In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks relates the following: “There’s an ancient Jewish tale of a rabbi who came to synagogue with two slips of paper, one in each of his front pockets. In one pocket, the slip read, ‘You are nothing but dust and ashes.’ In the other, the slip read, ‘The world was created for you.’” I am especially reminded of these words as we travel together through the season of Lent.
Lent includes a constant oscillation between life and death, between reminders of our preciousness in the eyes of God and yet our failure to live into God’s hope for the world. We are, indeed, creatures of blessing and sin. At various times in Christian history and in various strands of the Christian tradition, one or the other of these things has been overemphasized.
On the one hand, very many Episcopalians were raised in other religious traditions that accentuate sin to the point of crushing hope and instilling a self-loathing that has no valid place in the hearts of God’s children. I have heard the story countless times from those who have found refuge in the Episcopal Church, where we are told in boldness and truth that God loves us fiercely and is, indeed, doing greater things through us than they can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).
On the other hand, sometimes we Episcopalian legitimately can be accused of what mid-twentieth century writer Walter Lippmann termed an “easy optimism” that fails fully to acknowledge the fallenness of human nature and the utter devastation we often bring upon one another. Lippmann says that somewhere along the way we convinced ourselves humanity had overcome its destructive tendencies, until events like World War II reminded us that “thinking we were enlightened and advanced, we were merely shallow and blind.”
It is to our peril to ignore either the blessing or the sin in human nature. Sin minus blessing leads to despair, while blessing apart from an acknowledgement of sin leads to pride and blindness to the suffering around us. We humans are a mixed bag, created in God’s very image, but in dire need of saving grace.
“In one pocket, the slip read, ‘You are nothing but dust and ashes.’ In the other, the slip read, ‘The world was created for you.’”
In our present lives, as in the season of Lent, there is no resolution of this tension between blessing and sin. They both exist in us. They are intertwined. They are irresolvable. But what cannot be resolved in us can, ultimately, be transcended. That is what Jesus will accomplish on Easter, just a few weeks away. Then, blessing will triumph over sin; life will have victory over death; and what now deteriorates to dust and ashes will be redeemed in eternal glory. And for that, thanks be to God.