My first experience with sin and repentance came in the 3/4th grade. I grew up in an anti-religious household so I had limited experience with these concepts. I had a little Gideon I’d read on my own and a little book of children’s Bible stories, probably smuggled to me by my grandmother who was Catholic. Sin was not really my biggest takeaway.
Then I spent a year in a Mennonite school in a rural town in Puerto Rico.
I think most of the teachers were actually Catholic which might account for some of the odd theological dissonance. This town had a Mennonite church and Mennonite Hospital and a Mennonite School. It’s a rural town in the center of the island where Mennonite missionaries had made quite an impact on the community, particularly around healthcare. They were the only white people in this area and they had a long history of involvement and earnest efforts. My feelings about being a subject of mission are still complicated.
This was my first year being in school in Puerto Rico and the Mennonite school was a bilingual private school which was expected to help ease my transition into the educational system. My parents were willing to overlook the mandatory Religion class and chapel attendance. I memorized a few unremarkable scriptures and participated in silly skits as required. I colored pictures of Jesus. I mostly enjoyed chapel: the singing and the praying were fun.
Then came sin.
It was sometime during Lent, which now in hindsight seems odd since the Mennonite church hasn’t traditionally been big on Lent. Nonetheless, we plunged into darkness so to speak. The 3rd and 4th graders were being led to a classroom where they went in to speak with one of the teachers and then came out crying 9 out of 10 times. I was perplexed. I had no idea what was going on. What on earth are they doing to kids in there!? I know it’s not shots because we have to have signed permission for that. Why is everybody crying?!
Finally one of my friends had the answer. It’s because of sin.
That answer left me even more perplexed.
What? Sin? Hunh?
My friend proceeded to explain to me how sin is when you do these bad things and then you have to repent and tell God you are sorry because you have been so very bad.
My innocent response was, “but I haven’t been bad!”
My friend thought about this and said yeah, you probably haven’t sinned because you are so good.
I remained confused.
My friends were all good too. Why were they crying?! They hadn’t murdered or coveted or any of those other commandments. I guess it was bit mean of my one friend not to share her crayons with me but she wasn’t BAD.
The tears were followed by sincere apologies from classmates all around. Everybody had something to repent of. I’m sorry I pulled your hair. I’m sorry I called you a bad name. I’m sorry I didn’t share my cookies with you.
I was still really confused by this odd love and snot fest.
I didn’t quite grasp the concept of sin as it was being presented to me for years to come. Not that I thought I was without faults. I had plenty of reminders that I was far from perfect: I had a smart mouth, my hair had a way of getting messy within minutes of getting put up, my handwriting was a disaster, I didn’t help enough around the house… the list goes on. But I had in me a sense that, despite all the mixed messages, when it came to God, I was Good. I loved people. I was usually kind. I was nice to animals. I was nice to my little cousins even when they broke my stuff. I was smart. I always did my homework. And I wanted to know God. Wasn’t that enough?
I am grateful for my bewilderment. I managed to escape a theology of sin even with my participation in Catholic youth retreats that I won’t even get into right now! I managed to sidestep the whole guilt and shame theology somehow.
In my time as a hospital Chaplain, I ran into a number of patients whose main concerns were sin and salvation- two areas where I am far to the theological left. I had one patient who was facing a potentially terminal diagnosis angsting over the biblical implications of organ donation. I had another patient who was a frequent visitor to the hospital call me for an urgent visit because she’d been cranky with the nurse who was hurting her by cleaning an open wound and had even said a bad word. I prayed with people who wanted to make sure they would be washed of their sins. I anointed foreheads with oil and I blessed. And my heart broke for people.
My heart breaks that we have put such a focus on sin that we leave grace out of the picture. We seem to swing to far either direction because that sweet spot in the center is so hard to sustain.
I have come to understand sin as incongruence or separation. Repentance leads to restoration and to reconnection. Not to guilt, condemnation or shame. If it doesn’t free us up to be in loving relationship with God and each other, then it’s not a spiritually healthy practice. Jesus came that we should have LIFE abundantly, not guilt, not shame, and not self-righteousness.
I pray that we be guided by the Holy Spirit to examine those parts of our lives where we feel disconnection, and to bring Her light and wisdom to bear that we may be more loving of God, of ourselves, and of others!