The other day I ran into a stranger at the college campus where I work, which is now like coming across a unicorn or more appropriately, Bigfoot. Most academics take their social distancing as seriously as they take themselves. He was on a morning walk and I was walking to the chapel to pray. The noonday stranger apparently thought that the pandemic was at least seventy-five percent exaggerated as he stepped closer to me and stuck out his hand--the very place where a virus might be taking a nap! I tried to mind my manners and talk with him about the weather. "At least it's sunny," I said, as I took a few, short steps backward. It's equally possible that he came to the well in the heat of midday starved for connection.
Much of the world is learning something that Christians have known all along: relationships make us human beings. When I say you are created in the image of God, I stand with Bonhoeffer and say that you are human because of your engagement with the other and not through some biological characteristic. It's part of the meaning of a doctrine like the Trinity, a three-in-one God in perfect communion with each other. The Trinity is hard to explain and three-leaf clovers don't make it any easier. Here's what I do understand: God is a perfect reciprocity of love and we're called into the same vocation. We're human because we attend to others. We're capable of loving and being loved.
The irony, of course, is that this pandemic calls us to sacrifice a part of our humanity to ensure our own survival and the health of our neighbors. Look, we're living in strange times. I prefer to describe this period of life as a Netflix movie made on a whim with a cheap budget: COVID-19. Starring Nicolas Cage, of course. It's an imitation of a full, robust life where most people are on edge or depressed. Our friends and relatives are trapped in screens and Zoom meetings. Or, we go to the grocery check out line to pay for beer, the essentials, and the grocery clerk immediately sanitizes her hands and sprays the debit chip reader with a stream of Lysol. It's a bullet to our humanity.
The travesty of pandemic is that the external world is transformed into a threat, fostering a climate of fear and distrust. Everything that breathes has the potential to spread disease. How's that for the image of God and the goodness of the world? It's hard enough to love the material world when it's not held captive by a flu on steroids. And now we have to love ourselves and the world while desperately needing a hair cut. When we're most alienated from each other, the physical world, and our very own bodies, it's only a small step to feel disconnected from the God who gave us a material world and called it 'good.'
How good is it, really?
At the apex of holy week, we cry out with Jesus, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Here's a God who dies on a cross, but we learn that the horror of the crucifixion is not the physical pain. It's forsakenness. The pain more profound than physical—it’s not just his hands and his legs. It’s the torment of an empty heart. Jesus doesn't have a hand to hold. The deepest form of suffering is the simultaneous alienation from the body, the community, and God. Jesus had the triple threat. So will many of us.
My isolation is compounded by the lack of meaningful work to contribute to my community besides the development of two small children through microwaved chicken nuggets and watered down apple juice with occasional lessons on reading and good manners. The youngest is still trying to nail down the color 'blue.' The work is abusive and thankless. We frantically ask each other, 'what can I do to help?' And the best thing we can do right now is to stay home. To make matters worse, the world is still revolving, I think, despite my lack of contribution to the spinning. The vanity of life! Is this all there is?
Where's the humanity, again?
I started playing in the dirt, getting a summer garden ready. Nothing is safe, well, except the dirt. Not to mention that dirt is cheaper than CBD oil and possibly more effective for stress relief. I've learned that I'm not making a novel discovery as I take my evening walks around the neighborhood. There are kids rolling around in the dirt like dogs who have found the grossest spot in the lawn. I've also noticed that a spring quarantine is a middle-aged dad's dream come true—there's unlimited time for landscaping right as everything starts to bloom. It's seventy-five degrees and perfect and neighbors line their porches.
Look, it worked for Adam and Eve in Genesis. The land, more specifically the garden, was the first place we learn to become human beings. God the Gardener charges the first humans to till and love Eden. In other words, God calls humanity to plant, nurture, and celebrate the goodness of the material world. We become adamah by taking evening walks with God in the garden, paying attention to the sparrows and lilies, which have always been on the forefront of God's mind. Together, we put our hands in the dirt to co-create, nurture, and celebrate life.
