was frightened - that’s all. He didn’t understand what had happened and it frightened him. So he looked for someplace to hide. Jesus scared him.

A second was offended because he had not been required to do something difficult before he could be healed. It was all too easy. He had expected months, maybe years, of fasting and prayer and washing and righteous living to be the requirement. But he had done none of this. He had not earned his reward. His motto was “you get what you pay for.” And so Jesus offended him.

The third had realized too late that he had not really wanted to be cleansed. That he did not know what to do or how to live or even who he was without his leprosy. Although it had been his fervent plea to be healed, he now began to see how much he had needed his leprosy and consequently how necessary it had been in defining him as a person. Jesus had taken away his identity.

It is difficult to explain the reason why the fourth leper did not return to give thanks. Perhaps because it is such a simple reason - and perhaps because we very nearly tread on holy ground even to talk about it. In a word, the fourth leper did not return because in his delirium of joy, he forgot. He forgot. That's all. He was so happy that he forgot.

The fifth leper was unable to say thank you to anybody. There is something that happens to a man who must beg and who is shunned by his fellows, and who is grudgingly thrown a few coins and who is always - in the midst of such an existence and in the face of such treatment (perhaps even because of such treatment, for instance, the few coins) - expected to say thank you. He just doesn't say thank you any more to anybody - not even to Jesus.

The sixth leper was a woman - a mother who had been separated from her family for eleven years because of the leprosy. She was now free to rejoin her husband and children. She did not return to give thanks because she was hurrying home like a wild animal released from captivity, she had been freed by Jesus. And like the animal, she simply went straight home.

The seventh just didn't believe that Jesus had anything to do with the cleansing. He knew that healing had taken place, but why and how were the questions. Certainly he did not believe in hocus locus, magic, miracles - any of that. There was a perfectly intelligible explanation of what had happened, but it didn't have anything to do with Jesus. He didn't return to give thanks because Jesus had had nothing to do with the healing event.

The eighth leper did not return precisely because he did believe that Jesus had healed him - that the Kingdom of God was here and that the Messiah had arrived. To return to give thanks when the Kingdom of God was so close at hand - unheard of! So he ran to publish the news.

What shall I say about the ninth leper? What was his experience? Why didn't he return? I don;t know the answer to either of these questions. All I know is that he showed himself to the priest and immediately was cleansed. He then stood still for a moment and smiled. The priest reports that the ninth leper gave two utterances. First he said, “So!” And then, “Ah, yes! Without another word he walked away. His eyes blazed fire but his shoulders sagged as if under a great burden. The air around him was silent. Then without warning he turned his head suddenly and fixed his eyes upon a rock by the side of the road. "Hah!" he screamed. And you can make of this what you will, but the priest says that the rock actually jumped a foot off the ground. The ninth leper then said, "So!" and “Ah, yes!: and disappeared from sight. It is impossible to say precisely why he did not return to give thanks.
Ten were cleansed and only one returned. It must be nice to be able to do that. What shall I say now - that the real point is not that one returned but that ten were cleansed? You already know that. That condemnation is easier than investigation - that if we take time to investigate the reasons why people act as they do and that such action in the light of the circumstances is quite understandable and totally forgivable and even completely reasonable and just as it should be? You already know that.

What then shall I say? That it is good to give thanks? Yes. That it is understandable not to give thanks? Yes. That God does not heal people and then stand around just waiting for us to say thank you and then get angry and have his feelings hurt if we don't? Yes, that's true. Which is the same thing as saying - no, he certainly doesn’t.

But what of the nine? They are on the way home, hiding in fear, refusing to believe, offended at what they call cheap grace, so happy they forgot, lost without their leprosy, unable to say thank you ever again, publishing the news of the coming of the Kingdom - God, who knows where they are! The point is this: Jesus does. He knows where they are. First he says to the leper who did return, "Arise, go thy way," and then he goes his own way - with a strange smile on his lips. But where are the nine? Don't you see it in his eyes? He knows where they are. He knew all along. Without another word Jesus walks away. His eyes blaze fire but his shoulders sag as if under a great burden. The air around him is silent. Then without warning he turns his head suddenly and fixes his eyes upon a rock by the side of the road. "Hah!" he screams. And you can make out of this what you will, but they say the rock actually jumped a foot off the ground. Jesus then said, "So!" and "Ah, yes!" and disappeared from sight.

It is impossible to say precisely why Jesus did not return to give thanks. 

25 January 2015

A Different Theory of Ghosts

If (Dead humans continue to exist as spirits, including the memory of their physical lives.) {
     If (Spirits can travel at the speed of thought.) {
          If (Time is appropriately understood,at least for spirits, as an equal axis of freedom like 3 dimensional space) {

               Perhaps the whole ‘ghosts have unfinished business on earth’ is better articulated as a spirit dwelling on memories that are being recalled and or processed. As we all find ourselves dwelling on painful memories a spirit may be dwelling on a past as they work to process it. They are not so much ‘haunting’ a place as thinking about it and in so doing they travel there - through space and time - because they’re thinking about it and that’s how travel works for them.

