The really big words.

Sin. Evil. Justice. Redemption. Salvation. I’ve got to admit, even after a significant amount of seminary, I’m not entirely sure what it is we’re talking about when we use these words.  Sure, any one of us could take a vigorous stab at them, talk around them, maybe even rattle off a definition or two, thanks to lectures and chapters tucked away in the dusty recesses of our minds. Some of us will need to do much better even than that when faced with our ordination boards.   Actually, before I came to school, I probably had an easier time of it, defining what these concepts mean.  But I look at them now, and instead of feeling confident in my knowledge, it’s like a mist has floated across my vision and I can’t tell what I’m looking at.  

I’ve been asked by my internship supervisor to reflect on and attempt to answer for our next meeting, “What are the connections between evil, suffering, social justice, redemption, and salvation for you?  How do these understandings shape you as a minister?  How does this inform your interaction with other people?”  I’ll be honest, I put “think about deep stuff” on my to-do list, “due next week,” and left it there.  And now it’s hovering over me, edging in on my thinking and my reading and my time, waiting for me to notice it tugging on my pant leg, asking for attention.   I know there are connections.  I even know that they’re important, central, essential, to how I see the world and live within it.  These aren’t questions you just ask as an academic or professional exercise – we ask them all the time, with every important life decision we make, every time we watch the news or see a film or hear about the death or illness of someone who has touched our lives.  

I suppose the only way I can begin to think and feel around this problem is to ask myself, “What makes me question that God exists? And what gives me some certainty that, in fact, God does exist and is, further yet, good, despite those questions?”  I have to confess, a lesson I’ve learned quite well recently is that evil, or badness that hurts other people and the world and is opposed to who we know God to be, is rather harder to point out than I’d thought before.  I’ve learned quite well that sometimes good people do pretty awful and hurtful things, while “bad” people pretty regularly do kind and generous ones.  I hesitate to call any person “evil.”  Sinful, now that’s a different story altogether.  It seems like pretty much every one of us walks away from what we know is right, often intentionally, with some regularity.  Willfulness, even.  Panache.  Intention.  There are times, specific choices I’ve made, when in my mind I’ve walked in a particular direction, making a very specific choice, and imagined myself sticking my tongue out at God.  “Nanana-nanana.  You can’t stop me, just watch this.”  But I suppose that’s part of the answer to the question, isn’t it?  The fact that I can intentionally choose, in a moment of pique or misguided independence to give my Creator, the maker of the universe, the spiritual finger… and yet still exist, be allowed to learn from it, is grace indeed.  Justice is the correction of it, the hard realization of how stupid or cruel or inhuman I looked while doing it.  The pain of realizing how far off I was.  The shame of it.

I’ve worked in the area of relationship violence for a while, beginning with my first year in college.  At first, I got involved with rape crisis because I was lonely, away from home for school, and thought that the girls in National Organization for Women, a club associated with the rape crisis facilitators’ group, were cool and might make good friends.  I was a pretty vanilla kid from nowhere Ohio, and they were (it appeared to me) cosmopolitan, hip, interesting women whose innate coolness might with some luck rub off on me.  My selfish motives led me into a career where I actually found value, deep friendships, meaning, and excitement, as well as a developing understanding that there are many ways human beings like to hurt one another, as well as diverse and incredible ways they find to survive and discover beauty in the ugliness of living.  It led me back to church, and it dragged me to my utter surprise into recognizing a call to ministry.  Now, that’s gotta be redemption.  Out of my selfishness and deep loneliness, my lack of self-identity and confidence, God made a way for me to live with meaning.  

Further yet, out of the times when I’ve strayed away from the way, making terribly destructive personal choices or making apparently good decisions out of intensely selfish motivations or striving to enforce my own fickle will on mapping the direction of that path, God’s still somehow been able to bring me back.  Not always to the same place I would have been before, but somewhere for my good.  Like Tim Gunn says, God “makes it work.”  This gives me hope for the people in my life who make me want, even need, to believe in hell, in a place where the baddies suffer.  If God’s looking out for this vanilla girl with no apparent magically special characteristics or goals, watching what I’m doing and paying enough attention that I’m getting guided and helped along my stumbling way, then I absolutely have to believe that the same God’s got an eye on the ones who are doing serious damage to themselves and others even beyond what I’ve been capable of so far.  Gotta believe it.  Which means they’re getting second and third chances, too.  I hope it’s true.  I think it must be.  It seems as though our motivations don’t really matter much to God… just that we’re human and somehow mysteriously special.  And that, friends, is salvation.


1 Comment »

  1. April Blaine Said:

    “God made a way for me to live with meaning.”
    What a beautiful way to think about salvation.

    Thanks for this. Much of my own struggle lately has been around these same questions. And whether or not my lack of articulate answers means I should start running the other direction and pick a new career… 🙂
    Good to know we’re both writing what the other person needed to here!

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