He was in a bad state. He showed me the most terribly infected open wounds on both his arms and legs caused by injecting drugs. I urged him to go with me to the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital but he did not want to.
Even when he knew I would not give him any money, he made it clear that he did want to talk. He told me about his difficult family situation and his descent onto the street.He then asked me, somewhat out of the blue: ‘How do I find forgiveness?’
I explained what I believe about God’s offer of forgiveness which is available for everyone. And he asked me to pray for him. So sitting on a wall by a busy pavement, I prayed the Lord’s Prayer with him. After I finished he asked me to write it down for him, as he put it ‘so I have the right words to say’.
As well as his obvious physical and medical needs, Richard had clear spiritual needs. He was seeking a form of restoration which social and health services alone cannot provide.
I don’t know what happened to Richard – but I’ll never forget that conversation. It affected my decision to go back into the homeless work and seek to integrate the practical and spiritual aspects of care.
I was thinking of this encounter again, as I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s short book Speaking of Sin. She writes about the loss of ‘the language of salvation’ which includes words such as “repentance”, “penance”, “salvation”, and of course “sin” itself.
‘When these words are pronounced out loud, many of them sound like words from an earlier age, when human relationships with God were laced with blame and threat. As old as the words are, they are redolent with guilt. We may not know what they mean, but we know that they judge us.’
Even in churches, these words are used less and less in order to make worship a more positive experience. ‘When we speak of God we go straight for the grace.’
Social and personal
But it is situations like Richard’s which illustrate the reality of sin because they show the end result of a lifetime of trauma, abuse and injustice. A cycle of pain in which he was both a victim and a perpetrator.
It is in the brokenness experienced in such tragic situations where the concept of sin makes most sense. Homelessness somehow embodies raw reality more vividly than many other issues. There are the social sins of a lack of affordable housing, poverty, inequality and a lack of services. But, there are also the personal sins of abuse, domestic violence and the carnage created by addictions and self-sabotage.
Understanding the world
This is why I believe sin needs pulling out from the slag-heap of discarded, outdated words to which it was been consigned. Rather than being an outdated way to judge others, it is actually the best way to understand the mess and injustice in our world. More than any other word, it inclusively and universally describes our human condition. As Brown puts it:
“Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience alienation, deformation, damnation, and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them and increase our denial of their presence in our lives.”
The depth of existence
Speaking of Sin achieves a rare combination of being bold about human failure without falling into any finger-pointing judgementalism. Brown argues that despite all the positive social developments, legal and medical concepts can never adequately replace ‘the great words of our religious tradition’.
She quotes Paul Tillich in saying that the best ‘way of re-discovering their meaning is down into the depth of our human existence. In that depth these words were conceived; and there they gained power for all ages.’ It was this line that made me recall my encounter with Richard and the raw pain and search for forgiveness that he expressed.
Helpful and hopeful
Rather than being bad news, sin is a ‘helpful, hopeful word’. In fact, Brown provocatively describes sin as ‘our only hope’:
‘Sin is our only hope because the recognition that something is wrong is the first step toward setting it right again…it is the fire alarm that wakes us up to the possibility of true repentance.’
I will reflect further on this book in future R&R posts. I think it is one of the best books I have read for many years and is incredibly relevant to problems we see around us in the world today.
Speaking of Sin by Barbara Brown Taylor is currently available at Aslan Books for just £2.99