Recent front-page story in the newspaper of a city that's increasingly hard to shock: The 35-year-old mother (let's call her "Samantha") lived in a poverty-bitten neighborhood in the once fair metropolis of Philadelphia, erstwhile stomping ground of George Whitfield and his evangelistic road show. The Apocalyptic writer might simply have said, "where Satan has his throne."
It's a new story, it's an old story. And you can go back with it as far as you want. The Philadelphia Inquirer takes it two generations-to the mother of Samantha who, for whatever reasons of her own, did not, would not, dispense the love and food five children craved. To the revolving door of social workers and foster homes and discipline by extension cord. To the 38-year-old savior with a line and a promise, leaving Samantha 16 and pregnant. Then 17 and pregnant.
When he is history, she moves in with another man, age 40, who sires three more children and in turn inexplicably disappears from the narrative, leaving Samantha once again alone-unless you count five children.
Let us suppose Samantha loved her children back then, biologically hard-wired as we "mammals" are to love our children, though even this is known to falter in severe times (Lamentations 4:3), and in particular as the last days come and love runs cold (Matthew 24:12). Let us suppose she wanted for them all she did not get herself.
Enter a sister's boyfriend with cocaine and a pipe. She tries it, it feels good. The first hit is free, the second you pay for. Bags at $5 and $10. First it's once or twice a week, soon it's "copping" her own stuff on the street corner. Then it's siphoning her public assistance checks from her children's mouths to her habit.
Who knows where one begins the downward slide? One bad little choice at a time, each so quiet, so understandable, so forgivable in itself and under the circumstances.
Who can speak of causes? The man begets the child begets the man. Sin begets sin begets sin. The grandmother's fault? Boyfriend A? Boyfriend B? Samantha? As my husband used to say, no sin is ever more than 49 percent the other fella's fault.
If you want to talk about causality, it's just Matthew 18 all over again-the assorted stumbling blocks to children. Lots of blame to go around. The "causer" is consigned to something worse than death by drowning, but the "little one" has sinned indeed. Little abused Samantha, modern psychosocial theory notwithstanding, has grown up and done evil in the sight of the Lord. And here is what she's done, as the story unravels in my morning paper's special report:
On Sept. 16, 1997, the decomposed body of 5-year-old "Charlene" is unearthed from a shallow grave under the basement steps of her mother's house. Not much remains but a T-shirt with orange and white stripes covering the torso, slacks with a Pocahontas print, and a little blue plastic barrette. The medical examiner writes "homicide by unspecified means" in her report, though the deduction is that the young girl died of starvation.
The doctors say death came in anywhere from three days to three weeks. First, the child would have lost weight, her muscles would have wasted away, she might have suffered diarrhea, immune system failure, a lapse into unconsciousness. There would have been a lot of pain.
Samantha, finally tracked down through a Salvation Army shelter she had run to, confesses to a tale of drugs and abuse. Was Charlene dead or alive when you put her in the basement, comes the question. "Alive." The reader is left to flesh out the sketch. Perhaps the child was being punished. Perhaps she was forgotten.
One recoils. One turns to thought of the surviving children,
7-year-old "Devon," rushed off to Children's Hospital, found with lacerations and bruises consistent with child abuse and lashing by rope and hairbrush. One thinks of generations not yet born, the children of Samantha's children.
And here is the kicker to the story: If Samantha has really repented of her sins right there in the Philadelphia Industrial Correction Center, as the article goes on to suggest she has, then the blood of Christ is deep enough and wide enough to cover them all. Not one of them will be remembered. She is a new creation, washed and rerobed and endowed with the full inheritance of the saints. And that, my friend, is the scandal of grace, the rock of stumbling, the offense of the gospel. It is the grace that saves you. The grace that saves me.