"It's Only Dried Coffee!"
By Brenda Evans
Sometimes, I take my husband out for breakfast just because I’m nice, or because I don’t want to cook, or because it’s almost Valentine’s Day.
When I say, “I take my husband out,” I mean I pay. But saying I pay is a little off target because while there are two checkbooks—mine and his—all the money comes out of the same cookie jar.
Back to breakfast. As I said, it was almost Valentine’s Day, and our server brought menus and coffee. We glanced through the thousand (more or less) menu temptations. I lifted my cup to sip my first black caffeine of the day. Half an inch inside my cup, a dark ring-shaped design caught my eye. Strange design for a cup, I thought. I rubbed my finger over the design. It smudged. No design at all—just crud. Dried, unadulterated crud.
I pushed the cup toward the server and pointed inside.
“It’s only dried coffee,” she quipped with a shrug.
“But it’s not my dried coffee,” I replied.
“I’ll get you another cup,” she whispered and whisked the dirty mug away.
Bill and I chatted on, laughing about “It’s only dried coffee.” We decided her four words could get her fired, or at least reprimanded if her manager heard. But we weren’t telling. It was almost Valentine’s Day, a day of love and happiness, and we were in no mood to mess it up for either her or her manager.
We selected vegetable omelets and a side of pancakes slathered in slippery butter and floating in fake maple syrup. We also talked (mostly with our mouths full) about how often our words are flippant or dismissive or deceptive, even about serious things like sin. Not that our server sinned when she said, “It’s only dried coffee.” Not at all. But she was flippant. Some other customer’s crud in my coffee cup didn’t mean much to her, so she shrugged it off like we sometimes shrug and divert attention when we sin. We may even take it farther and deny, make excuses, create alibis, or conjure artful dodgings. Who likes to admit bad things or feel guilty?
Truth is, as Madeleine L’Engle says in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, sin is an unpopular word, and we try to avoid talking about it when it is our sin: “The worse things get, the more we try to rationalize and alibi. When we do wrong, we try to fool ourselves (and others) that it is because our actions and reactions have been coded into our genetic pattern at the moment of conception. Or our mothers didn’t understand us. Or they understood us too well. Or it is the fault of society. Certainly, it is never our fault.”
L’Engle called these rationalizations and alibis “dirty devices” we invent to exempt ourselves from the responsibility of our sin. Rationalizing shifts the blame off me. So, I don’t admit, “Yes, I did this.” I don’t say, “I’m sorry, Lord. I’ve sinned; please forgive me.” I don’t confess. I don’t make reparations. I rationalize or make alibis.
Until I read L’Engle’s comment, I’d never thought that I had alibied to deflect guilt. Alibi originated from Latin in the mid-1700s and meant elsewhere—still does, for example, when used in court. But these days and more informally, as a verb, it means “to make excuses.” Sometimes, I hedge and evade and deny as if the sin could not possibly be mine, as if I were not there, so I couldn’t have done it. L’Engle is tough on alibis: “Our sins defeat us unless we are willing to recognize them, confess them, and become healed and whole and holy.”
The blunt excuses we conjure up are dirty devices also. How well we remember Moses’ evasive strategies at the burning bush in Exodus 3-4. God called him to go to Egypt and lead the Hebrew people out of Pharaoh’s grueling slavery. Moses didn’t openly rebel or flatly say no. Instead, he contrived five excuses to absolve himself of the obligation.
Were his excuses a sin? Opinions vary on that. All five may have had some validity. But, at the least, Moses was trying to avoid God’s call to go and confront Pharaoh. He was unwilling to obey, so he made up five excuses: I don’t have the ability, don’t know what to say, don’t have the authority, am not a good speaker, and somebody else can do it better. Five reasons, he thought, to skirt the issue and keep his head in the desert sand of Midian among the sheep and goats.
Still, I get his excuses. What God asked seemed inconceivable—rescue a million or so willful and defiant Hebrews and snatch them from the hands of the strongest ruler and most powerful empire in the world? Defy this Pharaoh who could call up “six hundred chosen chariots” plus “all the chariots of Egypt” (Exodus 14:7)? Moreover, armed warriors accompanied those chariots, along with innumerable cavalry or “horsemen,” as Exodus says. Pharaoh and his army were a daunting enemy.
You and I might become supreme excuse-makers if we were asked to do such a thing. We should think twice before shaking our heads in disbelief and pointing an accusing finger at Moses. Remember, we make big, over-blown excuses all the time—and for such small, everyday things.
Do a 180
Sometimes, we do the “Jonah act” as well. He didn’t voice a single excuse as far as we know—though he may have thought them. He simply got up and went the opposite direction.
When the Lord has said, “Do this. Go there,” haven’t I done some 180s? Haven’t I tried to flee “from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3a), run away, disobey, commit sin? I’m thankful there was not a big fish or another formidable leviathan lurking every time I tried to flee or disobey.
We rationalize, make alibis, conjure excuses. We try to flee. Or, we tone down the word sin when it applies to us. Pastor, author, and Bible teacher Ray Stedman reminded us more than 50 years ago we Christians may have an uncomfortable feeling about sin, may know it suggests something bad, but “we don’t like to use it about ourselves.” What do we do? “We invent fancy names for sin,” he says.
Tone It Down
We call it human frailty or weakness. We say we are burned out, anxious, stressed. We blame our gene pool, our culture, our job, our environment—anybody, anything other than ourselves. “The fancier the name, the more we like it,” Stedman said, “because it sounds so much better than that simple, ugly, three-letter word, sin.” When we rename sin to excuse ourselves, it is like re-labeling bottles of poison and calling them perfume. It’s still poison, not harmless hand lotion or body powder. Sin is sin no matter what label we paste on it.
Part of toning down sin is twisting the truth about ourselves. What others do, we call sin. But when we do the same or a similar thing, we put a different name on it. Stedman gives several examples. Other people have prejudices; we have convictions. Others are conceited; we have self-respect.
Others are lazy; we are busy, overworked, or burned out. Others are presumptuous; we have initiative. Others lose their temper; we show righteous indignation.
Let’s throw out that shrug of the shoulders and those four words, “It’s only dried coffee.” No more rationalizing, no alibis or excuses. No more fleeing or toning down or re-labeling. No more denials or cover-ups. Let’s admit there’s a word for what we’ve done—sin—and say with Job, “I will lay mine hand upon my mouth…[and] repent in dust and ashes” (Job 40:4b; 42:6b).
About the Author: Brenda Evans lives and writes on the banks of Rockhouse Fork, a sycamore-lined creek in Ashland, Kentucky. You may reach her at email@example.com.