BECAUSE LIFE IS SHORT, I DRIVE WITH TAPES. SO many sermons, so little time. This particular jaunt was to school for an "author's tea" featuring my favorite author-and her 16 1st-grade colleagues. The particular portable pastor en route was preaching about sin (he was against it). "Hate what is evil," quoth Romans 12:9, and I tried to get on board but maybe was just in too good a mood.
Besides, the verse grates, like fingernails across a blackboard. Hate is something terrorists do. Hate-against anything-is increasingly bad form in America (e.g., "hate crime" laws), considered downright hillbilly. If there is a congressman out there who harbors such a flower in the secret garden of his heart, he had better not parade it in public but sublimate the thing with something high-minded, say, indignation. Hate is out; tolerance is in.
At the moment, it was hard to feel anything but gleeful anticipation as I entered Miss Wagner's room 10 for an event that had received top billing at our house for two months now, the culmination of a semester of assiduous phonics and "guess-and-go." The perfect dress had been laid out a week ahead, the book's plot kept so secret that the FBI director should blush. My only role was cupcake-bearer.
In the classroom, chairs had been arranged in a circle, where seating was intuited: parent-child, parent-child-like one of many patterning exercises I'd pulled from the homework folder of the aforementioned author. Spaces filled in quickly for the 9:15 a.m. reading of the junior authors' original bound works. And I in my seat, biding time, studied the faces of entering parents with their progeny, looking for similarities in the curve of a nose, the turn of a smile, a body type.
That's when I noticed him, the little guy 180 degrees from me, the only gap in the circle that wasn't filling in, though curtain time was now 5 minutes late. Then, finally, 15 and 20 minutes, and we had to begin.
Maybe it was nobody's fault. Could be a single parent situation, and mom or dad just couldn't get off work. Or two parents and neither could be excused, for all their trying. Could be the traffic, or an accident on the way (heaven forbid). Or a sick sibling at home. Or a sudden emergency. Or Mom forgot. Or maybe the darned notice just got lost in the reams of daily communications.
And then again ...
What is sin, anyway? When I was a child, sin was a no-brainer. You brought them on a 3"x 5" card to the priest at Confession, citing the specific Mosaic commandment violated, with a convincing tally of the number of infractions since the last Absolution: "I stuck my tongue out at my sister ... 6 times." (More lying was done at Confession than any other time of the month.)
In adulthood, sin became more difficult to wrap my mind around: Sin was the discrete act of commission, but also the proclivity you were born with-to anger, to timidity, or to sloth-that in the right environmental soup will cause one man when he is weary simply to sigh, and the other to reach for a bottle of Dewar's. Sin is the methodically planned bank heist, and sin is a fondness for afternoon naps that leaves the rafters sagging. Sin is "defiant," or sin is "unintentional" (Numbers 15). It is the ooze secreted at Eden that just generally gunks up everything. It explains the World Trade Towers, and it explains a 7-year-old boy alone at an author's tea.
I am not one who thinks little kids' grief is little grief. I remember. And now, in room 10, yours truly was feeling hate without even trying (the sermon tape was kicking in). Hate, and anger, and sorrow, and all the sad songs of the world-at no one in particular. Diffused and generalized free-floating protest with nobody to alight on. I was mad because a little boy was sitting across from me, a crayon-colored, hard-bound book on his lap, two skinny, dangling legs that didn't reach the floor, two hands covering his face so that no one could see him. Noiseless tears.
A woman better than I quietly invited him to sit near her and her daughter, and our half of the circle each moved down a chair. The child read his book with dignity-a story, as it happens, about his mother's birthday, and dedicated to her.
I went home afterward to a quiet room and found the place where it is written of a better day to come: "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more ... pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Revelation 21:4).