forgiveness

Prodigal

Ezra was there the day Hosea left. He'd overheard the month's worth of conversations between Hosea and Father leading up to Hosea's exodus. He'd been the one to draft the bill selling Hosea's share of Father's land, making them all poorer—though they were nowhere near poor. Hosea hadn't spoken to Ezra about it. They didn't talk. Not really. Not without arguing.

The day Hosea left, Ezra sat at the long, blackwalnut dining room table surrounded by papers. Three hours of numbers to be typed methodically into Quickbooks, then checked, then bills and reports emailed, printed, faxed, payments made, orders placed. The day Hosea left—just before he left—Father paced the house: dining room, kitchen, sitting room, front room, foyer, sun room, dining room, kitchen. On and on he went.

Surrounded by his work, Ezra watched from the dining room through two doorways to the foyer where Hosea stood with Father in front of the old oak door. The Grandfather Clock ticked out its measure to Ezra's right. Father looked up at Hosea, at his hazel eyes, his shoulder length brown hair poking out of his baseball cap. Evening light spilled through the stained glass transom window and lay on the pair thickly like globs of paint. Maybe the paint would dry and they would freeze there, thought Ezra. He would have to clean them up after he finished working.

They murmured at each other mostly. Then Father gripped Hosea by the shoulders and said loudly, "Are you sure?"

"Yeah, Dad. I am," said Hosea smiling.

"I love you."

"I love you too, Dad."

Hosea hefted his pack onto his thin shoulders, turned to the door and opened it. He turned back and looked at Ezra, then looked down at the table, then back again to his brother. He nodded and Ezra nodded back. Then Hosea stepped outside.

Father closed the door. Pressed his palms against it for several seconds. Ezra went back to the numbers. He heard ice clink into a glass and a few moments later the sound of Father lowering himself into his chair in the sitting room. He would be staring out the big picture window now, Ezra knew, and would fall asleep there.

Hosea had left. Ezra had stayed. He'd stayed through Mother's failing health, her dementia. He'd managed in-home caregivers, woke up all hours of the night to usher her back to bed, like she was an infant, like he was her father. She couldn't remember Ezra's name, though she asked about Hosea often. "He's fine, Mother," Ezra would say not looking at her.

Ezra had stayed through Father's drinking. His worrying. His pacing. He'd found a way to keep everyone on who worked for their family. To keep paying them even without the acres sold for Hosea. He'd found a way to keep the lights on for all of them.

They heard from Hosea at first. Not regularly but often enough. After they'd talked, Father would sit clutching the kitchen phone, the plastic creaking like he was trying to hold on to his son, to embrace him.

He was traveling, he'd said. He was meeting people and seeing things, the world, the real world.

"All these people Ezra, they're incredible, they're beautiful."

"The world is real enough here," Ezra had replied, "Joshua's wife is pregnant."

"Great! That's great," Hosea replied. He sounded pleased.

One more person to keep the lights on for, thought Ezra, as he stared out Father's picture window.

Then they'd heard from him less. And still less. Then it said his number was disconnected. Ezra had checked Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for clues. He checked couch surfing websites that hadn't been updated since they were created in the 1990s. There was no sign. No sure sign. Maybe he'd died, Ezra thought, ashamed of himself. It had been years.

Ezra was gray now; well gray-er. And balder. And fatter. Joshua's daughter was 10. Mother was dead. Father was... old, older than the years that had passed, older than the good, oak barrel aged bourbon melting the ice in his glass.

And now here was Hosea on a Sunday morning. Ezra was sitting down at the dining room table and the oak door swung open and there stood Hosea in the frame, looking at him.

The leather of Father's chair creaked and Ezra heard footsteps pad toward the tall, shaggy man. Father appeared in the foyer in his dark blue robe and his red slippers and grasped at Hosea like he was trying to draw fog or mist to himself. He plucked at Hosea's ratty clothes, green, brown, tan, and gray, at his scraggly beard, at his matted hair. Father gripped Hosea's shoulders and Ezra could hear the plastic of the kitchen phone creak in his mind.

“What the fuck," Ezra whispered. Ezra noticed himself breathing faster, like he was ready to run, like he was ready to fight. Then his father turned to him. Father's face was radiant, thought Ezra, alive, on fire.

