One of my idols when I was growing up was the Christian music artist Sandi Patty. There’s a reason why this woman is known simply as “The Voice”. The purity and clarity of her tone, her ability to sing anything with effortless aplomb, and of course, the fact that she can hit notes located only in the stratosphere, very quickly gained her legendary status. Because I love to sing myself (and have a fairly good voice), she was the person I wanted to be. Never mind the fact that our voices are completely different. I’m a mezzo, she’s a high soprano. Her tone is clear and light, mine is warm and dark. I could still be her right? She was still the person to aspire to, someone without any flaws.
But Sandi Patty is also known for something else. She’s known for her very public divorce (1992), which was the result of a eventually-not-secret, long-running affair she had with one of her backup singers. All of which led to a meteorically quick fall from grace in the Christian community.
Today’s lectionary passage from 1 Sam. 15:22-31 also records the story of the fall of a great leader–the first king of Israel, King Saul. Here, King Saul is instructed by the prophet Samuel on the Word of the Lord, to go with his men and defeat the Amalekites, an enemy of Israel. During and after the battle, Saul and his men are to destroy or kill everything. Men, women, children, cattle, buildings, etc. Nothing is to be left. After seeing what good things the Amalekites had though, King Saul decides to keep all the choice livestock and King Agag of the Amalekites. Everything weak and despised though, he destroys. After learning what King Saul has done, Samuel delivers another message from the Lord: Because of what you’ve done, the kingdom will be taken from you and given to another. You are no longer favored in the eyes of the Lord. Upon hearing this harsh sentence, Saul admits that he has sinned and begs for Samuel’s and God’s forgiveness. But it’s too late. Saul made his choice, and now he must bear the consequences.
At this point, I always stop and wonder whether or not Saul was actually sorry, or if he was simply trying to backpedal and look better and more obedient than he actually was. Unfortunately, I suspect it is the latter. Samuel reminds Saul that “to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” It doesn’t matter whether or not Saul actually intended to offer up these choice animals as a sacrifice to God or not. What was more important to God was Saul’s obedience.
Saul learned the hard lesson that sometimes our choices have consequences. Even though God’s forgiveness is never-ending and total, this doesn’t mean that you and I will walk away scott-free when we willfully (and sometimes even unwillfully) sin. Sandi Patty learned this lesson as well. Although she records her amazing journey back to God’s forgiveness in Broken on the Back Row, she would be the first one to admit that she still lives with the consequences of her choices. Radio stations refused to play her songs for years, and some still do. Attendance at her concerts was dismal, and perhaps even now is not as good as it could be. Her popularity took a dive-bomb and never fully recovered. People were angry, and some never forgave. The story of her music is always connected to the story of her affair.
But if you read her autobiography, you also cannot help but be drawn into the dazzling story of God’s grace. Sandi admitted her wrong, confronted a whole bunch of other junk in her life, married the man she had an affair with, has an amazing marriage, an amazing blended family, and an amazing ministry that God gifts to her each and every day.
In Ephesians 5:1-9, Paul lays out quite a list of how Christians should conduct themselves and who they should be as believers in Christ. It’s an unattainable list. And the sentence that Paul gives us for not reaching its pinnacle is harsh: no sinner like this has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
Ouch. Admittedly, I don’t know quite how to interpret this, since I certainly don’t keep this list of “don’ts” the way Paul and God want me to. Paul lays out God’s punishment starkly, and it seems unequivocal. And maybe it is. But then I read this: For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light. There’s a note of grace here that I cling to. Throughout Ephesians, Paul uses his grammatical structure to convey this point. “This is who you were in in sin. This is who you are in Christ. Now act like it.” Paul must know that every one of us will miss the mark with this list. But what he doesn’t want us to do is miss the point. Even in our sin, are we being daily transformed by the grace and work of God in our lives? Are we empowered to obey by the knowledge that we are loved? In other words, when obedience to God seems impossible and undesirable, do we find it within our spirits to do it anyway, because we know God’s redemption empowers us to do so?
Saul missed the mark when he decided to keep all the choice livestock and King Agag. But he also missed the point. Before and after his disobedience, Saul was never a man who was sorry, he never confessed, and he never tried to be the great king God equipped him to be. He never drew strength from God. Sandi Patty missed the mark. But she didn’t miss point. She repented and learned to live in the grace she discovered on the other side. She allowed God to change who she was, and lives in this forgiveness, instead of in the past. Her ministry is more grace-filled, relatable, and real than it was before. Yes, she has done bad things. We all have. The mountains and missteps are a part of all our stories.
It’s a temptation during Lent to become fixated on how much we’ve missed the mark, to be weighted by the darkness of our sin, to think “Woe is me, alas I shall always be a terrible person.” And while it’s not bad idea to be confronted with the gravity of our sin, that’s not everything Lent (or life) is about. Lent is about fully realizing the depths to which we have fallen, so that we can fully celebrate at Easter (and everyday) how much God has raised us up. The point is to live and act as though we have already obtained the perfection we have in Christ. To live into the full reality of our redemption, even while its bright light shimmers in the distance.