For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘forgiveness

Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation by Barbara Brown Taylor, Cowley Publications, 2000, 73 pp.

Speaking of SinThis short volume, begun as a lecture series at the National Cathedral, is a powerful meditation on our Christian language of sin, repentance, and salvation. I read it on Ash Wednesday, sitting in a coffee shop for the day with a sign that read “Ashes for Everyone.” In between chapters on salvation, sin and redemption, I imposed ashes upon strangers and church folk alike. It was a powerful day, and Taylor’s book provided powerful words to accompany the journey.

Each chapter moves through a deeper level of meaning for the word “sin.” We mainline Christians often avoid the word these days, but that doesn’t make sin go away, she argues. Instead, we should claim the rich depth of Christian understanding about sin, about the condition of the world as a heart-breaking place, about our human inadequacy to heal it, and our continued sins of omission and commission that allow it to continue. She also explores the difference between sin as sickness (church as clinic) and as wrongdoing (church as courtroom), the various Hebrew words translated as “sin,” and the role of individual and corporate confession. She also addresses penance, righteousness and justice.

The book is rich and full of insight from beginning to end, including many explanations of loaded terms like sin and repentance that sing with Taylor’s gift for beautiful language:

In theological language, the choice to remain in wrecked relationship with God and other human beings is called sin. The choice to enter into the process of repair is called repentance, an often bitter medicine with the undisputed power to save lives. (41)

Of course, the conversation turns to grace as well, and Taylor offers one of the most  powerful descriptions of grace since Bonhoeffer’s famous distinction between cheap grace and costly grace.

God’s grace is not simply the infinite supply of divine forgiveness upon which hopeless sinners depend. Grace is also the mysterious strength God lends human beings who commit themselves to the work of transformation. To repent is both to act from that grace and to ask for more of it in order to follow Christ into the startling freedom of new life. (60)

This book will be my go-to resource every time I want to talk about sin, repentance, grace, redemption and salvation. Taylor’s insights are rich, and I am still thinking about them all the time as I write this review, three months after completing the book.

“But it’s O.K., right?”

B has started saying this all the time. Usually it follows something he does wrong, or something I warn him against doing. It can be anything from spilling his Goldfish crackers to playing too rough to forgetting to put his clothes in the laundry basket. He sometimes says it in response to a reprimand, but sometimes even when no reprimand has been issued or needed. He says it whether I have given a firm warning or a mild caution.

“But it’s O.K., right?”

His tone has a mixture of breeziness (like “no big deal”), and neediness (like “you’re not mad at me are you?”). It’s this blend that I find perplexing, troubling and annoying.

The breeziness is annoying. No, it’s not alright that you spilled, or that you were careless, or that you didn’t listen to me the first time, or that you did something I told you not to do. It is not a big deal, but that doesn’t mean it’s O.K. that you did it or that you can do it again.

The neediness is perplexing and troubling. What is he worried about? Have I given some indication that my love for him is contingent upon his good behavior?  B is an easy-going child that rarely provokes my temper, and I am not a yeller by nature. We use time-outs sparingly, because a cautionary word is usually sufficient. Does he think I might get angry at him for some minor infraction? Does he think I’ll stop loving him or caring for him because he’s still learning how to be a responsible member of the household? He’s three years old, and raised in a loving home. How could he be so fragile?

“But it’s O.K., right?”

I don’t know what is behind this strange new phrase. It’s probably a mix of all of the above, but I struggled mightily to find an appropriate response. Finally, one morning as we shared the job of cleaning up some spilled Cheerios, he said it again. I stopped and pulled him close to give him a deeper answer. “B,” I said, “it’s not O.K. to be careless and spill Cheerios everywhere. You have to pay attention. But you and me, we’re O.K. even when you do spill them. I’m not angry with you, and I’ll always love you, even when you spill things. We’ll just clean them up and try to be more careful next time.”

As I said these words, I realized that this is God’s message to us all the time. No, it’s not O.K. that you sinned again, and again, and again. Yes, it does matter, and you need to try harder, do better, be more loving, be more compassionate, follow Christ more fully. But you and me, we’re O.K. even when you do sin. I’m not angry with you, and I’ll always love you, even when you screw up the big things, not just some spilled Cheerios. I’ll forgive you, love you, help you clean up your mess and encourage you to be more careful next time.

“But it’s O.K., right?”

No, it isn’t. And yes, of course it is. If it’s true of my love for my child, how much more true is it of God’s love for us?

