Lenten Meditation 12 March 2012
“Now the definition of sin that many of us were given was ’a thought, word or deed contrary to the law of God.’ The requirements for sin were three: (1) you had to have full knowledge; (2) it had to be a grievous matter; (3) you had to give it full consent.… but actually it’s not a definition of biblical sin at all; it’s a juridical definition of law.” (page 78)
Over 45 years ago I served as a clerk for a battalion chaplain when I was in the Marine Corps. The first chaplain I served with was an Episcopalian who had just returned from a tour with Marines in DaNang Vietnam. While he was at Quantico Virginia, Chaplain MacLean worked on occasion with several of the local Episcopal parishes in the area. One Saturday he was working with 6-year-old children and asked them, “What is sin?” The expected answers came out immediately: “It’s when I hit my brother.” When I don’t obey my mother.” “When I do something wrong.” But one child who had been very quiet at first spoke up and said, “It’s the power of me first.” Since I first heard Chaplain MacLean report that story to me in 1966, I have yet to find a better definition of sin.
Father Rohr, the author of our study book Things Hidden, Scripture as Spirituality, takes an entire chapter to explore the question of sin. Chapter 4 is entitled “The Boxing Ring”, which is an appropriate arena for discussion of law and Grace. As does St. Paul, he delves into the argument of how law and Grace are connected and how one leads to the other. In an earlier chapter Rohr discusses spiritual development which begins with “my story” --just me, which moves to “our story” --the tribe or community, and finally to “The story” or “the great patterns which are always true.” That follows my experience with children who from birth to about age 7 live in an age of wonder. At about 7 children move into a real beginning of understanding of self which is an age of black-and-white, right-and-wrong. This is when we really begin to hear, “It’s not fair.” Generally in early to mid-teen years, an understanding of abstract ideas begins to build about the same time a separate identity takes root. Grace is very difficult for those in pre-abstract thought, because Grace violates the fairness principle. How can someone who has done something completely wrong receive forgiveness? It’s not fair. That is the point of the parable of the “Man with Two Sons,” or as I prefer to call the story “The Prodigious Father.” It is the basis of the teachings of Jesus. It is the argument of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Most of us mature during our teen years to at least a rudimentary understanding of abstraction, and those of us who grew up in a worshipping family may have gotten some grip on Grace. Even though we mature, and as some would say progress, most—maybe even all—of us retain something of the wonder of early childhood as well as the legalistic, right/wrong, good/bad, fairness focus. Especially when we have been hurt by another, we tend to revert to a juridical desire to “get even” by seeing the other punished.
Unfortunately, Christians are not exempt from desiring the pound of flesh from those who have hurt us. Whether the “sin” has been a minor slight or a grievous matter, we tend to want to see heads roll, blood spilt, condemnation abound. Most of us are amazed and stunned when we see forgiveness offered in dramatic situations such as happened a few days ago when the mother of one of the teenagers killed at the school in Ohio forgave the shooter, or when an Amish community reached out to the family of a man who had killed about 20 children and then took his own life. How can they do that?
As long as I remain in the position of non-forgiveness, am I not acting/reacting in a “me first” pattern? If this is all about me, am I not as guilty of sin as the one who has sinned against me? Am I willing to allow God’s Grace to penetrate into my soul and touch me? Am I willing to pray “Forgive me my sins only as much as I am willing to forgive others?”
Lent is a wonderful time to reflect on how we both accept God’s love, mercy and grace and offer it to those around us. How can I take one baby step today by offering my forgiveness, my love, my mercy to one who does not deserve it? Remember, it took most of the great saints of the past a long time to move toward an outward manifestation of that which had been growing in their hearts and souls. Remember St. Peter and his repeated “failures,” including his denial of Jesus; remember his wavering over whether Gentiles should be part of the Christian community; but remember at his death he was willing to give his life for his Lord. Baby steps today, but steps none the less.