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)