Sinner and a sinner’s son

I never can remember whether I’m sinning in South Carolina.

The target for sin is one that moves and not in a way you’d expect. You’re more apt to run right into the bullseye than miss entirely. One of our local bartenders is a graduate of Bob Jones University, one of the most conservative think tanks on sin in the country. Last night our man overheard some people talking about a local strip joint.

“I haven’t been there,” he said offhandedly, “in, like, nine months.”

The underlying definition of sin is probably something we can all get behind. Bill and Ted offer us the “Be excellent to each other” edict, and sin, at least at its foundation, is doing the opposite of that. The tough part is when people start building on that foundation in a way that ends up with me going to some mysterious bad place that is probably the winter home for Idi Amin and Jerry Falwell. It gets even more confusing when that Jenga tower of sin is the foundation for laws.

See, it’s easy to know when I’m breaking the law in South Carolina. It’s somewhere between frequently and always, and if not then, it’s when I’m awake.

Everything is illegal in the Palmetto State. Playing any game with cards or dice is unlawful in some fairly general and antiquated ways. So is wagering on just about anything, unless of course it’s done by spending your child’s lunch money on a scratch-off lottery ticket, in which case it’s cool, encouraged, and advertised as a way to help education. I have a hard time keeping up. If there is ever a question about whether something is or should be illegal, we can always call on the people who really get into the idea of legislating their morality.

About ten years ago, legions of people from South Carolina’s Baptist churches rallied against video poker machines. It was an expensive and vitriolic campaign that painted anyone who gambled or supported gambling as sinners. It was clear that the pious believed all the gamblers were all going to hell after they went to jail. It’s a tough lot for the gambler in these parts.

The Bible is pretty vague on the topic of gambling, primarily, I think, because the Harrah’s corporation didn’t have a seat at the Last Supper. It seems like a book of such vast rule-making should’ve spoken a little more directly than “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Fortunately, the folks around here are good interpreters. Not too many years ago, Sumter, SC Reverend Tony Trott laid out the argument. “Gambling is a sin,” he said, “because it breaks the Tenth Commandment.”

That’s as close as anyone can come around here to finding a reason why God doesn’t like craps, poker, or NCAA March Madness pools. That is, playing video poker is the equivalent of coveting your neighbor’s stuff, and hence, well, you’re going to hell.

It’s not that I worry so much about myself. I gamble on everything from the toss of a wedge of citrus fruit to whether there is a picture of a clown or cowboy on a $5 chip in Pauly‘s hand. I’m pretty certain that if I’m wrong and the pious are right, there isn’t much saving me (the current Vegas line has me favored at 2-1 though, so get your bets down). I wonder, however, how my son will feel later about the fact that I started him down the road to degeneracy at age five.

As you might have read here or elsewhere, my five-year-old son placed third in Pauly’s NCAA pool earlier this month. His picks won him $150. It came in the form of a personal check we cashed this afternoon. We got it in singles, which pleased the kid to no end.

Young, tough, and rich

My promise to my son was that he could spend anything he won in any way he wanted. I didn’t expect him to win anything, but when he did, I stood by my promise, which meant going to Toys R Us after dinner for a little father-son spending spree. The boy led the way through the aisles, making his choices, asking me about prices, and bouncing from item to item like the very definition of ADD. I smiled as I pushed the cart and watched him toss some Star Wars figures on top of a couple of light sabers.

This continued for almost an hour when I suddenly grew embarrassed. It seemed people were watching me (and the 150-bill bulge in my front pocket) and wondering “What in the holy hell is this guy doing? He’s letting his kid have whatever he wants!” I felt myself wanting to explain every time we passed another mom or dad in the aisle. It was a gross display of consumerism and I felt a twinge of regret. It was only bearable because of the smile on my boy’s face.

Somehow the kid finally stopped and said, “Okay, that’s it. Let’s go.” Eerily, and with no help from me, he hit within 58 cents of the $150 he’d won. The girls at the counter counted out the bills and we got in the car to go home.

I sat in the parking lot trying to figure out what to say. Over the past month, I’d endured some good-natured ribbing about turning my son into a degenerate, letting him gamble before he can ride a bike without training wheels, and encouraging him to equate sports with gambling. Not once during all of it did I feel the slightest twinge of guilt. Then, I sat in the car with a bag full of toys and realized I’d probably committed one of the biggest real sins.

I made my kid think that “stuff” matters.

Part of how my wife an I parent our kids is to make sure they never want for anything they need, and make sure they never equate happiness with having stuff. It’s not a matter of whether they are spoiled, because we do our best to spoil them with experience, journeys, and life. We don’t, however, want them to think that they will be happy because they have a big bag of toys.

Before I pulled out of the parking lot, I turned around and looked at the kid while he messed with a plastic droid.

“Buddy, you know that this is a special occasion, right?” I said. “You know none of that stuff matters, right?”

He nodded and said something in a droid voice that made me laugh. It might have been time for a life lesson, but it didn’t happen.

Part of sin is repentance, and that part is on me. No heart as innocent as my boy’s can truly be full of sin. It’s my job to make sure he knows going forward that having stuff should only be a byproduct of a life well-lived.

It would probably be a little intellectually dishonest of me to not acknowledge that my definition of sin might be a little closer to ol’ Reverend Trott’s than I might like to admit. The desire for stuff is pretty much the definition of coveting, whether it’s your neighbor’s wife or his Star Wars collection (or, better, your neighbor’s wife dressed up as Princess Leia). The problem is that Reverend Trott and his ilk make the leap from gambling to coveting that only exists in the hearts and minds of people who are morally bankrupt on other levels.

I don’t believe gambling is as morally indefensible as the wanton hoarding of stuff for stuff’s sake. The gambling and the coveting aren’t mutually exclusive, but they also aren’t inextricably entwined. I let my boy taste sin and I don’t feel all that great about it. The whole “sins of the father” thing can be a real bitch, especially when the father has a less than traditional view about the definition and application of sin in the first place.

But, in the end, I got to see my boy smile, and it reminded me that he without sin can cast the first whatever.

Or, as my son seemed to be implying in the photo below: Suck it. I got your money.