Sin, 101: A Fifty-Cent Parable

In a comment thread elsewhere, a thoughtful reader asked me, “What is sin?”

Nothing like three little syllables–nine letters and a fishhook at the end–to get you right in the craw! For the last two weeks (if not for my whole adult life) I’ve asked myself this same question. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. Sin, in theory almost as much as in practice, has occupied both the minds and hearts––and even the best minds and hearts––for … oh, forever.

Who am I, though, to answer this kind of question? To define points of doctrine? In response, I’d rather describe than prescribe, would rather share what my life’s passage has been (and what sin has meant for me), than talking hamartiology, theology and philosophy. Besides, those -ologies can quickly get thick, inaccessible and even explosive––a mine field of semantics.

Instead of going the route of theoretical theology, I’ll break up our discussion on sin into a few simple parts, each post built on a parable taken from personal experience. Then I’ll try to offer a loose definition of some aspect of sin. I hope you’ll come back to leave a comment. I think the comment thread will be better than the posts. (Come back, at least, to hear some great stories.)

Age six

Age six, with ponytail

A 50-Cent Parable

I was six. Laura Nieminen, my friend upstairs in our apartment building, had a fifty-cent coin. It lay there, unattended, on a windowsill in her bedroom while we two sat on her floor playing dolls.

Trying to play dolls, that is. I couldn’t concentrate on a single one of her many Barbies, (I had none, by the way; she had a whole Rockette line-up, so I was feeling deprived,) I was too distracted by that flat silver disc glinting in my peripheral vision. It was magnificent. Magnetic. 

So much so, that when Laura left to go to the bathroom, I couldn’t resist. And why should I resist? I thought. I’ll never really take it. I’ll just touch it for a second, feel its weight, its slick surface, its shininess.

I took it in my hand. It was warm, having lain in the sun by the window.  The heat made it more magical. There it was, solid and glossy in my palm, with that impeccably chiseled JFK profile.

And something in me gave in, stopped resisting, took a step. Quickly, I wrapped the piece in a teeny yellow Barbie doll rain slicker Laura had told me I could have, (“Oh, I’ve got lots others,” she’d said. And that, I said to myself, meant she wouldn’t miss some stupid coin, either. She had more of everything. I had less. Taking it would be justified.)

I slipped the hot wad in my pocket, and took off.

In a dead sprint, I ran out of Laura’s room, out of her apartment, down the hallway, down a lightless stairway, down another hallway, into our apartment, and straight to my bedroom at the end on the right. I shut the door behind me. Panting, and swallowing a surge of something new and electric, I stashed the coin in its shiny yellow packaging way back in a drawer under some cotton underwear. Then I flopped on my bottom bunk, sweaty-palmed and a bit queasy. I was stiff but shaky as I closed my eyes to stare into the dark, swirling pit of what I’d just gotten away with.

Age six, contemplating a bigger heist

Contemplating a bigger heist

Weeks and months went by.  Laura never asked for her coin. This was a relief, because that meant she hadn’t noticed, and if she had noticed, she hadn’t cared. I thought. In my mind, if she didn’t missed it, and no one caught me, then I was off the hook. I’d really not done anyone any harm. I wasn’t bad.I of course never gave the coin back to her. But I never spent it, either. Honestly, I’m not even sure of whatever became of the fifty-cents.

But I know what happened to me. At first, I could think of little else but that coin. That little disc of metal clouded—or better, eclipsed—my other thoughts. And I felt not only less light in terms of luminosity, but I felt less light in terms of weight. I was heavier in spirit—my spindly little six-year-old self—no matter how much I tried to whistle in the dark or how much I smiled as I skipped on the playground.

Skipped, by the way, right past Laura. Because besides taking away my lightness of mind and lightness of spirit, my dishonesty eventually distanced me from my friend. In fact, although I got her yellow Barbie slicker back to her somehow (probably confecting some fib for why I’d run home that day, so stacking another untruth on top of the deceit of stealing) I never went back to her apartment. Never played with her again, in fact.

What’s more, I felt awkward—ill at ease—just looking into the eyes of my parents, my sisters.  Could they see into my eyes? Know what I was hiding in my room, in the back of a drawer, in my thoughts?

This preoccupation meant I was also ill at ease with myself. Because when I did look into my own eyes, (I climbed up onto the cool white enamel bathroom sink to get a good look of myself in the medicine chest mirror rimmed in metal) I thought my eyes looked. . . different? My act split me from myself. I felt regret. Worry. Guilt. I became redefined in my own mind: A girl capable of that.

In so many ways, still that little girl

In so many ways, still that little girl

And over 40 years later, you see it’s still there, that stupid coin, lodged in my memory like a token jammed in the slot of a vending machine. It never bought me what I thought I wanted.  Instead, it cost me, and it still does.

