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.

Who Has Time for That

Sometimes I’m pretty sure if I was a woman I’d be a better dad. I don’t even know what that means, but I think sometimes I need to be a completely different person to do this as well as it should be done.

Your kid is really just a little worm for the first few months and it’s kinda “this isn’t quite as hard as everybody makes it out to be.” Course, I basically have no memory of those first six or eight weeks because of all the sleep deprivation. But that’s a thing where there’s no other option. Baby needs to eat every three hours. Get up. Change her. Feed her.

But now she’s turning into a person. She’s mobile. She complains about stuff, wants certain toys, wants one book more than another. She’ll push my face away sometimes when I try to give her a kiss. A friend of mine said, “welcome to being a dad.” Well, I feel it.

I used to hear the trite old expression, “stay-at-home-moms-do-have-a-job-the-most-important-job-being-a-mom-respeckt,” and I was kinda like, eh, okay, but come on, is it a job? Well, no. It isn’t. I’m stay at home dad, now, and it’s way more than a job.

I’m not looking for sympathy or anything. It upsets me when people make parenthood sound like some kind of horrible ordeal. But it’s hard. It’s really hard. And, you know, it doesn’t make me wise, or a better person, or some grace filled version of myself. It’s just broken old me raising a child. In certain ways I’m equipped for it, and in others I’m really super not. It’s hard not to feel the ways you’re not more than the ways you are.

I don’t know if it’s possible to be good enough not to fail at this a little bit in small ways every day. You’re definitely relying on grace and forgiveness in this thing, which should be enough. But you have to pay attention to grace and forgive yourself. Who has time for that?

Shut Up, Grace

It’s amazing how quickly my stupid mouth listens to my stupid brain. Especially when it comes to the reduction of the other. Especially especially when social media gets involved.

This morning, I had a Twitter conversation with a friend. First note: don't do that. Twitter has practically no room for nuance, it isn't built that way, so trying to say something meaningful to another person is going to be difficult. Second note: if you're going to do that, you better put on your generosity pants, because it's gonna get real at some point. Because of the first thing.

It started with an observation, went quickly to debate, and then at some point I stopped recognizing my friend as someone I loved and replaced that person with the image of someone out to get me, out to hurt me. I responded in kind by lashing out with non-sequitur jabs and a childish, reactionary stance. I was called out for it, realized my error, apologized, and now we're good (so you can stop holding your breath).

It immediately struck me how quick I'd been to go low, to strike out at someone I care for out of a sense of self-protection and hurt. It's an old, old story. We all know it by heart. So why do we keep participating in it, keep propagating it? Because we're broken. Because life is a turd sandwich. Because it's easy to scowl at the taste of it and forget how wonderful our loving relationships with others can be when we let them fill us with their intrinsic beauty and worth.

This is the cycle of grace. We harm, are convicted of our wrong, are loved regardless, and feel the urge to love better and more fully despite knowing exactly how we will harm again. The scary truth is, this cycle has the potential to play out countless times per day. I went through the whole thing before 10 a.m. But this is our duty and privilege when it comes to those we encounter: see them for who they are, not for how they benefit you, not for how they might wound you, and not for how you perceive your wounds or their part in them. I forgot that for a few minutes with someone who matters greatly to me when I made them "less than" by guarding myself with mean-spirited humor. I did it in the guise of attacking their argument, when I was clearly attacking them. We are people, and this is what we do. Knowing that we do it will not keep us from it. So we trust in grace to move us forward, deep into the arms of the other who can smile and forgive and show us the love we could not, would not, show.

Take care of each other, folks. And when you don't, try again.

Logan: If I Were Me I Wouldn't Take Any Shit From Myself

See Mark's post on the same topic.

Yesterday Mark and I were chatting. He mentioned that there's a guy who he'd like to be and that he was thinking about what steps he might take to be more like that guy. He described this person to me and I said, "Sounds like a cool guy." Mark agreed, and mentioned he thought he should do something about it. "That guy would," said Mark.

This prompted me to tweet, "If I were me I wouldn’t take any shit from myself."

Obviously I'm not going to exhaust the topic of what it takes to be a person here. I partly want to let the tweet stand on its own. But I think it's worth unpacking what I was trying to capture in the few characters Twitter allows.

"If I were me"

To set up the joke I establish a disjunction between who I am and the various ways I think about myself. "I" in this case may be myself as I currently exist or as I may exit or have existed. "Me" also may take either sense "I" can take depending on what meaning the reader places on "I." "If" suggests an unrealized reality: the two – "I" and "me" – may collapse into each other or be brought into equality, thus terminating the temporal "if."

In other words, on one hand, there may be an ideal "me" projected into the past or the future that I am trying to regain or to work toward. On the other hand, perhaps my thinking about who I am is out of step with who I "actually" am.[^1]

Being out of step with who one is may be the product of misrepresenting the truth of who one is to oneself. For example, I may hold certain values, but do I live them out? Put more simply, do my beliefs match my actions? If not, one may either experience disjunction or live in blissful denial.

Interestingly, the former – holding a past or future ideal about oneself – may cause the latter. And here we arrive at the second part of the tweet:

"I wouldn’t take any shit from myself."

The ideal me wouldn't put up with deficiencies in the me that currently exists. Here, not only am I in disjunction with myself, I am actively at odds with myself. I make the guy I want to be exist as much as any "true self" and he kind of hates me a little bit. In the tweet this is partly because I'm going for comedy. If there isn't any tension it isn't a funny tweet. But I do feel an animosity within myself for myself and I wonder about its effects.

How much suffering am I putting myself through in this arrangement? I could write it off as meaningless because no one suffers but me. But I put other people through the same wringer, potentially causing them suffering when they invariably fail to live up to my expectations – whether they are reasonable or not – and causing myself additional suffering in the process.

The only solution I see to this is to let go of solutions. One must be led to take one's hand off the railing that offers control at the edge of the cliff that is life. Rather than ideals, one must let go and accept a life of faith, grace, and love. If anyone can figure out how to make the movement of acceptance without turning acceptance into an ideal, please let me know.