Chesed / cinquain

081709.Tod PolsonChesed:
Primordial love.
Trinity’s rescue plan—
Gloriously scandalizing—
Jesus.

photo: Tod Polson

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Tears at the altar

I am not Jerome Morrow.

Somewhere between discussing the new Battlestar Galactica with my brother Jim, getting un-friended on Facebook, and witnessing the wedding of my cousin Isabel, all within a span of 48 hours, I gained a new appreciation for the human race. Or at least that segment of our unique species that doesn’t un-friend me.

When Jim and I were kids in the 70s, he recalled as we drove to our cousin’s wedding in Babylon, New York, the Cylons were chrome robots with side-to-side roving red eyes and a deep-pitched humming that riveted your 12-year-old eyes to the tube, waiting to see what Captain Apollo and Lieutenant Starbuck would do to save themselves and the060609.Mirovarda42 others. Now, apparently (for I have not watched an episode of the new series, only heard Jim’s reports and logged onto the show’s website), some revamped Cylons look more like Miss California. On top of that, Jim mentioned that at least one expressed her “faith in God” and her “place in God’s plan for humanity.” The show’s Executive Producer went so far as to suggest in a blog that the Cylons represented an Al Qaeda-like group, but if you read their lingo, especially Number Six’s, it sounds more like that of an evangelical Christian.

Now before you get to snarky comments about theistic blonde robots, let me get to my point.

Jim: “So, this episode brought up the whole question about, ‘What does it mean to be human.’”

I considered Jim’s question as I drove past exits to Lindenhurst. My brother and I have discussed faith issues since college, and while we disagree on some key aspects, he is probably one of the more thoughtful and gracious debaters I know.

“Well…” I ask, “do you think faith in God makes us human?”

“I think that it is one thing that can make us more human, yes.”

We agreed on this. Nevertheless, I wanted to go a step further. I wasn’t quite sure if I knew the territory I was entering, but as I said, Jim is gracious.

“Well,” I said, “what we know from the Bible is that God created humans with his image—the imago dei. The image of God. We don’t know whether the angels have this quality—the Bible says that we are made ‘a little lower than the angels’—but it’s unclear whether this means they had the imago dei and more, or something different altogether. What we do know is that humans are alone among creation in having the image of God, at least according to the account in Genesis.”

Animals and plants and rocks are beautiful, some are sentient, and some capture our hearts, like Karen’s dog “Bruter” did hers. However, they don’t have eternal souls as some belief systems posit, again, according to the Hebrew Scriptures. This can be a tough issue with some, especially when dealing with children who, when they ask whether their dead pets have gone to Heaven, it is usually best to answer, “Sweetheart, would you like to go out now and buy that Xbox we said you couldn’t have last week for your birthday? No…no, you don’t need to change out of your pajamas.”

I suggested to Jim that it is this imago dei that makes us fully human and makes only us human, and not other species, whether below us in the food chain or above. For while it is conceivable that a robot could obey an unseen Master out of “faith,” trusting that she should do so because the Master is her “Lord,” it is also apparent that pointing to faith—active or inactive—as the key indicator that makes us human (again, Jim suggested only that it was one of many indicators) leaves the comatose patient, the unborn baby, and atheistic recidivist criminal out in the cold. For me to argue that my faith defines me as a human immediately separates me from those groups above and unwittingly gives me rights to treat them as less than human. However, if I make the imago dei the litmus test, then indeed I cannot treat anyone—no matter what state they’re in (unborn, comatose, or terrorist)—as less than human. Each has dignity, and my first responsibility—whatever my ultimate action—must be to decide my interaction with them based first on their status as reflecting God’s image. The reflection may be but a glint from a mirror shard, but it is a reflection nonetheless. The imago dei is nothing that I choose for myself; it is what God chose for me. Whatever violence I do to myself or others must be done with the realization that I do it against this divine image and, therefore, against God.

When my friend un-friended me on Facebook because of a video I posted that offended him, I didn’t think about the image of God. In fact, I couldn’t at first put my finger on why I was so angry or upset. I am slowly realizing, though, that my friend was looking at me as a collection of beliefs and actions—things that largely I am in control of—rather than as a person. Follow me for a minute. My beliefs and actions matter: if they are truly hurtful, then I need to turn from them and seek forgiveness from those I hurt. But I am more than my beliefs and actions. I assume that while this friend un-friended me and effectively eliminated me from his virtual world—a world, I must admit, that will be a whole lot less funny without me and will contain fewer links to the Wall Street Journal and Red Sox news stories on his home page, if a little less offensive—this same friend, if he saw me lying comatose in a hospital bed, would never in a million years pull the plug out of hatred for my beliefs. That’s because of the person I know him to be and also because I as a person am made of more than my beliefs and actions. He and I, further, have a common history that spans from 1985 roughly to 1990. Similarly, you can’t suddenly call a family member “not family.” You can disinherit them, a legal action, fine. If you’re on Law & Order: SVU, you can say, “I don’t know you anymore!!”—cue the music—to indicate your intention never to sleep with the lover who turned out to be a longtime serial murderer and hid it from you all these years. But you can’t un-realize a relationship that exists in reality because of certain biological facts that will remain true no matter your actions. Note that in war, it is always observed that one side must “dehumanize” the other side in order to kill them. They must look past the beliefs and actions of the enemy and negate even that which transcends these controllable qualities. They must, in fact, deny that the imago dei exists in the enemy in order to have the ability to kill what is “less than human.”

