Monday, April 23, 2012

Oh, Thesis

One of the biggest issues with theology is that at some point, somewhere along the road of life, the theologian is confronted with a situation that forces them to ask themselves, "Do I truly believe what I profess to believe?"

I spent a substantial portion of my time in graduate school declaring that I believe that reconciliation is at the heart of the Gospel, that reconciliation is God's primary intent for humankind, that reconciliation is of the utmost importance, that reconciliation ought to come before all else.

And then, I got the email.

First, some background.

On September 2, 2008, I received an email from a very old friend informing that this person wished to have zero contact with me.  Now.  In the future.  Ever again.

Okay.  Fine.  That, I can deal with.

And then, there was "The After."

"The After" was bad.

"The After" included lies and betrayal by a third party.  "The After" was all kinds of awful.  "The After" was stupendously horrid.  I mean, I am quite honestly at a loss for words as to just how terrible "The After" was.

It fundamentally changed and nearly destroyed my relationship with my best friend.

But, I made my expectations clear.  At some point this translated.  My best friend respected my boundaries.

But honestly, I never really got over "The After."

I still struggle with "The After" to this day.  Three years after "The After" ended.

But that is neither here nor there.  It's not really the point of this blog post.

This blog post is about the email.  And theology.  And being confronted with circumstances that test the strength of our convictions.

My method for dealing with difficult things in life is often to delve into scripture, find a way to deal with it theologically, and move on from there.

This is the method I chose to use when I received that email four years ago which ended a decade-long friendship.  And from that came my Master's thesis.  A thesis I dedicated to this person. 

The abridged version is below.  My introduction, interpretation, and concluding remarks.  I cut the 30+ pages of literature review for ease of reading, and because, honestly, does any blog post really need to be more than 15 pages long?

And so, without further ado, here is "the good parts version" of my thesis.  (More concerning how this thesis relates to this blog post to follow the thesis).


I.  Introduction

It has been said that the church is a business.  If this is true, I am one very dissatisfied customer.  I have always wanted to know more.  The sermons I heard growing up left me feeling disconnected from the community of the faith I professed.  The sermons were cold, sterile, and frankly boring.  I felt that there must be more to the bible than what I was getting.  After all, it’s the best selling book of all time, and the single most frequently stolen book ever printed.  So it was that I began to study scripture for myself.  Once I was accepted to seminary, I began to take advantage of the opportunities and access to material this afforded me.

The idea for this thesis came to me in a seemingly roundabout fashion.  As a sometimes insomniac, I have come to discover that some of my best ideas come at 3:00 in the morning after a night of tossing and turning.  I was lying in bed one night and it suddenly hit me—there are so many parallels between the story of Noah’s Ark and Jesus’ baptism:  the forty days, the theme of the wilderness, the deluge, the wild animals, the intimate communication from and with God, the dove….  I started doing research and couldn’t find a single article that looks at these parallels.

Still fascinated, I began to research baptism in the first century and its ties to Jewish purity rituals.  I stumbled upon a journal article that changed my life.  It was an article concerning the Jewish miq’va and indicated one thing that stuck out clearly to me:  that all ritual cleansing must be done with water from a running (i.e. living) source.  This meant that water drawn from a well would have not efficacy if used in purity rites.  However, a single drop of water from a “living” source would make any amount of drawn water living water.[1]  I was suddenly struck by new meanings to be found in John 4 and the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well.

From this came a desire to look at other texts in which Jesus, water, and other people all come into contact.  So it is that I stumbled upon a new way of reading the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  I had heard several sermons preached on the foot-washing pericope in the course of my years attending church, and I was never particularly fond of the interpretation I heard.  Regardless of who preached the sermon, and when or where, all interpretations were the same—Jesus humiliated himself in performing an act reserved for slaves in order to demonstrate his love for his disciples; in applying scripture to our own lives, we, too, ought to serve others as a way to show people in our lives the love of God.

