Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Last Call for Sin

A few weeks ago, I sat on a bench at the edge of the San Diego Harbor, between a decommissioned air craft carrier on my right and possibly a German tourist couple on my left, judging from the short dark socks and open-toed leather sandals with velcro straps. The sky was almost dark, the lights from the naval base across the bay reflected in the water. The air was warm, a warm I hadn't felt in months of the winter that still kept us company in Utah, and my arms were bare to the breeze. I was on a work assignment in San Diego, but ran unexpectedly into the quiet that stretches the mind as I sat there on the bench.

The thoughts that ran through my head were about sin, and the beautiful necessity of it. I believe what I texted to Kevin was, "thinking about the blessing of sin." I was thinking about doing wrong, doing that which we know and feel is wrong. And the consequences of it. I was thinking of how we teach sin and the need for a Saviour to our children and to each other. I was reviewing my reactions to other's mistakes, and what that reaction signified about the doer and the action, about my notion of error and sin, and about the place that that error will assume in the doer's life.

I found myself wondering whether I would prefer children or a spouse who had made mistakes, even monumental, public embarassments, and picked up and moved on, or a life where the child and spouse had done it almost right their whole life. Right enough not to go to the bishop's office, but to take care of it privately in the back office of the soul. My brain thinks, and my heart seems to concur, that I prefer the person capable of making, living with and recovering from monumental mistake.

I would like to live with somebody who knows, for a fact, that they are not and have not and will not always be right. (I also think Kevin would like to live with somebody like that.) There's a smugness about those of us who have mostly got it right. Who sin in small increments, mostly of omission. In a way, perhaps, the Catholics have the right idea: a weekly confessional, where we acknowledge, "Forgive me father, for I have sinned." There's something quite humbling about having to kneel and confess publicly. I know we're supposed to bring this repentant, reflective heart to the altar each Sunday but realistically, . . . There is something to be said for the public error, on display in the stocks in the village square. It forces a redefinition of self, to those brave enough to think on what they have done.

For me, the "wages of sin" and perhaps the most difficult part to deal with is the struggle to define self that inevitably arises after error. The struggle becomes to reject the definition of self that defines you in terms of what you have done rather than for the capacity within you that allows you to do what you did. For example, I am a child abuser. Or, I am a parent who can get so angry that I hit my children hard enough to leave a hand print. I am a slut (or whatever noun one uses for a man). Or, I am a person who loves the feel of other's bodies and finds intimacy hard to resist. I am an egotistical workaholic. Or, I can easily ignore the needs of my family and children because I devote so much time to my work/church/hobby, which I think is really important. I am a liar and a thief. Or I have within me the capacity for great dishonesty, particularly when it comes to other people's money and the opportunity to take lots of it without much work. I am a sloth. Or I have tendencies to want other people to support me and my family so that I don't have to work.

Defining ourselves with nouns creates a sense of permanence about that particular state. Thief, liar, slut, abuser, egotist, sloth. It's almost as if that tendency which came out in a particular action or series of actions defines ourself. Then it's hard to shake a definition. Particularly a bad one. As Julia Roberts says in Pretty Woman, "The bad parts are easier to believe."

I think that's what the "chains" are that bind us and drag us slowly down--coming face to face with our bad parts. Then, being unable to live with the tension inherent in a self-definition that includes both the capacity to do great good and horrible wrong. To know that we are capable of things we never thought we would do. Sometimes that knowledge is more than we can bear. Consequently, we allow those actions, for which we generally feel great remorse, to define who we are and what we will be.

Yet, even in the personal struggle after sin to know that we are, inherently loveable and good, there are great blessings. There' can be a consequential humility and a softening that comes with the realization that your world isn't exactly what you think it is. If we humble ourselves, admitting it was us (and not the wife, nor the child, nor the boss, nor even the devil that drove us to it), we become infinitely better. We know more now. We become more patient in the face of other's wrongdoing. Hopefully wiser in the face of similar situations. There's a blessing of longsightedness that comes as we see that today is not the day we get it all right. Neither will tomorrow be that day. If it's our children's error we look at and love through, we gain a sense of what God must feel like as he parents us, his great patience and love as he fathers us through our sins. That has become brilliantly clear to me.

The greatest blessing of all perhaps is that there are things we cannot know without sin. Without sin, there is no need for the Saviour. No need to know him, to supplicate, to bend and speak. No way to feel that flare of recognition when you hear the words, "Oh to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be." No way to feel the emptying of despair, the quietening of fear and anxiety, the flowering of new space that opens inside. No way to recognize and come to know a power larger than self, something kinder, more tolerant, more loving, more forgiving than we had ever imagined.

I would like to live with people who have felt that amazing grace. I would like to be in the middle of people who realize that error and consequent sin is not always, or even mostly, the result of a depraved soul. Who, because they have had to look at themselves in the hours and weeks after, they realize that the heart of the average sinner is not the black hole we have been taught will open up in the middle of us. Who realize that perhaps the "wages of sin" that we preach about is not the obvious shake of the alchoholic's hand, but the struggle of self-definition, once we realize that we too are capable of mistake, of error. I would like to be among people who have chosen to believe the good news about new creatures. I would like to live with people who have come to know themselves for who they are, for the great good they are capable of, despite. And who, because they have known that grace, are able to extend the same to others.

(Title: The Killers, from "All These Things That I've Done.")

No comments:

Post a Comment