"Call everyone," Father's croaked. Then more clearly, "Call everyone here, Ezra. Invite everyone. Invite Joshua's family, invite everyone's family! Call the caterer or, or order something, order, I don’t know, chicken, whatever." The words tumbled out of Father's mouth as Ezra stared, motionless.

"What are you doing, Ezra?" Father asked.

Ezra scratched his forehead and looked down at the ever-present spread of papers on the dining room table. Ezra hadn’t noticed he had stood up. He adjusted his glasses, sitting back down and began signing checks.

Hosea’s smell proceeded him into the room. He smelled like a pig, Ezra thought, except pigs were clean. Hosea sat down across from Ezra at the table and looked at him, his eyes brimming with tears. “What can I do, Ezra?” he asked shaking his head just a little.

Ezra set his jaw and stared at his brother. Hating him. Loving him. “Nothing,” he replied.

And then to himself, “Nothing.”

The Might of Your Own Hand

With Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and the Baltimore riots sparking dialogue in the church about race and justice in America, it is impossible to avoid discussions of privilege. Except, for some of us, the reaction seems to be to resist discussions of privilege entirely. This effort at willed ignorance stands not only against the reality of privilege, but also against the Christian witness about the gifted nature of our existence.

This is privilege: a road made straight, a route constructed without the labor of one's own hands, traffic and street signs made to fit one's own understanding of the rules of the road.

It is strange to be alive at all, is it not? Then it should not be so strange to imagine people born with advantages beyond their own responsibility. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in 1943 that it is natural to look back with special thankfulness upon the joys of life, the unflagging support of friends and family, a way made smooth. Many Christians seem to have lost this thankfulness in the intervening 72 years. If they have not, then I wonder why so many react defensively to the concept of privilege. Bonhoeffer says: "no one can create and assume such life from his own strength."[^1]

This is ancient knowlege, not a product of some newly devised postmodern liberalism. Moses says,

Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.[^2]

He goes on to say that to forget this is to forget the Lord God and worship other gods. If wealth is anything in our present situation, it is a god. But wealth is perhaps too ambiguous for this discussion.

Being itself should be the basis of any Christian investigation of privilege. Life, from the Christian perspective, is a gift. Combined with the image of God within each person, the gift of being is the basis of equality for all humanity. This basic equality is erased by our economics, ethics, politics, and cultures. We erase our gifted equality. We sin.

Of course, part of the Christian witness is also an affirmation of our status as forgiven beings. Sin does not have the last word. But here I want to hold on to repentance as a precondition for grace. In relation to inequality, to repent is to contend with privilege. One must ask, how straight is my road? Is it smoother than my neighbor's road? What advantages have I reaped without the labor of my own hands? When has my labor yielded a greater harvest than my neighbor's when our efforts were equal? Have I often reaped more even when my efforts lagged? When my neighbor has been unable to work as I have, has s/he perhaps been burdened by something I do not see or cannot understand?

But one must go further than questions. Bonhoeffer would say that to stop here is "cheap grace." Answers to these questions aren't available in isolation. Life is a gift, and it is as Jesus says:

When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.[^3]

Contending with privilege is the same. First ask imaginative questions, then be reconciled to your neighbor. Only then may you be reconciled to God.

In the future, when confronted with discussions of privilege, simply repent. Turn away from defensiveness and toward your neighbor. Remember your life is a gift. Be reconciled to your neighbor, and offer your life back to your maker.

12 Years of Forgiveness

I finally sat down with some friends last night to watch some award-winning downers. We settled in for a double feature of "12 Years a Slave" and "Dallas Buyers Club." I had wanted to see both in theaters, but against the field of amazing choices this year, they ended up in the "I'll catch it on DVD" category. Don't get me wrong, both films were excellent. I was moved by both stories, and could easily write on the major themes and cultural significance of both; I probably will at some point. But what stuck with me on the ride home, the scene I kept turning over in my mind until I fell asleep, is what I'd like to get into here. Some people might feel the need to warn of exposed plot points, but "12 Years a Slave" has been out for seven months and its source material has been out for 161 years, so, you know…deal with it.

