I was about 8 years old. We went to church every Sunday morning, but I also had to go to Sunday school after church. Yuck. Spending five days a week at public school should be enough prison time for any kid. And those nuns, dressed like giant black and white penguins who told us about God, church and sin, were kind of mean, too. “You better do what God wants…or else you’ll go to hell…to HELL!” She struck the top of her desk with the yardstick gripped in her bony hand. Its loud deathly crack echoed through our classroom, out the doorway and down the hall stairs.
With each Sunday school session, we learned about all the bad things we had done––lies, disrespecting parents, other stuff. All sins. Some sins were really bad and sent you straight to hell. But others would just send you to the principal’s office or something, unless they added up to a certain number. Confusing. But all kids were definitely sinners and with every Sunday it looked worse and worse for me. I looked around the classroom. Tears, quivering lips, seat squirming. At least I wasn’t alone. The sooner we became grown-ups, the sooner we wouldn’t sin anymore!
One Sunday, it happened. The safety valve plan! We were told to get ready to confess our sins. Here’s the drill: march here, stand there, go into that dark closet, kneel and wait for a little door to slide open in front of you. On the other side of the screened partition will be a man who will listen to everything bad you’ve ever done since you were born. That man tells God. If you’re honest and tell the man everything, everything, you won’t go to hell. So, you better be honest or ELSE! Crack went the yardstick!
We rehearsed for weeks, with one of the nuns pretending to be the man. We learned our lines, reciting this and that, but we were not supposed to say our actual sins. That list was reserved for the actual man to hear, otherwise, God could get confused…or something like that. I don’t know.
Finally, we were ready. I couldn’t wait to tell the man all my bad things, then he could tell God and I wouldn’t go to—you know where. I could hear yardstick cracking in my head as my turn came to come clean. I stumbled my way into the closet and the guard nun closed the door behind me. I knelt down in the dark and waited, still rehearsing my opening speech in my head. This was it. No secrets. Don’t mess up. Spill it all. Every little bit. I could hear a deep mumbling from behind the little sliding door, then nothing. Mumble, mumble, nothing. Whoosh, the little door slid open and its loud clunk shook the partition between me and the man. My fingers trembled. I searched for another breath.
“Well?” the deep scary voice behind the laced curtain asked.
Men have such deeper voices than women. Wonder why God gives men different voices than women and ––
“Well?” the man asked again, louder. Was he getting mad?
“Uh, uh, bless me father, this, this, this is––“
“Speak up, speak up.”
“Uh…my first confession…and uh…uh…” I was shaking. Get to the sins! Tell him the sins, the sins! Or else YOU’LL GO TO HELL!
The man’s voice softened a bit. “Just tell me what you want God to forgive, my son.”
“Uh, uh, I dis-dis-respected my mom and dad six times…and uh, uh, I lied over a million times, and––”
The man’s chuckle turned to laughter from behind the lace curtain. “Son, I’m sure it wasn’t that many times…”
Oh, no, no, NO! He wasn’t going to tell God what I said!!! No-o-o-o-o…..now I have to go to HELL!!!
The man then told me to say certain prayers we’d learned in Sunday school. Repeat one of those prayers three times, repeat the other prayer five times. Or was it the other way around? At this point what difference would it make? With another chuckle the man slammed the little door shut. My heart sank as my fingers gripped the edge of the little counter propping me up. God would never know how many times I had lied…God would never know that I tried to be honest…God would send me to hell, and I’d––
The closet door flew open, flooding light into my squinting tearful eyes. “You’re done, get out.” The silhouette of a giant penguin motioned for me to stand up and leave. “Time to say your penance (penalty prayers),” she ordered as she pointed to one of the nearby pews. Blurry-eyed, I struggled to my feet, felt my way across the aisle to a cold wooden pew, and knelt to say those prayers assigned to me. This might be the last time I’ll be able to pray. Better pray them really loud. If God could hear them, maybe he’d cut me some slack and I wouldn’t have to be in hell for very long.
“OUR FATHER, WHO–”
“SHHH!” From the pew in front of me, another penguin turned around, putting a finger to her lips. “Say your prayers to God, son, not to all of us.”
“But I don’t want to GO TO H––“
“SHHH!” Her look told me that she could send me there any moment.
Okay, okay but, wait. Did I hear that right? She said, say my prayers to God. Say my prayers to God? I looked over my shoulder toward the closet box that still had the man inside. A long line of girls stood on that side, a long line of boys stood squirming on the other side, all waiting their turn with the man in the closet box. I studied the black-tented hulk of the shushing nun in front of me and wondered––if God can hear my prayers, he must be able to hear other things, too. Why depend on the middleman, some guy in a dark closet who laughs at me? Plenty of classmates laugh at me already.
My fingers intertwined with super-duper strength and I prayed as hard as the permitted silence allowed. God, I want to know more about you. Please forgive me. I lied a million times and don’t want to go to hell. If you let me live and be a grownup, I promise not to lie anymore, or steal, or do any bad sin stuff.
No answer. Or was there?
Life went on. I did grow up. I studied the Bible and learned that I had developed into quite an experienced sinner as an adult. Sin isn’t complicated with layers of torts, misdemeanors and felonies. Here’s a verse that helped me understand: 1 John 3:4,5 (Living Bible) But those who keep on sinning are against God, for every sin is done against the will of God. And you know that he(Jesus)became a man so that he could take away our sins, and that there is no sin in him, no missing of God’s will at any time in any way.
Sin is the missing of God’s will. Simple. I’m thankful the Bible includes these verses, too (English Standard Version):
1 Timothy 2:5,6 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…
1 John 5:14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.
1 Thessalonians 5:18 Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
I learned to be very thankful, indeed. Let’s all be thankful that God gives every one of us so much loving forgiveness. Forgiveness that includes second and third chances…or in my case, millions.
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