On the cusp of better

President Biden apologized the other day for using the word “illegal” as a noun in his State of the Union address, referring to a South American migrant accused of murder. Apparently he has long been prone to gaffey ramblings; I can remember when he was vice president and President Obama had to throw a frowning side-eye at him on occasion.

What strikes me is how rare it is for people in positions of power to apologize for anything. It takes a high chutzpah quotient to even think oneself fit to lead. Quarterbacks, mayors, CEOs – they all put into the universe a bold assuredness as part of the job. Even when they mess up, even if they learn from their mistakes, they don’t willingly default to mea culpa. It would degrade their carefully cultivated image. And heaven forbid any politician changes his or her mind about an issue; the opposition has its rubber stamp ready to write “wishy-washy” in the next TV spot.

Here in Lent I’ve been thinking about atonement and how to do it right. Because of course the run-up to Holy Week is all about hard self-examination against the high bar of God’s expectations of faithful people. And I’ve finally decided to cut the powerful some slack in this regard.

Because atonement is not a public process. It’s a struggle of the heart, what Muslims call the major jihad. It’s self-examination, contrition before God, and then – and this is the critical step – a commitment, even if it’s in a small way, to do better. To say one less unkind thing per day. To devote half a percent more of your budget to relieve suffering in the world. To pray for thirty seconds in the morning, hell or high water.

Were it not for the occasion of Lent, and of course a faithful congregation of Christians in which to find context and encouragement for the process, we might not even think to enter this kind of hard reflection. But in truth, it can happen any time. One of my hopes for worship, and I’ve experienced this as a parishioner in the pews often, is that on any given Sunday I might stumble across a challenge that will goose me to make myself an incrementally better person. Kinder. More loving. More generous. More open to differences and to dialogue.

I’m glad of the opportunity that Lent puts before us at the center of each church year. But I’m glad too that there’s no limit to where God can take us, all year long.


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