Saturday, October 25, 2014

Relinquishment as a Bargain

October 26, 2014

Dear Friends,

In the course that I am teaching on the forgiveness process, we have reached the difficult point that I term relinquishment. When we have been injured—or have injured another—in the early stages of the experience we are preoccupied with our pain, and obsessed both with understanding what happened, and assigning (and/or evading) responsibility. 

However, usually through slow nearly imperceptible movement we come eventually to a place of decision. We sense that if we are to regain our balance and re-engage life and people in a productive way we must in some fashion “let go” of the initial experience. We have come to the point of relinquishment.

But how can we “let go”?  What can we release? We cannot make the memories or the consequences vanish as though they had never occurred. And we cannot still the inner voice that raises the issue of justice. Even if we are willing to abandon our effort to achieve personal pay-back, does not the common good require that the perpetrator (myself or another) pay a just penalty for the injury inflicted? 

At this point, it is difficult both to get the question right, and then to find a good answer.

Coming to a peaceful place of resolution requires, I think, understanding the relinquishment task as both one of laying-down and picking-up. And it requires as well acceptance of the reality that the laying-down/picking-up process is a life-long commitment.

In the class I have used a personal story to illustrate some of the complexities of the forgiveness process, and this week unexpectedly had an experience that taught me all over again the point of relinquishment that I am seeking to teach my class.

The personal story in short entailed my father’s failure to attend my eighth-grade graduation at which I was to be recognized for high achievement. This event held great significance for me, and I was both angry and hurt at my father’s decision. 

My father explained that he was putting up hay, and the urgency of the farm work prevented him from attending. At some level I understood his reasoning, but, in the vernacular of my rural faith family, I “held it against him.”  I believed he had wronged me by making the farm more important than my celebration. The event lay unverbalized, unresolved, a root of bitterness between us for many years.

Even now, it is painful to acknowledge the quiet hateful ways I made my father pay. I remember “forgetting” to send him a Father’s Day card. Just too busy, of course.

But in time, with the stimulus of beginning spiritual maturation and God’s mercy, I chose to revisit the incident, and to relinquish the injury. 

What could I let go of? The memory? No—the aloneness of that day, of celebration with no family in attendance, was archived in my neurons; forgetting was not an option. Nor was denial an option—injury, intended or not, had occurred.

But what I could release was my personal pursuit of justice. I could lay-down my effort to “even the account.”

This required me to place the event in a clearer context that included more than my experience of being devalued. I was not the only person involved.
I remember when it first occurred to me that perhaps one of the reasons that my father did not choose to go was the painful matter of appropriate clothing. It is quite possible that he had no “good” clothes to wear, only the clean patched overalls he wore to go “to town”.  He may have felt that he would be ashamed to be seen in patched overalls, and that I too would be ashamed of him.
Was I hurt and devalued? Yes.
Was his decision not to go a good one?
Any attempt to answer to those questions requires a timeline longer than the event itself. The following winter was a hard one, but we did not need to buy hay in spring. We had enough in reserve. As a result, there was money enough for groceries and some extra so that I could buy new Easter shoes, frivolous fancy shoes with tiny heels.
Who can balance justice and mercy in matters like this? Human wisdom cannot reach this far.

But at length I came to see that the only reasonable solution (and the only way to peace) required me to lay-down my efforts to set things right. God has promised to do that. Consequently, if I left the accounting up to a God who does both justice and mercy—simultaneously and perfectly—I had not abandoned my pursuit of justice. To the contrary, I had chosen the only option that absolutely insured that both justice and mercy were fully done.

But I learned, too, that there was a responsibility for me to pick-up.  I was responsible to deal with the wound I had received. I could continue to rehearse the injury, to pick at the scab, and to embrace an identity of victim. 

