I’m up early this morning checking the line and not liking what I see. With Cutler out, San Francisco is a 7 point favorite. I have no money on the game. In fact it has only been two games the entire season that have seen a wager. Still I think if anyone can get a get read on a game, it must be a gambler. No, I don’t like what I see, but the beauty of a yet to be played game is that anything can happen and a gamble is just that, staking very little or very much on what may or may not happen.
Oscar Hopkins tells us this. When he meets Lucinda Leplastrier, he says that the most important things in life are a gamble. He says this is true even of belief, bold words from a young priest who is traveling to Australia to take a parish and even bolder words from a man who is firmly convinced of belief, though he doubts his salvation.
Where I am from, gambling doesn’t cause the bat of an eyelash. Then again neither does Christmas. In Oscar and Lucinda, the two are not unrelated. Raised by a strict Plymouth Brethren father who understands the latent paganism of the holidays, Oscar is punished as a child for taking a bite of Christmas pudding. He is too young to understand God in a very theological way, but he is not too young to realize he does not want the stern and punishing God of his ancestors. At 15 he becomes an Anglican and goes off to live with neighbors. He eventually decides to study Divinity at Cambridge where he begins betting on horses to pay for school and upon receiving his degree he meets ardent card player Lucinda on a ship bound for Australia. From a mutual love of gambling, a relationship of sorts is born, but Oscar is too shy to “know what the gambler understands” when it comes to Lucinda, who feels his emotional distance must mean he is uninterested.
Eventually there is a romance of sorts and to prove his love for her, Oscar bets (to the sum of Lucinda’s inheritance) he can take a glass church 500 kilometers upriver to the Outback. This is his undoing and it is ultimately, with one other thing, his sin.
Sitting in a parlor putting chips down on cards or spending a Saturday afternoon wagering a few bucks on “which dumb beast crosses a finish line first” hardly seems a big thing. Betting an inheritance on the house of God seems another matter. Somewhere between the two, there must be a line in the sand. As to where it is located is anyone’s guess.
That is the problem with sin. The big things are obvious and the small things certainly are no sin.
Or are they? Oscar’s father was convinced Christmas pudding was sinful. He was as convinced about it as everything you and I call sinful. To me this seems to cross the line of common sense, but who are any of us to say? We are told in the Gospel that looking on someone with desire is “adultery in the heart” and a hateful feeling is “murder in the heart.” Now most of us know that “in the heart” is not to be equated with the thing itself, but it does tell us that somewhere between a thought and an action, we come to a precarious place.
Oscar Hopkins knew the place well having never outgrown the sweet and pleasurable taste of Christmas pudding and the guilt that went with it. From that he always questioned his salvation and the revolt against a guilt he could never shed led him to practices that would in no way lessen his sense of sinfulness. Never in life does he attain “blessed assurance.” Rather he looks for lines in the sand and doing the perpetual penance of knowing somewhere he went over the line.
And he did go over. After he drowns in the glass church filling with water, Lucinda is left with a child from the man she loves.
The child is not hers. Having never taken the chance he should, but filled with human desire, Oscar succumbs one night to a loveless pleasure finding the guilt and penance in this is easier to bear than the conflict that could arise from what would at once be perpetual sensuality and perpetual care. Being the consummate gambler, Oscar has chosen the randomness of a single night to fulfill his desire “knowing” this to risk his salvation less than a destiny that would bring with it both a spiritual and physical love.
In one random act Oscar dies. In one random act Lucinda is made a mother. Oscar dies having led a life that is nothing other than randomness and chance. Lucinda is left with a life that now becomes about fulfilling a destiny. The narrator of the story is Oscar’s child, or more appropriately Lucinda’s child.
Oscar never finds his line in the sand. He is too frightened to gamble on an authentic life and too human to live without fault. (And lest I be accused of hapless romanticism, I will say Oscar’s lack of authenticity is about much more than being with Lucinda.) We do not know if Lucinda ever wagers again, but she is at least made authentic.
Oscar Hopkins gets one thing right. He knows there really is a purpose to finding the line not to cross. Honest ethical struggle should have us do the same. What he does not get right is that sin should always be filtered through a lens of God’s grace. He remains so fearful for his salvation that he spends life looking down at the ground for the line not to cross that he neglects to look toward heaven to gaze radically toward an authentic life and God’s forgiveness. This is the sadness of Oscar and Lucinda, but its joy is even greater, that is we are in the hands of a God who does not play dice with our salvation and is merciful to both the courageous and the timid and to every sinner and saint.