Monday, June 02, 2008

LOST and Found

“A tiger don’t change its stripes.”

The scene we just watched is from an episode of LOST, the television series which just aired its season finale this week. The show follows a rag-tag band of survivors from the crash of Oceanic Flight 815. Stranded on a remote South Pacific island, the castaways discover they must not only deal with the demonic mysteries of the island…like charging polar bears, giant talking birds, hidden hatches, and a dangerous group of Others…but they must also, and perhaps more importantly, deal with the mysterious demons of their past.

Through a series of flashbacks it becomes clear that this band of survivors carries secret sorrows and hidden sins that often haunt them more than the island itself. A brief survey of the community reveals dead beat dads and resentful children, murderers and con artists, drug addicts and renegade vigilantes, even an African warlord and an ex-torturer from the Iraqi Republican Guard. Lost in more than one way, they struggle to make their way home as they grapple with who they were, who they are and who they hope to become.

Can a tiger change their stripes?

This motley crew of marginalized, outcast and modern day sinners seems little different than that crowd gathered around Jesus in the parable we read this evening. Luke is careful to set up the story of the Prodigal One within a specific context. Jesus is at table (again), sharing a meal the text tells us with “tax collectors and sinners,” folks who, in general, were not wanted in polite society. And, as if to underscore the point, Luke makes sure to mention the grumblings of the Pharisees and scribes, the cultural and religious leaders, who scorn and mock Jesus for his choice of friends. “Can you believe this Jesus welcoming and eating with sinners!!”

Can you believe this Jesus? Well, as readers of the gospel, I suppose we can because this was after all fairly typical of Jesus (especially as portrayed in Luke!). Eating with the outcast and marginalized was par for the course if you were going to hang around this Nazarene. But, it was not merely Jesus’ association with the sinners that the Pharisees and scribes found troubling. Few would have objected to Jesus turning up at such gatherings to announce repentance. The problem was that Jesus’ association with the least, the last and the lost was not just an evangelistic ploy, entering the den of iniquity only to call the wicked to repent. Jesus was not about sandwich board predictions of armageddon.

The problem was that Jesus put the loving first, rather than keeping it until after repentance. This was no “I-love-you-but-hate-what-you-do” pseudo- gospel. Jesus was, indeed, accepting these people as people, not writing them off, nor avoiding them. Jesus treated them as people who matter, people who God loves, people who God forgives and includes.

And so, it is here, around this table of lost but loved souls that Jesus begins to tell stories. And what stories does Jesus choose in this setting? Stories about what? Stories about the lost, of course: a lost sheep and a lost coin. All stories that resonate with the daily experience of those gathered. And then Jesus tells this story, a story of family strife, greed, resentment and regret.

Arrogant young child insults parent, leaves home to make a fortune, hits rock bottom, and goes home. The parent, not knowing anything but that the child is coming, abandons cultural norms of parental dignity, and runs to embrace the child. The parent has no idea why the child is returning…forgiveness and love in this parable are offered before repentance.

On the surface of the parable the message is basic: if a parent loves that much, why can’t you think about God being like that? God already loves you, God already forgives you…no matter who you are, no matter what you have done, God loves you and forgives you.

The story of the Prodigal One helps us understand that for God love comes before repentance. This is not, however, cheap grace that abandons all moral and ethical standards in favor of an anything goes attitude. Love comes before repentance precisely because God knows forgiveness is only part of what it means to find redemption. It is just one stop along the way as people begin to turn their lives around and seek the Divine once again. Forgiveness only matters to the extent to we allow it to transform our beings, shape our lives and change our stripes, so to speak.

The tale of the Prodigal One is not a story about who we are, but rather who we are becoming.

Sister Joan Chittister has said that this parable:

“is not really about three separate people at all -- a parent, one dissolute child and one faithful child. Clear as these figures may be, they are at the same time more caricature than character, more types than persons. Who has really met any of them in toto -- the parent who is always loving, the child who is always worthy, the son or daughter who is always wanton? Down deep we know that we are a spiritual jumble of all three breeds -- the loving parent, the spiritually sophomoric adolescent, the demanding critic. We know that every day there is a choice to be made among them. The real temptation, in fact, is to assume that we are only one or the other of these inclinations, as if whatever we do once defines us forever. But that's far too facile an answer for something so complex as life. The fact is that it is our daily, momentary, continual choice among them that, in the end, will determine the very nature of our souls.”

When we begin to see life as a process of becoming we understand that being lost is never a permanent state. There is nothing that we can do, or say or even be that can permanently cut us off from God. Every day we make choices, some bring us closer to the Divine, others farther away. Sin, after all, is a turning from God. And all of us are guilty of doing that at some point in our lives. God knows it is easy to do. But turning from God is never a permanent existential condition, for we all have the ability to turn back…in fact, the Divine is always calling us back….just like the loving parent who welcomes home their wayward child. Life as a process of becoming offers us the opportunity to become more than we are by allowing God’s love and forgiveness to shape and transform our lives.

