Our liturgy is a history lesson, poetry, and a celebration. Within it, we are called – literally – to acknowledge God, the world around us, and the people next to us. The liturgy does not waste opportunities. My favorite part of our service is the confession of sin. I know that may seem sanctimonious at best or creepy at worst, so want to focus on this phrase tucked into the confession: “and by what we have left undone.” That line comes immediately after the confession of sins that had been committed (“by what we have done”). Committed sins are pretty easy to manage. They happened. We can quantify them — remember those Seven Deadlies? — because they are real: the hoarding of toys, the hurling of insults, the hatred of the Other. These we can picture in our minds, offer up an apology to God, along with a promise to learn from the mistake. Check the box. Breathe with relief. A sin not done? That is another story. It’s where this story begins.
What does it mean to leave something undone? The not doing of something gets away from my ability to count. I’ve yet to see anything about the Seven Deadly Sins You Didn’t Do. The grammar of this line in our confession grabbed my attention many years ago on joining Grace. I didn’t understand to what we were actually confessing. Over time, I learned from the examples of those around me that it wasn’t about what could be counted. The lesson was about to whom we were accountable.
“By what we have done and what we have left undone,” manages to present to us a burden in the midst of a moment of grace because saying the confession offers us a few brief moments to be both honest with God and with ourselves. The second part is not easy. I’ve found that being honest with God comes far more simply that being honest with myself. God offers me recognition and then forgiveness. I offer myself something far less useful. More recognition and less forgiveness. Being accountable to myself turned out to be pretty uncomfortable.
What have you left undone? Here’s my list, just in case you need something to compare:
1) not calling my mother
2) not (yet) sending this blog to Jeanne
3) not telling my family that I’m in the process of becoming a parent
4) not replying to an email about forming a book club
5) not saying hello to the person who always sits alone at a table in the coffee shop
This is a depressingly shortened version of the list I could have made. I can apologize to myself (if I remember) and promise to get them done. But I still have to do them. In several of these circumstances, I had promised another person that I would do something. I had given – in effect – someone my word. And it was on thinking about the stuff undone in terms of not fulfilling one’s word that the expression made more sense.
To give someone your word is an easily understood idea: to make a promise based on your honor. Its interpersonal power shapes the cultural and social behavior of those involved in it. John’s gospel starts on that point: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Thinking about the undone stuff as failing to extend God’s Word to others lead to me to wonder about the parable of the Good Samaritan. As we know, the praise for the Samaritan comes after a pair of examples in which mercy for the wounded was withheld. And we absolutely can count those. Jesus said as much, on asking his followers which of the three men in the parable counted as one’s neighbor. I read into this story that the men who choose not to provide assistance to the injured man had in effect denied him the Word. While I have never refused to assist a human being suffering along a road, I have certainly left unacknowledged a person’s request for help. I live in Chicago. The requests for assistance — whether bus fare, food, or spare change — come at me daily.
I once shared (nearly) all of this with Jen. She seemed surprised to hear it. I wasn’t sure how to talk about it, caught up in worry about that previously mentioned creepy sanctimony than being free to admit to a spiritual struggle. She was, as always, gracious in her shepherding me through an unexpected conversation. I had arrived unannounced at Grace that morning, having driven in from Chicago to spend a weekend in Holland visiting my family of friends. She opened up her morning and herself to an unexpected traveler. I think back on the conversation now as something that was on my then list of undone things: to talk with Jen about this little line tucked into our liturgy.
“And by what we have left undone,” became my favorite line in our liturgy for its subtly reminding us that the grace of God extends to the fulfilling of promises. It’s calling to us in words, like the better angel on our shoulder – to do the right thing and be who God wants us to be. Late is better than never, and we’re almost never beyond hope of doing the right thing. That’s a grace on which we can count.
Submitted by: Donald Martin