My car now has 95,000 miles on it. As anyone who has older cars knows, as cars age they begin to speak in nearly indiscernible languages. Squeaks, rattles, groans, and wheezes become all too commonplace, especially for those of us without the knowledge or skill to interpret what the vehicle says to us.
On a recent trip to Virginia, one particular whine began to grow louder and more constant, so much so that I was afraid the car would not make it all the way back home to South Carolina. Fortunately, all seems relatively stable, though the quasi-vocal alert still comes from the body. I don't know what the sound means, but surely it means something. And in my ignorance, anxiety arises.
When people hear the word interpretation, they often think about translating meaning from one language to another. Yet, rightly understood, interpretation is involved in every interaction we have. We must interpret body language, spatial formation, location, tone, timbre, melody, rhythm, rhyme, shade, color, light, texture, shape, and a myriad of other phenomena that contribute to the meaning in the world around us and those with whom we communicate. Interpretation, then, is ultimately about comprehension and application.
For my car, we need people like the good Lutherans at Professional Tire and Radiator on North Main Street in Columbia, SC (check out their website at http://ptrsc.com/) who know how to put together the make of the car, the kind of driving I do, the particular noise, and the previous work done in order to diagnose the problem - to interpret all of the data - and then to treat the issue at hand.
The second part, the response to the communication, is perhaps the most difficult problem. While "the squeaky wheel gets the grease" is an adage all too true, but sometime squeaky wheels need something other than lubricant. If the wheel squeaks because of a flat tire or a bent frame, then no amount of salve will solve the actual problem. Interpretation means finding and addressing the truth at hand.
This must be a constant focus of the life in Christ. Scripture is not the only aspect of faith that requires interpretation. Our communities, our relationships, our sisters and brothers, our culture, our country, indeed everything requires interpretation, and for Christians, this requires an interpretation through the lens of Jesus. God in Christ shapes all meaning in the world, and our interpretations must always take that reality into account.
Sometimes this means that we must enlist the help of those who know more than we do, whether do to the gift of faith or of deep experience or of training and learning. We need others to ensure our best interpretations.
But unlike car problems, we cannot drop off our problems of faith at the shop and pay for their repairs by a third party. We need to be intricately involved in the study, the comprehension, and the application of meaning in our lives. When the wheel of faith squeaks, we must help to discern the nature of the problem and provide interpretations that are truthful of and faithful to Christ's work in the world. We must do this alongside of others, rather than ask others to do it for us. We need our communities to discover the fullness of meaning in Christ, and so we give thanks for the church, for those who sometimes know more than we do and help show us the way
In the past three weeks, I've spent something like 48 hours in the car. While my Hyundai may shake and squeak after the equivalent of two entire days on the road, the travel has left me thankful for the journey.
In the movie "The Road," based of the book of the same name, a man and his son journey across the post-apocalyptic United States looking for civilization. Instead, the run across thieves and cannibals. With each step, the father becomes more focused on his and son's survival. While he tries to reinforce to his son the value of humanity and self preservation, the man seems to jeopardize his personhood at every turn. I'll leave the end for those who want to see the movie or read the book.
One of the son's constant refrains is a belief that he and his father are "the good guys," and are looking for more of the same. The constant pain in the movie is the son's growing realization that his father's desperation challenges his own goodness, as well as his ability to protect his son.
My own journeys over the past few weeks lacked the peril faced by the father and the son. But at times, whether alone on the drive or chatting with friends, I found myself looking for the good guys (and good gals). The reason we traveled to Altoona for Katie's ordination? Because of the love in our community and commitment to one another. The reason we turned around to take part in Charlie's baptism? Because of the love in our family and commitment to one another. The reason we took time to go to Amber and Tyler's wedding? Because of the love in our old friendships and commitment to one another. The reason I went back up to VA a few days later for another interview? Because of the love of the calling God gave to me through the community and our commitment to it.
You see, what I found is, like the boy on The Road, I found myself looking for the good guys (and gals). Even more than that, like the boy, I found myself wanting to become one of the good guys (not a gal this time). Part of the journey on the road is looking for a community to belong to, and learning to become more like that community.
As members of the church, this means our journey is one of constantly working to create and seek out Christian community, even as we seek to become more Christlike ourselves. On the road, to truly find the good gals (and guys), we are also on a journey of becoming better ourselves, of being made more into God's image. Even as life's little apocalypses seem to bring us face to face with terrible trials and temptations, the journey helps us to find new beginnings, even in the midst of the ends of all things.
Driving up and down the interstate is surely not struggling across a barren wasteland. But in the midst of both, hopefully were are still looking for, and hoping to become, good guys.
On Saturday, I drove up to spend the week with my family at our place on Lake Buckhorn, smack dab in the middle of Amish country in Ohio. Of course, with a nephew who is nearly two and a niece who is only twelve weeks, it has been an incredibly eventful trip.
Perhaps the scariest moment of all came when my nephew Benjamin began to play with our old family dog Cassie. She's a boxer of about twelve years, and if you know anything about purebred boxers, they get hip dysplasia something fierce. Cassie held out longer than most, but over the past couple of years her hindquarters have been deteriorating at a pretty rapid rate. Mentally she's altogether well, but she's barely able to walk and in some sporadic but significant pain. Most adults understand this means that we can't play around with her like we do other dogs.
