Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Light and Lint: A Child's Theory of Sin

I remember my parents teaching me that there was no hell. How could there be a God of infinite Love and Forgiveness who would allow such an injustice? When I was a child and I made mistakes, my parents would explain how I was still growing and developing, still learning the skills of how to articulate my concerns, how to coordinate the actions of my body, how to discern. They told me about how natural it was for kids to rebel against authority. They talked about separation-individuation and my need to differentiate myself from their personalities. (I used to read the DSM3-R the way other kids read comic books) Gentleness and kindness were required of me above all else but if I, a child surrounded by love, could sometimes be mean and low, how much harder must it be for children who were surrounded by fear and danger? And they were just children too, as vulnerable and uncertain as I was.

My folks worked with people whose suffering was unimaginable. Child abuse, drug addictions, domestic violence, rape, and poverty can break people. Such people are betrayed by their families and communities and many times, too many times, they betray their own families and communities in return. Is this evil? I don't know how to answer that philosophical question. I do know it is horrible and painful and all too common. These people were part of my life and consciousness. As much as my folks tried to shield me from pain, inevitably, some of it filtered in. I remember my parents leaving for emergency rooms in the middle of the night. I remember tears and frantic voices over the phone and being pulled aside by parishioners to deliver messages I was too young to hear. I knew that some parents beat their children and some daddies beat the mommies. I knew that there were sexual predators in my community and unlike other kids, I knew who some of them were. I knew about drugs and alcohol and suicide.

And I knew that my parents believed human beings were incredible and beautiful and that they did not believe in hell.

Dad used to joke that he would rather do a funeral than a wedding. "At least I know that when I send someone off in a funeral, they're going to a good place."

As a minister, Dad was there at all the life stages of his parishioners. He baptized their babies and confirmed their kids. He performed their marriages and counseled them through hard times (in addition to his M.Div., he also had post-graduate training in psychotherapy). When they grew sick and weak, he stayed by their sides and held many people's hands even as they died. It was in death that he glimpsed divinity most clearly. I asked him if people were scared. He told me that they were scared and angry and hurt but that something happened as the moment of death drew near. Something came and changed them, brought them peace. They relaxed as if into the care of someone else, someone who loved them.

So I was never afraid of hell. If there was forgiveness and care after a lifetime of meanness and misery, then there must be for me as well. All I'd done was punch my sister in the arm. When I was a little girl, I came up with a theory of sin and reconciliation. I thought that we were all sparks of light emanating from the One Light. Each of us came into a body and a human life and from that point forward we began picking up lint like a lifesaver in a kid's pocket. Some of us who landed in good families in good circumstances began picking up pretty pastel lint, all fluffy and warm. Others were not so lucky and the lint we picked up was dirty and sticky, obscuring our light. Throughout life, we roll around from lint to lint...some dirty, some clean, some pretty, some not. And then we die.

When we die, the One Light gathers us in again and gently breathes upon us so that all the lint just blows away revealing the beloved light that is our only true self. As I grew older, I realized that we learn from our lint, these pleasurable and painful experiences of life, but we are not our lint. We are not our experiences, or our fears or our errors. We are not even our intelligence, talents, and passions. We are something more. We are points of brilliance, born and beloved of the One Light and no amount of lint can ever change that.

I try to remember this childhood theory when I confront pain and suffering in the world. I try to remember that when I must confront people whose words and deeds are mean and even evil. The personalities I see in my life and on the news may be evil but the essence of them, the soul of them is not. Whatever ugliness, bitterness, and cruelty I see on their faces is not the true part of themselves. It is not the Sacred Reality of them. If I could see them with God's eyes, I'd see their brilliance. I'd see only their light.


Lone Star Ma said...

I like that.

Daniel Wilcox said...


Thank you for your reflection.

The depth of heartfelt compassion in your post. The vivid images such as we being lifesavers picking up lint!

Your posts nearly always minister deeply to me. (Well the negative title of 5 days ago didn't, but this new post showed, again, your 'Dr. Jekyll' inner spirit;-)rather than the other woman.

Your post calls forth so many responses within me, but I will try and keep this relatively short. Remember, my wife invaribly tells me to give her the short version and she can ask questions if she wants more:-)

>>I remember my parents teaching me that there is no hell.

I would presume they meant there is no literal Calvinistic-Jonathan Edwards-Hell.

Thank God!

Given their extensive work with individuals suffering from social and personal sin, (and their own spiritual rejection of such wrong choices), I would imagine they and you might agree to some extent with Christians of different religious traditions who realize Jesus, when referring to Gehenna, was using a vivid image to describe the horror of those who choose the wrong, the bad, and the evil. For instance, I am reminded of C. S. Lewis' book The Great Divorce where he pictures Hell as unending London drizzle, his point being not that there is a literal place of punishment--cold and rainy, but that we humans often get caught in our wrong choices which then won't go away, not until we have a turn around and leave London;-).

There is so much more I would like to say. Maybe I will write more to you on Quaker Quaker or write my next blog post on Heaven and Hell.

And I hold you and your family, including your father in the Light.