A friend recently shared a poem by Scott Cairns who describes the creation of humanity in a playful, midrashic way:
"Then, YHWH lay back, running His hands over the damp grasses, and in deep concentration reached into the soil, lifting the great handful of trembling clay to His lips, which parted to avail another breath.
With this clay He began to coat His shins, cover His thighs, His chest. He continued layering, and, when he had been wholly interred, He parted the clay at His side, and retreated from it, leaving the image of Himself to wander in what remained of that early morning mist."
This primordial story helps us climb back into the goodness of our skin. We are a clay cast of God, sculpted from the dirt that God animated with God's own breath. Of course, the unbelievable part of Christianity is that God later re-covered Godself in the mud to live among us. In the incarnation God has come and touched our lives to show us the true image of humanity. And if we give ourselves to the dirt, whether on the ground or in a more complex form called 'human,' we're reflecting the image of God.
Most of us are estranged from the people we hold most dear, but a great way to look up to God is by looking at the ground beneath our feet. When the material is a threat to be feared, the world can still feel good again--at least for an afternoon. Grow a plant. Build a sand castle. Go for a run. Pick the tulips and smell them. You'll feel a little more connected to your body and the patch of land you call 'home.'
There's this story in the Gospel of John, where Jesus picks up mud and lathers it on a blind man so that he can see again. May God lather our eyes with dirt, too, and give us eyes to see the blessing of being human even amidst disease and fear.
This spring I've been amazed by the number of earthworms in the soil as I've tended to the garden. I'm continually surprised at the complex matrix of life under my feet, that which is seen and unseen. The worms thrash around, disturbed by a large metal spade they never saw coming. I was always taught as a kid to save as many earthworms as possible. "They're good for the soil," mom said. Unfortunately, I struck one or two with the shovel; it wasn't intentional. Regardless, there I am, a terrorist to whatever makes its home in the dirt.
The world is not a safe place, not even the dirt, and yet it also produces ripe tomatoes and cucumbers. It's cognitive dissonance. There is a pandemic and there's the twilight hour when the sunlight is perfect and the kids are riding bikes around the neighborhood. I go for a run and the sweat drips to cool my body and that feels good, even in a body that has the propensity to carry disease. There are ways to climb back into the cast that God left behind, to feel the goodness of the material world again.
In a couple months, there will be some kind of plant in the dirt that I disturbed--a defiant sign of hope and goodness. Disease will threaten to kill it, but I will watch over it with vigilance. I'll be human, again, fashioned in the image of a gardener God who watches over us even as disease threatens to take our lives. One day, even further down the road, this plant will bear some kind of fruit. The fruit will make its way to our dinner table where we will celebrate the goodness of life with friends. We will touch and laugh and bear God's image for one another. Invisible grace made visible. A sacrament and the material made holy.
Easter begins in a garden, where the dead becomes compost for new growth and a body walks out of a tomb. It starts in dirt and ends in dirt. It will begin again from the ground because the earth, and all that is in it, is good. In the meantime, you can find me in the dirt—in all of it's fragility and wonder, just like you and me
There’s a vacillation between garden and wilderness, orientation and disorientation, throughout Scripture. There is prosperity and exile. You know, Gardens symbolize health—floral blooms and broccoli. But every gardener knows that no matter how hard you try to keep wilderness out, wilderness always finds a way into the garden, like a groundhog that sneaks in and eats all of your freshly planted cucumbers.
In the beginning of Genesis, the cosmos was chaos, a wilderness, until God ushered in this order and formed a world. On the sixth day of creation, God plants adamah (Adam), or these divine-dirt people, in the garden of Eden. That’s fine until they’re cast out into the wilderness. In the wilderness, Cain murders Abel. That’s the way it works. A Psalm of praise is quickly followed by a Psalm of lament—or two—or three. Don’t forget that there’s more prayers of lament than praise.