It isn’t that I do not, on some level, agree with most of this interpretation.  It is simply that I find it to be a very surface-level interpretation that fails to address more than a few verses of the pericope and which ignores the wider elements of the story itself, the Christological context of the entire book of John, and it fails to draw in other biblical texts dealing with cleansing and the Christological mission of Jesus which could, and I would argue, must be used to breathe new life into these texts as they are accessed in religious traditions in the twenty-first century.

In biblical interpretation, I believe it is necessary to look at a given text and learn as much as possible about the context in which it was written, the community for which it was written, and the ways in which the text was originally used.  However, there is a world of difference between first century Palestinian and twenty-first century American life.  As such, it is not enough to simply exegete a text.  One must go further, interpreting a text from the specific context of the interpreter, and finding ways to make a previously inaccessible text meaningful and significant for today’s readers and hearers of the good news.

I believe that the central message of the Christian New Testament is reconciliation: reconciliation of belief and practice, intention and action, of people to God, and of people to one another.  Jesus speaks explicitly of reconciliation in the gospels, and Paul makes liberal use of the notion throughout his epistles.  It is my belief that the foot-washing pericope can be read as a command to be reconciled to one another, and the action of the washing of the feet is itself as an outward, physical, manifestation of an inward decision to release another from their debt and restore right relationship.

This understanding of John 13 is significantly different from any I have encountered in either church settings or my research for this thesis.  Additionally, I believe that the whole of John 13 is geared toward this reading, and as such, must be taken as a whole.  One of the primary problems I encountered in doing my research was that the vast majority of the articles I was able to access looked at John 13:1-20.  A few articles included vv. 21-30.  Only two articles, however, dealt with John 13:1-38.  Additionally, I was hindered by the fact that I do not read Greek, and thus cannot access the text in the original language.  I am entirely dependent on the translations and mistranslations of others, and must accept on faith that their reading of the original Greek is accurate.  I find myself quite frustrated by this fact.

In this thesis, I will begin by reviewing the literature I have read, looking first at arguments for the unity of the whole of John 13.  I will then move onto foot-washing customs in the ancient world.  I will also explore how the foot-washing pericope is an ideal example of mentoring in the ancient world and a blueprint for those in ministry today.  Then, I will look at the seven most commonly held interpretations of the foot-washing itself, before turning to the characters in the story, looking specifically at how Jesus and his disciples interact in John 13—what Jesus knows, how he responds to Peter, what role Judas plays in the pericope, and where Satan enters the story, how Jesus addresses his disciples—and how the foot-washing has been instituted as a rite historically and in contemporary Christian communities.  Finally, I will give my own reading of the text and the conclusions I have drawn, interpreting the foot-washing as a model for reconciliation with the bounds of interpersonal relationship today.

Before I get to that, however, I want to say a word about the form of this thesis.  This is an interpretation of John 13.  It is not meant to be read as a factually accurate account concerning the historical Jesus.  Thus, when I indicate that Jesus has said or done something, that Peter or Judas has responded in a particular fashion, what I am presenting is what the characters of this particular text are saying and doing—not what the historical individuals themselves did.  As my intention is to make meaning from the text for myself and my own community today, I am engaging in what Sandra Schneiders calls “contemporary hermeneutics.  That is, my biblical interpretation is “concerned primarily with the meaning of the text itself, not with the author’s meaning.”[2]  As she says, “the meaning of the text is not in the past to be recovered, but in the present to be discovered.”[3]  I hope, in reading this thesis, you also discover something new.

 III.  Reading John 13 Today

The creation of the canon in the fifth century and the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century have fundamentally changed biblical interpretation—and in a good way.  While the creation of the canon for some is quite problematic, one of the great things it did was bring multiple stories from multiple traditions and communities together in a somewhat unified whole.  As one interested in making meaning of the life of Jesus in present communities, having access to these collective stories is really handy.  It also frees me as an interpreter from having to hold to a single, and in antiquity possibly only available, text.  This allows for a richness in interpretation not previously allowed, even if it is not what the original authors intended.

