dispatches to and from

nathan f. elmore

Dispatches to and from faith, culture, and things in between

Stained

By Roger Sampaio, for Allur, a professional web design resource company

 

It is not the direct fault of the hymn itself, to be sure. You cannot blame a little old hymn for all the interpretations that have transpired since its birth.

However, on the heels of a recent Sunday worship gathering in what we should imagine as a mostly standard American evangelical church, I found the following vintage lyric ringing loudly in the ears, and, even louder, in between the ears: "Sin had left a crimson stain."

Yes, I thought. Most definitely, yes.

On this occasion, though, unexpectedly the ringing didn't take me to any of the usual places where one typically travels in the unfathomable presence of God's grace and mercy: you know, the dungeon of intense moral guilt and the subsequent corner of remorse followed by the solitary confinement with self-pity and the groveling acts of self-loathing.

Although the 19th-century hymn "Jesus Paid it All" is not the exclusive domain of evangelical Christians, and American evangelicals at that, for anyone (of a certain age anyway) who has grown up American and evangelical this hymn is part of a canon of Christian worship music that is intensely theologically formative. It provides a kind of primary window, as it were, through which to gaze at what theologians sometimes call "the work of Christ" in the context of the unfolding story of God -- what God has done and is doing to extend good news and blessing to this flawed and marred human species. Not to mention how he is healing the entire cosmos.

In part, I suppose this hymn's unwitting sense of functioning like a "Chosen One" in the annals of evangelical hymnology is the natural result of the actual, specific substance of the lyrics themselves, which are indeed beautifully Gospel-rich ("I hear the Savior say/'Thy strength indeed is small/Child of weakness, watch and pray/Find in Me thine all in all'"). Just as important, if not more, the hymn's evangelical ascendancy seems to arise from the way it gets appropriated by preachers and worship leaders: in my experience, it is often used as a fallback sorrow-mixed-with-joy soundtrack, helping to rehearse the central elements of the Gospel plot as well as to remind us how we should think about those elements in relation to our lives.

To repeat: on this particular Sunday, as on every other Sunday, sin had left a crimson stain.

But the question still echoing for me was and is: In the Christian vision, what exactly is the nature of this stain that sin has so thanklessly left? And the corollary is like it: At the end of every Sunday, or every other day, is our Christian understanding of this stain robustly faithful enough if we only and primarily go on and on emphasizing its theological meaning as "personal, individual moral guilt"?

It is, of course, common knowledge that Western societies are certifiably guilt-based. It's as if we are truly culturally beholden to guilt. To draw only one simplistic example: the numerous, undying variations of the television shows "Law and Order" and "CSI" -- if they culturally reveal anything about American fetishes or penchants -- provide us with a healthy (unhealthy) indication that our obsession with individual moral guilt has reached, well, say it: criminal proportions. Having returned from a two-week travel seminar in Oman in early January and having experienced a small dose of Arab culture in the Omani context, it is interesting that our prevailing Western paradigm of sin-as-primarily-guilt stands in stark contrast to a view of sin as seen through the lens of the honor/shame motif.

The point of this lyrical meditation is this: the stain -- and the Gospel remedy itself -- must necessarily be bigger and wider than individual moral guilt because all that is in serious need of total reconciliation and complete restoration in the world, and in our lives, is a weighty composite of a multifaceted darkness that is bigger and wider than anything that individual moral guilt could dream of. In fact, rather than serving as the defining image of a stain's sum total, guilt is more aptly akin to one ink spot clinging to a canvas mostly showcasing a sinister and disturbing variety of ink spots.

In the Christian narrative, the Gospel -- if viewed through a holistic frame provided by the Scriptures and historical Christian theology -- appears to show us that there is far more to sin than guilt, especially a "guilt" narrowly understood. The Gospel powerfully confronts, even as it disarms, our dishonor and shame. The Gospel cleanses that sleepless-night stain called impurity or defilement -- a picture that should realistically take our imagination way beyond mere guilt.

Meanwhile, not to be outdone by addressing sin, the Gospel shows us that there is also far more to our human experience of brokenness than our own sin lets on. There are other insidious enemies that go by other dastardly names. There is evil; and there is the Evil One. There is human suffering; and there is the looming figure who casts his haunting shadow above all else -- Death.

To sing out and to herald one hymn's version of one dimension of Christ's atonement is, we can say, well and good. But however powerful, poetic and personal, to minimize the overall magnitude of the stain, to downsize what sin and brokenness have actually done with our lives and with our world, this is neither well nor good. Nor is it true enough. After all, there is far more to envision and embrace in the paradoxical movements of an agonizing Cross and a triumphant Resurrection than a satisfactory debt payment for my personal sins.

We badly need the whole Gospel (with all its requisite hymns) because we are badly knee-deep in this whole mess, distorted and disordered but yearning for hope. Perhaps we could rightly assert and testify as Christians: through the Gospel, God has provided humanity nothing less than a way to make peace (shalom) with all our worst private and public enemies -- sin, evil, the Evil One, human suffering and Death. "I hear the Savior say: Find in the Gospel its all in all."

And so it is that in another famous hymn, which also rings loudly in between the ears, we find this big, wide, unfettered proclamation: "He comes to make His blessings flow/Far as the curse is found." To that extent, God willing, there will be no crimson stain left.