the penultimate WORD


Series 2009 - June

I love erasers...








An attic is a wonderful extension to a failing memory.  Older houses have them and a rainy afternoon is well invested among trunks and card board boxes lurking in the shadows.  Not long ago I found myself seated on a low stool unpacking a box that had been tied up with twine and marked “school”.  As a summer rain fell on the metal roof over my head, I slipped the chord over the corners and pried the lids open.  Old crumpled newspapers greeted me, packing material from an earlier generation.

While the yellowing newsprint provided amusement for a new century, I reached beyond the dated advertisements and historic headlines to what they concealed within.  A worn book bag occupied a corner and some Readers from Grade One and Two.  Thumbing through the texts I revisited Maple Street and childhood friends: Dick and Jane and their baby sister Sally.  Spot their dog ran among leaves on Maple Street and their cat Puff… well, Puff did what cats do best.  The colours and the art work and the scintillating dialog captured me and I was transported half a century back into my youth.  The brittle newspaper was set aside to reveal other treasures.  Amongst them was my pencil box.



The hard wood pencil box had a sliding top that when retracted disclosed a tray with two pencils.  Hidden from the light of day for decades, they were still sharpened, ready to be put to paper.  The tray hinged by a screw, swung to one side, exposing a lower tray.  There I found a plastic pencil sharpener and a well worn eraser.

I picked up the eraser.  I can’t imagine what errors a six year old might make that would demand such use of an eraser.  I can’t imagine what errors I made!  The worn edges were evidence to mistakes made – and mistakes in every age have their consequences.  Some scribblers beneath the pencil box bore evidence of this life lesson.  Spelling errors and errors in addition had been corrected – you could see the worn fibre of the pulp where the abrasive eraser had erased the error, allowing for a second try.  The worn fibres, the smudged graphite from the yellow wooden pencils, and the indentation from the lead intently applied by a six year old scholar all hinted at error and correction.  Try as I might a correction was made, but an error was not forgotten.



As the rain continued its staccato rhythm on the roof I reflected on my efforts to correct errors and mistakes over the years.  Later, when I was allowed to use a ball point pen, an ink eraser was part of my equipment and its coarse composition tore up the cheap paper when a correction was attempted.  It was harder to hide an effort at correction than to try to hide from God as he walked in the cool of an evening in Eden.  Teachers could recognize it – I could recognize it!  The attempt of my vain efforts could not be hidden.

The lesson I learned in Grade One has been applied by each of us.  We make mistakes – we forget the sequence of letters as we spell, we forget the tables of addition and subtraction, and later those of multiplication and division and mistakes are made.  Carelessness, forgetfulness, indifference have their consequence and try as we might, our efforts to conceal our failures fall short.  We make a mistake.  We try to fix it ourselves.

In the church we use anther word for this.  We call it sin.  Consequences still attend our carelessness, forgetfulness and indifference and we continue to remedy ourselves – a lot like applying the erasers we had at our desks in the halcyon days of our youth.  The fibre of our lives becomes frayed and worn, the clarity in our relationships becomes blurred and the resulting scars we bear – often unseen – hint at our failure twice over.



The Prophet Jeremiah addressed the misdirection of concern as he gave voice to the will of the Lord:

“The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.Jeremiah 31:31-34 NRSV

The initiative of our correction is always taken by God.  Forgiveness covers the carelessness, forgetfulness and indifference that typify our lives.  The writing of Torah by the hand of God is without spelling error.  Lessons learned by forgiveness do more than erase.  They enable us to respond with confidence.  Confession, admission of those errors in our lives we have tried vainly to hide, becomes a response in joy and hope, knowing that not only have our shortcomings been covered, they have been remembered no more.


Copyright © 2009 James T. Irvine

MidiSine Nomine

Sermon delivered at St Matthew's ELCIC, Fredericton

Series 2009