The invention of the printing press made books so incredibly affordable that the possibility of biblical interpretation has now been opened beyond the tightly controlled strictures of the church.  While I believe there does need to be some measure of accountability in biblical interpretation—Does it make sense?  Does it fit with the wider context of the bible?  Is it responsible to the community in which it is expressed?  Does it maintain any connection to the history of interpretations?  Does it foster greater intimacy between the hearer and God?—I also believe that a multiplicity of voices, trained in a seminary classroom or in a bible study at the kitchen table, gives greater depth to our understanding of both the passage itself and ourselves as readers within our own communities.

This is my voice, how I read John 13.

What strikes me first about his passage are the things that Jesus knows: (1) that his hour had come to depart from this world, and go to the Father, (2) that the Father had given all things into his hands, (3) that he had come from God, (4) that he was going to God, (5) who was to betray him, (6) whom he had chosen, and (7) who would deny him.  Jesus, it seems, knows everything.

This knowledge of Jesus’ is sharply contrasted with the ignorance of the disciples.  They seem to not know much of anything  In particular, they are ignorant of (1) what Jesus is actually doing, (2) who among them will betray Jesus, (3) what Jesus is doing as he tells Judas to “Do quickly what you are going to do”, and (4) their, i.e. Peter’s, own ability to remain faithful to Jesus.

Jesus’ knowledge leads directly to his actions.  Knowing that all things are in his hands, that his origin and his destination are God, Jesus loved his disciples completely, to the end.  That love took the form of stooping before them and washing their feet.  While this may have been the job of a servant or slave in first century Palestine, it can not be read as act of humiliation.  What Jesus has chosen to do, he has chosen with full knowledge, from a place of genuine love and authenticity.  This is Jesus’ first action in what is to be the final act of his life—his glorification by God.  The very reality of this glorification denies any reading that indicates Jesus’ actions were about intentionally choosing humiliation, or even humility, i.e. choosing to make himself as lower than his disciples.  Rather, in washing their feet, Jesus makes the disciples clean.  In so doing, he raises them up to a position equal to his own.  Jesus isn’t lowering himself to another’s level; he’s elevating another to his own level.

In the process, Jesus gives Peter a lesson about the necessity of this washing—being clean is  a prerequisite to having a part with Jesus.  When he is done, Jesus returns to the table and teaches his disciples.  This teaching is striking in that it asserts four things: (1) though the disciples do not know what Jesus has done, they will in time, (2) that they must do for one another as Jesus has done for them, (3) that obedience to Jesus is a guarantee of blessing, and (4) that Jesus sends those whom he has chosen, and in receiving his sent, so is Jesus received, and in receiving Jesus God is received.

After this discourse, Jesus takes a piece of bread, dips it into the dish, and hands it to Judas.  It is this act which prompts Satan to enter Judas; only after this does Jesus tell Judas to “Do quickly what you are going to do,” sending Judas out to betray him.  Jesus sends Judas out.  Jesus is in full control of this situation; he chooses the time and the manner in which all things come together.  Indeed, all things are in his hands.

Finally, Jesus gives another teaching—that he is to be glorified, and in that glorification, will be leaving his disciples—and a new commandment.  This new commandment parallels his previous teaching—as he has done for them, so they must do for one another; as he has loved them, so they must love one another.  This is a love which is full, complete, genuine, and eternal—it is a transformative love until the end, which in terms of one who comes from God and is returning to God, is never ending.

IV.  Conclusions

So, what does it all mean?  How do we, who identify as Christ’s disciples today, love one another as Jesus has loved us?  What is the example he has set that we should follow?  I believe the answer to these questions is found in the mission of Jesus, in the relationship he had with God, and in the relationships he cultivated with his disciples.

