I don't want change you,
I don't want to change your mind
I just came across a manger
Out among the danger
Somewhere in a stranger's eye
- Damien Rice, “I Don’t Want to Change You”
As often happens with me, I encountered Rice’s “I Don’t Want to Change You” and became a WEE BIT obsessed recently. For some reason the song made me think about sin. That may also have to do with a conversation I had this morning with my buddy Ronnie. We were meeting for our Friday coffee at Panera and going through a Henri Nouwen book on Spiritual Formation. Somehow the conversation turned to sin. We were probably talking about transparency and the importance of sharing not just our sin, but also our achievements. But as we got to talking I was speaking about my view of sin. I don’t think it is so much strange as it is pretty well thought out. So, imagine a box within a box, something like this:
SIN FOR SOME PEOPLE
So, it is kind of easy to explain. Inside the small box is this group of things that is basically always sin for all people. Inside the larger box are things that are sometimes sins. What I mean by that is that either depending on the situation it may be sin for a person or not; or it may be sin for one person, but not for another. An example of the first is something like negotiation with someone holding hostages. Normally it’s not okay to lie, but to save lives a person may need to say some things that are untrue. In the second category I usually use the same example: if you’re an alcoholic, it’s a sin to pick up a drink. If you’re not, and you are going to simply have a glass of wine with your meal and are not hiding anything, it’s probably not a sin. In other words, there are things that are specifically a sin for me that are not a sin for you, because of what is going on in my life.
Now, I realize that to some people this is not kosher. Some of you may think that I am off my rocker and that this is dangerous thought. But let’s put this in perspective; theologically you are already choosing to ignore certain Scriptures: you eat bacon cheeseburgers, you wear cotton-polyester blended sweaters, you let women lead Bible studies that men attend, you allow women to wear make-up, you don’t throw sinners out of your congregation. But we are comfortable with this, because they have been systematized. Because we all do those things, it’s all of a sudden a different scenario. Since we collectively ignore those things it must be fine, but don’t start introducing new nuances.
But me being who I am, of course I’m going to buck up against that notion. Rules are rules for a reason, but sometimes rules prohibit true versions of truth, justice, love and mercy. But I digress. This was not where I was originally headed, but, hey, it’s free of charge theology for you to ponder.
Where I was headed was this – there is a grace in sin that we don’t often comprehend.
Oh geez. Now I’ve offended some more people and have put myself back on the fringe. But hear me out. First, there are others who agree with me, and second, I’m not saying what you think I am saying.
Richard Rohr says it like this: "When we fail we are merely joining the great parade of humanity that has walked ahead of us and will follow after us." He cites one of the saints that talks about the gloriousness of sin. This references not so much that the action of sin is great, or that there is great pleasure in sinning. What it refers to is that there is this amazing impartation in the midst of sin that drives us back to God.
That is what I like about this Damien Rice lyric: "I just came across a manger/Out among the danger/Somewhere in a stranger's eye." I’ve been there. I’ve found love in the most of mysterious places. I’ve found the grace of God strongly in the midst of such overt failure and self-imposed exile that I cannot deny that my sin is what drew me into His arms. There comes a time and place in many lives where all of the things that work simply fail. We cannot make things work; things fall apart; you hate life; you don’t know how you can even rise again to face another day. This is humanity. This is reality. This is the pain that it is to be frail, to be human.
But when we reach bottom we find this hand extended down to us, and that hand is battered, bloody and holy (holey?). Only then, at the end of all our life has become, do we allow the true grace and mercy of God, the truth that we have proclaimed across the mountain tops to burrow into the depths of our souls. We do not find God in the midst of the mountains—we merely find glimpses of Him. But then, at the end of our reckless desires and insatiable desire He reaches down to us.
This is not to deny genuine experiences of God in the best of times, but to say the ultimate goal is not perfection. We can achieve perfection very much without God. We can check off our lists and demonstrate our faithfulness. We can proclaim that certain activities have sanctified us beyond anything we could have dreamed. However, ultimately if this is our reliance it will fail.
What will not fail is the infiltration of God into the midst of our real life: the messy, the dirty, the destitute, the hidden and dark places. And as the rays of His sunlight consume those places we find that the drity and the dank become sweet smelling and the very places that bring us true joy. Once we realize the true mess we are, and once we realize that we cannot wield the broom and mop; once we hand those things over and sit in the corner as God does His work, we become who we were always meant to be.
Do not despise your weakness, your dirt, your curmudgeonly spirit, but allow it to be the very grace that you need.