Practicing Parents

Ordinary Sinner

angry kid.jpg

~ by Bromleigh McCleneghan

With the start of the new year, some of the women in my congregation began meeting as a group, reflecting on their experiences parenting teenagers. I get to be facilitator even though my oldest is only eight. Pastor’s Privilege, I guess.

Some of the women have known each other for years: they were together in a mom’s group through our preschool when their kids were toddlers – a decade or more ago. Others are new, or parent kids in their earlier teens. We are just beginning to cohere as a group.

These things take time.

In any group, not just new ones, it is important to establish group norms: confidentiality, honoring one another’s time and contributions. Because we’re a church group, I’ve also insisted we adopt what I call the “ordinary sinner” rule.

I once knew a woman (but there are surely men like this, too) who always insisted on one-upping others. On their successes, on their suffering. Hers was always of a greater magnitude. There were days I’d get sucked in, trying to compete: to assert my accomplishments, or wallow in my failings. Other days I’d simply grow tired of it, and refuse to participate. Fine. Your cramps/headache/final exam schedule is worse.

Success and failure are not zero-sum games, after all.

You wouldn’t know that, though, to at look parenting culture as told through mass media and social networks. There we see the bane of my college existence played out on a larger tableau. On some sites we bear witness to parents going all out, all the time: sometimes for the sheer joy of giving their kid the coolest costume, sometimes in an attempt to keep up with – and surpass – the Joneses. Other groups have a different cultural norm: that of the bad mommy, the absent father, the terrible housekeeper. Born out of, I hope, a quest for authenticity – to give people a break from trying so hard all the time – these are the books and memes that feature those who have just given up (and often just started drinking.) You forgot your kids’ classroom party? I haven’t done laundry in month!

Neither of these approaches are particularly satisfying, nor are they particularly Christian – but they are ingrained into our patterns of thinking about ourselves, and, too often, how we describe ourselves to others. Hence, my “ordinary sinner” rule.

It is so named because of Kathleen Norris’s brilliant reflection on the word sinner in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, which has stayed with me since I first read it years ago. Norris claims it is easy enough for her to recognize that she is, herself, a sinner, though it’s an acknowledgement she’d rather avoid. But she tends to separate herself from others – my sins are less; they are surely worse. Or, conversely, redemption is for them; I am beyond repair, beyond hope. The challenge lies in claiming oneself an “ordinary sinner”:

“To admit to being no more, no less, than an ordinary sinner is not comforting; it does not shine with the glamour of despondency; above all, it does nothing to foster my self esteem.”

Churches do not help the matter Norris suggests; even the language of our prayers of confession cloud the nature of our repentance. What have we done? Often, we have sinned, but we can’t quite bring ourselves to say the word.

The ordinary sinner rule reminds us that we all screw up, we all do well on some things. This is not a competition; we have all fallen short, and we are all offered redemption.

I suspect we struggle to name our sin because we don’t really believe it’s forgiven. One of my daughters, when she is chastised ever so slightly, bursts into tears and distraught exclamations of I’m a bad girl! No one loves me.

No one could possibly love a girl who (gasp) didn’t put her socks in the hamper or (shudder) snapped at her sister.

What’s strange to me is that she attends our church’s family worship service each and every week as we offer our prayer of confession (which we call “Being Honest with God”) and hear the words of assurance. I know she’s listening, because she quotes them back at me sometimes: There is nothing so big, there is nothing so bad, that can separate us from the love of God.

My colleague suggested the other day that she may be seeking the assurance of our love with her meltdowns. If he’s right, I should try offering her more consistent, pre-emptive reassurance because a) she clearly needs it and b) I’ll try anything once that might reduce the number of tantrums.

Still, I also suspect that we both fear and revel in our imagined positions of being extraordinary – extraordinarily good or bad. We want to be special, noticed.

For me, part of helping my kids to hear critique and correction, to develop an accurate assessment of how they’re doing morally on any given day, is to model that accuracy myself. I need to name when I’ve done wrong, and not harp on things that aren’t a big deal. I’m an ordinary sinner, but a redeemed one, too.

A month or so ago, I was dropping my kindergartner off when we ran into one of her friends and the girl’s mother, who is also a pastor. They’d had a rough morning, my friend confessed, and at one point, she yelled at her daughter. They’d debriefed and reconciled, but at one point her daughter said indignantly, “Callie’s mom [that’s me] never yells!” Her mother laughed and assured her that she was confident that I yell sometimes, too.

I was amazed at and tickled by this little friend’s faith in me, but I did feel like I had to correct her mistaken assumption. Especially because I kind of yell all the time. Mostly about getting our socks on and please keep your hands to yourself and don’t be mean to your sister. But. I leaned down and reported, I do yell sometimes. I think all moms yell sometimes. But we are always sorry, and we always love our children.

We all fall short. But no one is beyond the scope of God’s power to redeem. Especially not an ordinary sinner like me, like you.

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