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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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November 11, 2008

The Pole Man: Sinner or Saint?

"Hey Mom! It's The Pole Man!"

I wouldn't have noticed The Pole Man if Janine hadn't pointed to him as we left the shopping center. He had cleaned up -- a new red sweater, a fresh pair of blue jeans and a beard-free face. The most unusual thing about him, though, was that he wasn't in his usual place. Instead of sitting on a milk crate on the corner, where he would chain smoke and talk to a yellow street pole, he was standing at a bus stop.

I know nothing about The Pole Man's background or story, but he was once an important character in a family debate about whether people are inherently good or bad. A few months ago as I was driving, Ben launched into a tirade about "bad people who do drugs." His older sister, as is her custom, challenged him. "They're not all bad," she said. "A lot of them are just sick and need help." Soon after their exchange, the traffic light turned red and The Pole Man came into view.

"Do you guys see that man there talking to the pole?" I asked the kids, sensing a good time for a lesson. "Is he a good man or a bad man?" "He's a bad man," Ben said. "No, he could be a good man," Janine argued back.  

Then she paused. "I think that he's both," she said, changing her answer. "He's a good man AND a bad man -- just like we all can be good and bad."

Amazingly, Ben agreed with his sister. That's when I knew that an idea I had been planting in their minds had started to take root -- the Lutheran concept that people are simultaneously sinners and saints, and that we each have more in common with Pole Men than we might initially realize.

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