Absolution in Practice

Hiding the Evidence of Sin After a Deathbed Confession

Guest Contributor / 2.17.21

This post comes to us from Jason Micheli:

In a former congregation, I knew a church member named Roger, a sharp, successful, small-town lawyer whose alcoholism and philandering had destroyed his first two marriages and, by the time I became his pastor, was destroying him.

I went to visit him in the hospital as he died slowly of liver failure. With each visit his skin and eyes had assumed a more yellowed hue. After my final visit, when his breathing had gotten shallow and his words confused, I knew I should stop at his best friend’s house on the way back to the parsonage. I knocked on the screen door on Billy’s back porch. I could hear a baseball game playing on the TV in the family room. Billy and his girlfriend had had me over for dinner many times, so I wasn’t surprised when he answered the door wearing a polo shirt that probably fit him in the Carter administration and, below the waist, even tighter bikini briefs.

“Billy, I’ve just come from seeing Roger. It’s time.”

“You sure?” He squeezed his eyes to fight back the tears, and he laid a bear paw grip on my shoulder to steady himself.

“You never know for sure,” I said, “but I prayed and offered him the absolution. So yeah, it’s time. He’s dying.”

And suddenly he gathered himself and ran to get pants that were draped over the kitchen island stool. “If he’s going to be dead soon, then we’ve got to get to his office quick.”

“His office?” I asked, confused, “Why in the world do we need to go to his office?”

“You’ll see,” he said. “We’ll be back in a jiffy, honey,” he hollered at his girlfriend Mary.

Once we got to Roger’s law office, Billy produced a key from the pocket of his pants, which also appeared designed for a fraction of this man. Inside, Billy dragged a heavy leather chair across the office floor. He stood up on it, reached up towards the ceiling, removed a water-stained tile, felt around on all sides until he found it and then pulled down a cardboard banker’s box and handed it to me.

“Look, Billy, I don’t know that we should be doing this.”

“Shut up and take the damn box,” he said, “before I drop it.”

I looked inside the box and suddenly both understood and yet still didn’t understand what we were doing there. Inside the box, along with a half-dozen liquor bottles, were photographs of Roger with women. The kinds of Polaroids I can’t describe in church. None of the women in them, I noticed, were his present wife.

“Prostitutes mostly,” Billy said. “His wife thought different, but Roger — God bless him — he never could stop being a rascal.”

And Billy started to squeeze his eyes again against the tears. And then he grabbed hold of me and cried into my hair.

I was still holding the box of dirty pictures and bottles of booze, and after an uncomfortable amount of time I said, “So, Billy, uh … what’s the plan here? What are we going to do with this?”

“We’re going to get it out of here so his wife never discovers it, that’s what we’re going to do. She thinks he’d put all this behind him. He should be remembered as the man who was forgiven, not the man who kept on carrying on.”

I looked down at the box and its sordid contents.

“I don’t know,” I said with not a little sanctimony in my voice, “I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do. I mean, look at these — this … this is wrong.”

And just like that, Billy wasn’t crying anymore.

He narrowed his eyes and raised his head back, angry or disappointed, and he said to me, “Do you just talk about sin and grace, preacher, or do you actually believe it?”

“I — uh, no of course, I believe it.”

“Well, good,” he said, “because it seems to me we’ve got ourselves a sinner we can show some grace to before he dies. I’m going to take this and put it away once and for all.”

That wasn’t the only evidence we removed from his office that night like custodians in the far country cleaning up after the prodigal who’s gone home. I didn’t have time to debate the nuances of what the “right” thing to do was here. But clearing away the evidence of the dying Roger’s sins felt like absolution in practice.

“That’s a lot of stuff,” I said, looking in Billy’s trunk.

“We’ve all got a lot of stuff,” he replied.