The wilderness conjures up different images in our imagination, usually Arizona or New Mexico. Tumbleweed, cacti, and the Breaking Bad RV with its methamphetamine exhaust billowing out of cracked windows.
In Scripture, the wilderness takes innumerable shapes. It’s the Israelites wandering for forty years before entering the land of milk and honey. There, they learned about sharing bread. Or, it’s Noah rocking on the ark through wind and wave on the ark as he cares for creation by scrubbing donkey cages and feeding camels. Elijah flees to the wilderness, Jonah enters the wilderness through a fish’s mouth, John the Baptist goes to the desert to call for repentance. Jesus was hurled there Spirit in the wilderness for forty days of temptation. All of these periods of wilderness were used to remind the people of their identity.
We’re in the season of Lent, which is the church’s wilderness season of fasting, repentance, and self-denial. Couple that with a pandemic, and we’re in the middle of a desert without any streams of water or toilet paper. Except my older brother, he bought a bidet this year and now he’s just relishing his good fortune. There’s no anesthesia this year; we go all the way in and there’s no trail out.
People have asked me, ‘how do I be a Christian during this season—the wilderness season?’ The real answer is this: I don’t know. None of of us have lived through a pandemic. We’re all making this up as we go along. We follow the best advice given to us by physicians, like practice physical distancing, which doesn’t mean social distancing. Hugs are illegal, relationships aren’t. You can still connect with each other through screens and cards with stamps.
Those are all good things, but they don’t seem very heroic. A lot of people I know wish that they could do more. It makes the church feel a little puny, right?
I wonder if we’re forgetting about one of the greatest streams in the Christian tradition—monasticism. The wisdom of our tradition reminds us that we have mothers and fathers who know the spiritual nourishment of being alone. I mean, these are the kinds of people who voluntarily quarantine themselves into deeper union with God. They choose wilderness.
What would it be like to practice a kind of monasticism for a season?
In the 3rd Century, ancient Christians escaped to the desert just as Christianity was gaining a degree of prominence. The church began to cozy up to the Roman Empire and disciples of Jesus had to flee metropolitan centers to live out true discipleship in the deserts of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. This is the rationale: if everyone is a Christian, is anyone really a Christian? The original hipsters. If everyone wears flannel, does flannel even mean anything anymore?
Many Christians began to worry that they were more faithful when they were less comfortable—like when they were being eaten by lions or burned at the stake to light up Nero’s dinner parties. They had to leave their comfortable houses to really practice Christianity; they had to get away to take stock of their lives. It’s as if the stars in the sky can only be seen when all of the lights are turned off.
These Christians began to live simply; all they needed was a set of clothing, a Bible, and some straw to weave a basket. One of my professors used to put it this way: people started taking Christianity seriously enough to give up money, sex, and power. That’s crazy. But it’s an interesting kind of crazy. They found their sustenance in the one thing that can’t be taken away—Jesus. Everything else is in this world is up for grabs, so you might as well put it to death now. The monks made their homes in tombs and caves, dying to themselves, and emerging out of the dark born again. And the wilderness was transformed—no longer a desert, but a sanctuary of God’s love. 1
Sometimes God calls Christians into solitude—to be planted so deeply into the soil that they can’t be seen. But when they sprout they’ll provide shade for the whole church. Soon, the desert had become a city, as Christians began to flock to the wilderness to experience something of God.
This was the beginning of a tradition that bled into new expressions of monasticism. Later, the church gave us St. Benedict who developed a rule for an alternate way of communal life together based on ora et labora, or praying and working, together. Francis renounced his father’s wealth and began to beg for alms; a decade later there were five thousand friars in Europe. And then, there’s Ignatius and Teresa and Luther and Julian of Norwich and on and on.
