I still remember stealing a shiny Spanish coin from Bob May’s basement. I was probably about 10. Bob had scads of them, so I reckoned he wouldn’t miss one. If I had asked, Bob probably would have given me a coin, but I didn’t ask. I just took one. It burned a hole in my pocket until I returned it to its place on his basement floor.
I long ago came to the conclusion we are all a combination of good and evil. We do not just commit sins of omission. We commit sins of commission, and we do it throughout our lives. Sometimes we put the coin back. Sometimes we do not.
I do not think Evangelical Christianity prepares us for the reality that we are never going to be perfect as Jesus is perfect. In the misguided notion that we can attain something close to sinless behavior, we end up focusing on specks and ignoring logs. We do not embrace and accept our full humanity. As a result, our failure to be superhuman results in deep-seated shame.
The truth is we all juggle the relative merit of various values and make decisions that leave logs sticking out of our eyes. When we make believe the logs of others are worse than our own, it is a vain attempt to climb into the clouds where we can live among the gods, passing judgment on mere mortals, negating the messiness of our own humanity.
I used to do adoption casework and would routinely ask people to tell me their greatest flaws. Most people had no trouble. Evangelicals balked. At first I thought they were reticent to admit their flaws. Eventually I realized many believed they had overcome theirs. The avoidance of their humanity made it difficult to evaluate their fitness as parents.
In East of Eden, John Steinbeck paints a fascinating portrait of twin brothers. One seems removed from the reality of his emptiness, while the other despises his own tendency toward the profane, while mistaking his brother’s pseudo-morality for piety. My good friend, Jen Jepsen (jenniferjepsen.org) wrote about the book last week in her journal. Her words are perfect:
Why is timshel (a Hebrew word in the novel) so important? I already believe in choice, but do I get the weight of the power? There is evil but we aren’t powerless over it. There is suffering, but we aren’t powerless over it. We have a choice, a constant choice. Do I choose greatness, in the form of choosing good over evil?
There are abundant, if not infinite implications here. We are each in copious supply of good AND evil. This is illustrated in the character of Cal. Aron chooses to walk the pious path, which eliminates him from the beauty of humanity, while Cal is fully aware of his sides and fully baffled by why he does what he does (Rom 7).
In Evangelical Christianity we’ve been dumbed down to this belief in holiness and perfection, so we strive and strive – we have a pile of Arons, but what about the Cals? Well, these are the beautiful multi-faceted souls who provide us with art, music, truth and redemption. These are the souls who fill churches like Highlands (the church Jen and I attend.) These are the souls who can climb into the depths with another, for they have been there.
I have no interest in accountability groups and prayer circles whose aim is to rid me of my poor choices (sin). These will only feed my Aron. I want the wrestle that renders me with a limp, like Jacob, like Cal. This is the greatness, the depth.
One of the blessings of becoming a pariah is that you quit striving. Transitioning and losing almost everyone and everything gifted me with a necessary holy defeat. I would not have chosen it, but I have come to receive it as a gift.
Walking with a limp helps me walk more slowly. I see my sins more clearly. There are so many. Lately I have been remorseful about not coming out earlier in support of LGBTQ people. I am embarrassed by my lack of integrity.
I am not, however, embarrassed by my humanity. I feel guilt where it is due, but I no longer feel shame. It is good to be human, and broken, and defeated, and redeemed. Jen is right. Therein lies the greatness, the depth.
And so it goes.
4 thoughts on “Merely Mortal”
I recently visited the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. The monks there spend most of the day following a routine involving early rising, prayer several times a day, silence, efforts to support themselves, meals, thn bed. I’ve known other religious people, Jesuit priests and Lutheran monks. I’ve also encountered people who have not physically isolated themselves but who have closed themselves off to ideas from the world for religious reasons. I am a community judge at Christian speech and debate contest every year. The competitors are home-schooled middle school and high school students. Some give speeches that reflect their refusal to consider ideas that challenge some of the doctrines they believe. One student, for example, began his speech denouncing statistics. Knowing how statistics can be misleading or worse used to mislead, I looked forward to hearing what he had to say. But, he soon said that he knew nothing about statistics. He was givng an informative speech about statistics, but he knew nothing about the subject. What said was how statistics were used to determine the age of dinosaur bones, and concluded statistics were a tool of Satan. Statistics predicted climate change–wrong again. I am guessing he did not have a problem driving home in his car or talking on his cell phone. Your post calls to mind cloistered virtue. It’s a problem addressed in a book I loved years ago, called The Glass Bead Game. While I admire people’s devotion and passion for living a life that is pure, doing so by not living much of a human life seems as contradictory as denying statistics without knowing anything about the topic or living in isolation while praying for world peace.
Mark, I love the term “cloistered virtue.”
I am coming to recognize that the only choice the church has is to live with the tension of our humanity, embracing it honestly and graciously. I believe the preacher’s job is to exegete culture and human frailty with Scripture so that bridges are built from the Bible to our day to day lives, meeting and serving people where they/we are and helping them/us move forward with God instead erecting barriers, walling them/us out from hope and redemption.
Pope Francis has recently written a 260 plus page paper entitled “On Love in the Family”. There he writes these helpful words, “By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God.” He further states, “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness.” These words, as yours, I believe, provide us all with hope. Thanks for your good words week after week.
At the church I attend we are suffering through a year long series of sermons on holiness. We are encouraged to strive for a perfection we cannot attain while apparently ignoring the suffering of those around us–oh yeah, we’re supposed to drag them to church so they can be fixed. Please! I know of one young lady who’s in the midst of a divorce who had to leave because she has no support system in the church in which she grew up. How sad… I’m close to moving on myself. I’m a little jealous that you and Jen get to worship will real people every Sunday at Highlands.