               And every once in a while we catch a glimpse of that spirit as it thinks, ponders, fret, or fixates on some place or time that was meaningful to them.

               Why this seems at least a little interesting to me is that whenever I heard the ‘unfinished business’ idea I couldn’t help of imagining the ghosts as somehow mindless. “Doomed to haunt the scars of their past” was a way of saying they had no choice, no volition.

               But thinking of them as active minds - perhaps even in the midst of some post-life therapy - seems more interesting.

24 January 2015

Substitutionary Justice

I was watching an episode of Lie to Me last night where a father learns that his teen daughter has committed a murder and he confesses to the crime in order to protect her from prison*. Then I also find this today (http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/americans-offer-to-take-100-lashes-each-for-saudi-blogger/2015/01/23/) where IRL a group of people are offering to take 100 lashes each as substitutes for a Saudi who's been sentenced to 1000 lashes. I doubt the Saudis will accept the deal and in the show Cal sees through the father's false confession and the real murderer goes to jail.

I think most people watching the show can understand and sympathize with that father. His gesture is loving and sacrificial, but we also feel it's misguided. After all, if his murderous daughter is still out in society then the risk she represents remains in play. We can look at the lash-takers and applaud the idea but it feels ultimately political as opposed to sincere. (To be clear, I don't know these folks at all and they may be perfectly sincere - I'm just reflecting on how the headline felt when I read it...call me cynical)

Punishing somebody for a crime that somebody else committed feels profoundly unjust, it offends some deep vein in my soul. And yet that kind of substitutionary justice is at the core of Christianity.

I'm certain this is at least part of what Paul meant when he aid the cross was an offense to some. It's also at the root of so many roadblocks. Whether in our futile efforts to atone for sins that have already been forgiven or our refusal to believe there is anything to forgive in the first place.

When I (rarely) can think of a crime as if it is actually a debt to society then a substitution seems fine. I don't care who pays the debt so long a it's paid by someone. But when I see it as something that incurs a punishment then it becomes personal and where a debt exists on its own a punishment is personal by its nature. Punishing the wrong person only adds one injustice to the other.

Perhaps this is the difference between justice and vengeance.

If Elsa shouted at me and was headed for time out only to have Odin step up and say "Daddy - I'd like to take Elsa's time out in her place."...how would I take that? How should I take that? Knowing that her offense was against me personally would I react differently than if she were caught drawing on the wall or something otherwise impersonal?

Somewhere in here I must wrestle with the fact that God accepted this kind "take me instead" gesture, the one offered by the father in Lie To Me, as legitimate. In fact, not only legitimate but MORE legitimate. And we're not only talking about Jesus. The entire sacrificial system rests on the idea that the debt incurred by sin is blood (life) and an animal's blood was an acceptable, even preferable, substitute for my own blood/life. I add to this the voice of my own deep heart that looked at the father's willingness to pay a debt he didn't owe as noble and good...as very, very Christian.

The more I see sin in terms of debt the more certain scriptures make sense I a very simple, practical way. As a debtor I have the unilateral right to forgive any debt owed to me. I don't need your permission, I don't need your help. It's my debt - I can discharge it however I will. Insofar as every sin ever is a debt owed to Christ then he has the unequivocal right to take whatever payment he deems fit to pay them off. If I think of it like money then the weirdness of the unfairness evaporates.

But even if I go there I'm still left with the part of me that can't help feeling like even if that's legal it still seems unfair. And I think that feeling is rooted in my desire for vengeance. Vengeance is a dirty word these days but I suspect we've overcompensated for misuse. God doesn't say vengeance is wrong - he says vengeance is his. And Psalm 149 suggests that there is a place and time where the saints are charged with "inflicting vengeance." Historically we see vengeance as a proper right of a wronged individual even given the possibility of abuse.

I think we can (and do) hold onto our claims for vengeance without being sinful in the strictest sense. But it's when we're willing to pass that claim up to the higher laws of grace that the transgression against our person becomes a transgression against God (we sell him the paper so to speak) and a personal offense becomes a corporate offense (a class action?). At which point it's just an impersonal debt where so long as it's paid then it doesn't matter who pays it.

In which case - the hinge remains with me. Can I let it go? Can I choose to live - and let live - by the rules of grace over the rule of law?


* Interestingly enough there was a second storyline in either this episode or the one before it where another father secretly pays off the gambling debts of his son who is getting married and in that case everybody takes this as kind, perhaps enabling, but kind - and totally legit.