I heard on the news yesterday about a man in Irving, Texas killed on his way to work. They found him several feet off the road, bruised and battered from having been thrown some distance. His injuries indicated that he had been hit from behind by a pickup. The driver didn’t stop.
That story stuck in my mind and raised several questions.
Why didn’t the driver stop, turnaround and go back? Where is he or she now? Will they find him or her? How will this person live with themselves? Will they attempt to just forget it and move on? Or will they continue down the highway, careening between extremes of denial and anguish?
While that may be an extreme example, all of us can apply prayers of confession from our own traditions to our own lives. Often called “acts of contrition, they acknowledge our sin before God.
From my own United Methodist tradition comes this prayer:
“Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart; we have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy.” (The United Methodist Hymnal, Service of Word and Table II):
One of the classic disciplines of the Christian spiritual life is the “examination of conscience.” It is a process of examining one’s recent actions and thoughts and honestly acknowledging where they are pleasing to God and where they are not. It’s a stop and turnaround maneuver. You can pray and you can journal as part of this process. But there is one thing you don’t do. You don’t allow yourself to be drawn into a vicious vortex of shame, an abyss of regret, or a swamp of self loathing. Some prominent spiritual leaders of the past have gone through spiritual stages in which they did exactly that. Martin Luther and John Wesley are two who come quickly to mind.
There is a reason why, in our liturgy, acts of contrition are followed by the assurance of God’s pardon. Because God gives us the power to stop and turnaround — if we’ll accept it.
“Hear the good news: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” After the leader speaks these words to the people, they address the leader with the same assurance: “In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven!” (The United Methodist Hymnal, Word and Table Service II)
When we forget this sequence in our devotional lives, we become like John Bunyan’s protagonist Christian in the classic allegory of the Christian life, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian sinks in the Slough of Despond or the “swamp of despair”, a deep bog into which he sinks under the weight of his sins and sense of guilt for them.
As Bunyan describes it,
‘This miry Slough is such a place as cannot be mended; it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore is it called the Slough of Despond: for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.’
The images Bunyan uses in The Pilgrim’s Progress may have been reflections of images from his own world. In this instance the “Slough of Despond” may be Squitch Fen, a wet and mossy area near his cottage in Harrowden, Bedfordshire, that he had to cross on his way to church in Elstow.
We know that we cannot just drive on, leaving the fact that past actions and inactions have harmed others in the rear view mirror. When we examine our own recent conduct and attitudes critically, but with God’s grace in mind, we are brave enough to open the cellar door and admit that there are rats down there. We are able to acknowledge that both our inactions and our actions have hurt others. We stop and turnaound and go back and assess the damage and seek to own our responsibility and begin to make what amends we can.
We ought to all examine our consciences from time to time, but we want to avoid sinking in our own personal “swamp of despair.” You can’t stop and turnaround if your feet are sinking in the swamp. We avoid the vortex, the abyss and the swamp by remembering that examination of conscience should never be done apart from acknowledging the presence of God’s forgiving grace. The penitent person realizes that God’s mercy and God’s judgment can never be separated. It is no coincidence that the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous don’t include simply making a moral inventory and admitting ways one has harmed others. They place that activity in the context of giving over one’s life to a higher power and receiving the help of a peer mentor and the support of a group.
Where is the driver now? That is the question the police are exploring. They are combing the area questioning potential eye witnesses, and they have an alert out to all area body shops, that if a pickup is brought in that needs repairs to the front right fender and headlight, to call it in.
The same questions still swirl in my mind: Why didn’t they stop, turn around and go back? Where are they now? Where are they going?
I guess from now on it’s up to them.