Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Blazing Pencils

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

Fads can grow at any time in our lives, but junior high seems to provide them with particularly rich soil. In the very groovy Seventies of my youth, kids collected Wacky Packs (spoof stickers of popular products, like Crust Toothpaste), sprayed Binaca Blast into their mouths, obsessively compared pen cartridge sizes (Cross and Parker were the prestige brands), and attempted to rip the Levi's tags off one another's jeans. This last was predicated on a rumor that You and You Levi's at the Hanover Mall would give a free pair of jeans to anyone producing 25 Levi's tags. I don't know that I ever saw a new pair of pants garnered in this way, but I did see plenty of pockets with their tags flying at half-mast from an abortive strike.

As a father of two junior high students, I am happy to report that such fads appear to be alive and well. One of the latest is “blazing” pencils. This is at one level nothing more than a new label for the old skill of twirling pencils around on the back of one's thumb. But it has also given rise to the peculiar phenomenon of actual “blazing pencils”, with the accent now on the first syllable. These are specialized, unsharpened instruments with erasers on both ends, created by taking an ordinary pencil, leaving it unsharpened, and sticking an extra eraser on the business end. I presume this configuration gives them better balance, and thus better blaze, with the ancillary benefit of removing the possibility of poking should the blazing go awry.

Regular readers of this column, like regular auditors of parental lectures, will no doubt have the creeping feeling that there must be a lesson in here waiting to be dragged out. And indeed there is. As I thought about the fad of blazing pencils, it struck me what a vivid image these pencils are of a distorted but all too common view of God's grace. We sin, and God in his mercy forgives us. We sin again, and God in his mercy forgives us. We sin yet again, and God in his mercy forgives us. Rinse, lather, repeat, until the day you die. He keeps erasing our bad deeds, and he even has an extra eraser at the ready if we are particularly bad.

Now there is some truth to this, of course. We do sin repeatedly, and we do stand continually in need of his redeeming mercy. We are all of us still in the process of sloughing off our old man or our old woman, and so we need to regularly bathe in God's forgiveness. But in the New Testament, God's grace is far more than a mere eraser that wipes away our bad deeds. It is a transforming grace that inscribes his character within us. Among many verses, we might cite Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do, in order that we might walk in them.”

It's easy to see why we prefer the “soft” work of God in forgiving us to the hard work of God in changing us. (Soft for us, at least; it cost God his Son.) I suppose that if I were a piece of paper, I might rather like the feeling of someone rubbing a piece of vinyl or synthetic rubber compound mixed with pumice on me.1 It would be preferable, in any case, to having someone scratch into me with a combination of graphite and clay.2

In the same way, it would be nice to imagine that I can just keep all my old dirty habits intact and have God clean up after me. But pencils are primarily intended to produce something new, not simply to get rid of something old. And God's work in redemption is equally intended to produce something new: people transformed into his likeness who can carry on his work in the world. Getting rid of the old is just the first step in the process.

So you can blaze your pencils, blast your Binaca, and stick Wacky Packs on your locker to your heart's content (I can't recommend going after Levi's tags, since now it will only result in a sexual harassment suit, not a new pair of jeans; sic transit gloria Seventies). But don't give into the fad of blunted grace. Let God's love keep its sharp edge, so that he can continue to write his character into your life day by day.

1A shout out to pencils.com for the info on what erasers are really made of nowadays!

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