“Atonement. At One Ment,” Joe Grabill

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. The word Lent refers to springtime, longer days and green buds. Lent ends in a spectacular rainbow of razzle-dazzle, with the resurrection of Mother Nature. Christians have used this spring-time period to remind ourselves to go from crucifixion during winter to renewal of atonement at Easter.


You see my head is red and blotchy. No. It is not a new punk hair-do.  It is atonement for my assumption, working as a youth in peach orchards and in construction work, that covering my head didn’t matter. In my later adulthood, scabs, sores, and itchiness made themselves at home on my head. What ever happened to my belief in invulnerability? Now I am paying atonement for my arrogance.

My atonement has been to apply to squamous, pre-cancerous cells a squamous-killing salve, in exchange for a scary, Halloween head-on-fire hat.

Do I yet feel atoned for? Have I made restitution to my self? Am I at peace with my conscience? Have I apologized enough times to my skin, the biggest organ on my body, for carelessly and cruelly. . . . “Ummm. Skin. Sk-k-k-k-in. I let Sun curse you with, what may be, a non-cure for your pre-cancer? Alas. Alas. I am sorry. . . so . . . so . . . sor-reeeee. I am afraid, Sun and Skin…that you two will slay me, the one and only Joe Grabill, as atonement for my possibly murdering you, Skin?”


Story of Carys and Ella


Maybe you’ve seen the movie, Atonement. It is about a family-friend love triangle. M-E-S-S-Y. Briony, a younger sister, secretly loves the suitor, Robbie, of her older sister, Cecilia. Briony falsely charges Robbie with a crime he did not commit. Briony fantasizes that the real Robbie loves her, not Cecilia, and unjustly uses bad judgment in not choosing her. Aha. The way to deal with Robbie’s crime of rejecting her, is for him to suffer in jail. That’ll show you, Briony says. “Now, take jail time to atone for your poor judgment.” Briony, just a teen-ager at the time of this tangled tragedy, grows up and senses that she herself is guilty. The rest of the movie deals with her attempts to make restitution.

Atonement. Let’s take the word apart—-AT ONE MENT—and we have the meaning in the first usage of the word atonement in 1510. AT ONE MENT with ourselves and others. Our species has tried, let’s say, four over-lapping approaches to get to I’m OK, You’re Ok. To AT ONE MENT.

Approach 1—SELF-EXAMINATION. Prior to the rise of agriculture and cities, human cultures deal with infractions by what today we might call meditation. No prisons. No police. No corporal punishment. This soft-power approach offers guilty folks no life-time branding of a scarlet “A.” And this gentle approach renews folks, something like an alcoholic today remains clean by following the 12 Steps. A Native American walks away from a purification lodge feeling she has paid her debt by sweaty isolation, naming to herself her misdeed, and feeling forgiveness of herself and others involved.

Buddhism seeks similar effects. “Stop glomming on to expectations. That grabbing causes disillusion, anger, and sickness. Be at one with yourself now. Grasp for nothing. Be at home right here.

This Buddhist style is like the street theater story about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Thwarting a gang of self-righteous men wanting to throw stones until she crumbles, Jesus says to her, “Go on your way. You have a fresh start. No bad marks. Guilt free. Examine yourself as you hold your head and heart up.”

Approach 2—EYE FOR AN EYE. As agriculture and animal husbandry spread, violence becomes common. Face-to-face approaches with personalized rituals are logistically difficult. An eye-for-an eye seems like fair and equal justice. Obviously we still practice this approach. In Oklahoma Clayton Lockett dies eventually after an inaccurate execution injection as an atonement for his having committed a murder. A murder for a murder. We know MAD…Mutually Assured Destruction. A nuclear bomb for a nuclear bomb.

Approach 3—SUBSTITUTE PUNISHMENT. With the invention 5,000 years ago of highly organized military units to defend walled cities, some war massacres cause nearly everybody to lose. An eye for an eye can make the whole world blind. Why not have substitutes die, and thus, hopefully, prevent mutual annihilation?

In Biblical history substitutes are animals. God in Genesis 3 kills animals and uses skins to cover the transgression of Adam and Eve who ate forbidden fruit. Then after using sheep and pigeons as surrogate blood sacrifices, Hebrews thought human children might increase the value of the surrogate.