From the beginning of the gospel of John, we see that the message of Jesus is one of reconciliation.  It is present from the very first verse: that in the beginning was the Word, which was with God, and was God; that through him all things were made; that coming to the world which he had created, he was unknown by that world, but to those who did receive him, he gave the right to become the children of God.  Jesus is the Word of God, and is God.  Though the many refuse to receive Jesus, for those who do accept him, he offers reconciliation for them to God their creator, by taking away the sin that separates us from God.[4]

In taking away the sin which separates humans from God and reconciling us to God, Jesus grants us eternal life—it is a relationship which endures forever.  God chose this as the method by which to reconcile the world to God’s self, because God loves the world created through Jesus.  The sole intention is to bring a world full of broken and messy people into the truth of who they are as ones created by God.  It is to bring people out of the darkness of their ignorance, and into the light of Jesus’ redemptive love.[5]

Because Jesus is the emissary of God, and because Jesus is himself God, those who welcome Jesus, welcome God.  Those who reject Jesus, reject God.  Choosing to honor Jesus is the only way to honor God.  Accepting and honoring Jesus then frees us from sin, and brings us into the family of God.  We are transformed from slaves to sin into sons and daughters in an eternal family, where we as God’s children, are accorded rich blessings and honor as well.[6]

Because Jesus is God, and is the son of God, no one can be reconciled to God, except through Jesus.  Knowing Jesus is knowing God.  Choosing to be in a love relationship with Jesus places us in a love relationship with God.  Loving Jesus means doing as he commands, and in loving Jesus, we are loved by God—and we are only able to love Jesus because he chose us, and loved us first.  Loving Jesus makes our lives the dwelling place of God.[7]

So, if we love Jesus, and in loving Jesus God dwells in us, then we are part of God’s family.  As such, we are automatically in fellowship with other children of God.  We are, therefore, commanded to love one another as Jesus has loved us—with the sameness of the love which God poured out upon him.  This is a love which goes to the cross, and willingly lays down one’s life for one’s friends.  We are given a promise in this; it is a conditional promise.  If.  If we love others with the same love shown to us, then we are called friends of God.  Then, we will bear the fruit of love—healthy, intimate, transformative relationships—as we remain in Jesus’ love, which keeps us in God’s love.[8]

Jesus completes his mission in showing the world God.  Jesus came that we might know him, and in that we might also know God.  Knowing someone means loving them.  To truly love another you must know them; and to know another, in all their messiness and glory, cannot lead to anything but love for them.  We see it time and again in the gospels—Jesus knows people, and he loves them.  Those who know Jesus love him.  Those who do not know Jesus hate him.  Even in their messy brokenness, knowing another moved Jesus to compassion; in the same way, it moves us to compassion, such that if we truly seek to know another as Christ knows them, and as Christ knows us, we cannot help but love them.

Using the story of the foot-washing as a model for loving others requires careful attention to the format of the text in our interpretation.  The foot-washing periscope itself is a chiasm.  Though Zorrilla sees a chiasm in this passage in which the main focus is the lasting relationship with Jesus, another chiasm is present in Jesus’ interactions with his disciples:

A.     Jesus engages Peter in the foot-washing (vv. 1-11)
   B.  Jesus charges his disciples to love one another (vv. 12-17)
      C.  Jesus engages Judas as his betrayer (vv. 18-30)
   B’.  Jesus charges his disciples to love one another (vv. 31-34)
A’.  Jesus engages Peter in his willingness/inability to follow (vv. 35-38)

In this breakdown of the passage, the central focus is Jesus’ interaction with Judas, who
betrays him.  For every action prior to Jesus’ engagement with Judas there is a corresponding action after.  Peter’s having his feet washed is resolved in his claiming willingness to use those feet to follow Jesus, and twice Jesus commands his disciples to love one another as he has loved them.

