When I was young, perhaps five or six years old, a religion teacher was once trying to teach my classmates and me about sin, what it was, what it looked like. She held up a clean white sheet of paper to represent our souls, pure and spotless. She then took a pencil, drew circles on the paper, and filled them in. The circles were of various sizes. She showed us the paper again and told us this was what our souls looked like after sinning. Our souls, no longer pure, contain dark spots, the products of our sinning. Finally, she took her pencil and used the eraser to remove the spots she had drawn. Holding the paper up for us to see once again, she said this is what our souls look like after God has forgiven us. The teacher didn’t speak about the effect our sins have on the lives of others; there was only me, my sins, and God’s forgiveness. Many years passed before I thought about the victims of my sinning, the effects of my sins on the lives of others. I was thirty-one years old before I asked the simple question—where does sin go. It took a murder and the sermon of a gifted Presbyterian minister for me to ask it.
When I completed my military service, my former wife and I returned to Mississippi from Germany, where I had served as an Operations Sergeant in a nuclear missile unit. Like many young people completing their military service, I was confused about what I wanted to do, about what I wanted to be. I was admitted to Mississippi State University’s pre-veterinary program. My wife, who had interrupted the pursuit of her art degree when we got married, decided to complete it at MSU.
It didn’t take me long to realize I was not suited to be a veterinarian. I dropped out the second semester. The following year I reentered the University to study philosophy. In the meantime, my wife had diligently pursued her art studies, having decided to get her degree in painting. MSU is the state’s land-grant college. Traditionally, its programs have focussed on agricultural studies, farming, poultry science, animal husbandry, that sort of thing. But my wife was fortunate in finding dedicated and talented staff in the art department. She especially enjoyed classes she took with a young artist and printmaker. Our family and his became friends. After MSU, we moved to Philadelphia where I had been awarded a Fellowship in Philosophy by Temple University.
In Philadelphia, each year, we would receive a letter from the artist’s wife. She would bring us up to date about her children, herself, and her husband. We enjoyed these annual updates. They arrived like clockwork each year. But then one year, a letter didn’t come on schedule. We didn’t worry about it too much, figuring their family, like ours, was busy, caught up in the busyness of academic and work life. We were wrong. Three or four months into the new year, we received the long-awaited letter. My wife’s teacher had been murdered New Year’s Eve while taking the family’s dog for a late night walk. The murderers, there were two of them, robbed him, killed him, dumped his body into a garbage bin, and then burned it. We were devastated. It was the first time either of us had ever known and been close to someone who was murdered.
While working on my graduate degree, I had taken some computer programming courses and at the time we received the letter was employed as a programmer by a life insurance company that insured religious professionals. Many of the officers of the company were ordained, Protestant ministers. In my grief over the loss of my friend, I sought their help, their wisdom. I went to one with whom I felt particularly close. I told him that I needed to talk. He offered me a seat and closed his door. I told him about the letter, about what had happened. I said that I found the way my friend had died and the way his body had been treated to be particularly difficult to bear. Grieving, I asked where God was when my friend was being murdered. He looked at me, visibly shaken himself, and said, “He was weeping.”
I didn’t like that answer. I didn’t want God to hurt, to cry. I wanted God to help. My desire, incapable of being fulfilled, was that God had stopped the murderers, that He had prevented the death of my friend. In the days and weeks that followed, I couldn’t get the murder out of my mind, and its effects, not only then, but the impact they would have in the future, and not on me, but rather on the family of my murdered friend. There was a teenage son, losing his father at the time in his own life when he would need him more than at perhaps any other. There was a daughter. I saw her with my mind’s eye, over and over again, walking down a wedding aisle to her waiting groom without her father. There was a young boy, two or three years old, who would never even know his father. There would be grandchildren who would never be held or kissed by their grandfather, who, when they asked about him, would learn that he had been taken away from them in a horrific manner.
I heard about an upcoming talk that one of the great preachers in Philadelphia at that time would be giving titled, “Where Does Sin Go?” That, I thought, that is exactly what I want and need to know. My wife and I went to hear him. He was a Scot, and he spoke with a beautiful, mellifluous voice, English with a heavy Scottish accent. Now, over thirty years later, I don’t remember many of the details of what he said. What I do recall vividly, however, is the image he used for the effects of sin. He spoke of a stone tossed into the middle of a tranquil pond. The stone strikes the water and sinks below the surface; but it sends ripples from the center to the pond’s edge where, reaching the shore and lessening in intensity, they begin to move back to the stone’s entry point.
I don’t know what happened to the murderers: if they were caught, convicted, punished. I don’t care about the pencil marks erased on their souls if indeed they ever asked for or obtained forgiveness from God. What I care about is the question the Presbyterian preacher asked, where does sin go, and the answer to which he alluded. Sin ripples through time; it colors forever the lives of those it touches. In time, the pool disturbed by sin will return to calm. But it can be a long time, a very long time, before that happens. This talk heard so long ago has affected the way I feel about what happens when I sin. My sins are not just about me, about the effects they have on me, about my soul. They are about others, the long-lasting waves my sins cause in the lives of those whom I’ve sinned against. John Wesley, the great Methodist theologian, writer, and cleric had a rule. It goes like this:
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.John Wesley’s Rule
I can think of no better way to try and offset the effects of my sins on the lives of others than to practice this rule as well as I can.
All the best!
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Painting by Artur Markowicz 1872-1934 [Public domain]