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Thoughts From Kathleen Norris

Dear Friends,

Today’s ‘thought’ comes from an engaging book called “Amazing Grace – A Vocabulary of Faith” by Kathleen Norris who “returned to the Christian church after many years away.” She had struggled with what she called, “the scary vocabulary” used when she grew up in the church – judgment, wrath, dogma, sinner, salvation, reprobate – which to her had “abstract meanings that were all but impenetrable.” It was only upon reconsidering these words, and wrestling through them, that they eventually “could confer their blessings and their grace,” and she returned to the church.

In today’s selection she considers the words “sinner” and “wretch,” tracing the origins, changes through history, and both the personal and theological implications. In some cases, she and I arrive at different conclusions, but I do enjoy the challenge of looking at things from her perspective – as a prodigal much like me, who returned home to the Father’s house after years of straying. Enjoy.

“To see myself as a sinner is simple enough… “a transgressor against the divine law” (Oxford English Dictionary). If I care to pay attention, which I usually do not, I can find all too many ways in which I transgress regularly against the great commandment to love God with all my heart and soul, and my neighbor as myself. On a daily basis, I fail to keep the balance that this commandment requires of me…

I often find myself laughing in church, laughing at myself, when I hear Paul’s epistles read aloud. He begs the Ephesians, for example, to patiently bear with one another, with all humility and gentleness, in love (Eph. 4:2). My ‘ready for a fight’ soul perks up at this – my impatient, ungentle, unhumble self… The efficient little mocker within scoffs at the very idea – calls it rank idealism – even as my conscience admits that, yes, I could do better.
Paul’s assertion in Romans that, ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:23) seems easy enough to believe when I look around and read the news. Other people most certainly fall short. But myself? It is tempting to take the pharisaical route and judge myself to be morally sound, not like ‘them’ – whoever they may be. Conversely, I might believe myself to be such a dreadful sinner as to be beyond remedy. Redemption is for ‘them.’ The lucky ones. And all that is left for me is to wallow in despair. To admit to being no more, or no less, than an ordinary sinner is not comforting, and it does nothing to foster my self-esteem. It is easiest simply to reject the whole concept as negative and old fashioned.

I am a sinner, and the Presbyterian church offers me a weekly chance to come clean, and to pray, along with others, what is termed a ‘prayer of confession.’ But pastors can be so reluctant to use the word ‘sin’ that in church we end up confessing nothing except our highly developed capacity for denial. One week, for example, the confession began, ‘Our communication with Jesus tends to be too infrequent to experience the transformation in our lives You want us to have,’ which seems less a prayer than a memo from one professional to another. At such times I picture God as a wily writing teacher who leans across a table and says, not at all gently, ‘Could you possibly be troubled to say what you mean?’ It would be refreshing to answer simply, ‘I have sinned.’

The word ‘wretch’ has taken two paths to arrive at current English usage… In Old English it had a somewhat romantic connotation: a ‘wretch’ was a wanderer, an adventurer, a knight errant. In Old Teutonic, however, a wretch meant an exile, a banished person, and it is there that the word’s negative connotations begin to haunt us. The word as used today means not so much one who has been driven out of their native land, but one who would be miserable anywhere. To some extent we have internalized the word to mean someone who is exiled from being at peace within the self. A ‘wretch’ may designate someone who is materially poor and unfortunate, but it also means a person who is inwardly hapless and pathetic.
The word ‘wretch’ then, does not paint a picture of who we want to be. Or who we think we are. The word has become so unpopular in recent years, in fact, that people began complaining about its appearance in the first verse of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ – ‘Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.’ Some hymnals have taken out the offending word, but the bowdlerized version of the text that results is thoroughly wretched English, and also laughably bland… ’Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved someone like me.” Someone? Anyone? Anyone home?

Is there a fabled ‘someone’ who only thinks of good things in the middle of the night, who never lies awake regretting the selfish, nigh-unforgivable things that he or she has done? Maybe the subconscious of some people really does tell them that they’re okay all the time. Maybe there are people who are so thoroughly at home in themselves that they can’t imagine being other than comfortable, let alone displaced or wretched. But I wonder. I suspect that anyone who has not experienced wretchedness – exile, wandering, loss, misery, whether inwardly or in outward circumstance – has a superficial grasp of what it means to be human.

People want grace, it seems, and will admit to being ‘lost’ and ‘blind’ in John Newton’s fine old hymn. But don’t ask them to admit that it might take the knowing of oneself as a ‘wretch’ to truly know grace for the wonder that it is. Don’t expect them to offer mercy to the wretched of the world, following Christ’s commandment to feed the hungry, tend the sick, clothe the naked, and visit those in prison. ‘Let them help themselves. I did. I became someone.’ It seems to me that if you can’t ever admit to being a wretch, you haven’t been paying attention.”

Just some food for thought, Pastor Jeff


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