In every generation, God uses monasticism to teach us how to be the church once again—that simplicity, solitude, and prayer. The rhythms of grace. Now, let me be careful not to romanticize the wilderness; it usually sucks. And it hurts. The desert fathers battled with demons—constantly. And the world laughed. By the way, do you know what they complained about most often? Boredom. Instead of running from it, they faced this ‘noonday’ demon head on.
This season is incredibly lonely, but I think we can start to learn how to become alone in the right ways. The Christian tradition has made a distinction between loneliness and solitude. When you are alone, does it feel like loneliness or solitude? They’re so similar, yet they’re antonyms. Loneliness is being alone with despair, while solitude is being alone with a purpose—with God. Paul Tillich puts it this way, “loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.” The monastic communities teach us about solitude, not loneliness.
Solitude teaches us to be with ourselves. Think back to your life three weeks ago and the pervasive busyness. Now, many of us are wide open. Here’s the bad news: you can’t distract yourself. Not with meetings, extracurriculars, or even church—loud music by Hillsong United. We can’t cover our nakedness, as did Adam and Eve when they became conscious of their humanity. One of the gifts of this season, if we can call anything a gift, is the chance to take a step back from the busyness and consumerist values that rule our lives like a grueling slave master.
The desert fathers used to have this mantra: “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” There, in our cells, we’re face to face with things we cannot escape. Mother Teresa used to say that “God is a friend of silence.” And our problem is that we’re enemies of silence. Silence makes us profoundly uncomfortable. And I don’t mean external silence; it’s the internal silence that is difficult. We get quiet and suddenly there’s anger, fear, distraction, self-doubt. When all of that is uncovered, we’re forced to take it to God or a neighbor for consolation.
Evagrius, a desert father, advised his followers to divide oneself into two parts: “a consoler and the other, the object of the consolation.”
Sounds a bit like cognitive behavioral therapy.
I’ve also noticed this: the church is moving back into rhythms of prayer. At any given moment, I’ll pull up facebook or instagram and one of my friends is praying. Granted, I have a lot of friends who are pastors. Still, we’re lifting our voices to God in the morning, midday, evening, and at night with compline. They have simple, paired down music—a cappella voices or a simple strum of the guitar. A few candles flicker in the screen. It’s as if the church is learning to love Scripture and prayer again. It feels a bit monastic, doesn’t it?
“By our prayers, the world is kept moving,” said the early desert fathers. Can we treasure this time alone in the quiet with God? Structure your life in the rhythms of prayer. Pray in the morning. Pray at noon. Pray before bed. Let prayer be the lifeblood of your day.
One last thing on solitude: tribalism has evaporated at least for a season and we’re acting like the church—together. Though we’re alone, we’ve been brought together by virtue of wireless internet and the waters of our baptism. We’re starting to realize that guests and strangers are to be received as a new incarnation of Christ. How monastic of us! Some of the desert fathers would say, “We don’t retreat from the world, we retreat for the world.”
Our inwardness is meant to turn us outward and compassion becomes the fruit of solitude. Maybe the Corona virus is leading us to realize just how deeply we need each other and how intertwined our lives are with one another. We can’t live alone. Maybe most of all we’ve learned that we can’t live without God. The God who created us out of community, won’t save us without community.
And so may the church learn again the rhythms of solitude, prayer, and community. In other words, may we learn something of monasticism.
1. This was Jason Byassee's observation--somewhere.
Moses is only a few feet away from the land that was promised to Abram and Sarai when he dies.
It was a heartbreaking, movie’s ending to a life well-lived. This is the same child who was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter while floating down the Nile in a woven basket to escape infanticide. God raised him up and spoke to him through a burning bush until he freed his people through the Red Sea and entered the long, wilderness journey. Moses received the covenant from God at Mt Sinai. Here is the man who taught his people, interceded on their behalf, berated them, forgave them, and loved them till the end.
