by Karen Mannino Monday, August 26
“Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel – ‘Thou mayest’ – that gives a choice. It might be the most important whole in the world. That says the ways is open. That throws it back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’ — it is also true that ‘Thou mayest no.’ Don’t you see?”
~From East of Eden, by John Steinbeck.
A few days ago, a WWII vet was killed by a couple of teens near an ice skating rink in my home town. There didn’t seem to be any reason for it. Even if there was some reason for it, it was a horrible crime.
My home town has a reputation for drugs and a crime that is disproportionate to its size. I ride the bus to work most days and I’ve never had much trouble, though I know that many of the other commuters have probably done time in jail. I hear them talking about the hardships and dramas in their lives. They come from rough families. They get themselves into some pretty horrible situations. They are all trying to do better by their children. Some cynical part of me doubts that their children will really have it any better, or even appreciate the effort. It seems like a vicious pattern that goes on while us “good” people go about our business unaffected. I sit and pray for them. There, but for the grace of God, go I.
I have my own patterns of destruction in my life. There are relationships that never seem to get better because we always react to each other with anger, or cynicism. There are situations that I should know how to avoid, but I find myself there again and again. I feel hopelessly trapped.
The passage quoted above is the heart of East of Eden. Up until that point, we have seen the generations of a family react against, but ultimately repeat the mistakes of the generations before them. Every boy grows up to be his father’s son. In the story, father’s force their boys into rigid ideals, and never see the true boy being himself. Rejection and misunderstanding and hatred come and go both ways. There is blood spilt at all the turning points. But just before the final repetition, a character somehow inserts God’s grace into the pattern. For just a moment or two, the father is forced to see the people he loves as they are and not as he imagines them. The pattern continues as it seems to have been predestined. But the grace allows for knowledge that though the pattern is strong, like a current, the final choice will be a free choice, not a reaction or a repetition.
In East of Eden, it is a single visit from a neighbor that brings that grace into the lives of the main characters. I often wonder, as I sit on the bus, how God will insert his grace into the lives of the people sitting next to me. Will this man find work that allows him to regain his dignity and self respect? Will this girl somehow communicate her love for her child in some graced moment that will get through the anger and impatience that characterizes all the other relationships in her life? Will someone teach this man to forgive? If no one helps these people, will they waste their lives in sin? Will their children grow up to attack old people for no reason?
It is easy to feel helpless in the face of evil, sin and the habitual patterns that it forms. But as Christians we are people of hope. No situation is too dark for God to transform it. And it is an amazing gift that God allows us imperfect human creatures to participate in these transformations if we are willing. God can use any small chance or word to work any sized miracle. We may hold ourselves in readiness to break patterns of sin. The way is open for us, to let grace into our lives, and also to be a channel of grace for other lives.
Karen Mannino works a part time job at a toy store and another part time job being a starving artist, so she only starves part of the time.