April 7, 2011
This is my “do-over” chapel talk. I was supposed to give it on February 21, but I didn’t. Now, I’m not going to lie to you, especially to the students here today: in all truth and candor, I may not have started preparing my chapel talk for that day far enough in advance. After all those years in the classroom during which I told my students over and over that, like fine wine, fine writing must mature slowly over time, I postponed the composition process until the day before. Bad decision.
However, normally, even under the circumstances, that could have worked out okay, because the day before was a Sunday, I didn’t have anything else scheduled in the afternoon and evening, I’m a practiced writer, and my plan was to devote sustained thought that day to writing a chapel talk worthy of the place and the occasion. But as it turned out, I woke up Sunday morning with a raging fever, my face was buried in a pillow all day, and when Monday morning came I had nothing written. Consequently, Pastor Benson had to give an extemporaneous chapel talk, a task for which, fortunately, he is supremely gifted, and which I understand he did very well. Nevertheless, I had failed to offer the chapel talk I had promised. I am grateful for this do-over.
On the subject of do-overs, when I am speaking before Oles who have already graduated from the College I like to remind them that one of the best ways to stay engaged with campus life is to take advantage of our robust streaming program. We stream live on the web, and archive for later viewing, all manner of campus events each year: daily chapel, of course; Sunday worship; athletic events; musical performances; College ceremonies, like last week’s Honorary Degree ceremony; academic lectures; public events, like this coming week’s Economic Summit. In light of this streaming program, I like to say to our alums, channeling some cliché of a stern college President, “If your chapel attendance as a student wasn’t, in retrospect, what you would now like it to have been, you are offered one of the rare opportunities in life to correct a past mistake by attending daily chapel now on the web.” To all of those alums listening today for that purpose I send warm greetings. I share your delight in the do-over.
This lovely spring day in Northfield, with clear skies, emerging crocuses, caf meals enjoyed al fresco, and an abundance of Frisbees and flip-flops, represents to my way of thinking another kind of do-over. This was a long winter. Dark, cold, and snowy, it seemed winter would never end, but it has. The promise of spring, of birth, renewal, and growth, of the return of color and warmth, represents Nature’s version of a do-over, a chance to begin again, to create life anew.
I’m not a theologian, but I’m pretty sure that the term “do-over” is not prevalent in scholarly discourse about what Christians believe. I don’t remember encountering it in the work of the writers I studied as a student at St. Olaf or hearing it from the pulpit in church. But the term is discussed on a website called “Streetplay.com: Rules and Rites” which advertises itself as “the website people trust to document and celebrate the history and experience of urban play.” Here’s how they characterize it:
[In a game] sometimes, passions were too strong, convictions too deep, perspectives too contrasting to reach agreement on a call. Still, it was understood that unless the opposing team was being absolutely unreasonable or cheating, preserving friendships and, even more importantly, continuing the game took precedence over a specific play. After the proper amount of heated discussion had taken place, one of the players would finally extend the proverbial fig-leaf by offering his opponent a “do-over”, as in “you can do it again.”
The do-over was one of childhood’s most powerful rites, for it exerted our dominion over the laws of space and time. The clock was rolled back, the game was restored to its exact status as before the contested event, and play was resumed. If the original play was particularly important and the second attempt was dramatically different (e.g. the player striking out instead of hitting a multi-base shot as in the original play), the do-over might be invoked again. This second invocation would give the team another chance, thereby insuring that the universal forces of fair play were being righteously maintained. Yes, it is with fond memories that we recall the do-over, a divine method of resolution, and contemplate the untold blessings it could bring if it were somehow extended into our contemporary lives.
That’s an interesting thought: let’s extend that notion into our contemporary lives. If you need a do-over, you probably did something that you now wish undone. I’m pretty sure each of us can think of at least one recent example of such a thing, perhaps even since breakfast today. We could and should aspire never to commit acts that need re-doing, but that’s a mug’s game. As we proclaim in the Lutheran liturgy, “We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned . . . in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” That’s why worship in our tradition begins with the confession of sins. The Psalmist in today’s reading understood that.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
The two most striking aspects of these verses for me are, first, the recognition of the prevalence of sin—”If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand?”—and, second, the pain that recognition causes for the Psalmist, who cries “Out of the depths.”
It’s remarkable that, knowing the pain caused by our sins, we continue to commit them, but we do. So the question becomes how to respond to that fact about our nature and our lives.
Unfortunately, the do-over isn’t an option. Our contemporary lives are more complicated than kickball, and we can’t actually exercise control over the laws of space and time. We can’t roll the clock back, restore the universe to its exact status before we sinned, and resume play. We can’t take back hurtful words or unthink a jealous thought, or erase an unkind act, or go back and do something we should have done. If we are going to experience a do-over, it has to come in some other form.
Christians call that other form “forgiveness.” The Psalmist is our guide again, for just after the opening verses of the reading today that lament the multitude of our sins the Psalm continues: “But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.” Again, at the conclusion of the Psalm we read:
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
And with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.
Forgiveness isn’t a do-over. God doesn’t say to us, “Here, let me reverse the flow of time, take you back to the moment of your sin, and give you another chance to behave differently than you did.” Forgiveness is a more radical act because without going back and undoing the act itself it forgives the sin associated with it. The past remains, the act stands, but the burden of the sin associated with it is lifted. Forgiveness is forward looking, not retrospective because it focuses not on going back and changing what happened but rather, through an act of grace born of divine love, to enable the sinner to lead life anew.
Think about what this means for our lives. If it weren’t for forgiveness we would spend all of our time where the Psalmist begins Psalm 130: in the depths, mired in sin and burdened by our iniquity. But we believe in, and through the gift of grace experience, forgiveness, not because we deserve it but because God loves us.
The NRSV Bible titles Psalm 130, “Waiting for Divine Redemption,” and in the middle of today’s reading the Psalmist waits for the Lord:
My soul waits, and in his word I hope:
for the Lord
More than those who watch for the morning.
We needn’t wait for the Lord. He awaits us in the person of Jesus, whose death on the cross sealed our redemption and who welcomes our heartfelt prayers and supplications. This takes us way beyond the do-over. Whether in the public confession and absolution during worship or in our private prayer lives we are invited to acknowledge our sins, to seek forgiveness, and to experience God’s loving response. It is a blessed assurance.
David R. Anderson ’74