In her book, In the Freud Archives, Janet Malcolm writes:

There are few among us who do not resist self-knowledge. We are all perpetually smoothing and rearranging reality to conform to our wishes; we lie to others and ourselves constantly, unthinkingly. When, occasionally — and not by dint of our own efforts but the under the pressure of external events — we are forced to see things as they are, we are like naked people in a storm.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the season of Lent, which means once again there is an external event looming on the horizon, forty days from now, the pressure of which will strip us bare and force us to confront the naked truth that when God came among us in the flesh, all those who should’ve known best, all those on whose expertise the world relies, all those who believed themselves to be God’s faithful people, all those very much like ourselves, responded to the incarnation of God into our world by pushing him out of it on a cross.

The event of the crucifixion forces upon us the disorienting truth that Christmas could come again and again and again, in any time or place, and every time we would choose to shout, “Crucify him!”

In Lent, the Church becomes a pressure system, an unavoidable ash-wearing external event, whereby, on behalf of the world, we confront the world with the truth about ourselves — the truth that God has a case against us. On Ash Wednesday we cease our perpetual smoothing and rearranging of reality, and instead we wear it for all to see.

Contrary to popular sentiment in the Church, Ash Wednesday is not primarily about our mortality. No one who hears Psalm 51, which the lectionary assigns to us every Ash Wednesday, would come away from King David’s confession thinking our problem is that our days are like grass.

Ash Wednesday is about our sin: “Remember that from dust you came and to dust you shall return.” The words with which the Church imposes ashes are not a comment on the natural state of things, Remember, people, you’re all going to die. No, death is not natural. Death, Paul says, is the wage we’ve earned for sin. The words with which the Church imposes ashes are the same words with which God pronounced his curse upon a fallen world.

In his inaugural address, speaking about the violent insurrection on the Capitol, President Biden stated, “This is not us. This is not who we are. This is not who we are as Americans.” With the help of the prophet David, Christians are those people who say, “No, Joe, that’s exactly who we all are.”

Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

Working with this psalm, Karl Barth asks, “What is the confession of sin other than the discovery of the true situation not of man alone but man in relation to God? We are guilty not in our individual thoughts, words, and works but, as expressed in these, in the very root of our existence.”

Ash Wednesday is not about our mortality. Ash Wednesday is about our sin.

Except that’s not quite right either because, notice, David’s searingly honest confession in verses 3 through 5 follows after David’s initial plea for forgiveness, “Have mercy on me, O God,” David prays, “according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy …” And by the time David gets to verse eight he’s already demanding that God restore him into joy and gladness — where does he get the nerve to demand joy so soon after confessing his depravity?

“According to your steadfast love …”

When David finds himself naked in the storm, because he already knows the promised mercy of God, David can resist smoothing and rearranging his reality. David is free to be unsurprised by his finitude.

Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten journey by making David’s plea our own. We can do so because we know where this journey ends. We know that the God who promises Israel, “I will be your God and you will be my people,” also confirms that covenant for all time and without condition in the bleeding and dying of Jesus Christ.

We are forgiven. Despite our continued carrying on in sin, it’s the pardon we take away from Ash Wednesday — the pardon that makes the confession possible.

I stopped by later in the week to check on Billy and in search of a free meal. The baseball game was turned on when I arrived, but the house was quiet and devoid of any dinner smells wafting from the kitchen. He answered the screen door in a different polo shirt but the same black bikini briefs.

“Where’s Mary?” I asked. He shook his head and looked ready to cry again.

“She left me,” he said.

“She left you? Why in the world would she leave you?”

“She saw one of the pictures, of some woman … you know,” he said. “It must’ve fallen out of the box in my car. She thought the picture was mine.”

“But didn’t you tell her it wasn’t yours? Didn’t you explain to her that the photo was Roger’s?”

“She didn’t give me the chance,” he said. “She was gone before I got home. Left a long note and won’t answer my calls. I guess grace comes at a cost.”

For all of us who are naked, the Gospel is our shelter in the storm. Because God is like Billy (minus the bikini briefs).