So I’m sitting in the pew at St. Joseph’s church in Babylon on an unexpectedly sunny Friday afternoon watching the groom Billy walk up the aisle before my cousin Isabel does, and I am not thinking about being un-friended, Battlestar Galactica or the imago dei. Rather, I watch as Billy walks forward in his blue-and-white stripe seersucker suit, navy bowtie, and tan-and-white saddle shoes. He gets about even with my pew and his face becomes more flushed. Behind his glasses he’s squinting and begins to cry. His smile, while maybe a bit forced, is forced because he seems to want to cry more than he feels allowed to with some 150 onlookers. Like he’s trying in this beautiful church to uphold a convention of being held together, controlled, stable, solid. “Manly.”

Isabel starts up the aisle. She is…resplendent. Her face is calm. Eyes set toward the altar, occasionally she glances into a pew to smile at a friend or family member. I long to have her catch my eye; I want to grasp the joy that she now feels, the ineffable union of two people who make promises to stay together no matter what. I recall my wedding day with Karen in March 1997. There at St. Joseph’s it is a moment in which many of us transcend our workaday worries and gaze into the imminent union: we leave our pews and are at that altar, staring into the eyes of one who wants us forever, who will love us despite ourselves.

At the end of time, I believe that Jesus Christ—called “the bridegroom” in Scripture—will watch his people—“the bride”—come to him and there will be an eternal wedding resulting in a forever marriage, and somehow I can’t imagine that he will weep at the sight of us. We are not worthy of his tears, for we have done so much to offend him. And deny him. God’s tears offend my sensibilities: that the Author of history would care so passionately about such seemingly insignificant characters. God’s tears challenge my sense of self-worth: that an All-Powerful Creator of the Universe would stoop to become involved with a flawed creature like me. It seems un-right. Until you realize that we have something in us, about us, governing and defining us, making us who we are no matter what we do, which nothing else in creation has. The image of God.

God is re-capturing and grafting in that which is god-like. God weeps joyfully when there is re-union and bitterly when there is separation. For what is lost is eternal.

As, too, is what’s found.

photo: Mirovarda42

“I can find redemption in ‘Beverly Hills Chihuahua’ ” my friend told me…and I believe him

Last Thursday night I slept for two hours, because I had seen a 10:45 p.m. showing of “The Wrestler” with a friend, came home and was going to write a few words just to get them off my chest, and those few words turned into 1008 words (I just counted).  I went to bed at 2:00 instead of 12:45 a.m. and then, at 4:00 a.m., I awoke, not to return to sleep again until my alarm went off at 6:00.  Somewhere in that two-hour span, I figured out how “The Wrestler” transformed in my mind from one of the bleakest movies I had ever seen to containing some redemptive elements.  I won’t say that it is “very” redemptive.  It is not.  But I found redemption amidst green neon tights and steroids.  [Movie spoiler alert:  If you plan to see “The Wrestler,” be advised that the plotline and ending are discussed below.]

 

011209-at-takI had written on and on, about 1001 words or so to be exact, about how Mickey Rourke’s character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler past his glory days, chose death in the final scene of the movie.  I had written how he had been spurned by his estranged daughter, after briefly reuniting, and spurned likewise by his love-interest Marisa Tomei (a stripper stage-named “Cassidy” whose real name is Pam) and decides that his fate is in the hands of the crowds who fill VFW halls and high school gymnasiums to see him.  He is always a crowd favorite and has universal respect among them and his peers in this bizarre entertainment world.

 

My computer keys were humming along and describing the utter bleakness that my friend and I felt, and I had been pondering the comment by my friend, “Was this a missed opportunity?  Am I getting too conventional, or am I always looking for something redemptive in a film?”  (Or words to that effect…it had been a long day for me.)  I had written these 1001 words all to say that the two people driving the plot – the protagonist and the writer – had chosen death.  Randy the Ram chose his death by going into the ring for a rematch against his nemesis of twenty years earlier despite having nearly died from a heart attack and bypass surgery.  And the writer chose to have him die.  No redemption there, as far as I could see.  The absolute bleakness of the ending blinded me.  The last sentence I wrote before signing off and going to bed, was:

 

And the writer let Randy do that.

