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May 2013

Thieves Like Me

In Rod Dreher's memoir, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, he begins with a story of his sister Ruthie, seven at the time, and himself, five.  He had done something particularly awful, he recalls, and his father had told him to go lie down on his bed, a precursor to one of his "rare but highly effective spankings."  He knew he deserved it.  He knew that it would be perfectly just for his father to spank him.  But then, just as his father entered the room, Ruthie ran into the room, sobbing, and threw herself across him: "'Whip me,' she cried, 'whip me!'"  He recalls his father turned away, and Ruthie left, and he remained, wondering what had just happened.  And he says, "Forty years later, I still do."

All the elements conducive to a life of crime were present in me from an early age.  Marry opportunity and rationalization and it becomes easy to break the commandment, "Thou shalt not steal."  Or any commandment for that matter.  As the elements were being passed at Holy Communion this past Sunday, I was meditating on my sin, as I suppose it best to do, a breviary of sin, in fact, and yet this one sin occurred to me: I was a thief.

At 12 my friend and I were hired to deliver a free weekly newspaper in our neighborhood.  On a good day it took maybe two hours to cover our route.  This thin weekend chronicle we bundled up and were supposed to place on each doorstep.  In the beginning, we did just that: we rode our bikes up driveways, disembarked, and carefully placed the paper on the doorstep, tucking the corner under the doormat to keep it from blowing away.  For this we were paid, as I recall, about two dollars each, a not insubtantial sum for a 12-year old in 1970.

One of the first things we discovered was that not everyone was excited about getting this weekend guide.  One overweight man in a wife-beater t-shirt, sporting a five-o'clock shadow, threw it back at us.  "Get that damn paper out of my yard."  Dogs nipped at us.  People asked us not to ride our bikes in their yard.  We'd find the paper, unfurled, careening and flapping down the sidewalks of streets with names like Fernwood,  Robinhood, and Cornwallis, like literary tumbleweeds.  "Hey, isn't that our paper?"  Yes, of course.  Of course it was.  There was little positive reinforcement from the recipients.  Pretty soon we had to face it: no one wanted our little paper.  It was a blight on our corner of suburbia.  A rag.

From there it was a slippery slope.  We deleted a few houses.  Didn't want it anyway.  Then we knocked off a whole quadrant of the neighborhood.  Too many dogs.  We got sloppy, lobbing papers into yards, driveways, side porches, in shrubs.  Hey, it's in the yard, and they can get it.  Pretty soon we're burning through the entire route in less than 30 minutes, stuffing a few excess papers here and there in trashcans.  Surplus.  Before you know it we're only doing the street we live on, as far as the creek that winds under our street, and one day at the creek we find ourselves toting pretty much the whole load of the papers down to a sandbar, digging a hole, and burying them, thinking we were doing everybody a favor, after all, cleaning up the neighborhood of trash, taking care of it in an unsightly and biodegradable manner.

That's how I became a thief.

We were caught, of course, our livid employer giving us a tongue-lashing and requiring immediate repayment of a day's wages.  "I trusted you.  You let me down."  Only a day?  I broke into my coin collection, wrested free the two dollar bill from its special holder, as well as a few collectible quarters, and paid the woman.  And the guilt settled in. And at that point in my life I had no where to go with my guilt.

That one sin is indicative of how tainted I am and have been, how bent toward wrong I am, and how easily I can go wrong.  But Sunday, at Holy Communion, when that youthful indiscretion rears its head, I realize again that I have a place to go with that guilt, guilt not assuaged by repayment of some of what I stole.  The defect is far deeper than that.  Total depravity.  Every single thing I do is touched somewhere by impure motive.  More wrongdoing was to come.  But in the body and the blood, my guilt is paid for, Christ substituting Himself for me, getting the just deserts for my thievery (which goes far deeper than a few newspapers).

Substitutionary atonement is one of those awesome and awful tenets of Christian faith.  God's perfect love and perfect justice meet at the Cross.  We like to quote the Apostle John's well-known maxim that "God so loved the world that he sent his son. . . (John 3:16), and yet God also ordained for Christ a suffering and death that we really can't fully comprehend in its horror.  As Michael Horton summarizes, "[H]is love had to comply with his justice.  The punishment that Christ bore was not an arbitrary act of revenge, but a fulfillment of the standard that God had established in creation: namely, life for obedience, death for disobedience.  The cross was a satisfaction of the claim of justice, not of dignity or irrational anger."  And justice is fundamental to the nature of God.  He cannot act unjustly.  What kind of God would not uphold justice?

Ruthie's Dad, confronted by the sacrificial love of his daughter,  turned away.  I understand why he chose not to uphold justice.  I suspect I would do the same and for less an appeal than Ruthie made. And yet God did not turn away from his own son.  He upheld justice through Christ's substitution for His people.  That's awesome and awful, a justice fully swallowed up in love.  Ruthie's Dad, perhaps, turned away because he knew, in the end, that Christ died for his son, that justice would be upheld, that the little death his son died that day would be swallowed up in the victory of the Cross.  

