I was raised by a liberal, seminary-educated mother in a liberal United Methodist congregation, and both blanketed me with a theology of a warm, loving God. But the chill of original sin snuck under the covers regardless. How? It’s hard to say. Through the Adam and Eve of popular culture? Through my mother’s foundational guilt and insecurity? Through the Sunday morning stress of getting out the door on time, as though our lives depended on showing up for worship with clean hair and ironed clothes? Regardless, I understood myself to be fundamentally wrong, and faith was the antidote. Every time I screwed up, deliberately hurting my boyfriend, turning my back on a stranger in need, lying to my parents, my “sin” was a guilt-soaked reminder of my hidden, awful nature.
In my early twenties I encountered Matthew Fox’s book, Original Blessing, which exposed the inconsistencies of my faith life. I spent a few years doing theological housekeeping. Humanity’s beginnings, I came to see and know, are infinitely blessed. You are, I am, essentially good. Sure, we all make mistakes, but the life of faith (at least for a good Wesleyan) is dedicated to climbing the ladder of perfection. Besides, God is fantastically forgiving. I threw the doctrine of sin, all its shame-inducing associations, and Jesus’ consequent atonement, out with the bathwater.
Now I am in my late forties. I’m a parent coming to grips with how inevitably I fail my daughter. I’m an author who’s made bad choices in the content and publication of my books. I’m a teacher whose mistakes have large consequences. But these “sins” no longer send me into a cesspool of self-flagellation; my essential identity is solid enough in original blessedness that I’m no longer unseated by my wrongs. In fact, just the opposite is true: When I embrace the inevitability of my brokenness, when I know myself embraced, I experience unprecedented freedom. If there’s no hope of writing the perfect essay, I can do my darnedest because all that really matters is the effort, but I’m freed of any need to control the outcome. If there’s no chance of mastering Christian contemplation, I can show up, do my best at praying, and trust that even my failures—perhaps especially my failures—are how the light gets in.
Way back at the origins of Christianity, our monastic fathers and mothers saw human shortcoming as an opportunity for grace. We’re all Japanese kintsugi, broken pottery mended with gold, made more beautiful by its repair. These days I trust myself to do my best, but when I screw up, I’m grateful for the ways failure transforms me. My brokenness gives me constant opportunities to become more whole. And so I proceed, following Martin Luther’s advice to “Love God and sin boldly.” –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
The spring semester is wrapping up, but there’s still a few opportunities for us to write together! Join me tomorrow, May 19th from 1:30-3:00, to write memories of the natural world, or June 9th from 1:30-3:30 to explore how revision can become a means of spiritual growth, both at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.
May all the blooming energy out in the natural world enter our hearts and creative work!