We’re now starting the fourth week of Lent – halfway through already – and the marquee post that has been coming to mind lately is the first one I noticed at Lake Washington Christian Church: “When you fall, be sure to pick something up.” I think the reason why this epigram caught my attention more than a year ago, and why it has been on my mind as of late, is because it is deceptively simple. It almost sounds like it belongs on the “All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten” list along with play fair, clean up your own mess, and flush.
Learn from your mistakes. Don’t most people do this naturally? When you touch a hot stove, or trip on a crack in the sidewalk, or tell a lie it seems foolish not to learn from the burn that the stove is dangerous, from the scraped knee to watch your step, and from the shame to tell the truth (or at least not get caught). It’s basic survival. So why did the pastor at LWCC choose this elementary phrase as the topic of his sermon? That I don’t know for sure, but I have a guess.
How many of us have been walking down the street, across a room, up a flight of stairs, and have fallen? It’s embarrassing even when no one else is around; but trip up in front of others, and it’s downright mortifying. If we merely stumble, it is tempting to try to play it off or to act as if nothing happened. Only when we totally wipe out (that’s my inner valley-girl talking), are on our backside, and perhaps even injured, are we forced to admit that we erred. It’s not a coincidence that in Hebrew the generic word for sin is het, which means to err, or to miss the mark. For the purposes of this post (and to avoid mixing metaphors), we can think of it as a misstep. When we sin, we make a moral and spiritual misstep. When we do, don’t we often try to act as if nothing happened, and are only forced to admit our mistake when our misstep is too big to deny?
I know that one of my shortcomings is that I hate to admit when I’m wrong or have made a mistake, and I am encouraged in this shortcoming by the world that would tell me that to admit when I’m wrong is to be weak. This world would tell us that there is no such thing as sin, that short of hurting someone else, we can do whatever we please whenever we want. In his book Journey to the Kingdom, Father John Mack writes that “we have an idea that has been fed to us by Satan that sin is fun … and that somehow God stands in the way and says, ‘No, you can’t do that because I don’t want you to have any fun’” (Mack 127). This world would have us – having erred, made our misstep, fallen – stay down and act as if we meant to have fallen. It does not take long to get used to being down and to think of this fallen-ness as normal or even desirable. The world reassures us that we’re fine; we don’t need to get up. But Jesus says, “Follow me,” and we can’t do that by staying down and justifying our missteps, our sins.
The spring quarter of my freshman year in college, I had fallen and was busy convincing myself that I was still walking tall. Raised in the Orthodox Church, my family and I went to church every Sunday. When I went to college and was on my own, I did not attend church even though there was an Orthodox Church not far from the University. I made many excuses – I didn’t have a car, it was too far, it started too early – but the reality was I didn’t want to be bothered. Looking back, it is clear to me now that not having the frequent reminder of who I was and who God was played a large part in my downward spiral. By the time spring quarter rolled around the reality was that, though I couldn’t see it then, I was dangerously anorexic, trying to gain control of my life by controlling what I ate, and generally wrapped up in myself. When I came home for Holy Week and Pascha that year, I had an experience that, if you know me, is truly out of character, but very telling. I walked into my home parish of St. John of Damascus. Being Holy Friday, the Cross with Christ upon it was in the middle of the church. Parishioners coming for Vespers were prostrating before it and venerating it, as is the custom. I didn’t even make it that far. Before I could approach the Cross, I was overcome with grief and began to sob uncontrollably. If you had asked me then what was wrong, I probably would have said that I was just homesick. But looking back, I believe that my soul, faced with the icon of Christ on the Cross, could no longer deny the huge discrepancies between where I was, where I was pretending to be, and where I should be. A large part of my life at that time was spent desperately trying to deny my fallenness; more than that, I was justifying it and in so doing I was denying my truest need – Christ.
To follow Christ, I first had to admit that I had fallen. This is much harder than it seems because pride encourages us to deny our sins, to deny that we have fallen, to deny that we are injured and need help – to play it off. The alternative is scary; we have to admit that we have sinned, to admit that we have fallen, to admit that we have injured ourselves and need healing – to repent. In First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty-Day Journey through the Canon of St. Andrew, Frederica Matthewes-Green writes that “for the ancient Christians, repentance was a gift which must be sought and prayed for; it doesn’t come naturally, because we are so blind to our true selves.” She then asks her reader to reflect whether he or she is “willing to ask God to help you acquire true repentance” (Matthewes-Green 4)? What would that mean?!! . Would we really like to be aware of EVERY time we misstep, even if only slightly, and feel the full extent of our injuries, our sinfulness? This is an intimidating prospect. And yet, in order to get up, we have to admit that sitting in the dirt isn’t getting us anywhere and repent.
Frederica gives the most wonderful definition of repentance I’ve ever heard. “Repentance,” she states, “doesn’t mean feeling bad about yourself, guilty, and miserable. It is seeing the truth: admitting the truth about your sinful self, and the truth about God, which is that He already knew this truth about you and loves you anyway” (Matthewes-Green xiv). In other words, repentance requires that we recognize that we’ve fallen, realize that we are going to fall again, and get up anyway because the struggle to stand and follow Christ is a good struggle – it’s what we, if we are going to call ourselves Christians, are called to do by Jesus himself.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mark 8: 34). How easy it is to stay down when we’ve fallen, to feel that getting up is futile since we are only going to fall again. Father John Mack reminds us that “as we struggle to come towards God, God is not uninterested in our struggle” (Mack 126). Yes, like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, He is waiting and looking for us to return to Him. But more than that, as we struggle, “He is aiding us. He is beside us, and it is His grace that is sustaining us” (Mack 126). When I reflect upon my Holy Friday breakdown, I can now see that Christ was standing with me while also being on the Cross. He knew the truth about me that I was unwilling to see. Feeling the embrace of His Church and confronted with His love by the icon of His self-sacrifice, my hard and willful heart was softened for a moment. In that moment, God called me to realize where I was and to repent. He continued to aid me and sustain me when I began treatment for my anorexia that summer and then later that year when I met my future husband. Even though I have long since returned to the Church, I continue to fall. But when I do, I pray that I may be granted the gift of repentance so that I may get up again. The struggle towards God is what makes getting up and falling, getting up and falling worthwhile; without God the struggle is Sisyphean.
“When you fall, be sure to pick something up.” However trite and sophomoric this epigram may seem when you first read it, further reflection reveals its wisdom. We all will fall, and rather than deny, justify, or even indulge our fallenness, we must deny the pride that would have us pretend our sin away. Again and again we will fall, and then again and again we must be sure to pick up our cross and follow Christ.