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A high school classmate of mine died last week. Now that my classmates and I have entered our mid-50s, the death of a peer, though still upsetting, maybe has a little less shock value than a couple of people who died already in their 20s or early 30s. Still, in an era where many live vibrant lives well into their 80s, dying at 55 is a source of sorrow. Actually death at any age is a source of sorrow.
This particular classmate—who I will call Jean—was not someone I knew very well (if at all really). In a graduating class of about 280 few if any people knew everyone beyond maybe their names. But I do remember Jean. I remember that she was almost always alone. She was often attired in clothing that seemed a little shabby and she was regarded as overall quite unattractive. Although she often seemed to have a wan smile on her lips, I mostly recall her as walking with her head slightly down. I cannot recall ever hearing her speak in any class I took with her. I am not even sure how often (if ever) I or the other friends of mine with whom I hung out ever so much as greeted her in the hallways.
And I would like to tell you that when in PE class we did a unit on Square Dancing (the only co-ed unit we did) that I was not among my male peers who made a big show of it—a big negative show of it—whenever one of us was due to Do-Si-Do or Promenade with Jean. I would like to be able to tell you I did not behave in ways that made Jean feel bad. But I am pretty sure my non-verbals matched those of my male classmates who acted like touching Jean was odious.
Jean’s death coincided with Joe Biden’s getting into the presidential race. A lot of the early talk about Biden was that he has the advantage of long experience and of having a record. Then again, he has the disadvantage of having a record. Inevitably things he used to believe in—but may not now—or actions he took or words he spoke or his behavior with Anita Hill come back as talking points and as potential sources of critique or judgment.
Then again, who among us is any different? All of this also coincided with my co-teaching a class this Spring on the Psalms. Several of my students wrote their required sermon for the course on Psalm 130 and took special note of the verse “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, who could stand?” All things being equal, we all have a record. All things being equal, none of us could stand on that record.
Most of our lives have enough past shabbiness as to cause deep embarrassment now as well as chagrin, sorrow. “Regrets, I’ve had a few but then again, too few to mention.” So crooned Frank Sinatra in the song “My Way.” Maybe it’s the Calvinist in me but the regrets I have are more than a few and I don’t think I can do away with them by refusing to mention them. Those regrets come back at me all on their own whether I mention them to myself or to anyone else or not.
I gather that Jean got married eventually. She had a life after high school, was involved in her church, and had—I hope—friends. I hope others were kind to her in ways my teenage self was unable to muster.
“If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” How often do we realize that our ability to serve God and honor God in our lives is premised upon and founded on God’s ability to forgive our past record of sins? If we have faith and if we manage to live lives of discipleship (however bumbling), it is far from an accomplishment of our own. It is a gift. It is a gift that renews life and gives us a shot at becoming the kind of people we all wish we had been all along but mostly were not (and too often still are not).
“With you, O God, there is forgiveness.” This Hebrew poet was saying more than he knew. Only those of us who now stand on the other side of the cross and resurrection can fully appreciate the depths of that forgiveness and what it cost God. That gracious forgiveness is our very life now. And with that renewed life even those of us with oft-shabby past records can serve God with reverence and with awe.
Thanks be to God.