The other day, while on the phone with an old friend, I confided my struggle to be a better conversationalist.
"I talk about myself too much," I told her. "I never remember to ask people about their lives. I'm trying to get into the habit of mentally reviewing all the questions I should ask before I call. I've got a list near the phone of topics relevant to specific friends in case they call. Even then," I confessed, "I'm so self-centered, I often get caught up in something I'm saying and forget my lists altogether. I feel so bad."
"Yeah," my friend said. "You do tend to monopolize conversations."
She was right, of course, but I was immediately angry. Somehow I managed not to remind her how I'd gone out of my way to ask her about numerous topics throughout our phone call. I didn't even let on I was upset, but just listened to her blather away about a mutual acquaintance who was such a wonderful listener—who always remembered anniversaries and kids' birthdays and the smallest details of everyone's life.
I stewed all afternoon. The next morning, during my run, I tried to pray about my friend's surgery later that day, and I couldn't. I formed sentences in my head, but my spirit was entirely uninvolved. I was still that miffed.
I don't know what I'd expected in response to my confession. Commiseration, maybe. Or, better yet, the comforting lie that I wasn't as bad as I thought, that I'd made some progress in recent months.
So, as I ran, I decided to take this encounter as a test case for my new year's resolution—to regain the sweeter faith I had as a new believer by seeking God in minor daily experiences. Immediately, I remembered a passage from Marilynne Robinson's book Gilead about viewing conflicts and insults as visits from angels—and thus, as opportunities to engage grace.
What if I looked at my friend as God's emissary? I mused. What if I reexamined her remark as a message from God?
I'd been studying angel visits for an upcoming book on Advent, so I had several in my mind. I struggled, though, as I huffed down the road, to recast my friend's finger pointing as the "good news of great joy" the angel announced to the shepherds. Certainly my friend's remark was nothing like Gabriel's encouraging opening words to Mary—"Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28)—or to Zechariah, "Do not be afraid, Zachariah; your prayer has been heard" (Luke 1:13).
The angel visit that launched the prophet Isaiah's ministry was a better match. Isaiah saw God on his throne surrounded by seraphs, the highest order of angels, singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" so exuberantly that buildings shook, the temple filled with smoke, and Isaiah trembled with dread.
"Woe to me! [Isaiah] cried. I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among people with unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty" (6:5).
I envied Isaiah's ability to recognize first his own sin, rather than focus on others' sins. As I ran, I forced myself to look past my friend's lips to my own—to the me-centered words perpetually filling my mouth and drowning out the words of those around me. Why, even in that moment of confessing, I had to acknowledge, I was focusing on me. And not so much confessing, really, as secretly seeking someone else's denial of my faults.
I take comfort in the next part of Isaiah's story, though. One of the seraphs flew down to Isaiah, touched a live coal to his lips, and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for" (6:7).
Atoned for. Burned away. Cauterized, even. Indeed, atonement and cauterization are very similar: the painful burning away of rottenness to save a person.
Once home from my run, I discovered the unusual etymology of the English word atone. Unlike most words' origins, its root doesn't come from some Greek, Latin, or Indo-European source. Rather, atone is a contraction of at and one. To atone is to be at one about something. In accord. To agree with, just as my friend had agreed with my self-assessment. Her words, I suddenly saw, offered a similar atonement. They burned me with the embarrassing realization that, however hard I try, I can't avoid sinning; and they simultaneously reminded me that I've received atonement for my sins, even those that resist my best efforts at reform.
Remembering the amazing nature of grace—that it's undeserved, that it's permanent, that it burns away my most persistent errors—dissolved my hurt pride and freed me to pray for my friend, and mean it.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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