Or, in contrast, on the basis of God’s promise to me, I could bring the injury to Him for healing, and move on into the new thing God had promised to do in my life.  I could lay down my efforts to put things right and trust God to do that. I could then pick up hope and joy anticipating that God would faithfully enter into the consequences of that old injury to bring good into my life.

Over thirty years (not always cheerfully) I continued my part in the laying-down and picking-up process.  And God did His part—faithfully, generously, and, I think, with joy.

My father did his part too. He risked his first plane ride and time away from the farm to share the graduation celebration when I received my doctoral degree. After the ceremonies we shared a long car ride back to the city where I lived. Crowded for space, my father held my academic garb on his lap. I remember his calloused farmer hands folded carefully on my robe as he fingered the velvet and gold fringe.

This week a young friend invited me to a party. It will be a splendid affair with interesting beautiful people who will hold great conversations. There will be wonderful food, music and laughter, and the very best kind of memory making.

I was truly honored by the invitation (I exceed by a number of years the age of those who will be in attendance), but I declined gently. I cited the realistic context of my present life—eyes that see less well after dark, the inelegant necessity of a cane, and other various indignities accompanying this stage of life. But there were things left unsaid...things left covered, unspoken even to myself. Did my young friend sense these things? Perhaps. I do not know.

I can only hope that what I did say was enough, and that my young friend was not injured by my choice not to come. However, the consequence of my choice now lies beyond my control.

But I can continue my own slow journey toward wisdom.  In the “put-right-by-God-world” in which my father now lives, I trust that my father knows that I know now what I did not know then, and we are both at peace.

I will see you next on November 9. I am spending next weekend with my sister’s children and friends and will be out of the WI-FI world.

Blessings as you work at the lay-down/pick-up process.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Creative Disobedience

October 19, 2014

Dear Friends,

All days are gifts, time boundaried packages of life. Today is a sabbath-shaped day filled with quiet sunlight and the silent brilliance of autumn color. I thought (again) this morning how oddly language and experience sometimes collide. The intensity of the golds and purples and reds causes me to think, “The trees are shouting with joy and celebrating harvest,” but at the same time I sense all around me a profound stillness that foreshadows winter’s silence and the coming snow.  How can this day be so utterly silent when at the same time all around me Creation in full color is shouting, “Glory!! Glory!! God is good!!”?

I had intended today’s blog to resume with you discussion of either the forgiveness project I’m teaching, or some ideas about the significance of neurological functioning in our experience of discipleship (the perhaps-may-become-a-book I’m working on). 

You have been rescued from this fate—I see you smiling—by a friend who sent me an excerpt from one of John Shea’s books. Reading this led to a sobering insight into the story Mark tells us about Jesus curing a leper (Mark 1:40-50). I want to share something of that insight. 

The Torah-prescribed world of the leper was a grim one of relentless isolation. Leviticus required that the leper live alone in a dwelling “outside the camp,” the sentence of life-long excommunication from community. The leper was required to clearly communicate his status by wearing torn clothes, disheveled hair, and to cry out from behind a face covering, “Unclean!! Unclean!!” so that no unsuspecting by passer would be contaminated.

The pain of such exclusion from human connection was perhaps one of the most terrible aspects of the disease, but there was, if possible, even further pain in the requirement that the leper himself maintain this isolation through self-identification. Think about it: if any person chanced to come physically into the leper’s contaminated space the leper himself was required to announce his status: “Unclean!! Unclean!”  

In addition to self-policing his isolation, the leper, by default, was forced to participate in the social erasure of his identity. The legally required formula prescribed only the brutal effect of the disease: “Unclean! Unclean!” There was no provision nor precedence for him to say, “Unclean! Unclean! My name is John, and I am a leper.”  

Many lepers carried wooden clappers that they sounded as they walked, warning all within hearing to avoid contact with them. Rebel that I am, I like to think that perhaps there were times when as a leper sounded the clapper that proclaimed him “Unclean!!” that he said under his breath, “And my name is John.”

