I have been giving a series of reflections at church recently on “Buried Treasure,” a conviction I have about something beautiful, true, and life-giving that perhaps is buried in the field of every one of our lives. But the run-up to the presidential election has had me wondering about another reality in every one of our lives: buried trash.
Almost every day it seems we are waiting for a new revelation from a candidate’s past, video footage or emails that will uncover an ugly truth about the person. The evidence is out there, of course, and trolling adversaries, government investigators, or the Russians will surely find it. There’s a lot of good and beautiful stuff to sift through, as we’d expect in any life, along with lots of ordinary, human stuff, like the ups and downs of being a mother or father, a daughter or son, a wife or husband. But if we are patient in sifting through these lives and the researchers dig long enough, we will hit pay dirt.
The “pearl of great price” in this election season has been the uncovering of some bit of ugliness, sinfulness, or deceitfulness in a person’s life. And when the relentless trolling through a candidate’s past has hit pay dirt, the exposure has been immediate and brutal, to the delight of jeering crowds and the embarrassment of the naked candidate.
Who can live peaceably in such an environment? Maybe only the one who is without sin, which is surely one reason therapists and their patients are reporting unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness stemming from this presidential race. If this is how our society deals with failure, no one is safe. We all wish for a bit more mercy, kindness, and decorum in public life, in part because we fear such unforgiving cruelty might be applied to ourselves.
But I wonder if the deeper problem is our unhealthy way of relating to our past. Do revelations of failure have to be so devastating? As Bryan Stevenson says so beautifully in his book, Just Mercy, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.” And what I have been wondering is how we might live into the “more” of our lives, instead of getting stuck on “the worst” of our lives.
Maybe what we need is another way of understanding and relating to our past, because “that which is denied cannot be healed.” (Brennan Manning in his memoir, All is Grace) Maybe there is a role for our mistakes and willful transgressions that is more about blessing than curse. In in own memoir, Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner put it this way:
“I am inclined to believe that God’s chief purpose in giving us memory is to enable us to go back in time so that if we didn’t play those roles right the first time round, we can still have another go at it now…. Another way of saying it, perhaps, is that memory makes it possible for us both to bless the past, even those parts of it that we have always felt cursed by, and also to be blessed by it … what the forgiveness of sins is all about.”
From curse to blessing? Is such alchemy really possible? In fact, I think this is what the Gospel is all about, with its strange beatitudes, its strength in humility, and its comfort in sorrow. Once in a while, a person who has experienced repeated lapses and failures shows us the way, which is how I felt when I read how Brennan Manning introduced his memoir:
This book is by the one who thought he’d be farther along by now, but he’s not.
It is by the inmate who promised the parole board he’d be good, but he wasn’t.
It is by the dim-eyed who showed the path to others but kept losing his way.
It is by the wet-brained who believed if a little wine is good for the stomach,
then a lot is great.
It is by the liar, tramp, and thief; otherwise known as the priest, speaker, and author.
It is by the disciple whose cheese slid off his cracker so many times
he said “to hell with cheese ‘n’ crackers.”
It is by the young at heart but old of bone who is led these
days in a way he’d rather not go.
This book is also for the gentle ones who’ve lived among wolves.
It is for those who’ve broken free of collar
to romp in fields of love and marriage and divorce.
It is for those who mourn, who’ve been mourning most of their lives,
yet they hang on to shall be comforted.
It is for those who’ve dreamed of entertaining angels
but found instead a few friends of great price.
It is for the younger and elder prodigals who’ve come to their senses
again, and again, and again, and again.
It is for those who strain at pious piffle
because they’ve been swallowed by Mercy itself.
This book is for myself and those who have been around
the block enough times that we dare to whisper
the ragamuffin’s rumor –
all is grace.
We all have buried trash. At least, that’s what we thought it was. But it’s possible that what we thought was merely buried trash is actually the way to our buried treasure. That’s the way God’s alchemy works – what we deny can curse us and bind us; but what we humbly acknowledge and offer to God can bless us and set us free to bless others.
I think we’re all tired of leaders digging in each other’s lives in order to condemn. More and more, I’m persuaded that Jesus encouraged us to restrict our digging to our own lives, in order to bless.