I peer out from the tall glass window of the modern courthouse where I work, looking past some of the copper facing that juts out, to see the high school I attended many years ago. I watch kids trudging along to that old building, and it feels all too familiar. From where I watch, it’s a scene that would fit perfectly into nearly any school year over the past few decades. The backside of this building is only several doors away from the sweatshop my mother worked in when I was a child. I can still remember the cheap green wood panel entrance door. I can see myself climbing the stairs to rows of sewing machines spread across the floor. I’m sure it doesn’t compare to its third world counterparts, but it’s my childhood memory, and it’s how I remember it. Around the corner from my mother’s work, was my first comic book shop. I remember how small, and how cool it was. I’m pretty sure Avengers Issue #181 was my first buy. My childhood home is a handful of short traffic lights away. This was my neighborhood and I roamed these streets, and made my way through nearly every inch of whatever stunted jungle growth that had remained at the time within the concrete confines of small tenement buildings and stores. Whatever green that was here, was more than enough for a rousing game of manhunt, as well as other troubles to get mixed up in. In the years since, as I drive through this old homestead on occasion, I can see there’s more concrete and even less jungle now, but that’s progress, right?
So, at 51 years of age, here in my office cubicle of the court where I work, in this oft forgotten borough of NYC, I sit in the eye of what has been the center of the universe of my entire life. I’m not sure if it’s a place I wanted to be at. As the years pass by now at what seems to be at an increasingly alarming rate of speed, I notice that one of the “dangers” of being a civil service employee, especially in the immediate vicinity of where you grew up, is that you’re sort of tethered to that same place your entire work career, which in civil service “dog-years” could be twenty-five to thirty years or more, depending on your entry level tier. Like so many other place-keepers before you, you (meaning me), find yourself daydreaming of the day the cord is cut, and you think of all the places you can move to that doesn’t include a winter season, or lawns. A place where people use their blinkers, and don’t slide to the left before making a right turn, forgive my tangent thoughts here. The gist of it is, you are ready for a change of pace, someplace new. You don’t necessarily need to spend your days picking seashells in retirement, you just want some new scenery with maybe a balcony.
Certainly, you could move thirty or forty miles away for new perspective and still get to work in a reasonable amount of time, even for a New York City borough, but that’s just not me. If I move again, I am only moving one more time. I don’t want to keep moving. I like roots, even if they are somewhere new.
So, I wait for that moment, by God’s grace.
While I wait, familiarity breeds contempt. I know this neighborhood too well. It’s secrets too easily give up the ghost, and there are a lot of ghosts. My memory is awash with them, swirling apparitions of remembrances moving about in my head constantly. Because those memories tend to be the kind that surface, I could tell you in great detail about the more sordid parts of my life from childhood right to my developing young adult years. I sometimes wonder if my fifteen-minute commute is worth the resurrected ghosts of sin and shame. What’s worse is, that it’s more than just my sin. I’m familiar with hordes of other sins. Sins of family and friends, intimates, and acquaintances. It’s all there right on the surface, as if working in proximity to it all, lifts it up out of the muck and mire of the past. Like a tainted lost city of Atlantis being raised to give up her long-buried secrets.
I understand why one of the tools for an addict to get clean may be to leave the familiar surroundings of what they’re used to. While you can find drugs anywhere, it’s at least an attempt at a new beginning, away from the convenience of knowing where to get everything you “need”. Maybe that’s why I’m so eager to run or to move. To move on from this familiar fifty-year port of call. Go get a fresh start for a new you, and all that jazz. It’s like living in a bubble of history here.
But who am I kidding? Wherever I go, I’m still there. It might be nice to think it wouldn’t follow me to a new state, but there’s no invisible barrier or border that my past would bounce off of, ricocheting back into the dust of where I left it. Like I said, it would be nice.
It’ll keep following me, like an addiction is still there at the rehab of whatever new state the addict moves to. It cries out in his skin and soul to be remembered, to be fulfilled, to get one more taste. My own past at times crawls back up and wants to remind me that I am no good, that I am unworthy.
Of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. All the things I need.
My past crawls up out of the muck and into my head and fires off accusation after accusation, lighting up a firework of synapses in my brain, as I war against it. I respond by firing my own volley back with words full of never-ending truths, fully immutable, and completely unambiguous.
“As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” – Psalm 103:12
It’s true! It IS true.
I have never needed a pastor to remind me of my sin. My flesh and mind do that all too well. What I have always needed is the reminder that, “yes, you are forgiven to the uttermost.” The distinction of Law and Gospel laid out in an encouraging sermon, or in a passage from scripture, will always find me unconsciously nodding my head at the pronouncement of the law, and fill me with tears as the salve of the gospel is spread over it’s condemning words.
My battles, often now more from within than from without, but not only, still rage, so I do have to regularly remind myself, God has separated me from my sin forever, even the newest ones. I have to remember that the only thing really left of the actual sin, is the residual memory, which is as tainted by sin as my flesh is and like anything sick with sin, attempts to work against me with great persistence, gnawing at all the promises of God.
As much as I want to retire and move for a variety of good reasons, I can’t move far enough from my thoughts, it’s a constant battle as Paul would speak of in Romans. This is why we have these great words given to us by God that stand firm, never relenting, never giving an inch back to the accuser.
We know we are forgiven by Christ’s atonement. As one who is forgiven, we can fight back those accusations with;
“As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
“He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” – Micah 7:19
As much as I want it to be as simple, for me it’s not…
The words are true, and I believe they are true, but are they real?
This is my struggle.
Like the first time you hold your newborn, you can hardly believe it’s a real moment. You’re a father now. It’s absolutely true, but even with this little seven pound fragile bundle rocking in your arms, it hardly feels real at first. You might even repeat the words, “I’m a father…” over and over again to yourself, sometimes in shock, sometimes like a question. The reality of it settles in though. Yes, you are a father.
I do that with God’s word sometimes, especially his promises. Trying to find the tangible realness hidden within them.
“My sins are forgiven?”
“My sins ARE forgiven!”
Is it real for me, that’s my true struggle. I know it’s true, but sometimes it doesn’t feel real. As if there’s an exemption on the application, a tag that says, “This word void where Dominick”.
All day long I will remind you that God’s Word is true. All day, everyday, God’s Word is true.
What I need is for it to be real.
Whether I say the exact words or not, this is the essence of any prayer to God in my struggle.
“God, I know you’re Word is true, please make it real…”