 

The “that” being Randy’s choice to do the match and especially performing the “Ram Jam” off the top rope, a dive he is known for that he does in slow motion, when the screen goes to black.

 

At 4:00, I had an epiphany.

 

The writer let Randy do that.

 

I had often heard writers, writing teachers, and critics discuss how a fiction writer needs to let their characters have a certain amount of autonomy.  In fact, Anne Lamott writes about how she doesn’t always know where her character is going to take the plot.  And so, in realizing that Robert D. Siegel as screenwriter had let Randy the Ram do the Ram Jam, that Siegel had let him get so consumed by his grief over the shunning by his daughter and the temporary spurning by Pam, that he pushed himself effectively to his own death, I realized that Siegel was playing God.  And it was beautiful.  Then I started to see the redemption.

 

God lets the characters in the meta-narrative of human history – Adam, Eve, King David, Jonah, Judas…Lucifer/Satan – choose what path they want to walk.  Even Jesus, God’s son, had to choose at Gethsemane what path he would walk.  Siegel let Randy choose.  So I saw redemption in that truth alone.

 

That started cracking open the interior of the movie.

 

About two-thirds of the way through, Randy is in a particularly gnarly wrestling match with a scrawny guy who likes “the hard-core stuff” in the ring.  So after Randy gets egged on by the crowd to strike his opponent with an audience member’s prosthetic leg – “USE HIS LEG!!!  USE HIS LEG!!!” they chant in unison – he goes back into the ring to get staple-gunned by his opponent on the chest and back, carried up a ladder only to fall off into razor wire, and generally turn the ring into a place of slaughter.

 

In the locker room, after the staples have been removed, a two-inch gash in his right side sewn up, he is alone.  Randy stumbles toward the lockers, his back covered in holes, his long hair sweat-drenched.  He is still a mess.  He pukes, and falls, and the screen goes black.

 

You realize, looking back, after you allow for Siegel to play a divine role as screenwriter, that Randy had been crucified in that ring.  The razor wire was the 40 lashes, the staples were the nails that pierced him, the walk up the ladder was the road to Golgotha.  He even had the spear-like gash in the side.  Just before that scene, in the strip club, “Cassidy” had asked Randy if he had seen “The Passion of the Christ” and remarked how “they threw everything at him.”  She quotes Scripture – remarkably well – and then jokes that Randy is “the sacrificial Ram.”

 

When Randy the Ram wakes up in the hospital room after collapsing in the locker room, you realize he has been reborn, or resurrected.  He learns he cannot wrestle anymore because of his heart, so he quits the sport and gets a job in the deli section of a supermarket as “Robin” (his real name, which he hates).  He reestablishes a relationship temporarily with his daughter and tries to start one with Pam.  What has happened is that Randy the Ram– the “sacrificial Ram” – has saved Robin through his ring-crucifixion, and now Robin (though he still goes by Randy) tries to live out a normal life.  His daughter ultimately rejects him because he misses an important commitment to her.  Pam at first warms to him and then rejects him, yet later she walks off the stage during a performance and drives to the venue where Randy is doing what might be his last performance.  She pleads with him backstage to not do the match; his heart can’t handle it.  She pledges that she is in his life now.  He rejects her and goes into the ring, now sacrificing himself for the adulation of the crowd.

 

So what happened to the redemption?  My opinion is that Robin turns out to be a Judas figure – betraying a Christ figure of sorts, yes, but more than that, killing himself in his grief over loss and sin.  In the biblical account, Peter also betrayed Jesus, but he repented, so in his sorrow, he was restored.  Judas went and hanged himself, so in his sorrow he was lost.  Robin turns back into Randy, wraps himself once again in his self-absorption, his solipsism, and therefore is lost at the end.

 

But Pam is saved.  She comes out from her old life, so far as we know, for the director’s choice of lighting effect on her face in her final performance shows her utterly disgusted with herself and the conditions around her, when earlier she was portrayed in a luxuriant and ideal glow.  Randy, as Robin, had made overtures of commitment to her, and his sincere affection pulled her out of her destructive lifestyle.  If it had not been for Randy’s “crucifixion,” Pam would not have been reached out to by the resurrected Robin.  By his wounds, she was healed.

 

I realize that the role-analogies break down at certain points, but this much is true:  Randy’s “death” in the ring saved Pam.  And Siegel’s writing allowed it all to happen.

 

 

photo:  @tak