After forty years of wandering in the wilderness we find a strong, 120-year-old man whose knees don’t even wobble as he takes his final hike up a mountain. Scripture says that Moses was full of vigor (use your imagination) as reaches the top of the mountain, with vision so strong that he doesn’t even squint to make out the new home for his people. He has nothing left to do but walk down the mountain. Instead, Moses makes his home in an unmarked grave, left to rot by the people he loved dearly.
The Lord says to him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”
And Moses dies on the mountaintop.
Our culture is absolutely terrified of running out of time, but I suspect COVID-19 is teaching us something about stolen time. Most of us tend not to think about time until it’s taken from us; we don’t appreciate the gifts until they’re gone. The kids are now thirty, I’m sixty five, and I’ve only blinked twice. That’s the truism, anyway.
In our case, a whole crop of students had no idea that they were walking out of classrooms for the last time this semester when they left for spring break. Our goodbyes were stolen. Pledge periods abruptly changed. Sports seasons were cancelled before they even started. What about the recitals and performances from the stage? There was nothing left for the seniors to do but to walk across the stage and receive a diploma. I don’t get to fill out a bracket for March Madness so as to lose five dollars in the family pool. And we forget, blinded by our selfishness, that entire lives are being cut short every day.
For a while we fooled ourselves by living as if time was a commodity that we could control. We talked about ‘spending and saving time’ like it was a piece of money. ‘I need to find a way to buy some more time,’ we said, as if it was something we can purchase more of when it runs out. We talked about ‘making time’ as if we could somehow create more. We had sun-dials, calendars, watches (by the way, stop looking at your Apple Watch when you’re talking to me) to get our hands around time, but all they really did was try to measure our location as we revolved around the sun.
It was all a farce.
Time overwhelms us and then, it eludes us.
We have experienced some kind of death on the mountain—some worse than others. A thief in the night snuck up and took our most prized commodity: time—the one thing we can never get back. This one of a series of profound disappointments that life will bring. There is an unfinished quality to life—there will be births unwitnessed, trips not taken, relationships left broken. Life is never fair. And the platitude that we deserved more time and better time was put to death when Moses died on the mountaintop.
Can stolen time be redeemed?
The God of Israel, the God who led Moses up the mountain, is the same God who redeems all of our time and refuses to let it go to waste. The God of temporal infinity makes possible all the time in the world to make our time, our memories, redeemed.
Another Scripture is helpful, here. Paul says that there is a way to redeem time. He writes in his letter to the Ephesians: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15). The days are evil, so make the most of your time. I’m sick of those memes, to be honest. “Make the most of your time” is a fine byword for our culture. It’s the ancient version of YOLO. Isn’t this why ‘social distancing’ is so difficult? It’s a waste of time! Let’s go on vacation. Become insta-famous. Write a novel in the span of this three month hiatus. Can’t we just lament?
But Paul is not saying that we should fill every moment of every day with some kind of instagram-able moment. Unfortunately, the Greek word, exagorazo, means literally to “redeem” or to “buy back” time. Redeeming time is more difficult to get our hands around. How do you buy back wasted opportunities or closed doors and dormitories? How do you redeem Baccalaureate or a spring formal? Once it’s gone, well, it’s gone.
The word Paul uses, exagorazo, was a word used in the market place. It meant something like, “snag every bargain on the sales table.” In other words, rescue the moments that you are given now, the moments that will otherwise be lost. It’s a fitting word because all we’ve got left is the sales table, the leftovers, the moments that no one wanted. These are the moments that are marked down 75% off because they didn’t sell. He’s telling us to go to the sales table and get the WebEx classes, the FaceTime cocktail parties, and the group text message threads and transform them into service of God. Paul believes that even these cheap, plastic, mass-manufactured moments can be made holy. Every moment is pregnant with possibility. In other words, transform what’s left of your time together into something Godly, because nothing is wasted in God’s economy of time.