All New People, by Anne Lamott, North Point Press, 1989.

Anne Lamott has done it to me again. The book may be 20 years old, written about a childhood 50 years ago, but the feelings and experiences of vulnerability, heartache and broken human relationships are as fresh as ever. All New People is the story of Nanny Goodman growing up in Marin County in the 1960s, with off-kilter parents and a clash between the tennis club perfection (and imperfection) and the leftist/hippie counterculture. We read Nanny’s perspective on the complicated and changing adult relationships with her parents, relatives and friends as she navigates her own attempts at relationships and growing selfhood.

This book spoke to me on a deep level. I was in tears before I even reached the first chapter. The prologue takes place in a hypnotist’s office, where grown-up Nanny has gone to find healing for her “anxiety, melancholia, fears of loss, rejection, death, humiliation, suicide, madness…” (6). The hypnotist asks her to scroll back through her life’s most painful memories, one by one, as though viewing each as a snapshot and analyzing the poses. She goes back to the very beginning, one of her earliest memories of pain, and then the hypnotist instructs her to help her child-self through each situation, offering words of comfort, healing, humor and forgiveness.

Nanny’s walk through her life’s painful moments became my walk through mine. There are painful memories in my life that I cling to fiercely, angrily. I have protected my anger in those moments like it is the only thing guarding my child-self from complete collapse. Probably, it once was. But Nanny’s walk made me realize that there is another way to protect the young girl in my memories. I don’t need to be angry and defensive on her behalf—perhaps I can just give her what she needed then, to help her out with comfort, healing, humor and forgiveness. Since reading that prologue, I have already begun a process of reviewing my personal painful snapshots, and stepping in to change the picture. I have been carrying these hurts for a long, long time. I already feel like the stone has been rolled away. The age-old anger is starting to abate, and the forgiveness creeping in. It has been a long time coming.

Later in the novel, Nanny describes an moving experience she had in church:

In a way that I’ve never quite understood, the veil tore an inch for me that day, like it does every so often, when in the midst of all that is mundane and day-to-day, there’s suddenly a tiny tear in the veil, and you see the bigger brighter thing, and then the veil repairs itself, and the day goes on as before. (142)

This is a great description of my experiences of holy encounters—but even more, it is what happened to me in reading the prologue of this book. The veil opened for me a tiny bit, and God shone through.

I think it’s Lamott’s perspective on life that opens my heart through her words. She just puts everything out there, with an amazing amount of honesty and reality. Things that I dare not speak, she names and pokes at and exposes to light. I think the clue to why and how is in the title line from the book:

I said to her what Ed said to me, which was why do we make it all seem like a crisis, over and over again? Why do we worry it all to death, like dogs with socks or chew-toys? ‘Look at it this way,’ he said to me. ‘In a hundred years? — All new people.’ (117)

In a hundred years, all new people. Or, as Isaiah 40 puts it, “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” So why worry ourselves about these old human hurts? Why delay forgiveness? “Comfort, comfort O my people.”

Once again, art is healing. Thank you, Anne Lamott.

Thanks for taking us back, Nomar. Red Sox Nation never stopped loving you. We mourned when you got traded. We wanted you to get a World Series ring. We followed your career, injury after injury, and wished life was different. Yet in the end, in spite of being let go and left out by the owners and GM, you still love us, and love the Red Sox life and lore as much as we do. And today, I’m sure I’m not the only one who cried tears of joy to see you come home, to stay.

I wish I was following the lectionary in my preaching this week, because the Gospel story is about the prodigal son. I think there’s something in the Nomar story that connects somehow. He’s the father, not the son—the one whose love persists in spite of rejection, scorn and abuse; in spite of seeing his fortunes lost and his prosperity ended; in spite of harsh judgment by youth who acted as though his hard work and contributions no longer mattered. Yet still he loves, practices grace and forgiveness for past hurts, and yearns for reconciliation and to be a part of the family again.

Ok, it’s not a perfect allegory, but there’s still something there. And #5 is back in the family, reunited with us, so we can all enjoy the party.

We love you, No-mah Gah-cia-pah. You belong in Boston, in a Red Sox uniform, at Fenway Park.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

Helpful Hint

If you only want to read regular posts, click the menu for Just Reflections. If you only want to read book reviews, click the menu for Just Book Reviews.

RevGalBlogPals

NetGalley

Member & Certified Reviewer

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,662 other followers

%d bloggers like this: