When I Die: Interpretation

Since a few people have described my last post as bizarre (in fact, one commenter was writing that very word into a comment as I was typing this sentence), I thought an explanation might be in order. The previous post is a parable of sorts, and this will be its interpretation.

First, a word about my own foolishness. Not in the original post (though I am sure much foolishness is to be found there, both intentionally and unintentionally present), but in undertaking this one. Why not just remain silent? Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline talks about silence this way: “One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless. We are so accustomed to relying upon words to manage and control others…. Silence is intimately related to trust.” I admit that this is exactly why I am not remaining silent; I don’t trust the people who read the post to be okay with it or me. Foster goes on: “Silence is one of the deepest Disciplines of the Spirit simply because it puts the stopper on all self-justification. One of the fruits of silence is the freedom to let God be our justifier.” I also admit that this post is, in part, an act of self-justification. The desire to be understood and to make sure the important theme I was trying to communicate doesn’t get lost.

The added foolishness is in destroying the parable by over-explaining it, which I am about to do. The quickest way to ruin a joke is by explaining it. Art is the same way. In the contemporary Christian world, we normally use story (and all art, really) as a vehicle for delivering principles. If people don’t understand what principles or rules were supposed to be ingested and affirmed, then the story wasn’t told right. What follows is me stupidly taking back the story from what you made of it to contend for what I meant. You might be better served by just not reading this. Really.

The parable is about temporal, conditional, childish love. How far have I really come since first grade in being able to show God’s love, which is eternal, unconditional, and perfect (i.e., mature)? Isn’t all of my love, and all the ways I talk about love and God, still just as childish as one of the most childish memories I have? Aren’t all of my attempts at love, from the perspective of the “saints and angels” (i.e., an eternal perspective), not just childish but incredibly bizarre? Maybe I am just as petty, immature, conditional, fearful, and spiteful in my love as I ever was.

Now on to the annotations:

Paragraph 1: Those roadside memorials really capture my attention and imagination. Humorously, I imagine someone from outside our culture recognizing the cross as a memorial used in cemeteries and then assuming a family decided to bury the person at the site. Even more humorous, imagine a coroner cutting corners in his job by recommending an onsite burial. That would seem bizarre, but I wonder how much further our attempts at memorializing our loved ones go. A granite headstone might outlast our memories, but the weather will eventually do to it what it always does to roadside PVC crosses. The letters will fade from stone just as the names fade from memory. Ecclesiastes 1.4, 11: “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. …There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.” Our love is so temporal, not just because of the defects in our character, but also because our memories and our very lives are so fleeting.

Paragraph 2: Samantha Flynn is a completely made up name. I know very few ladies named Samantha, so I thought it safe. Flynn is somewhere in the neighborhood of the last name of my actual first crush in first grade, but it’s also changed. My apologies if there is anyone in the universe actually named Samantha Flynn. When I was in sixth grade, my class wrote and performed a play for our school. We created a character named Samuel Snodgrass who was the antagonist (and the principal, of course). After we performed it, my brother was in tears. His name is Samuel and he thought I had pulled off this whole elaborate plan to humiliate him in front of the school. I felt terrible. I would feel [almost] equally terrible to learn of the existence of a Samantha Flynn. Even now I recognize that Samantha can be shortened to Sam, and my brother may be upset if he reads this. I’m sorry, Sam. Again.

Paragraph 3: Have you ever pictured your own funeral? How many people are there? It’s silly to think of myself as embarrassed at my own funeral that more people didn’t show up. Am I still trying to manage my image even after my death? From an eternal perspective, how bizarre must it be to spend so much time trying to get people to like me? The extended application to legitimate-sounding pursuits: How much of our talk of “leaving a legacy” is really just the same as flattering ourselves by imagining a church full of people broken up over losing us? Half of them are probably just wondering how fresh the chicken salad is anyway.

Paragraph 4: Samantha’s there, perhaps more of an observer than a participant, giving the same ambiguous look she gave in the grocery store. The story about Sunday School is true. That was the first grade me. The rationalization that turns a stubborn and immature first grader’s action into a principled example of civil disobedience is the adult me. It’s this post that I am writing now. It’s the bizarre need to let everyone know that what I did was the right thing for the right reasons. It’s the pretense of trying to convince others who–what a pity!–don’t seem to get it. But it reeks of self-conscious anxiety, of needing to be okay and trying to get everyone to believe that I really am fine. It’s revisionist history, trying to baptize everything so I won’t be condemned.

Paragraph 5: This also happened. First grade. Sunday School. I saw underpants. I was actually pretty embarrassed, and that’s what got me out from under the table. The teacher probably thought her ignoring me was what turned my behavior around. Not so. I used it in this parable because it’s such a picture of childish love: not exactly reprehensible, but not quite innocent. Understandable perhaps, but not excusable. The ironic thing is that mentioning underpants at a funeral would be bizarre and taboo, which is why I included it. But it made a couple people talk to me about the post, since being a pastor who mentions underpants on his blog is also bizarre and taboo. So… mission accomplished? I don’t know.

Paragraph 6: We are fickle in who we think deserves comfort. Even if we see someone genuinely sorrowful, there might be other factors we consider when contemplating mercy. Forgiveness that works that way, that waits until being satisfied with the groveling penance, may only be a masked attempt at gaining power over the offender. It is not about release, but about winning. In contrast, God is by no means casual about our transgressions, but he is still quick to meet us in our impure acts of contrition. Grace still comes to us, even though we are so motivated by self-love. Sorrow over sin for God’s sake can be healthy, but not punishing ourselves until we feel guilty enough to feel okay with being forgiven. That’s not forgiveness but idolatry, since I am trying to take the punishment for my sins.

Paragraph 7: Conditional love is weak and spiteful. From an eternal perspective, it is immature and bizarre. That’s the point of this whole parable. Whichever of our actions would be offensively out of place in heaven, we should consider them offensively out of place in the Christian life as well. When we react to people’s behavior and offer love (or not) based on their actions, their presence in our lives determines our love. It should be God’s presence in our life that determines our love. In deciding to love, Christ and his cross are my focus, not this person and their actions. How much Christ has done for me trumps whatever this person has done to me. Every time. I have had plenty of times, even in my closest relationships, when I went to the person intending to love, forgive, or encourage. And when I didn’t get the response I imagined I would get (perhaps they didn’t gush about how loving and gracious I was), I suddenly retracted the offer of love and became spiteful instead. There is a constancy and dependability to unconditional love that I so often lack.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Perfect love does not waver back and forth based on the actions of the other person. Perfect love is not spiteful. Perfect love is not greedy or self-absorbed, always weighing its actions by how much it can get out of the other person. And perfect love, if I’m honest with myself, is just as far away from my love as it was in first grade.

So that’s what was behind the parable. Also, I was hoping it would make you laugh. If there’s anything else it made you think of, I would love to hear other interpretations.