Ginger told a wonderful story for the children’s message yesterday.
A second-grader was having trouble with his writing assignment and kept making mistakes. Each time, he would erase what he had written to the point that he tore a hole in his paper. He went up to the teacher unsure of what to do. She said, “Why don’t I give you a new piece of paper. It’s a fresh start.”
Ginger then went on to give each of the children – and then each of us in the service – a clean sheet of paper as a symbol of the fresh start available to us.
A bit later in the service, a man in our congregation who grew up going to British schools commented that Ginger had helped him understand something about Americans. In British schools, he said, the pencils don’t have erasers on the ends. He continued with his point, but my mind went its own way since I, too, spent a couple of years in British schools when we lived in Zambia. They taught me to write.
With a fountain pen.
Each of our big wooden desks had an inkwell and inside was a nib pen with a big handle like a paintbrush. Blotting paper was part of the school supplies we were supposed to have. Along with learning to make our letters, we learned how to dip the pen, blot it, and then begin writing. Neatness was always a part of the equation. If we made a mistake, we were to draw one line through the error and then write it correctly. My teacher explained we didn’t have to mark it out over and over and it didn’t matter that there were words marked out on the page in order for it to be neatly done. One line said, “I made a mistake and I corrected it.” We didn’t write in pencil, she said, because writing in ink meant we meant what we were putting on the page. Pencils were for arithmetic.
Her lesson stuck with me in ways I didn’t even know. As a high school English teacher in America years later, my students struggled to understand why I would not accept work in pencil, which was what most brought with them to class.
“Writing in ink means you’re serious about what you’re writing,” I said.
However language came into being, “Oops” must have been one of the first words ever uttered, along with a few more colorful expressions as the mistakes mounted up. Error and failure are essential elements to our humanity. Screwing up is one of the things we do best – and one of the things that leads us to our most brilliant successes. What we do with our mistakes is more profound than choosing to erase or cross out. Life rarely divides into such an easy either/or.
Something tangible, even visceral, happened in the room yesterday as the deacons passed out the clean sheets of paper to the adults seated in the pews. We all knew more about erasing until we had destroyed the paper than our children did. We all have things we would like to do over, things we hope are not irrevocable. The small blank sheets were leaves of grace and forgiveness, even hope that failure is not the final word, nor perfection the ultimate value.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birthmark,” tells of Alymer, a scientist, and his love for Georgiana, his wife and a woman of incredible beauty. Alymer saw her beauty as perfection except for the small birthmark on her cheek. It was only a problem for him, as Hawthorne noted:
In the usual state of her complexion — a healthy though delicate bloom — the mark wore a tint of deeper crimson, which imperfectly defined its shape amid the surrounding rosiness. When she blushed it gradually became more indistinct, and finally vanished amid the triumphant rush of blood that bathed the whole cheek with its brilliant glow. But if any shifting motion caused her to turn pale there was the mark again, a crimson stain upon the snow, in what Aylmer sometimes deemed an almost fearful distinctness. Its shape bore not a little similarity to the human hand, though of the smallest pygmy size. Georgiana’s lovers were wont to say that some fairy at her birth hour had laid her tiny hand upon the infant’s cheek, and left this impress there in token of the magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all hearts.
Nothing would do but Alymer find a way to erase what he saw as a blot on her beauty. Georgiana was not so sure.
I know not what may be the cost to both of us to rid me of this fatal birthmark. Perhaps its removal may cause cureless deformity; or it may be the stain goes as deep as life itself. Again: do we know that there is a possibility, on any terms, of unclasping the firm gripe of this little hand which was laid upon me before I came into the world?
He continued to obsess until she relented to its removal, a process that ultimately cost her life. The quest for perfection is an exhausting, even deadly, enterprise. Whatever the yardstick, we can’t measure up. Sooner or later, we’re going to drip ink on the page, or erase a hole in it trying to correct our mistakes. The stains go as deep as life itself.
In a past life, I played golf fairly regularly. I was with some friends one day when one of our group hit a ball into the rough ten or twelve feet off the fairway and behind a tree. When he got to his ball, his kicked it a couple of times until it was lying on the mowed grass and in full view of the pin. One of the other guys in our group said, “You can’t just kick the ball like that. It’s against the rules.” The conversation that ensued was instructive.
“Are we playing for money?”
“Are you going to give me a trophy if I win?”
“Are we even keeping score?”
“Then relax and enjoy the game. I’m out here to have fun.”
When Jesus said, “Forgive and you will be forgiven,” I think he meant hand out as many blank sheets of paper as you accept. The more we make room for one another to fail and try again, whether we are working in pencil or pen, the more we come to terms with our humanity and then with the amazing possibility of the grace we can incarnate to one another.
I’ve got a small clean sheet of paper in my pocket to help remind me.