***

Sin, for me, is any deliberate action (and I’ll include thought patterns as actions) that is in opposition to what our most vibrant conscience tells us is right, good and true.  Sin is also stepping over divinely ordained guidelines. Sin leads us away from light, wholeness, peace, and joy. Sin, unresolved, impedes our growth. It is real, omnipresent, and causes misery and death. Avoiding sin eases life. Abandoning sin can be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. But doing so gives life, and that life is both more abundant and freer than any life we’d ever imagined possible.

***

What about this 50-cent Parable rings true or familiar to you? What doesn’t?

What from the concluding “definition” of sin works for you? What does not?

How would you describe or define sin?

Loss and Living Onward. . .To Press

I agree. The cover is elegant. Thank you, designer David Miles.

I agree. The cover is elegant. Thank you, designer David Miles.

In one month my second book, On Loss and Living Onward: Collected Voices, will be in your hands. As I write these words, talented lay-out and cover designers David and Maggie are making last-second tweaks, and sending the manuscript off to press.

Let me admit something: This book has been pushing itself up and out of my very pores for nearly five years.  It’s been close to publication with two other publishing houses. And I’ve been teetering on that slick ledge of giving up on it, oh, 174 times. But I have a persistent (bossy and endearing) cheering committee, and they wouldn’t let me hunker down in the safe retreat of silence.  Finally, this book has found its rightful channel to reach the public.

I am grateful. I am joyful. I am tired.  I am anxious.

Anxious and slightly exhausted smile. . .

Anxious and exhausted smile. . .

When cataclysm erupted in our family’s life, I turned to literature for a community, common experience and spiritual knowledge.  People who know me well know that, with the exception of math, marbled meats and sometimes sleep, I don’t do much half-heartedly. So that same intensity translated into gathering hundreds upon hundreds of statements on loss and grief. Not with a mind to ever publish an anthology, mind you, but with a heart that was stunned to a sputtering speechlessness and needed understanding. I scraped and spelunked through other’s words to speak for and to me. In time, and without having had a plan on the outset to do so, I had the makings of a major tome on grief. Those quotes–at least those for which my publisher could acquire legal permissions– together with 17 of my best personal essays, have evolved into this substantial book. I can hardly wait to get it out there.

I sent a friend and fellow bereaved mother a galley (pre-published) PDF copy. Here’s what she wrote to me just this week:

Dear Melissa,
I’ve had the immense pleasure of spending much of this past weekend with your wonderful book…My husband was not feeling well, so we were both at home, and I read and read.  I can’t tell you how often I picked up my computer and said to my husband, “Read this,”  because you were able to articulate just how I was feeling so much of the time. And you did it so eloquently and beautifully.  You were able to put into words what I felt but could not express and you did this so much better than any other author I have read.
I loved the quotes at the beginning of each section.  I must admit though that I hurried through them so that I could get to your writing.  I do plan to go back and highlight as soon as I get my hard copy.  There were so many wonderful nuggets where I paused and smiled because they nailed feelings I had experienced and interpreted what I was still trying to identify.
One of my favorites was the grief beast section.  My grief beast looks a lot like yours, and now I can put a name and description to it. It’s still lumbering around but it doesn’t come as often as it did before and it doesn’t stay as long.  But I think that now I will talk about that beast to others so they can have a better idea about how awful grief can be.
I can’t imagine how heart wrenching it must have been for you to move to an entirely new country and new community right after Parker’s death.  How did you survive?  I’m so glad that you wrote.  It must have been healing for you, but now it is healing for so many others. Even though you were so alone, you have been able through your writings to reach out to so many.
I’m so grateful that you have such a gift for writing.  All of us who have experienced the loss of a child feel like your book is balm for our grief.  I shed a ton of tears as I read, but I felt so understood and valued. I will read it again and again. Thank you.  Thank you.

You know those emails that make your throat sting and nose prickle like you’d just breathed in a whole room full of dry ice fumes? This one.  If she says it works, I’m convinced. I need that kind of reassurance.  Similar to my fears of publishing Global Mom, I have had some nagging fears for this book, too. What if I turn my son into an artifact? Will I be misunderstood as bitter, gloomy, morbid, or strangely proud of or elitist about our family’s loss? Will my family’s story not be fairly represented? Will I make grief look too easy? Too hard? Too dreamy? Too predictable? Too comprehensible? Too tidy?  Will its most helpful pages not be the ones that were the hardest to write, which were the descriptive ones (my essays), but the most helpful will be the prescriptive ones, which took just a day to whip together (the two appendices with What To Do/ What Not To Do and a suggested readings list)? Will my deep faith and profound, repeated experiences with the spiritual alienate readers who do not, perhaps, consider themselves people of faith, or “spiritual” types? WiIl this book speak with humility the truth I’ve known?

Thank you for visiting the Bradfords. Here, and wherever we are in the world.

 

I’ve run down this list of questions plus a longer one, be assured. But I’ll let you read my writings, and you can decide.

Visit my Loss and Living Onward Facebook Page to find daily updates as well as quotes I could not include in the hard copy itself.

You can preorder now on Amazon, or wait until May 6th to order and receive your stack for yourself and for

US Mother’s Day, May 11th,

and

US Memorial Day May 26th.