I believe the English language is lush with words luxurious in meaning and pregnant with emotion. Yet I have witnessed that the shifts of time and culture can erode the substance out of even our best words.
The word “redeem,” and its influential relatives “redeemer” and “redemption,” used to lift weary hearts with hope. There was a time when we believed that the worst of life’s circumstances could be redeemed. Tragedy, grief and hardship were not final destinations. Life’s woes had purpose. Redemption was available. We believed that the forgiving Joseph was right when he told his betraying brothers, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.”
Yes, once upon a time in this world, and even in American culture, we believed there were powers and purposes beyond ourselves. Some call it naïve, others call it faith. Indeed, we once thought that the very human soul could experience redemption.
Sunday seemed to come with agonizing regularity when I was a boy. Our strict Protestant home believed that every Christian worthy of their black leather King James Bible should be in church every Sunday—morning and night. I came to conclude that our most hallowed virtue must be “longsuffering”—a virtue that was reinforced during long hours of suffering through another sermon.
For some reason, however, this Sunday night was different. As my skinny frame leaned against the end of the pew, what the Reverend had to say seemed to make sense. There was something in our hearts that wasn’t right, he claimed. There was Someone speaking to our hearts who wanted to make it right. Forgiveness was available. Cleansing—deep within—could be found. I wanted that. I prayed for that. And, while I didn’t learn the word until years later, I knew that I had been redeemed.
Four decades have passed since I leaned against that pew and leaned into God’s grace. With you, I’ve witnessed more pain on this planet than I could have imagined. Yet, I still believe that redemption—a complete restoration of the soul—is available. Redemption— the confidence that no human experience need be wasted—is still alive. Our deepest pain need not be a dead end. The consequences of our own actions meet a grace that is greater.
Yet, through the years we have sold the good word to the producers of Green Stamps and grocery coupons. To “redeem” has become something we do to save 35 cents on peanut butter. And, the only concept we now have of human redemption is to “redeem one’s self.” The baseball player who makes an error can redeem himself by hitting a home run before the game ends. But all human redemption, it seems, falls heavily on our own shoulders.
Can the word itself be redeemed? I don’t know. But I believe that our language and our lives will be the poorer if it is not.
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