This chiasm must necessarily be contrasted with chiasm found in a larger section of John, chapters 13-21.  This breakdown would follow:

            A.  Jesus teaches and prays for his disciples (13:1-17:26)
   B.  Jesus is separated from his disciples physically by arrest and trial; and symbolically by Peter’s denial (18:1-18)
      C.  Jesus is questioned by Annas (18:19-24)
         D.  Peter betrays Jesus in his denial of relationship (18:25-27)
      C’.  Jesus is questioned by Pilate (18:28-19:22)
   B’.  Jesus is fully separated from his disciples by crucifixion and death (19:23-19:40)
A’.  Jesus is reunited with and teaches his disciples (19:41-21:25)

Again, the central element of this chiasm is betrayal—Peter’s betrayal of Jesus by his insistence that he does not know him.  Peter has chosen to walk away from Jesus, away from the relationship he promised never to abandon.  In doing so, he has chosen darkness over light, and failed in keeping the command of love.

What makes Judas any different from Peter?  The answer is found in Matthew 27:1-5 and John 21:15-19.   In Matthew 27:1-5, we get the rest of Judas’s story.  Let us remember that Judas left the table and went out to fulfill the act of betraying Jesus—and it was night.  Judas chose to leave the light of Jesus’ love and enter instead into ignorance and darkness.  The next morning, upon seeing that Jesus has been condemned, Judas repents.  He makes a genuine attempt to re-enter the light.  The darkness of shame is too heavy.  Judas goes before the chief priest and elders, proclaiming, “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood.”  In an act of remorse, Judas returns the sum he was paid for his betrayal, and he goes out and hangs himself.

At the end of the gospel of John, we see the resolution to the Peter’s betrayal.  Jesus and Peter are talking once more.  Jesus and Peter have come together again.  Peter, repenting from the sin of betrayal, insists that he loves Jesus.  Jesus accepts Peter’s assurance, and once again invites Peter to follow him.  Peter and Jesus are reconciled.  Judas never got that chance.

The gospel of John is clear:  It is sin which separates humanity from God.  It is Jesus who takes that sin away, and reconciles us once again to God.  Jesus remains in God, and God in Jesus.  Those who follow Jesus, remain in him.  We are charged, by Jesus, to remove sins from others, and in doing so, open the door to reconciliation between God and people.  If God is in Jesus, and Jesus is in us, in forgiving sins, and choosing to be reconciled to those who have betrayed us, we are ourselves reconciled to God, for God is found in all who are found in Jesus.  If we forgive another’s sins, they are forgiven.  If we do not forgive another’s sins, they are forgiven.[9]  In this, we fail to follow Jesus’ command to love, and deny others reconciliation to the Spirit of God within us.

I see in the command to wash one another’s feet a command to be reconciled to one another when betrayal has broken relationship.  When one party in a relationship betrays the other, they have walked away—out of the light of love, and into the darkness of ignorance.  They have chosen a road that gets their feet dirty.  Jesus commands us to wash their feet—to welcome them back into the light, with genuine love.  Betraying one who has shown you hospitality means leaving the relationship as that person’s enemy.  To be reconciled means to fully remove the stain of that betrayal from their feet, making the relationship right again, and creating peace between two people who have become enemies.

Those who would claim that the washing of feet is about the remission of post-baptismal sin miss the point of the cross.  The cross did it all.  Baptism is merely a sign of the work that Jesus did—an indication that we have moved from darkness to light.  Claims that foot-washing is about forgiveness undermines the power of the cross.  Foot-washing is about something more.  The forgiveness has taken place on the cross.  The reconciliation must follow in the washing of the feet of those we love—removing the last evidence that sin ever occurred, healing the brokenness, and permitting authentic, genuine love to be the mark of the relationship once more.  Judas wasn’t clean, not because he wasn’t forgiven, but because he never had the opportunity to be reconciled to Jesus.

What is the result of a refusal to be reconciled?  Those who do not accept the one whom Jesus sends, does not accept Jesus, and actively rejects God.  The command to the one returning, seeking reconciliation, is clear as well.  “If any place will not accept you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.”[10]  Refusing to be reconciled, so far as it is in our power to do so, is a risky maneuver, which places us in the judgment seat, as one who has failed to live up to the command to love—love others, love Jesus, and love God.  It leaves the dust of the feet of the other with us.  They have made the attempt, their feet are clean.  We now bear the sin.  Equally, walking away and not seeking reconciliation leaves us with dirty feet of our own.