All to say, there is great hope for thieves like me.



Changing the Weather

Cover_May2013_120-04-15-2013-101005There are chilly winds blowing in the world.  And yet we have a way of selectively reading reality, filtering out or minimizing the things we don't want to think about, turning up our collar to a frigid truth if we venture out, warming ourselves by the glow of hearth and home.  But sometimes reality gushes in, and we realize that indeed a hard rain is falling.

Two recent articles in First Things changed the normally sunny weather I travel in.  In one by Wesley J. Smith, entitled "Medicinal Murder," the author documents the steady expansion of euthanasia in Europe.  As case in point, he cites Belgium, where suicides are termed by many in the medical community as a "beautiful death," not merely suicides of terminally ill persons but even of those who, because of depression or lack of will to live, are ready to end it all.  Furthermore, he documents the ungodly linkage of euthanasia with organ harvesting.  Society now benefits from mercy killings.  And when there are legal violations of euthanasia laws, enforcement is lax or nonexistent.  Thus, a cultural shift has ocurred where death is celebrated as one more benefit of human autonomy: you can choose when to die, and society and the medical profession will help you and even profit from your death.  Smith notes that once euthanasia is legalized, the categories of people eligible for it expand, but the rest of society ceases to think it matters.  He believes this trend is symptomatic of cultural nihilism.

Perhaps you know this.  Perhaps the essay only confirms what we already know.  But it is worth reading for the last paragraph, where Smith offers the antidote:

What is the antidote?  Love.  We all age.  We fall ill.  We grow weak.  We become disabled.  Life can get very hard.  Euthanasia raises the fundamental question of whether our culture will retain the moral capacity to sustain a culture of care for those who have entered life's most difficult stages.  On that question, it seems to me, hangs the moral future of Western civilization.  For as the Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne has cogently warned: "A society that believes in nothing can offer no argument even against death.  A culture that has lost its faith in life cannot comprehend why it should be endured.

So that's it?  Love?  Not taking to the courts, mounting advocacy for life, passing laws to protect the elderly and infirm?  Just love?

In that same issue of First Things, in an article entitled "Lena Dunhams's Inviolable Self," Alan Jacobs contrasts the moral world of Jane Austen and the apparently amoral world of Girls, an HBO series in its first season.  He describes a sexual fantasy that one of the main characters, Adam, has about his rape of an 11-year old heroin addict.  As shocking as this is, what Jacobs focuses on is even more shocking: In all the reviews of the show none of the journalists admit to the possibility that there could be a moral dimension to Adam's reverie.  And apparently fans have no problem with all this either.  They continue to watch.  This is in contrast to the moral world of Jane Austen, where there are categories of right and wrong and we all know what they are.

Once again, however, the antidote to this amorality is not, Jacobs says, to meet it head on.  He concludes: "To someone who thinks Adam's fantasies are unproblematic, or even commendable, there is nothing for me to say.  I confront a linguistically unbridgeable gap; I confront incommensurability." In other words, these two worlds do not connect.  As I said to someone I was having a heated discussion with many years ago, we have lost the ability to communicate, at least propositionally, as we do not share the same understanding of the world and, in a sense, the same language.  We talk past each other.

So what do we do?  Jacobs says that what we need "is not condemnation. . . but better art and better stories --- better fictional worlds. . . . [N]ot the abolition of mythic sandboxes but the making of sandboxes in which to play with true, or truer, myths."  Rather than simply condemning the fictive world of Girls, we can write and film truer stories that capture the imagination, that give viewers or readers a vision of a different reality.  Rather than shows about the "beautiful death" of assisted suicide, we offer up excellent stories of the reverberating compassion and love that might surround the disabled or aged, stories that help people imagine that compassion grows in the face of suffering, in standing with the dying, not in ending their lives.

We may reach some people by arguing propositional truth.  But in this time we may reach more by telling better stories, by opening a portal to the True Truth at the heart of Reality.  In a culture that no longer speaks our language, our venue for persuasion has shifted.

A decade ago I was standing at the back of the Acoustic Stage at the Cornerstone Music Festival when a muddied grunge-rock fan ambled up.  He stood gaping at what he heard.  "This is beautiful, man, just beautiful.  What is it?"  The acoustic, story-driven songs resonated with him.  All he had heard was the loud and gutteral screaming of the bands playing in the tent next door.  He was mesmerized by the different reality of the Acoustic Stage.  And as a result, I was able to tell him what he was hearing.

"Art," Picasso said, "is the lie that tells the truth." "Tell it slant," said Emily Dickenson.  Christians, get busy lying.  And get busy loving.  That's the antidote for a culture gone wrong.  That just might change the weather.