The leper in Mark’s story had broken the rules and had directly approached Jesus. The leper knelt, and said pleadingly, “If you will, you can make me whole.”

Jesus, Mark tells us, was moved by compassion for the suffering man. Jesus then, in turn, also broke the rules. He reached out His hand and touched the man!!

Having touched the man, Jesus said gently, “I will make you well. Be healed.” At Jesus's command, Mark tells us, the leprosy instantly disappeared. 

Jesus then instructed the man to go to the temple, taking his gift, and to undergo the prescribed procedures that would enable the priest to declare him clean (and, in consequence, permit him to re-enter his community).

Then Jesus cautioned the man to do as he had been instructed and to talk to no one along the way. One translation reports that Jesus gave him a strong warning; another says that Jesus sternly warned him and immediately sent him away. At any rate Jesus was very clear: don’t say a word about what happened here.

Mark, with characteristic brevity, then reports that the former leper obediently went to do as he had been told, but that this obedience was accompanied by a flagrant disobedience that had disastrous results.

On his way to the temple, the man spread the news of his healing everywhere, telling everyone what had happened to him, freely reporting the healing he had received through Jesus. 

The predictable result promptly occurred: crowds of people gathered around Jesus in such numbers that Jesus could not go openly into a town. Jesus stayed out in unpopulated areas away from the city, Mark reports, then adds that the people came out and found Him anyway.

Thoughtlessly, over the years I had assumed that the reason Jesus stayed in the country was the size and possibly rowdy behavior of his followers. John Shea gave me a sobering alternative explanation.

Jesus, having touched the leper, was Himself now under the Levitical law that excluded Him from community. As the leper had been, Jesus was now: forbidden to enter into the city. The healed leper could go openly into the city and to the temple; the One who had healed him must now keep His distance from the people He had come to teach and heal. 

It is a stark graphic, a shadow of Isaiah’s description of the suffering servant who carried the grief and the sorrows of humankind alone outside the camp. 

Shea thinks that it is possible that the healing process in every instance was costly to Jesus—that the power that left Jesus when He healed the hemorrhaging woman went out of Him at other times of healing as well although not specifically noted by the Gospel writers. Shea suggests that it was Jesus’s constant reliance upon the Father (I do the will of my Father) and His hours spent in prayer than enabled Him to be replenished and restored, and to return to the people who needed Him. 

The sticking point for me came, however, with the realization of the way in which I had over years of reading, half-excused the disobedience of the leper. After all, he was just sharing his good news, glorifying Jesus and providing evidence of His powerful healing credentials and His probable Messiahship. Surely God couldn’t be too upset about that behavior!!

The consequences of the leper’s disobedience, however, were far from trivial. While his disobedience appeared to be God-glorifying activity, in reality his failure to obey resulted in serious trouble for Jesus, and (hypothetically at least) disruption and interruption of the work of the Kingdom. 

I insist repetitively that intentions do not control consequences.  Mark’s story makes this clear (again), and challenges me to keep things simple and clear in relation to the Spirit’s leading. It is not my prerogative to revise the directions I have been given. 

Blessed, Jesus said, are those who hear my words and do them.  
Thinking with you that we might all profit from prayer for specific, simple obedience. It occurs to me that obedience is likely to be more profitable for my soul and for the work of the Kingdom than any creative license to rewrite God’s memos that I may assume.

See you next week.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Blessing the Unpredictable

Dear Friends,

This epiphany happened just as I sat down to write. However, several events preceded it that, in retrospect, are significant elements in the reality the story reflects.

One element was a soft, faded thrift-store napkin I had left carelessly crumpled on my desk.

Another element was the God-managed solar calendar that determined that on this day early morning autumn sunlight, traveling a complex journey, reached my study at a specific moment. 

Still another part of the epiphany was a cup, actually a coffee mug that once lived in my sister’s kitchen, and had come to this house only after her death and by an unexpected path.