May you all be lifesavers--and dear Friend that is a 'plain truth.'


Hystery said...

Daniel, your words are always received with thanks. It amuses me to think of myself as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Perhaps you are not far from the mark with that. Intellect and emotion are in a tug-of-war but I like to think that's all for the good since this is the struggle that has kept me spiritually edgy and hungry. I feel compelled to explore areas that frighten me and tilt me toward the cliff. The choice is then to plummet or fly. And though it isn't Quakerly, I like that gamble. Perhaps it is my Scorpio nature to flirt with darkness or maybe just a few too many generations of Calvinist ministers in my ancestry. lol When push comes to shove, Dr. Jekyll always wins out. So no fear.

As for the post of five days ago, was that the one where I call myself an empty, godless Friend? Well, that was a joke really, an indication that only the most cynical, christocentric (in the negative, exclusive sense) would actually find me empty and godless. Perhaps it was a mean joke but sarcasm is one of my vices.

I do believe that we create our own hell (and create it for others as well). As architects of the diabolic, Satan has nothing on us. So amazing to me that in our hands we can hold both evil and sweetness and that we so often choose the former.

My great-grandmother used to tell my mother that she would give up her place in heaven to someone in hell since her life was so full of love she had her turn at heaven already. (She was a good Presbyterian.)

Daniel Wilcox said...

Good Evening Hystery,

Yeah that was the post by you that I found so depressing and hopeless.

I can understand "empty" in the Thich Nhat-Hanh-Buddhist sense. I once wrote a poem about getting rid of church doctrine and my last line was "So empty and satisfied:-)"

On the other hand "godless" and "Presbyterian" both deeply trouble me since they are so hopeless in their doctrine. I seem to attract hard nontheists and 5- point Calvinists who try to convince me of their worldviews sort of like your lifesavers attracted lint;-)
But since I already explained why I hate both views in my blog (Nature of Reality #1 and #2) I won't take up space here.

I will say I agree with John Wesley that I would much rather be "godless" rather than "Calvinistic." I just recently finished "Out of the Flames" the story of Michael Servetus and his execution by the leaders of Geneva including John Calvin. Now there is a case of how a name can symbolize Heaven versus Hell--"John" Wesley with God's infinite love for us versus "John" Calvin
with his limited atonement and double predestination.

Thanks for keeping us on the edge of the cliff in your blogs. Just don't push;-)


Hystery said...

Daniel, I just reread my Empty, Immoral, Godless Friend to see what might have depressed you. The title was cheeky but the rest of the post was meant to affirm that (apart from the games we play with semantics) I am none of those things. I was talking about my amazement at the beauty of life and at my profound sense of divinity. Perhaps someday you could let me know more specifically what bummed you out about it so I can address it.

You're too hard on Presbyterians! (tsk tsk) Presbyterians aren't so bad. All the Presbyterians I know are tolerant, liberal, positive people who do not believe for a moment in the depravity of the human soul. My father preached in Methodist, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian churches. Apart from matters of church organization, I find there to be little difference between Christian Friends' perspectives and liberal Protestant clergy perspectives regarding issues of social justice, human worth, sin, and salvation. Of course there's a great deal of diversity among both Friends and Protestant clergy but I note a tendency toward scriptural readings that lean toward liberationist, post-colonial, feminist, and pacifist. One of the reasons I like Friends is because they remind me of the best of contemporary well-educated Protestantism.

That said, the laity and the popular depiction of Protestantism are typically far more conservative than the ministers I know. There is quite a gap between the clergy's knowledge and that of their flocks. Even so, the grim Calvinist doctrine doesn't have anything to do with what I learned in seminary. Most of the mainline Protestant churches abandoned their dark views of sin long ago. Unfortunately, the unaffiliated, charismatic, and fundamentalist churches are doing a good job of reviving it.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hello again, Hystery,

I'll write later about your EIMGF post.

As for Presbyterians, maybe your east coast ones are different from our west coast ones. I met my wife (to be) at a big Presbyterian church in Southern Cal(before I knew what Calvinism was).

Our Bible study leader there, a woman, held to 5-point Calvinism including the view that it is God's will for every murder and rape which happens, most people are predestined to Hell forever, etc.
When I first heard this,
I fell off my theological floor! That was when I started reading the creeds and theology and discovered that many church denominations, contrary to my own experience, held that God predestined most people to hell.

I hope some day to meet a Calvinist
like your great grandmother. In contrast, nearly all the Calvinists I have dialogued with have been heavy predestinarians who seem to delight in the creed of T.U.L.I.P.

Sadly, almost all of the Prebyterian/Reformed have been intolerant, rigid, and negative.

I'm glad you know some who don't subscribe to the Westminster Confession, the Synods of Dort, etc.

By the way, maybe, you might write a more detailed post about growing up Prebysterian/Congregationalist.

I certainly would be interested in your family's version:-)

In the Light,


Michael Bright Crow said...

Yes, yes, yes!

"...we learn from our lint,...but we are not our lint."

Thank you so much!

Blessed Be,
Michael Bright Crow