Can we be creative in our social distancing, this wilderness season, so as how to learn to love God and our neighbor in a new way? Can even the dark moments of our lives be bent into service of God? How will the last six weeks of your semester become holy? Will we live as beautifully as we could? Or did we take even the sales table for granted? Will you waste what’s left?
The days are evil, but our love is stronger. Let us have the obstinate hope that no one will rob us of our love for each other, even though we are physically separated. And so, our time will be redeemed.
As always, we’d do well to pay attention to Jesus. Folks constantly asked Jesus when their time would run out. What did Jesus say? He said,
“I don’t know. And you don’t know. So just repent, ok?”
Live fully and love deeply and know that the time will pass by too quickly. There’s never enough time. Even if we returned to campus for six more weeks, it wouldn’t be long enough. We could try to catch each present moment, but they’d disappear before we could grasp them in our hands. Redeem the time and give your moments to God.
Jesus’ time ran out when he was in his thirties. He went to the top of a mountain, like Moses, and he was put on a cross. There, he showed us exagorazo—that forgiveness is stronger than hatred, Paradise is brighter than hell, love is stronger than death. That’s what it means to redeem the time. At the top of the cross, he saw the promised land and three days later he rose from a tomb and brought it to earth. There will come a time, like Moses and Jesus, when we’ll climb up a mountain and we won’t walk down. But the good news is that we’ve already been shown the promised land—it’s resurrection.
COVID-19 has taught us that time does not belong to us and our futures are uncertain—but it never did and they always were. But we’d also do well to learn this: the future is good, because the future is in God. And God has chosen not to be God without you. You are a part of God’s time—eternally. And because God’s story never ends, yours won’t either.
If this is true, then time has been redeemed because time has been resurrected. And now, we have all the time in the world.
Love all of you,
One of my only memories of Pappy is of him talking to the man in the mirror. Who could blame him? The man was congenial and handsome—jet black hair, muscular physique, either clean shaven or designer beard stubble. Pappy routinely saw a stranger in windows and mirrors as he slowly became a stranger to himself and the world, which isn’t abnormal behavior for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. He looked at the puzzling, familiar face and invited the stranger inside for a place to stay. But the man could never come back inside.
I learned at an early age that when our bodies betray us that the brain can be particularly vindictive. When a neuron died, so did a memory. People and places disappeared as if they never existed. Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t discriminate—it took his PhD and his ability to swing a hammer. Finally, an entire history evaporated like a puddle of water on a sunny day.
Augustine notes that memory is the warehouse of time, but what happens when the warehouse is robbed? We are taught as children to leave a legacy, but our loved ones who suffer from dementia teach us a painful lesson: we will forget and be forgotten. Textbooks go out of print and gravestones crumble. Even Google, the world’s biggest brain, can’t retrieve a copy of his dissertation.
I’m told that there’s a remnant of his life incarnated within me, giving shape to my own identity. None of us are as unique as we think. He is enfleshed in my five-foot-nothing stature and other quirks like an affinity for chamomile tea. Gratefully, I inherited the story of Jesus that he told his daughter who then, faithfully told it to me. Somehow Kierkegaard hitched a ride with Jesus into my consciousness, even if he skipped a generation. I’m not complaining.
I can retrieve snapshots of his illness that don’t fit together to create a full portrait. Mostly, I remember how his body cried out on his mind’s behalf. As Pappy’s dementia grew worse he picked up the newspaper and underlined important phrases and paragraphs—a habit that was ingrained in his muscle memory after years of reading and studying. His bird flew around the house to my terror and sang ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ preaching the good news that he could never lose, even when he forgot it. I don’t remember much more.
After he died, Meemaw threw out all of his papers and sermons which could have given us access to his heart and brain. I’ve often thought about what he underlined in his Bible or wrote in the margins of the text. Did he prefer to preach John’s Gospel or Luke’s? What’d he say about the slaughter of the Canaanites? It’s a shame that she didn’t realize that she’d have a few grandchildren in vocational ministry who would’ve loved to know their pastor-grandfather. And the extra sermon material wouldn’t have hurt.