I cannot overemphasize the utter absence of drama in the setting or the moment.

I was wearing everyday jeans and a raggedy favorite old sweater and—truth be told—hair brushed only once-over-lightly. Annie was taking a nap in her ‘secret’ corner in the garage. The house was Saturday quiet.

Then the coffee pot beeped, signaling that the brewing process was complete. I picked up the mug on the counter, filled it, and muddled my way into my study preparing to begin work on this week’s blog.

It happened without a sound.

I set the mug down on my desk and pushed it up against a fold of the faded napkin. Suddenly a shaft of sunlight from the high east window reached into the mirrored back of the china cabinet and ricocheted into my study. Instantly in that light, napkin, cup and desktop combined to make a Rembrandt to my astonished surprise. 

Without marked time or movement, that shadowed place became utterly filled with light and color. The image that they formed was so vibrantly alive that it filled the stillness without sound.

It was visually beyond explanation—the dusky purple of the glaze on the mug and the faded purple of the napkin must have both come off the same palette, both mixed by the same painter’s brush.

And only the painter who mixed that purple could have also mixed the muted reds in the border glaze on that old mug, then showed those reds again in the faded warp and woof of that old cloth.

That same painter must have envisioned the transformation of that old flea-market napkin into tapestry. But that light—not even Rembrandt could have imagined such light, light in which those muted purples and reds came fully alive and filled that shadowed space.

To explain the astonishing confluence of color, shape and light by proposing a master painter was clearly absurd. I was faced with the paradox of seeing clearly what I could not explain.

The light held for only a brief moment. Then the massive movement of the stars shifted imperceptibly to fill some other shadowed place, perhaps to light some galaxy I cannot know.

When I sat down to cherish in my mind the incredible beauty I had just observed, my cortex (ever the analyzer) was struck by the element of randomness that formed the context of the experience.

From weaver (unknown) to potter (unknown) to flea market (unknown)—from infinite unplanned options and possibilities there emerged a purple napkin with that muted red thread in the woof, together with a purple glazed mug, its hidden red a powerful connection with that napkin tapestry.

These elements came together at that particular moment when it was physically possible for that particular light to reach them. 

How was it that randomness of such mind-boggling immensity produced a still-life that made pale imitations of all Rembrandts and Renoirs I have ever seen?

Randomness is a strong, sturdy word that serves a useful purpose when thoughtfully chosen. In its more formal sense, randomness describes movement, structure, or events that occur without a perceivable plan, purpose, or pattern. Random behavior is viewed as behavior that lacks definite aim, a fixed goal or a regular procedure.

Randomness is sometimes skewed to mean a mindless, goalless process from which destruction comes. This is a serious semantic error (an error propagated by those enlightenment folk who presupposed that good came only from controlled, planned, purposeful action). Randomness per se is not inevitably the source or means of destruction. But it is an uncontrolled factor, and that alone is enough to make most of us suspicious of it. 

Uncomfortable though the idea may be, it seems to me that honesty requires us to recognize the presence of randomness in life events, including epiphanies.

Many factors occurring without a fixed plan, purpose or pattern (randomness in operation) resulted in mug, napkin, light and me arriving at that lighted space at the same moment. This epiphany clearly embraced randomness, although that is not all that can—or should—be said about it.

Nevertheless, acknowledging randomness is a necessary precursor to recognizing a second and amazing phenomena—the emergence of hope.

Thinking with you today that randomness—like most of the powerful forces of life—is a both/and business. Things may not turn out well—but on the other hand, there is another alternative that, in fairness, must also be considered. Randomness may produce an unpredictable good.

So I hold close this moment of random beauty even as I finish up today’s blog and prepare to take mug to the dishwasher and napkin to the laundry.

This moment births hope. 

By God’s merciful use of randomness, in the end the tired fragments of my scattered life may be assembled in His light into a beauty that I cannot now anticipate nor comprehend.  
See you next week.