The Bureaucratic Atonement, Part One

I write often about religion, as it is the sine qua non of my life.  This particular post is not just religious, but is aimed at members of the LDS Church, known to most as the Mormons.  It should be intelligible to pretty much anyone, but there may be things here that make no sense unless you get the culture.  Fair warning.

Last summer, as I’ve written before, my good friend Lynn died.  He was an active, temple-going member of the church, faithful in all he did and a friend to all.

A few days ago, my neighbor across the street died.  Ken was not an active member of the church (though his good wife was), and he was also one of the most cantankerous neighbors I can remember in my life.  Not only was he apt to ignore you if you waved, or said hello or good morning, he would actively reject help, even help that he actually needed.  An example: one day in a snowstorm his car got stuck.  My sons went over and laid their shoulders to the car to help get it out of the snowbank, and he told them to go away.  Half an hour later he finally got the car to move.  I thought he might be there until March, and serve him right, too.  Next door to him is a fellow that might be the most friendly guy on earth; he had a relationship with Ken as long as this friendly fellow was not going to church.  Once he reactivated, Ken stopped talking to him, the same as he did with all the rest of us.

He died of cancer after a long and painful battle with it.  I was the home teacher and was over there as much as I thought I could be.  He once said he was fine when I asked him how he was doing.  Other than that, he never acknowledged my existence.

I’ve lived in the neighborhood only eight years, so I don’t know all the back story.  Rumor has it that he was always fairly inactive, but one enterprising bishop got him coming to church.  He got quite active for a while.  Along about the same time he was starting a business, but the business soon folded and my neighbor quickly abandoned the church and never went back.  The supposition is that he blamed God for it, or at least blamed Him for not preventing it, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.   He never came back to church and he stopped doing those things he covenanted that he would do, became bitter and disappeared from the life of his neighborhood, unless you were one of those that didn’t go to church.

Now here is a man that directly violated the rules.  He once was an active member of the church, and he fell away.  So he’s lost, right?

Well, only if you believe in the bureaucratic atonement.  I find that I know a disturbing number of people that do.  It states that the atonement is a set of rules one has to live by in order to be saved.  In that case, Ken is in trouble, because he did not live by those rules.  No doubt or quibble, he did not, and not out of ignorance, either.  So he’s damned.

Except that I believe the atonement is not bureaucratic, it is infinite.  It can save even the barely willing.  It can take into account mercy, and true justice, not the kind of justice that condemns a man without knowing the why of the things he did.  The atonement of Jesus Christ is not a set of rules.  It is a blessing given to us by the grace of our Lord.  It cannot be bought, and it cannot be deceived.  Lynn appeared to be a good man; I believe he was one, but the atonement will be required for him to be exalted.  Ken appeared to be a bad man; I believe he really wasn’t, but no matter, the atonement will be required for him as well, and God is going to sort it out so that Ken is as happy as Ken can be.  If Ken can be exalted, then he will be.

There’s a contrast here, obviously.  Lynn was the kindest and best of men and a shining example of all that a good Christian should be.  He inspired me to be better in all sorts of ways.  When he went, I spoke at his funeral, and there was nothing to say but farewell.  I had no consciousness of anything between us that might need repairing.

I find, though, that my cantankerous neighbor might have inspired me more, or at least in more difficult ways, than Lynn did.  With Lynn, I was always trying to do better those things that I knew I should be doing anyway.  With Ken, I was constantly trying to figure out what I could do, what I might be able to do that would be just a fraction better for him and his family.  I had to often decide that it really would be better just to leave them alone.  Which I did.  But then there were the times when I knew I should do something, and also that that something might not be very well received.  Those decisions were very difficult, and they taught me a lot.  I confess it: I was afraid of Ken.  But God taught me things in the midst of that fear, things I suspect I couldn’t have learned any other way.

And then I doubt very much that I was a good neighbor to Ken.  I could likely have done more, although I do have to admit that much of the time, what it seemed to me that he wanted from me was precisely nothing.  Could I have been one of those rescuers that brought him back to the gospel?  Possibly.  Could I have tried?  Certainly.  Did I?  Not very hard.  I was afraid.  God, I read, has not given us the spirit of fear.

There’s no funeral; Ken didn’t want one.  But I am invited to sing at a short memorial service.  I am deeply conscious that things were not right between us.  I am conscious of the fact that I need the atonement as much, perhaps even more than Ken did.  I have no idea what went on in Ken’s head and heart, but I know what has gone on in mine, and I have a lot to beg my Lord’s forgiveness for.  He says He will forgive me, if I ask Him to.

I hope He will.

There was, one time only, a flash of something different with Ken.  It was at his son Johnny’s wedding.  That day he was happy and gracious and welcoming.  He spoke three sentences to us, more than all the words we exchanged before or since.  But there was a glimmer there of someone else, someone I would like to have known and been friends with.  For love of that man, and for the friendship we did not have, I beg your forgiveness, my neighbor, and extend mine to you, for whatever you did, no matter why you did it, with all my heart.

Rest, in peace.

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