Early in my adult life, after a difficult Mormon childhood spent in a part-member home in Salt Lake City, I converted to Anglican Christianity. My religious understanding and my relationship with God were damaged by my social experience as an involuntarily apostate adolescent, and God’s chosen vehicle to start me healing seems to have been an administrator at All Souls, an Episcopal church on Foothill Boulevard. And so, when I finished college and left Utah, I left the Mormon church as well.
I moved to California and joined a local Episcopal parish. My Mormon fiance was unsettled by it, I think, but he accepted it. Taken as a whole, my time there was good. I made a few close friends, I ran the parish children’s ministry, and my time as a catechumen (i.e., investigator) got me thinking about God. That was important; my years as an Episcopalian coincided with my acceptance of the Atonement and my initially overpowering experience of grace. Somehow, my early religious education had not prepared me for such an event; had I not spent every Sunday morning at a Eucharist service, I’d have had no framework for understanding what had happened.
I liked my church, and I loved the vicar. She gave me guidance when I needed it. She comforted me as I lost several close family members. We schemed to overcome the resistance of the parish as we tried to institute a proper curriculum in our unstructured children’s ministry. I listened to her occasional worries about the unorthodox version of Christianity prevalent in our radical Berkeley parish. We had many conversations about our painful religious upbringings — she’d been raised in a particularly harsh Southern Baptist home, and (as I deduced from my personal experiences to that point) I’d been raised in a church that sees fit to assign adult men to quiz 12-year old children about their sexual habits. I complained about prophets, about the idea of explicit personal revelation, about the inequality of the genders in my church of origin. We were good friends. I was happy.
And then suddenly one morning five years ago, I woke with the unshakeable conviction that, despite my sincere adherence to the faith and despite my close relationship with my vicar, I could never return to my parish. There was something wrong, either with the congregation or with my membership in it. I couldn’t take the Eucharist. I couldn’t transition the children’s ministry to another director. I couldn’t so much as enter the parish hall, never mind the sanctuary. The most I was allowed to do was open the office door long enough to shove the children’s ministry materials and my key inside. I didn’t know why, but God wanted me to leave my church, immediately and forever. The thought of doing otherwise filled me with terror.
I woke my husband and told him as much, expecting that he’d tell me I sounded mad; but he said, “That’s a relief.” He said he’d had a dream that night, a dream that left him with the firm conviction that I must stop attending my church. He’d spent the early hours of the morning feigning sleep and wondering how to say, “So I had a revelation…”.
When I knew the will of God, what could I do, except obey? I knew that my continued life in God’s grace was contingent on my submission to God’s clearly stated will, at least in this one matter. So I did it.
God commanded me to do something else as well, though it wasn’t so vital to my relationship with Him. I was supposed to call the vicar and tell her exactly why I’d left, omitting nothing. She needed the details. I don’t know why—I’ll never know why—but I was supposed to relay the revelation I’d received to her.
I didn’t do it.
I couldn’t. I was too weak. I knew that it wasn’t nearly as important as my departure from the parish, and I was too embarrassed by the story. I feared that she would think me foolish or crazy. I feared that she wouldn’t understand. The whole thing was hard for me to believe, and I had come from a tradition which clearly accepts revelation, both personal and collective. How could she, without such a cultural background, possibly believe that God was giving me explicit directives?
In my fear, I sinned against her. I never called her. I left a brief note at the office. It said only that I had left the parish and that I couldn’t return. When she called my house, I let the answering machine pick up, and I never called her back. She was my friend, my sister at God’s table, and I walked away from her. My mortification overcame the guilt of my disobedience to God and the pain I felt at her distress. I rationalized it with the idea that she’d never believe me, so my explanation wouldn’t console her; it would only insult her.
By the time I had repented of my sin against her, enough time had passed that contacting her to offer any explanation really did seem like a bad idea. Either something bad had already happened to her because of what I didn’t do, or nothing at all was wrong. I’d just dredge up a painful episode for her, making the whole experience worse with my explanation. I knew, just as I’d known that I should call her, that I could make no amends and that I shouldn’t attempt them.
In the time since, I have tried to do the will of God. I am always aware of the grace I have received, but like most other people, I am always aware of how little I truly deserve. And I have felt constant remorse for the sin I committed five years ago. I made it into a talisman. I clung to it. I knowingly injured another and I cannot repair the damage; this fact has been an essential part of my self-image.
I mentioned it to my husband last week. I suppose I’ve mentioned it a few times over the years. He expressed surprise that I, to whom God has given such a strong witness of Christ’s atoning act, should hold so tight to something I cannot fix. He said that what’s done cannot be undone, at least not by me, and that I must trust Christ to do as He promises. Christ does more than forgive me for what I did; He will repair the damage I’ve done when I am helpless to repair it myself.
My husband is right—I know better than to cherish my sins. It’s something I learned years ago, though I’ve never applied it to this sin against my friend. We must give up all our sins if we are to know God. We are not simply to cease committing our sins; we must also abandon our attachment to them. So long as we define ourselves by our past actions, we refuse to accept God’s definition of us; and it’s in God’s shaping of our new lives that we come to know Him.
And so as this year dies, I am resolved to let my old sin die with it. I have present sins enough to be getting on with.