Twenty-five years later, all I can do is borrow another’s imperfect memory from those who knew him best.
I’ve since learned that Pappy was not a preacher or priest. He was foremost a pastor, which means that he was a shepherd. He loved to be with people—whether over coffee or on the softball field. Relationships whisked him off to bars before ‘theology on tap’ was trendy or socially acceptable. Pappy didn’t drink the stuff, but he made friends with those who did. No surprise, it got him in trouble with the churches. One thing hasn’t changed in the history of Christianity: religious people will complain if you eat and drink with ‘sinners.’
But Pappy knew that transformation was worth the headache brought by pious church ladies. His own father, who no joke had the street name “Doggie,” was an alcoholic until God made good on a bargain made over a sick daughter. Both he and the daughter were healed. Pappy must have learned that Jesus changed water to wine, but he also changes wine to water when necessary. And someone needs to be present to pray over the barrels.
My uncle recalled that he often stopped at the hospital and asked about who wasn’t getting visitors. He also asked about struggling students at the local high school. That’s not the sort of thing I’ve ever done in my ministry. I’m too busy. Pappy knew he had nothing to gain from spending time with these people except meeting Jesus.
Others have said that Pappy wanted to win at everything, especially life. He started with little and worked hard to be respected on the field, in the church, in the public’s opinion. The line between arrogance and confidence was as thin as the frames of his white-rimmed sunglasses.
At the height of his ministry, Pappy wore the latest fashion and drove a bright red Triumph Spitfire. His congregation claimed that this made him arrogant. Pastors don’t drive sports cars; they drive a beat up Bonneville Catalina that squeals when it takes a right turn. Then again, a parishioner painted a portrait of him with Jesus and he had no qualms about hanging it up in his office. Maybe they were on to something.
Pappy’s life has never been told to me as a hagiography. We all sin and our families will know our mistakes best. Many still struggle to make sense of his shadow side, especially his aggression and strict abuse that passed as spanking. Was he a product of a different era of child rearing—spare the rod spoil the child? Was this a vestige of his own gambling, heavy drinking father who also abused his family? Actions are complex and motives are often pure. Regardless, we fail each other.
One of my uncles told me that understanding a person’s history doesn’t condone the past, but it sure helps with forgiveness. Luckily, Christianity is comfortable with people who make mistakes.
I treasure these fragments, even if they’re subjective and short-sighted. We all have a bit of dementia and can’t seem to get our hands around another person. Much is still unsettled about his life and ours, too. The story we tell of ourselves might intersect and cross paths with the story told by another, but it will never line up completely. Maybe our true identity is somewhere in between the story we’ve created about ourselves and the character that we’ve played in another’s.
I wonder if this is why David Keck says that Alzheimer’s is a ‘theological disease’ that reveals how our identities are misplaced in rationality, memory, and productivity. All along one’s true identity rests secure only in God and nowhere else. That’s easy to forget.
While Jesus hung on the cross the thief next to him cried out, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It’s a curious way of asking for help. He could’ve taken his buddy’s advice and prompted Jesus to prove his divinity. Instead, he asked to catch a ride on God’s bus into God’s memory. That’s eternal life.
Salvation is being re-membered into God’s story—in God’s eternal memory. This is the work of baptism, which strips, washes, and then raises us into a new ontological reality that is larger than what we can cram into our hippocampus. It was Rene Descartes who declared, “I think therefore I am.” The Enlightenment got it backward. For Christians, God remembers and therefore we are—eternally.
We’re all looking at strangers in the mirror—familiar, yet inexhaustible mysteries. The stranger Pappy saw, the one who couldn’t come back inside the house he built with his own hands, lives in me in ways I will never know. But the better news is that he had a home all along.