When Solomon Northup returns to his family after having been kidnapped and sold into slavery despite his freed status, what unravels is one of the best and most complicated scenes I've ever watched. Standing before his wife, hair graying as his own, and his children, standing tall and grown, his daughter now married and her husband standing with their new child in his arms, Solomon apologizes. He apologizes. "I apologize," he stammers, "for my appearance. But I have had a difficult time these past several years." As his family embraces him, he weeps and whispers to his wife "Forgive me." Anne comforts him, holds him, tells him "There's nothing to forgive." And, from an outsider's view, she's right. He was a victim of an evil system, of a great injustice to him personally and to an entire race of people. The law did not serve him, humanity failed him, and he was forced into circumstances and actions which rendered impotent his morals and choices. He did the best he could in an effort to survive in hopes that he might live. He says as much in the film. So there really is nothing to forgive, right?

Unfortunately, that's not how guilt and forgiveness work. Guilt is messy and irrational. While we may wish to comfort Solomon with those same words, "there's nothing to forgive," that's just not the case. Solomon has a lot of forgiving to do when the scene fades to black and the credits roll. Solomon has to forgive himself. I had an interesting conversation with Logan recently about cycles of guilt, how guilt perpetuates guilt based on nothing even if the original guilt was based on something. Solomon will have a lot of guilt, and while his family and friends may never believe he needs forgiving, he'll crave an unspeakable amount of grace. He'll feel guilt for surviving when so many others did not, he'll feel guilt for missing the growth of his family, for being an absent (however unwilling) husband and father, for the moral callouses he had to develop in order to survive, for not doing more when those moral callouses were not enough. He will feel guilt. He's human. The film goes to great length to show us that Solomon is a good person, and good people do not take their failings lightly. Solomon will need to be forgiven, but not by anyone else. Solomon will have to learn the painful process of extending grace to himself and accepting it often.

In one of the most gut-wrenching moments of the movie, Solomon is forced by his cruel master, Edwin Epps, to whip Patsey, a fellow slave and, until this scene where she visited a neighbor to borrow a lump of soap, Epps' chosen mistress. Epps believes Patsey has visited the neighboring plantation to sleep with the master there, yet he is too cowardly to whip Patsey himself. Because Solomon is nearby, and because he has defended Patsey and himself from the master's rage in the past, Epps delegates the task. Solomon begins by whipping as half-heartedly as he can, trying to save the stripped-and-tied Patsey as much pain and anguish as possible. But Mrs. Epps, driven by her jealousy for her husband's favor for Patsey, demands the brutality increase. Mr. Epps forces Solomon to whip harder by threatening him with his gun, promising his death and the deaths of any other slave in sight. Solomon whips. He rends flesh and sprays blood. He refuses to continue after a few moments, then curses Epps as Epps continues to whip, harder and harder. As Patsey lies on a table afterward, her ragged back being gingerly cleaned by other slaves, her eyes meet Solomon's. What lies in his is guilt. Guilt for what he had done, and for what he had not done. We know that his mind is traveling back to the dark and hushed night months before when Patsey came to him and tried to pay him with a stolen ring for the courtesy of her death. Solomon rejected her request that he drown her and bury her to save her from her life. Solomon refused, and this was the result. This is added to the bedrock of guilt and shame, undeserved but festering and growing nonetheless.

We destroy ourselves with guilt. When Solomon is first sold along with a young mother named Eliza, her family is divided and she spends her time weeping and crying out for her lost children. Eventually, Solomon barks at her to "Stop! Stop your wailing!" and she chides him for his own lack of mourning, for his kowtowing to their master who, while benevolent, is still a slaver unwilling to correct the injustice done to Solomon. He rages toward her, grabbing her and spitting "My back is thick with scars for protesting my freedom. Do not accuse me." She replies through tears, "I accuse you of nothing. I cannot accuse. I have done dishonorable things to survive and for all of them I have ended up here; no better than if I had stood up for myself. God forgive me." This is the guilt that haunts Eliza, and it seems certain that Solomon will feel its sting, too. Solomon will need to grant himself grace if he truly wants to find the path beyond survival to living. We will not understand that grace, and he might never understand it or experience it fully. But it will have to apply, it will have to be freely given and freely taken from self to self every day. As the epilogue informs us, Solomon went on to fight his personal injustice in the courts, and the systemic injustice of slavery by aiding abolitionist efforts such as the Underground Railroad. These are markers on his path to self-healing. When we push to understand our sorrow, our sources of pain, we are working toward our atonement. The fact that no one of us would ever think of Solomon as needing atonement doesn't matter. He needed it for himself, and we need it for ourselves. Seeking to resolve our brokenness through self-forgiveness, daily acceptance of grace, and the physical rejection of our despair through acts of love make up the long road, countless years long, to getting it.