This is what I love the most about the series LOST. It depicts this process of becoming in the lives of a broken and battered people. Trapped in their own static self-identities, the castaways find themselves imprisoned by images of who they are based on the perceptions of others, their families, their friends, their communities.

“A tiger don’t change their stripes.”

Coming to the island they bring with them tarnished reflections of who they are. Each of the characters see themselves through the shaming lens of others…Sawyer, the con. Kate, the fugitive. Jack, the dutiful son. Hurley, the unpopular fat guy. Michael, the dead beat Dad. Ana Lucia, the bad cop. Claire, the reluctant mother. Charlie, the drug addict. Sayid, the torturer. Shannon, the unwanted. Jin, the abusive husband. These self-identities threaten to keep them trapped in a cycle of bad decisions and hurtful acts.

And yet, the island provides all of them an opportunity to confront the sins of their past, whether real or perceived, and offers them the chance to see themselves in a new light. Mysteriously attuned to the troubled past of all its inhabitants, the island speaks to the survivors in dreams and visions, pushing them into strange obsessions and dangerous quests, delivering healing, forgiveness and redemption in the most unexpected ways.

By re-living the sins of their past, the island offers the survivors a real opportunity to not just receive forgiveness, but to allow that forgiveness to radically transform their lives in concrete ways.

While it is never easy and there is no clear moral or spiritual trajectory of progress on the island, the survivors encounter their past in ways that empower them to change the way they are living right then, right there. Kate’s reconciliation with her abusive father leads to a renewed relationship with Sawyer. Hurley’s acceptance of himself empowers him to reach out, care for and love Libby. Charlie’s confrontation with his addiction liberates him from his own self-destructive path. Jin’s sense of powerlessness and regret reawakens his love for the wife he has neglected and abused and transforms their relationship into one of equality, respect and mutual love.

And, of course, there is Sawyer who as we saw from the clip above continues to con his way to power on the island. Yet, even Sawyer finds moments of redemption. Even Sawyer allows the forgiveness of the island and the community to transform his being and lead him into becoming a new person.

This clip comes at the end of an episode where Sawyer has struggled through flashbacks to become something more than he was, than he is. Here we find him talking to Jack his arch-rival on the island who represents all the Sawyer thinks he isn’t. Despite their ongoing conflict and the power of the secret Sawyer holds, watch what he does…

In a moment of grace, Sawyer allows the forgiveness and love which he has received to shape and transform his life, to offer a glimpse of reconciliation and grace to Jack, to pass the forgiveness along in tender and unexpected ways.

You see, the hardest part of forgiveness is not about God’s forgiveness at all. We already have been forgiven. The hardest part is allowing that forgiveness to shape and transform our lives. This is exactly what happens in each episode of LOST. While each character’s’ journey of becoming is never straightforward, each episode reveals a glimpse of grace, a fleeting moment of redemption in which we see how forgiveness, whether by one’s self or by another, leads to radical transformation.

Sometimes science fiction has a much more realistic vision of human experience than traditional religion.

Jesus loves the tax collectors and the sinners first because he knows that that love is the necessary pre-requisite to true repentance and meaningful redemption. We must first forgive ourselves, first accept God’s gift of grace, first allow God’s love to permeate our souls. Only then can we find true forgiveness and redemption in our day to day lives.

Redemption is not something that comes on the other side of death, but rather something that emerges in and through real concrete moments when we allow the presence of God to be made manifest in our actions, relationships and lives. Real redemption is when we begin to turn our lives around and seek the Divine once again. Our repentance is our openness to God’s grace and forgiveness, not merely in seeking it, but in allowing that grace and forgiveness to shape the very contours of our lives…to live that forgiveness in the world.

Sister Joan Chittister writes:

“Life is a progression of struggles meant to be endured, a succession of stumblings from which we are meant to learn, a cycle of events meant to be drained of every insight, every glory that life has to give. This is the part of us that knows that life is not a series of mindless sins, nor is it simply a series of hard-garnered graces. It is a high wire act between the two that is meant to give us heart for those around us who have yet to negotiate the contest.

Always, from somewhere subterranean in the human soul comes the call of the Loving Parent, the one who knows the way of human development, who knows that the nature of the human being is to be fully human -- read: fully frail -- and who therefore forgives wrongs. This is the part of us that calls us beyond ourselves to perfect love for the rest of the world that is just as stumbling and just as sincere as we are."

In the end, we have no proof that the erring child reformed and stayed home. We have no surety that the perfect child ever escaped the trap of jealousy and resentment. We have no proof that the parent was not hurt time and again by both of them. The story of the Prodigal One is not over, for we have yet to see what each of the characters becomes. What will they do with the forgiveness they have found?

A tiger don’t change its stripes, but it might just possibly change its life.

What will you do with the forgiveness you find?

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