The other day when I came home from work, I found the house exactly as I had left it, except my computer was gone and my back door was standing open. After I called the police and talked to the neighbors, I sat down at my empty desk and took stock of my losses. Data, analyses, manuscripts. A couple thousand dollars. Every picture I’ve taken for the last five years. I decided I would survive. Then the police called back, and three hours later, a smartly dressed detective handed me my computer, neatly packed with its cord in a shopping bag the thief had also borrowed. I set it back in its place. Everything looked the same as it had that morning, but it meant something different.
That wasn’t the first time. A few years ago, I had just finished fixing up my shiny 1970’s road bike when it disappeared from my front porch. Weeks later, my bike mechanic happened to recognize it lying in the street across town. These incidents remind me how much of what I have lost in life has returned to me—often not as quickly as my computer, and often not in its original condition, but in new and unexpected forms.
Many of the experiences that have broken me down have surprised me later by becoming my best building materials. Some experiences I’ve written off as worthless, or worse, have come to have a value I could never have predicted. My failures have given me the understanding to forgive other people. My losses have eventually gained me strength.
That is why I believe in redemption. I believe in staying open to the possibility that some good may come from anything, or anyone. I believe in the kind of love that redeems me by persisting despite my faults. “Redeeming” the life of a slave means setting him free. This kind of redemption sets me free from the fear of failure, the grief of loss, the need to judge other people. For me, this is the power of the Christian story. It is not about keeping what is already good. It is about making new meaning out of what goes wrong.
The word “redeem” can also have the sense of reclaiming land. I am a plant ecologist, and I have spent years studying how forests recover on abandoned farmland. Over the past 200 years, many parts of eastern North America have been transformed from almost entirely forested landscapes, to peopled countrysides, full of houses and hayfields, to forested landscapes where you come across the occasional cellar hole with overgrown daylilies around its foundation. These forests don’t have the same species as the forests they replaced. They are irrevocably changed, and still changing. But they are testament to an enormous resilience. This is what restores my faith: the evidence all around of the potential for growth and change; the human capacity to give and receive grace; the power to transform brokenness into something wholly new.