I was sick this week, so I gave myself permission to veg on the couch watching TV, even before the kids went to bed. Surprisingly, I found something interesting to watch: Alaska, the Last Frontier. Have you seen it on the Discovery Channel? I grew up camping and spending long weeks on the farm with my grandparents, so although the Alaskan way of life depicted was foreign–living off the land, with women fishing and hunting right alongside the men, and coming home to rustic cabins–it was also familiar and brought back a lot of happy memories. Some not so happy memories, too.
For instance, we raised some chickens one year. My grandmother still pulls out the pictures sometimes when I visit. It’s as if the pictures of my brother and I, cupping the little chicks in our hands, smiling and bubbling over with excitement at the unbelievably precious LIFE we’d been given to care for, it’s as if these are her favorite moments in life. Certainly her favorite moments of being a grandmother. In fact, just this spring while we were visiting, she brought home two chicks (one yellow and one black and white) and a duck for my kids. And all summer long we got letters from her about their progress, or my kids would beg to call her to find out about how they were doing. There are so many predators and challenges to keeping chicks alive on a farm, and the drama it provided–including a dramatic rescue of the duck out of the mouth of Nana’s golden retriever–has been absolutely worth its weight in gold. I think if I were a better writer and had more time, I could write a novel of epic proportions, with all the angst and gilded tragedy of a Tolstoy, just on the rise and fall of these two chicks and one duck. But since I am not Tolstoy and am in a hurry to go make Thanksgiving dressing, I will share with you their names, which always make me laugh: Daisy (the yellow hen), Black-eyed Pea (the black and white rooster) and Goldella (the duck, who unfortunately turned out to be a he instead of she).
At any rate, I was very thankful that the kids had gone to bed for the Alaska the Last Frontier episode where one family “harvested” their turkeys. They opened the cage door, poured a little food on the ground to lure the turkey out, and the man took his machete and sliced off its head. The woman especially was very proud to have killed the turkey this way. The words “humane” and “quality of life” were thrown around quite a bit, as well as the idea that because she had raised the turkey, she knew it was healthy and wholesome for her body. What was not commented on was the spectacle of blood and flying feathers that went on in the background. One turkey’s body flopped and flailed down the hill, and the fellow just had to “let it do its thing”. I can’t help but think it was similar to the way we wave the word “discipline” and “training” over the spectacle of what happens when an adult tries to get a three-year-old to give back a stolen toy.
The death of a turkey, or of any living thing, is horrific because of the horrific reality of sin. D.A. Carson has pointed out that in eating a living thing, even a hamburger, we are practicing a reflection of communion. We draw our life from the death of other animals and plants, and no amount of vegetarianism or “humane-organic-quality of life” code words can fix that. Innocent animals are sacrificed so that we may live. Their lives for ours. It’s that simple. And for the most part, we never even consider whether we are worthy of such a sacrifice. As a people, we balk at the sacrificial code of the Old Testament. It’s too bloody, we say. But we prefer not to consider how bloody our tables actually are.
But of course, our hands aren’t just bloody with the animals we live off of. We sacrifice our friends and family, our husbands and wives, our children every day in our hearts. For every sin of envy and covetousness, the time I heard of a colleague who passed away and wondered if that would make more room for me on the corporate ladder. The lusting for some new titillation of sex or accomplishment. The hatred of my children, even for a brief moment, calling me out of my rest and ease and into the hard work of giving them what they need–when I must put aside my exhaustion to help button a shirt or brush their teeth. I am unclean! We are woefully unclean! And yet once again, this Thanksgiving, I who am drenched in the blood of the innocent will put on my silk shirt and most flattering pants, and I will laugh and make small talk and sit down at the table with my friends, and I will feast.
I heard a most astonishing conversation yesterday on NPR. It was like hearing the set up for a sermon, like someone got up to introduce the preacher for the day, but no one every came to the podium. The discussion was about how veterans coming home from war are not being assimilated properly back into society. One man wrote a confession of how it was he had come to kill an innocent civilian in a foreign theater of war. The civilian could not speak English, and he began walking out into a river, apparently unaware that he was not supposed to. They yelled at him, but he continued walking, until finally the soldiers were compelled to shoot. Suddenly, as the bullets rained down around him, he realized what they had been telling him. He was a captive, and the bullets spoke in a language he could understand. He turned around and held up his hands, but seconds too late, for the soldier writing in said his bullet had already been fired and it hit the man in the head. He immediately slumped into the water, and the soldiers swam out to get his body.
This soldier, they said, had been brought back into society with a little counseling. Where were the purification rituals and narratives to make him feel clean? It wasn’t enough, they said, to have the man deal with this dirtiness on his own. For we who sent him, the American people, were just as guilty as he. Niel Conan suggested Native American purification rituals. One of the guests said that the Bible and ancient Roman cultures had them as well, as if both were equally remote and distant. So where are ours, they wanted to know? Where will we go as a people to grieve over our sin, to be washed, and made clean?
I must go make my Thanksgiving food now. The day is slipping past, and I am going to miss it if I don’t start soon. But I would just say to those who feel like me the need to be clean, for those in our culture who want a righteousness and cleanness that isn’t merely private, but is something to share with the greatest and least among us…. if you feel the need to be made worthy even to live off the most insignificant sparrow, then it is the baptism of Christ I would offer you, and the communion of His death and resurrection.
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Col. 2:13-15)
Don’t settle for consolation words or purification rites. Get clean in Him. And whether your table is full or empty, sit down today in your heart to feast upon the Lamb, who alone is worthy and able to ultimately heal, to purify, and nourish til sin can touch us no more, and we join Him at His eternal feast.
If you’d like to hear the entire NPR interview I reference here, it’s under Moral Injury: The Psychological Effects of War. Or you can read Janie’s thoughts on Thanksgiving here, as well as make a Thanksgiving book with your kids here.