Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Holy Fool.

The other day we got a letter from my brother Tony. He always writes to my mom, but the whole family reads the letters. My brother is in prison for assault and kidnapping or something like that - we've never been entirely sure what the charges were - and so, we primarily keep in contact through the mail. Phone calls from prison cost too much, and they never seem like real calls anyway; you can always tell that someone's monitoring everything that's said, and you always seem to run out of time just as you're really starting to get to the part of the conversation with some meaning.

Tony's being held in a hot state which I won't mention by name because of all the rumors that he stole thousands of dollars from a local drug lord before he left Ohio. While I doubt any local drug lord really even realizes that Tony's my brother, much less spends his days perusing my blogs for tidbits of information on him, I tend to be a little on the paranoid and protective side, and it seems wiser not to mention exactly where he is. Suffice it to say that it's a long damn way from here, and visitation is out of the question. Particularly since my mom is terminally ill, and a walking pharmacy, and even every day travel can be a pain in the ass.

I don't really know my brother all that well. I think I was maybe ten or eleven the last time I saw him in person. For most of my life prior to that, I'd only seen him in the family visitation room in the Reformatory. Before he went to prison that time, I was only a toddler, and he hadn't lived with me since I was an infant.

Even though I don't know my brother, I love him. It's an odd thing that you can't really explain to someone who doesn't have a brother like mine. All my life I've heard stories about him, and he makes up so much of my family's past from before I was born that in a lot of ways he seems almost mythical to me.

It's hard to explain. There are all of these places that smack of a boy I never really knew. That's what remains of the treehouse that he fell out of and broke his tailbone. That's the phone number he carved into the window frame because he couldn't find a pencil. That's the grease stain that my poor mom could never get rid of in the kitchen after he passed a bitter afternoon mindlessly flicking french fry grease onto her freshly painted wall. I guess it isn't quite the same as seeing where Ben Franklin was buried, or walking into the Colliseum, but somehow it does give me the same sense of finding out that my own family's history is real and that all of those stories really happened once as those other places do.

My brother's letter was interesting because it built on the last several letters theme of his newfound Christianity. For the record, we don't come from a religious family, and neither one of us ever spent much time in church as children. I'm told that he's pulled stunts before while he was in prison, where he begged money and trust because of his redemption, or whatever, but I can't remember them personally. It definitely sounds like something he would do.

This letter was a little different. It may be that he's just getting more clever and manipulative, but the tone was so much different that my mom and dad really don't think he even wrote it himself. The handwriting and bad spelling is his; but they don't believe that those could be his words. I have a slightly different opinion. I'm pretty sure he wrote it. He borrowed all of those phrases from Low Church Protestantism 101.

He's definitely been hanging around church, and chaplains, and that's where he learned all of those Bible verses and getting ideas about getting a job and starting a family and paying back my parents and I for all the money we've sent him. My parents have never been around church, so they don't know how common those phrases are, or how easy it is to pick up the lingo. They've also been screwed over so many times that they can't believe that he could be for real.

I have a pretty hard time with that last part too. But there are a few differences between my parents and I. For one thing, I'm a sister, not a mom or dad, and sisters see their brothers differently than parents do. I don't pretend that Tony's a reflection on me or my value as a caretaker; in general, this makes me better able to see how flawed he is, and how flawed he isn't. I'm less prone to praising him, and less prone to giving up on him entirely, all at the same time. Perhaps more importantly, unlike my parents, I'm a Christian and I do believe in repentance and redemption. I do believe in the miraculous, in sinners turned into saints, and I know that God loves to use the humble and the lowly to astound those wise in their own eyes and the proud.

I decided to write my brother back. I've only ever written him a few letters in my life, and he's never actually responded to me directly. He's occasionally sent me thank you cards, that he drew himself, when I've sent him money. As well as I don't know him, he knows me even less. As I said, I was a baby when he lived with me; a pre-teen the last time he ever actually laid eyes on me. And he doesn't have the benefit of having heard all of the stories about me that I've heard about him. Tony and all of the things he did happened before I ever came along; his life is my history. I'm just what happened to his family after he stopped being a part of it. I'm life after his life ended, and that's a less interesting subject altogether for someone like my brother. He's Imperial Rome; I'm just street vendors and gelato.

But once again, I'm in a unique position. I'm the only person in my family who'll dare to be naive enough to support my brother in this. I'm not stupid; I know that he could easily just be running some new con. But as a Christian, I can't write him off entirely. As long as there's life in him, I know he can be saved. Not because he's good or even has a great interest in becoming good just now, but because God is very good and very faithful. My brother is, no doubt, a great sinner; but at whose salvation do the heavens rejoice?

So I wrote him a letter about how proud I was of him and how thankful I was to hear that he's practicing his faith so seriously. I wrote about what a great witness he could be to our family, and to the world. In his letter, he'd written that he'd tried to turn his life around before and had failed. I wrote that he failed because he couldn't save himself; that the Bible says that if a person casts out a demon, and doesn't fill up that space with Jesus, seven more demons will come. But there's still hope, since God still loves sinners. I wrote that he can become a new creation in Christ, through whom all things are made new; that he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him.

I wrote it hardly believing a damn word I said, and feeling hopelessly stupid for having written it. Those words are all true, but my faith is so weak! I'm worried my family will hear, or worse, read what I wrote, and think I'm an idiot. A stupid born again. We hate those kind of people in my family; even I hate those people, and I don't want them to think I'm one of them. Once again, my faith is so weak and pitiful!

I went to sleep and had nightmares and nasty thoughts all night. I was guilty of what I'd written. I'd cast out one demon, but filled myself up with faithlessness, and attracted seven more.

I guess I know that there's still hope for me, since God still loves sinners. And even though I'm a very great sinner, the heavens rejoice when those of us who stray are brought back home. I'm going to send that letter, foolish and naive as I may sound in it, to those in my family who don't yet understand. The best parts of me would rather be a fool for Christ than wise in the eyes of a foolish and dying world.