Few know his real name. To most, he is simply TJ. I have no idea why. But TJ is a man older than my years, a bit slow upstairs, having suffered brain trauma from childhood abuse. He has a sincere, plain way of speaking. And when he can, when he has the gas, and his jalopy of a truck is working, he always drives to the graveyard on All Saints Day, November 1st.
Now, TJ was raised Roman Catholic. So, that may have had something to do with his taste for talking to the dead. Maybe, he has an ancient soul and feels closer to the dead than to the living.
TJ lives in a ratty, run-down trailer, when he isn’t sleeping in his truck. He has an old Dodge that no longer seems so Ram tough. Because he is poor and smells like the homeless, the regular, common, everyday folk ignore him. They look askance as TJ walks near, hoping he doesn’t panhandle them and ask for a buck.
TJ has many deep wounds. He grew up in a family that would make a man value the dead over the living. The dead don’t get blind drunk on whiskey and come home, eager to beat you because you don’t cower in the corner like a good, little boy. They don’t hunt down your treasured trinkets, yanking them from your hands just to hear you cry out in anguish. The dead have been tamed. They’re polite and respectful. They listen as you talk, without interrupting, without insult or put down.
TJ likes that. When talking to the dead, he gets respect. You can come as you are–a broken, lonely, and smelly old man. And they are happy that you come to see them on All Saints, the day the Church remembers those who have died in the faith. To TJ, the dead are everything the living should be.
TJ grew up in a biblical family. Now, he didn’t grow up in what you think a biblical family is–a family where love graces the family hearth. Although his mother loved him and raised him in the Faith, his father took to drink, and when drunk, the demons took control.
TJ’s biblical family was the dysfunction, abuse, and murder that you read about in the Old Testament. As Cain had killed Abel, blood was spilt in his family line. An older brother had betrayed and disowned him because he wasn’t worth the effort, like the houseful of brothers who had betrayed Joseph. That’s why TJ would spend his November 1st in the graveyard, talking to the dead.
Forgiveness is hard enough on its own. It’s even harder in a family because the sins are often so cruel and callous, even calculated. The ones from whom we expect the most are the ones who betray and belittle us. The wounds run deep, often still so raw that they have yet to become scars.
TJ has a way of dealing with those wounds, the way of the All-Saints graveyard. Another way also involves the graveyard. But this other way, which TJ never learned, involves a different death.
While TJ visits the graveyard, someone else I know visits hers. Katie was raised Lutheran, but what she now does she never learned in the Church as she should have. She takes a shovel with her. She sinks the tempered steel deep into the reluctant soil. Down, down she digs–a gaping wound now appearing in the earth next to where she stands.
Then, Katie begins to fill it with the corpses of unforgiven sins that have festered within her like a bleeding wound. Instead of talking to the dead, she talks another way. She opens her mouth and spews forth years of bitterness and anger, of disappointment, grief, and shame. She unlooses a cacophony of curses, of blood and bile.
And when Katie thinks she’s empty, still more is there, still more keeps coming until she thinks that she will collapse into that haunting abyss. But soon it is over. She stands there, freed from those suffocating burdens, staring down at the pool of death that wriggles in that darkened grave.
Then the shovel goes back to work. The earlier labor is reversed. Each stone and falling clump of earth covers the death that had tried to kill her.
Today, on that mound of dirt, you will find a rough-hewn crucifix. On it, you will see a man who died, even while being executed, forgiving those who were murdering him, including her, me, you, even TJ. His blood reddens the soil that she used to cover the grave, which she had dug and filled.
That blood from Jesus is the source of healing, for by it, and by it alone, do we find restoration for our broken lives. The One against whom we have sinned forgives us of our every misdeed. And in His Supper, He feeds our weakened and wearied bodies, so that being in us, we might also forgive others.
That is why we never outgrow the prayer He gave us: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Amen.