In Judges 11, clan leader Jephthah makes a deal with God. “If you let me kill thousands of Ammonites in battle, I swear to offer the first person I see on returning home to you as a sacrifice.” Jephthah feels blood drain from his face when the first person he sees is his only teen-age daughter.

In another story, Abraham in Genesis 9 is all set, knife in hand, to sacrifice his only son Isaac to death when an angel says, “Uhm, Abraham. Listen up. You showed your readiness to kill your only son. God has a ram tied up in the thicket behind you. Kill the substitute.” Isaac was lucky, unlike Jephthah’s daughter.

This first-born Isaac and ram story prefigures the theology that Christ died in place of all people.

Approach 4—BE WELL. Today there are countless self-help techniques. No one agreed upon authority system is in charge of overseeing misdeeds and atonement, and. . . everyone is in charge.

We know the idea that humans are fully and legally persons and have rights from the ovum inviting sperm to enter onward. INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS. What a mind-blowing, destabilizing dream. Which ethical system is right? Is the ISIS system a valid option? Which religion is right?  Is there a God?  Is so, which one?  Can agnostics act morally? Since the individual has no constitutional RESPONSIBILITIES, this absence of universal rules opens a huge vacuum.

The typical human, having to decide for herself what guidelines to follow, often goes coo-coo trying to figure out which path to follow where the options are often contradictory. Pro-choice? Pro-life? So, our confused selves often feel lost without shiny saviors within this inscrutable and mostly dark, invisible universe. Self says, “I kind of hurt all the time. Anti-depressants. Aspirin. Tylenol. More pills that I can remember and name. I’ve tried every religion, and still don’t feel pardoned for my mistakes. I’ve gone to gurus and I still don’t feel enlightened.”

How to find atonement amid the pandemonium of a heroin, suicide, and terrorism epidemic?

The answer: Be well by choosing every day what you think will advance your own body, mind, and spirit health, and of all other beings. Carrying out this invitation within the cultural vacuum given to us is a most demanding curriculum. . . a school of health unlike any school our parents and grandparents attended. Invent wellness habits within self and model them for others. No excuses. This self education is open to endlessly glad learning and teaching.

Neuroscientists now know that wellness emotional habits enlarge circuitry in the plastic brain, no matter what age, to permit even deeper empathy and compassion. Brain scans show the degree to which our emotions are positive and negative, puzzled and intuitive, self-opaque and self-aware, tuned out and tuned in. And there is a book full of meditation exercises, easily done by anyone, by neuroscientist Richard Davidson, The Emotional Life of Your Brain.

We can learn to show charity toward all, as Abraham Lincoln advises, and we can learn to love our internal and external enemies unconditionally, as Jesus recommends. Ain’t easy. But we have had enough guilt. As Bernie says, Enough is enough.

What is one meditation exercise?  “Think about those inside and outside to whom we have done wrong, years ago, or today. Feel sad and embarrassed. Say I am sorry to ourself. The same to others. Say, whenever possible out loud, “I am sorry.” Use beads to repeat the mantra. This practice makes saying “I am sorry” when needed. Each genuine apology enlarges the ganglions and nerve tissue in the brain facilitating this empathic practice.

Yesterday I was walking with my daughter Tamyala to the house of daughter Shamelle. We enter and sit down. Shamelle plays a Clemente sonata on the piano beautifully. I say, “That was very soothing. Thank you.” Then, not seeing what would happen if I swivel in my chair, my arm pushes over an end table. CRASH. Ceramic pieces shatter on the floor. I feel some guilt, but also feel like criticizing the placement of a table where such an accident could happen and fragment a favorite china figurine. Shamelle says, as she starts cleaning up, “It’s the responsibility of guests to respect how a house is arranged.” I feel attacked, and give  a discourse on the virtues of no-fault accidents. Emotions, already charged, keep on discharging. Eventually, both Shamelle and I apologize, and I offer to pay for a replacement for the figures. We hug before I walk back home.

Obviously atonement is not a one-size fits all process. Very complicated. Still, let us go forth during Lent with new hope of letting go of illusionary modes of atonement and of inventing wellness within and without. It is fun to be a Thomas Edison inventor of millions of atonement roads more, not less traveled. Amen.