Thursday, January 21, 2010

On Resurrection, Redemption and Grace (for Neville)

When I was in college, it took me almost three years to hold onto the concept of “hegemony,” which now seems silly, because it’s not really a difficult concept. And it wasn’t that I didn’t understand the concept; at any given moment, if I looked it up, or someone explained it to me, I understood it perfectly. But an hour later, it was gone. I just couldn’t hold onto it, and I certainly couldn’t pull it up at will to use it or explain it. I had at best an impressionistic understanding, one that only occasionally came into focus. “Hermeneutics” is another one; I still have no idea what it means. And it won’t help for you to leave an explanation in the comments, because then I will understand it … but only until I turn off my computer. Then it will be gone.

Big theological concepts often feel a bit like that for me. But if I feel a little dumb when I can’t hold onto concepts like “hegemony” or “hermeneutics,” I feel like a downright fraud for having only a tangential grasp on concepts like “grace” and “redemption” and “resurrection.” This is one of the many reasons I love Kathleen Norris’s Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. I come back to these lovely essays about the “scary words” of the Christian faith over and over, not so much to set difficult ideas firmly in my mind, but rather precisely because what Norris gives me is permission to claim them even in the fleeting, “hope is a thing with feathers” sort of way they dwell with me.

Mostly I don’t so much understand big theological concepts as I experience them. And the thing is, whether you understand it or not, sometimes grace can just wash over you. Sometimes redemption can grab hold of you in an instant and deliver you from a captivity you didn’t even know you were dwelling in. Sometimes resurrection looks you right in the eye in the form of a teen-age boy, now a grown man, who revisits you across the decades through the magic of social networking.

Last night I got a Facebook friend request from Neville Stephens (that’s not really his last name, btw), a name that rang a bell, but which I couldn’t immediately place. Julie said, “Didn’t you have a student named Neville Stephens?” Right. Our mutual friends were two other former students, so of course I immediately accepted.

I’m now Facebook friends with several of my former students from my brief foray as a high school English teacher in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s in Hancock County, Indiana. First was Radley; I found him at the Cato Institute when I was doing background on a potential donor to my kids’ school. I shot him an email; awhile later he wrote back, apologetic about the delay. I was actually in Indiana when I received his email, in a Holiday Inn Express, at Julie’s Nanna’s funeral. I was just miles away from Eastern Hancock High School, and his kind words about my influence on his intellectual life were most certainly a sort of grace, a totally unexpected affirmation from the least likely of sources. I’ve been a huge fan of Radley’s ever since, and will always be grateful for his thoughtfulness that began to redeem what was mostly a painful and difficult time in my life. I may have been miserable, but apparently it was not all for naught.

But miserable I was, for so many reasons. In no particular order, there was the fact that my introverted, anxiety-prone, bookish self was exquisitely ill-suited to a career teaching adolescents; there was the war, about which I held a distinctly minority opinion among my colleagues; there was my mother’s death at the end of my first year, the great trauma in my life, still; and then there was that toxic closet, which permeated everything. All around a bad combination. When I look back on those three years, my misery seems almost unremitting.

So I was happy to hear from Radley that something good had come of all that misery. And when I became Facebook friends with Shawn and Amy and Webb and Todd, I had a similar experience. “Miss Rose! [“Marta” I have to correct them every time] It’s so nice to be in touch! Thank you so much for trying to open our minds there at Eastern Hancock, you really did make a difference!” Nothing begins to redeem misery like this sort of unexpected and undeserved kindness and generosity. Especially since not one of them seems particularly freaked out by my life (not my lifestyle, Todd … it’s just a life, and so is yours! Though yours probably has more style, come to think of it… ;-)

Then a couple of weeks ago, I was chatting on Facebook with my boy Cory, whom I sit with at church, while Julie is conducting the choir (Michael, my friend and pastor, says new folks probably think we’re married, ha!). He’s a new friend, and very dear, a Hoosier no less. I adore him. While we were chatting, he told me that Autumn, one of his childhood chums with whom he is Facebook friends, recognized my name on his page because she had also seen it on Amy’s page.

“Autumn?” It took me a minute. “As in Asha’s older sister? Really, you knew Asha?” What a small world, huh? Asha isn’t on Facebook, but I immediately chatted up Amy and caught up on Asha’s life.

Redemption all over the place. I may have been miserable, but these kids? Well, they’re not kids any more, for starters, and what’s more, they appear to have grown up to be fabulous human beings. Very rewarding and heartwarming, let me tell you.