What about when we are willing to be reconciled and the one who walked away does not want it?  Or when time and circumstances do not permit it?  Jesus gets it.  The reality of Jesus’ interaction with Judas leaves us with the knowledge that Jesus understands messy, broken people.  Jesus washed everyone’s feet—including the one who was to betray him!  Jesus declared all of them clean; except the one.  Why was Judas not clean?

If, as I have posited, washing another’s feet is about reconciling broken relationship, then something more must take place first.  Reconciliation cannot happen without forgiveness.  Forgiving, choosing to not hold another’s sins against them, opens the door for restoring relationship.  Jesus came to take away the sins of the world—the whole world.  This includes Judas.  Judas was forgiven.  He wasn’t clean because his relationship to Jesus was never reconciled.

How does any of this tie into the command to love others, to the point of laying down our lives for our friends?  When someone sins against us, and seeks reconciliation, we who forgive and are reconciled give up our right to hold a grudge.  We lay aside our pride and ego and we accept their will to restore the relationship.  In this one’s personal self is made subordinate to the creation and maintenance of the community and the communion we share with one another.  We do this, because as Jesus was an example of the love of God to his disciples, so we are examples of the love of Jesus to one another.  We cannot take part with Jesus if we walk around with dirty feet, whether by our own sins or our unwillingness to be reconciled to the repentant who have sinned against us.

Just as Jesus makes allowances for those relationships which cannot be reconciled, as was the case with Judas, we also see in Jesus’ final interaction with Peter a willingness to meet people where they are.  Peter has promised to follow Jesus where he goes.  Peter even promises to lay down his life for Jesus.  At the first moment of testing, Peter betrays him.

After the resurrection, as Peter and Jesus share an intimate moment, Jesus asks Peter, “Peter, do you agape me?”  Peter responds, “Lord, you know that I phileo you.”  Jesus asks again, “Peter, do you agape me?”  Peter responds, “Lord, you know that I phileo you.”  Finally, Jesus asks, “Peter, do you phileo me?”  And Peter, being sad that this third time Jesus has asked if Peter phileos him, responds, “Lord, you know all things.  You know that I phileo you.”

Peter has promised Jesus that his love is the genuine, self-giving, agape type of love; and he fails.  When Jesus questions Peter, Peter assures him that his love for Jesus is a brotherly love, the love of friendship, philia.  In many ways, this is as it should be.  They are both sons of God now.  Peter, having accepted Jesus, has been freed from sin and given the right to become a child of God.  Jesus, however, wants something more.  Jesus wants a genuine, authentic, transformative, agape love relationship with Peter.  Peter isn’t ready for that.  Not yet, at least.  Jesus says, “That’s okay, Peter.  I accept that you phileo me.”  We’re called to a standard that, at times, is impossible to reach.  Jesus gets it.  “It’s okay,” he says.  “Just do your best.”

The reality of life in this world is that we all walk around on dirty feet.  In the best of relationships, ones in which both parties truly share agape love for one another, life interrupts.  Things get messy.  Words are said or left unsaid.  Actions are taken or fail to be taken.  People walk away from relationships, sometimes by single steps, sometimes by what can feel like oceans of distance.  But if we are to remain in Jesus, we must obey his commands.  We must love another, laying down our pride, ego, and very lives for those we love.  When someone has walked away, upon their return, we must wash their feet and be reconciled.

[1] Stephen D. Ricks.  Miqvaot: Ritual Immersion Baths in Second Temple (Intertestamental) Jewish History,” in Masada and the World of the New Testament, ed. John F. Hall and John W. Welch, (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Studies, 1997):  278.
[2] Sandra M. Schneiders, “The Foot Washing (John 13:1-20): An Experiment in Hermeneutics.” Ex Auditu 5 (2006): 136.
[3] Ibid., 146.
[4] John 1:1-29.
[5] John 3:16-21.
[6] John 8:34-36.
[7] John 14:6;20-23.
[8] John 15:9-17.
[9] John 20:23.
[10] Mark 6:11

I wrote my thesis two years after the end of an incredibly significant relationship.