But Benjamin had no clue. While the rest of us were getting dinner ready and feeding his sister Charlotte, Ben apparently grabbed at Cassie in a way that grieved her greatly, because she nipped at him. She didn't break the skin, but just enough to let him know that she was hurt and he couldn't touch her that way. Ben's hand was barely red (oddly, it looked more like a mosquito bite), but of course, he was scared and stung and cried like he lost a limb.
Now, you have to understand that she hasn't nipped at anyone since she was a puppy, and her temperament is amazing. When she was younger and I would have terrible days at school, she would burrow herself under my head and have me use her as a pillow, just to comfort me. How could this dog nip at my nephew and cause such great grief to someone I love?
You see, sometimes there is still sin in our ignorance. Ben had no idea what he was doing and just wanted to play with the puppy, but his ignorance caused Cassie great pain. Cassie had no idea her attempt at warning Ben of her own pain would send Ben into hysterics and cause pain of his own. But each action fractured our little familial community. Sin is just that, the things that cause divisions in our communities. Sometimes they are overt and we know the wounds we cause. At other times, like with Ben and Cassie, we just want to play, and to warn someone of our own pain, and in each situation, we further rupture our relationships.
The hardest part is that Matt, my brother and Ben's dad, brought Cassie home as a puppy as a Christmas present to my parents twelve years ago. She has always held a special place in his heart, and he in hers. But in that moment, something changed. Of course, he hasn't said anything (other than, "You're lucky, Cassie," indicating that her ignorance and poor health saved her a beating), but it seems like the pain emanates from his person. We all love Ben, and we all love Cassie, and we all know neither meant the other real pain. But toddlers and canines don't speak the same language, and so ignorance abounds, sometimes in ways that forever change the way we interact with one another.
So now we are extra careful with Ben around Cassie, never leaving the boy and the dog, both children of my brother, unattended. In the wake of sin, though, that seems like the first step toward reconciliation. It might seem easy to cordon off Cassie or to keep Ben from her. But instead, as a little vacationing community, we begin to figure out how to restore relationships, even as we protect the wounded parties, not just from one another, but from themselves. In fact, like most situations in life, we are focused on protecting Ben and Cassie from themselves more than we are protecting them from one another. Reconciliation requires this kind of intentional community that wants love for everyone enough to acknowledge the pain and the source, but even more so, to find a future that works for the best for all parties.
What we can't escape is that sometimes the wounds arise out of our ignorance. In fact, the ignorance of the community - of all of us who were paying attention to something other than Ben and Cassie - also had a sinful part to play in this brokenness. But with a commitment to reconciliation, we can find ways to healing and wholeness, even for the weakest and sickest amongst us. We can find ways to love one another, even after we wound one another.
That's hard work, especially for someone like Matt who feels responsible for both his son and the dog he brought home so many years ago. But it is work we have to do in order to enact our love toward one another in ways that seek the best for all members of our communities.
Today, for the first time since Tim Crummitt detailed my car last fall, I cleaned the car.
It was a humbling experience.
I felt a lot like going to the dentist and realizing the lost time I flossed, he actually flossed me, only the accuser was a Hyundai, and I was able to see the accumulation of my own filth. Despite the 90 degree heat and entire lack of wind associated with Columbia, there was something cathartic about vacuuming the carpets and wiping down the dash. Much like flossing, there are tons of hard to reach crevasses in cars, and strange things end up stuck there.
Unlike flossing, you see the accumulated grime, first in the vehicle, and then in the sweeper's canister. You are forced to face the real effects of ignoring the buildup of gunk in your life. Yet, the dentist and Tim are much better at cleaning my teeth and my car than I am. So why should I worry about this stuff in the first place?
That unmediated address of my dirtiness made me do two important things. The first was to clean it up, however imperfectly. The second, and the much more important, was to forgive myself.
Cleaning my car was cathartic in large part because it was an unexpected allegory for sin.
Somewhere deep under the front passenger's seat I realized how easy it was to avoid the filth I live in every day, so long as I don't look too hard. Just like sin, gunk was pervasive. But only when I do the hard work of getting rid of the dirt, of both cleaning up and changing habits that led to such filth, do I come to realize the prevalence of the junk. With sin, the hardest part is not just realizing the dire straights in which we mire ourselves, but actually doing something about it, both in terms of transformation and in terms of forgiveness. But only when we ourselves face the mess and the path forward can we forgive ourselves.
Yet, just like the car, sin is never handled only personally. Car detailers like Tim know what they're doing much better than I do, and so I need someone to truly take care of the fullness of my filth. So too sisters and brothers in Christ know the business of forgiveness, and Jesus chief amongst them. Of course, I need to forgive myself, and to work toward change. However, fullness of forgiveness is only found in the absolving words of Christ in the liturgy: "You are forgiven." These words, on the lips of a friend, become like an incredible cleanser that gets into all the nooks and crannies of our soul, pulling out the garbage and restoring the divine shine to the imago dei.
I encourage you, then, to get involved in your cleansing and forgiveness. Jesus is the one who offers us all that opportunity, and the one who offers the fullness of forgiveness and promise of transformation, but in his image we too must floss our own teeth, clean our own cars, and yes, learn to forgive others and ourselves in the way that Christ forgives us.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.