The Wages of Sin

“For the wages of sin is death” … the evidence surrounds us. It shows itself in pelicans struggling under a coating of oil, arteries blocked by a layer of cholesterol, highways littered with the aftermath of driver distractions and impairments.

A special curse settles around those who think that life is fair and we all deserve what we get. Consider the pelican. This swamp of “sin” that we so cautiously label flows over the innocent and the guilty alike. Each generation’s innocent vice has a legacy in its mortality statistics. Believe it or not, the wages of sin is death.

To me, the equation is a definition. “Sin” is sin because it leads to death. Thus the sin of eating pork falls to cooking technology, only to rise again with enlightened dietary guidelines. The nuances of Mosaic Law are lost as the plague loses steam or the mode of transmission shifts.

Too many people have been driven from church by the concept of a kill-party God, a Deity somehow offended by the concept of human enjoyment. Others fail to see the mercy of Christ in so-called followers who delight in declaring, “I told you so!” Still others see the death that comes from practices and attitudes that believers might excuse as not specifically prohibited.

Addiction recovery was underground at my church. AA meetings were held at arms’ length, happening off to the side, after hours. There was, and still is, a subset of members who “tried one” cup of coffee, never touched a cigarette and settled down with one lifelong partner. But even in that subset, every family has someone who’s doctor shopping for pain pills, babying an overtaxed liver or taking a sabbatical in rehab.

I had a friend, a soaring violinist, the equal of any concert musician I’ve ever heard. He played at my installation service. Despite his humility and encouragement of others, there was no disguising his talent, that it was head-and-shoulders above anything else in the room.

My friend was both a Christian and a “Christian.” He was active in another, more conservative church, one with exacting standards for deacons and membership. He was a member in good standing, probably a deacon, a good boy in Sunday School.

My friend died of an overdose of inhalants. We never knew. He had been sober for years, a 12-step soldier in NA for years. He was also a non-participant for many more years of sobriety — and a few weeks of relapse.

It has been said that AA and 12-step recovery programs are the biggest development in western spirituality since the Protestant Reformation. Luther rejected the Pope; 12-steppers rejected religion in all its trappings, including the priesthood. It’s truly a priesthood of believers in a Higher Power that goes unlabeled, peer-to-peer ministry, sinner-to-sinner therapy. If you want to talk spirituality with Boomers and X-ers, you’ll find common ground with more people quoting the Big Book than quoting scripture.

But a funny thing happens on the way to sober living. All this Higher Power talk leads some people back to the faith of their fathers. Jesus takes on the Higher Power role and does a darned good job of it. The bad news is that the church and Sunday School take on the role of small groups, with mixed results. Too often, the pastor becomes the sponsor without knowing what the sponsee has been through.

My friend found a church, but he lost touch with his recovery community. He had no sponsor to call, no meeting to attend where he could confess his sins and find absolution. So he fell off the wagon and died.

The wages of sin is death. That doesn’t mean that my friend deserved to die. Nor was it entirely his sin that caused this death. Some people knew and said nothing — can’t embarrass my friend in front of the church, can we? Some chose to ignore the telltale signs of intoxication; others were relieved when he started skipping the worship service. Still others survived similar struggles in their own lives and kept them hidden, trying to fit in with the never-a-sip, never-a-puff sainthood.

Sins all around, and their wages is death.

About half of my hospice deathbed vigils have been with people who were too young to die but too burdened by addiction to carry on. My generation knew that our drug of choice was slightly better than tobacco and booze, then translated “less harmful” to read “harmless.” Our children listened and found their own intoxicants. People who were too embarrassed to ask the pastor for a good rehab center have nowhere else to turn for a decent memorial service.

Morality for me is a matter of life and death, but that’s again definitional. It isn’t about impressing me, or God, for that matter, or honoring God by hitting some arbitrary, ceremonial standard. It’s about living another day.

Oh, no, we don’t talk about these things. What’s the big deal about putting a buzz on? “Be careful that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” I’ve shredded my buzz permit for the sake of those who think if I can do it, it must be ok. Because for them, if not for me, it might cause trouble.

My friend is honored every week at a fellowship meal. The meal follows six simultaneous small group meetings, which follow an hour of worship and 12-step lessons or testimony. No one is put down for their particular “sin” because all of us have sinned. Recovering addicts find a safe worship environment where they aren’t led into temptation by those who take lightly the power of “sin.”

And those teatotalers? They’re learning to speak 12-step, to turn their lives over to a Higher Power, to accept people as they are. We learn that redemption is real, that no one is scarred for life.

“… but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Where wrath, judgment, prejudice and the Law have failed us, the grace, mercy and humility of Christ prevail. Love does indeed cover a multitude of sins!

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