There is a story about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, the veracity of which I can neither confirm nor deny.
The Roosevelts were church-going people, Episcopalians actually, but one Sunday morning Eleanor was ill and could not attend, so off Franklin went without her. When Franklin returned home, Eleanor wanted to know about the service, especially the sermon.
“What did the preacher speak on?” she asked. Now FDR was a man of few words. “Sin,” he said.
“Well what did he say about it” asked an exasperated Eleanor.
“He was against it.”
We all are against sin. And yet we continue to fall into it and then beat ourselves up because we did. With Paul we say, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).
But last Sunday in the baptismal confession I heard something I had not heard before, though I have heard it many times.
“When you fall into sin, will you repent and return to The Lord?”
And we respond, “I will with God’s help” (Book of Common Prayer, page 305).
When we fall into sin, not if we fall. There is a recognition by the church that we are going to sin. Not a permission, not an encouragement to sin, not a taking of it lightly, but an understanding about the human condition. No matter how hard we try to avoid sin, of our own volition we are going to make mistakes, do things we wish we hadn’t, not do things we wish we had. We look back on our day during our nighttime prayers and say, “Oh why did I not see it, or not have the courage to live what I did see?”
I am not saying we are born evil; our church teaches, and I believe, that “we are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God” (See the Catechism in The Book of Common Prayer, page 845). The scales of inclination toward good are tipped in our favor. And yet we sin.
Woe is me. How shall I live in this world?
Well I know what my preacher says, and it is this: “Start with God. Don’t start with your broken and sinful experience.”
That’s what baptism is all about. We inhabit our Christian lives in and with and through Christ, who, being fully man, also knew something about sin but testified that God’s love was an overcoming love.
Sin is not our starting point. God’s goodness is square one. Without that, we lead lives of Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” if not downright despair. The end of Thoreau’s famous quote that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” is the less-often quoted, “and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
I refuse to go to the grave with my song unsung; I refuse to let sin win in the end.
I will remember the promises made for me at my baptism and reaffirmed by me with every breath I take. When I fall into sin, I know that my God invites me to repent and blesses me as I return to the Lord, which I do with His help.
Marjorie George is editor of ReflectionsOnline and Reflections magazine. Reach her at Marjorie.firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.