102) A Religion Designed to Last

By John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America
(Penguin Books, 1962), 77-79.

     Sunday morning, in a Vermont town…  I looked for a church to attend.  Several I eliminated for reasons I do not now remember, but on seeing a John Knox church I drove into a side street and parked…  I took my seat in the rear of the spotless, polished place of worship.  The prayers were to the point, directing the attention of the Almighty to certain weaknesses and undivine tendencies I know to be mine and could only suppose were shared by the others gathered there.  The service did my heart and I hope my soul good.  It had been a long time since I had heard such an approach.  

     It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins are not really sins at all but accidents that are set in motion by forces beyond our control.  There was no such nonsense in this church.  The minister… opened up with prayer and reassured us that we were a pretty sorry lot.  And he was right.  We didn’t amount to much to start with, and due to our own tawdry efforts we had been slipping ever since…  Having proved that we, or perhaps only I, were no damn good he painted with cool certainly what was likely to happen to us if we didn’t make some basic reorganizations for which he didn’t hold out much hope.  He spoke of hell as an expert, not the mush-mush hell of these soft days, but a well-stoked, white-hot hell served by technicians of the first order…  

     For some years now God has been a pal to us, practicing togetherness… but this Vermont God cared enough about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me.  He put my sins in a new perspective.  Whereas they had been small and mean and nasty and best forgotten, this minister gave them some size and bloom and dignity…  I wasn’t a naughty child, but a first-rate sinner, and I was going to catch it.  

     All across the country I went to church on Sundays, a different denomination ever week; but nowhere did l find the quality of that Vermont preacher.  He forged a religion designed to last, not some predigested obsolescence.

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I John 1:8-10  —  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.

Revelation 21:1-8 — Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.  I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”  Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  He said to me:  “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.  To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.  He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.  But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars– their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur.  This is the second death.”

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O Lord God, eternal and Almighty Father, we confess and acknowledge before thy holy majesty that we are poor sinners, conceived and born in iniquity and corruption, prone to do evil, incapable of any good, and that in our depravity we transgress thy holy commandments without end or ceasing.  Wherefore we purchase for ourselves, through thy righteous judgment, our ruin and perdition.  Nevertheless, O Lord, we are grieved that we have offended thee; and we condemn ourselves and our sins with true repentance, pleading for thy grace to relieve our distress.  O God and Father, most gracious and full of compassion, have mercy upon us in the name of thy dear Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.  And as thou dost blot out our sins and stains, magnify and increase in us day by day the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that as we acknowledge our unrighteousness with all our heart, we may be moved by that sorrow which shall bring forth true repentance in us, mortifying all our sins, and producing in us the fruits of righteousness and innocence which are pleasing unto thee; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.   –John Calvin, The Geneva Liturgy, 1542