So I was happy to get Neville’s friend request, in much the same way I was happy to hear from all of them. Neville was a great kid. They were all great kids. His photo, though, it didn’t look all that familiar. People change, as it turns out, quite a bit between their mid-teens and their mid-thirties. Someone else commenting on his wall thought so too: “Neville, what happened to your long hair?”

And then it all came back to me: resurrection, redemption, grace, all in one fell swoop. Because suddenly I really remembered Neville. I really saw him, his fifteen-year-old self, with his long blond hair and the fabulous smile and a certain open-yet-shy sort of head-ducking, looking-out-from-under-his-eye-lids gesture that was so, well, Neville. Like his young self was standing right there in front of me.

Michael recently preached a beautiful sermon about bodies (one of my favorite topics) and resurrection, which threw me for a bit of a loop at the end, because he proposed that resurrection is not really a metaphor, that our resurrections will be bodily and unique, right down to the expressions on our faces and our quirky personalities and the very gestures that make us unique. I loved this sermon right up until that point, when I fell right into fretting about being a fraud. Because resurrection as not-a-metaphor and not-a-symbol is not-so-much something I can easily wrap my mind around. A couple of days after that sermon, I made Michael go for a walk with me and quizzed him about it. We walked around the block in the sunshine, my first limping excursion of any distance since my last bout with plantar facsiitis. I was in a funk, and a walk in the sunshine and my new fancy running shoes with my pal Michael was certainly a resurrection of sorts. His further explanation of his sermon was helpful, too, but still I was left mostly scratching my head.

I still don’t really understand the end of Michael’s sermon, but this morning, when a flood of Nevilleness washed over me, I certainly experienced resurrection in just the way Michael proposed: specific, quirky, bodily, right down to the very gestures and expressions that make Neville himself. I have experienced this before: fifteen-year-old Radley is pretty easy to recall too, but here’s the thing (and I trust that Radley would take no offense): there’s not so much redemption or grace in recalling a fifteen-year-old Radley in all his smirky particularity. The redemption of Radley is in knowing he turned out to be a fine human being, a good man, someone who does important work in the world.

The difference was that my experience of Neville, resurrected, recalled for me that my time at Eastern Hancock was not all misery. Neville appears to have turned out to be a fine human being, like most of my former students I’m sure, one that I will be happy to know and be friends with, on Facebook and perhaps even in real life. But the gift that has redeemed those years like no other is in recalling – so specifically, so particularly, so vividly – how much I adored him, then, and how happy it made me, then, to know him.

In the two pages Kathleen Norris devotes to “Grace” in Amazing Grace, she recalls the story of Jacob, who, as Norris tells us, “has just deceived his father and cheated his brother out of an inheritance. But,” says Norris, “God’s response to finding Jacob vulnerable, sleeping all alone in open country, is not to strike him down for his sins but to give him a blessing.” Upon waking from his dream, Jacob responds, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” Grace, suggests Norris, is in realizing that God is with us even when we don’t know it. “Even when we try to run away from our troubles, as Jacob did, God will find us and bless us….” (pp. 150-151)



Eric said...

Ideas such as "grace", "redemption", and "resurrection" should be unfathomable to us and even a little scary, because they lie so far beyond the realm and scope of "normal" (another scary word) human interaction. The ideas that we express regarding God/The Creator/Spirit are just that: ideas. They are vague inklings of the reality that lies far beyond them. They are futile, human attempts to quantify and solidify into conceptual language, that which is essentially ineffable. That Spirit continues to love us still, and perhaps all the more passionately because of such blind and ineffectual scratching and grasping at the nature of God's reality is only further proof of things like "grace".

Eric said...

...make that "near futile". Not that we ever truly learn, "for now [we] see in a mirror, darkly". But every so often we are able to apprehend a spark of divine brilliance that calls us to continue scratching and grasping.

Marta said...

eric, i adore you too. we're all fine, btw. thanks for your note. i'll be in touch soon. xoxox

Leigh said...

Marta, you are such an eloquent writer! I loved this essay, on so many levels!
And Eric, you have summed up my experience and discomfort with organized religion: the language used in liturgy seems so definite, yet of course it is anything but. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed Quaker meeting so much: no words to get in the way of experiencing grace or redemption, or any other holy experience.

Ellen said...