This was the thesis I wrote for my Master's degree.

I had hoped, in some way, that writing this thesis would bring me healing, some sense of closure.  To that end, it served it's purpose.  For the most part.  It allowed me to establish a boundary.  To tell myself, "I have done everything I can.  Now, I can let it go."

The day after I received my diploma, I sent a text message to this former friend of mine.  It was short.  Something to the effect of, "I just wanted to let you know that I received my Master's degree yesterday.  You were a significant part of the journey for a very long time, and I am taking this opportunity to say, 'Thank you,' for role you have played."

And then, I promised myself that if this person did not respond, I would not think of them.  I would consider the matter officially closed.  I would put it behind me, and think only of the future as I moved forward.

And that's exactly what I did.

Well, back in February, I got an email.  When I read the name of the sender, I thought, "Who is this and how did they get past my junk mail filter?"

When I read the subject line, "apology," I thought, "Surely not!"

When I opened the email, I realized, "Sure enough!"

It was brief.  Which is all the better.  Because it seemed more genuine, in my opinion.  It was pointed and specific.  In it's essence it read, "I fucked up.  I take full responsibility for the mistakes I made.  I acknowledge, point by point, that these are the ways I hurt you.  I acknowledge these are the choices I made to wrong you.  I am sorry.  Please forgive me."

Well, now, that's easy enough.  I was not at all affected by this email.

I was affected my lack of emotional response to this email.  I thought, "Four years ago, I would have given anything to read this.  Today, I read and think, 'Yep.  I know that.'"

So, I responded briefly, and I hope kindly, but clearly.  I wrote back, "You were forgiven years ago.  Be blessed."

And that was the end of it.

Or so I thought.

Eleven days ago, this individual wrote again, asking me to pray about the future regarding our friendship, and asking that I share my thoughts when I had come to a place of peace.

So, I did.

And the first thought I had was, "I wish I were 13 years old again, and had parents who loved me, and who would tell me, without my asking, with whom I can and cannot be friends."

My second thought was, "Well, suck.  I'm an adult.  I’m an autonomous human being. I have to make the decision independent of what others believe is right for me."

My third thought was, "Well, do I believe what I've claimed to believe?  Is reconciliation the prime objective of the Gospel?"

My fourth thought was, "Duh!  Of course it is.  Of course I believe what I've claimed."

My fifth thought was, "If reconciliation is defined as the restoration of right relationship, what the hell does right relationship even mean in these circumstances."

So, after a week long struggle and much prayer, I responded with a single word.


In the subject line.

In the body of the email, I wrote about forest fires.

Specifically, I wrote:

"As I've been praying about the future of our friendship, if indeed there be any opportunity for a friendship, I keep coming back to the image of a forest fire and fireweed. Forest fires are actually quite necessary for the continued growth and health of a forest. Nature has, historically, taken care of this. The massive burn off eliminates weak or diseased plants and trees, allowing space for new, healthy growth.

"No one can predict with any certainty what shape the new forest will take as it grows in the coming years, decades, centuries.

"I've always been a very definite person. I do not like loose ends. I want things neat and tidy. And I have always wanted everything mapped out, in precise detail, with a clearly articulated and specific goal. As my relationship with God continues to grow, as I grow in faith and come to trust God more and more, I find myself more comfortable with the unknown, with uncertainty, with the holy openness that comes from the freedom found in the perfect love of our Creator.

"I do not want to put limitations on what God may or even can do. I know that any future friendship we may have will start slow. I also know that whatever shape it may take, it will look nothing like the relationship we had four years ago. I simply have no interest in any relationship that isn't healthy, vibrant, and marked by reciprocity and a respect that allows each individual to maintain their dignity.

"Much like the rebirth of a forest, however, any future friendship will, I believe, necessarily start small and grow and mature over the years. Rebuilding trust takes time. I am willing to give it a shot."

And then, I sent this person a bar of soap.

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