I know that Marta looks forward to Michael's epistles each week and I have to say I have the same associations with Marta's blog. When I see that there is a new one, I get that "night before Christmas kid feeling" that something really great is about to happen. And it usually does. You are reminding me that I should read more Norris and, as I read Eric and Leigh's responses to what you wrote, I am so grateful that you don't hide your light under a bushel, Marta. Your thinking and writing needs to see the light of day and I'm so glad that it does. I miss Advent when I could read your writing almost every day, but it is a treat in the midst of my "to do" list, to have this quiet moment to think about grace.

Anonymous said...

I cannot tell you how much this means to me, and how grateful I am for finding you. I always regretted being too caught up in my teenage drama to tell you how much you meant to me.

You were the first teacher to talk to me as though my opinion mattered. You taught me that my tastes, style (both literary and sartorial) and speech were not necessarily wrong, they were

Your influence didn't stop at your lessons or our interactions. Your presence was just as powerful of an influence. Though your essay was brilliant, I don't think words can describe how very out of place you were at Eastern Hancock, a school truly devoid of variety - a homogenized wasteland of white bread and groupthink. I watched your interactions with other teachers and saw the subtle flashes of anger at their ignorance...a look that said "If these kids are going to know any better, YOU should know better". I knew your blood was boiling but you remained so calm. But when your students showed the same ignorance, I never saw that anger. Nor did I see pity. I saw patience, understanding, and effort to slowly change the tide, fight the good fight - grace personified.

And now those memories are resurrected, reminding me that a good portion of who I am is formed by you and the revelation that I did not have to grow up to be like the adults I had known up to then.

I envy your children in that they will have never known a world that limits, a world of predefined roles and unquestioned "facts". Those shackles are hard to break, and they will never be burdened with them.



Anonymous said...

O Marta I agree with Neville -- this is beautiful and brilliant.

I say from my limited, finite pov that if we're not going to be recognizable in eternity then why bother hoping there is one?

And I hang this hope on Jesus' resurrection -- his resurrection body seems to have looked a little different in some way --but there he was -- scars and all -- recognizable as himself to those who love him. And not only his body but the way he broke bread and spoke and taught was recognizable too.

One of Ra and my favorite songs "I'll be waiting on the farside bank of Jordon"

O and the theological concepts -- I'm with Eric -- our finite attempts to describe experiences and realities our brains can't understand....and a vocabulary for people who enjoy talking about it. But all too often used as a wedge or weapon or wall.

See you in worship!


Marta said...

eric: that was actually the upshot of my walk-and-talk in the sunshine with michael. i do like me a smart preacher-man .... must be why i like you both so well!

leigh: thank you thank you so much! and especially thank you for posting my essay on your wall ... i really appreciate that. i hope you'll come back!

ellen: just, well, i love you. it's nice to have fans, it's even nicer to have fans you adore right back.

oh neville. you know, part of the redemption that i didn't yet write about, but will some day, is in feeling .... shame? maybe too strong, but something very akin to shame ... at having left you all. i had to go. i wish i didn't have to do it so abruptly, and i really wish i had made an effort to stay in touch. i was a little fragile and very very young (think about it -- i was not quite 24 when i started teaching, 26 when i left....) anyway, that shame, or whatever it is, is part of the captivity i didn't even quite know i was in ... and being friends with you now (not just fb friends, i hope!) is very redeeming. even before these thoughtful, kind words. you are very dear. (go read a book ;-) xo m

wanda: between you and michael, what hope does a poor doubter like me have? i'm awfully glad to have you in my life. sunday will be fun!

Patrick said...

FB hasn't given me any experience quite so dramatic, but it has helped me re-examine the story I had been telling myself about who I was and how I felt in high school. There's been a funny kind of letting go, forgiveness even, mostly forgiving myself for having been so angry, scared and distrustful. Similar feelings have happened with later parts of my life as well, but definitely that time has been getting studied more closely.
We've discussed the metaphor question (and will get to do so more in a WEEK!) but I'm with you on that. To some extent I feel like my Quaker upbringing gives me so much space and freedom in understanding the divine, but sometimes I feel like my metaphors are too general, lack inspiring power. I know that I can't just adopt the images of others and hope to feel that power; Jesus feels as wonderful, yet alien to me as Krishna or Dionysus. I find the stories beautiful, love the ways they have nourished people for centuries, but I never quite feel a sense of belonging (well, maybe a little with Dionysus... especially when performing, or walking in a Spring meadow). Hearing YOUR stories of grace and redemption though, that's the sort of thing that DOES inspire me. Hearing about your reconnecting with students gives me a great sense of grace.