Faith in the raw. A United Methodist Certified Lay Servant (aka Speaker, aka Preacher) blogging the Revised Common Lectionary as a spiritual discipline, with other random thoughts thrown in.
On Twitter: @thenakedalien.
Paul the Apostle saw Sin as the absence of God in our lives; yet popular culture views it as an Essene battle between the brothers of light and dark - the army of God versus the pawns of a devil - for dominion. Like the ancient scapegoat, it is comforting to have something else to blame; a devil made me do it! God knew us and sent us His Son. God knows us still, and sends us His Spirit. But do we accept His sacrifice and see our broken chains? Do we accept justifying grace, or keep self-justifying ourselves?
Only if we accept with our whole being the message that it is broken, is it also broken in us. This picture of sin is a picture of ugliness, suffering and shame, and, at the same time, drama and passion. It is the picture of us as the battleground of powers greater than we. It does not divide men into categories of black and white, or good and evil. It does not appear as the threatening finger of an authority urging us – do not sin! But it is the vision of something infinitely important, that happens on this small planet, in our bodies and our minds. It raises mankind to a level in the universe where decisive things happen in every moment, decisive for the ultimate meaning of all existence. In each of us such decisions occur, in us, and through us. This is our burden. This is our despair. This is our greatness.
So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.
Romans 8:15-17 (New Living Translation)
It is dangerous to preach sin, because it may induce us to brood over our sinfulness. Perhaps one should not preach it at all…
I believe it is possible to conquer the dangers implied in the concentration on sin, if we look at it indirectly, in the light of that which enables us to resist it – reunion overcoming estrangement…
If we look at our estrangement from the point of reunion, we are no longer in danger of brooding over our estrangement. We can speak of Sin, because its power over us is broken.
The Eternal Now
In The Eternal Now, Paul Tillich is talking about estrangement and reunion in terms similar to what one uses in discussing grief or injury; we don’t forget, but we don’t allow the pain to control us. We get over ourselves. He was writing 50 years ago; have we gone too far the other direction since then and stress sin too little from the pulpit? Which has the greater power, Sin or Love?
Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace.
Romans 8:5-6 (New Living Translation)
Our whole being, every cell of our body, and every movement of our mind is both flesh and spirit, subjected to the power of sin and resisting its power…
There is no a part of man that is bad in itself and no part of man that is good in itself. Any Christian teaching that has forgotten this has fallen short of the height of Christian insight. And here all Christian churches must share the grave guilt of destroying human beings by casting them into despair over their own guilt where there should be no guilt. In pulpits, schools and families, Christians have called the natural strivings of the living, growing and self-propagating body sinful. They concentrate in an inordinate and purely pagan way on the sexual differentiation of all life and its possible distortions.
The Eternal Now
Jimmy Carter almost lost the election because he admitted sinning in his heart. Can we separate flesh and spirit while we still live on earth? Aren’t we both Adam and Jesus at the same time trying to live Kingdom lives in a fleshy world while we bide our time here as outcasts? How important is guilt, and is it constructive or destructive? Is Tillich preaching a humanist feel-good gospel, or has the Church taken the good out of the good news?
Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.
Romans 1:28-32 (New Living Translation)
God himself may throw them into more sin in order to make them aware of what they really are. This is a bold way of speaking, but it is the way people of the profoundest religious experiences have spoken. By His throwing them into more sin, they have seen themselves in the mirror from which they have always turned away. No longer able to hide from themselves, they have asked the question, from the depth of their self-rejection, to which the Christian message is the answer – the power of acceptance that can overcome the despair of self-rejection. In this sense, more sin can be the divine way of making us aware of ourselves.
The Eternal Now
Tillich appears to be saying that sin can be one way God works in us through prevening grace. God is throwing us into sin not to learn how to swim, but to learn that we are drowning and need a life-guard. Not to toughen us up, but to make us vulnerable.
It happens so regularly that it's predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God's commands, but it's pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.
Romans 7:19-20 (The Message)
The first step to an understanding of the Christian message that is called “good news” is to dispel the image of sin that implies a catalogue of sins. Those who are bound to this image are also those who find it most difficult to receive the message of acceptance of the unacceptable, the good news of Christianity. Their half-sinfulness and half-righteousness makes them insensitive to a message that states the presence of total sinfulness and total righteousness in the same man at the same moment. They never find the courage to make a total judgment against themselves, and therefore, they can never find the courage to believe in a total acceptance of themselves.”
The Eternal Now
Like the concept that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, it is hard for us to not compartmentalize: I don’t need to be redeemed because I’m not ALL bad. Yes, a weak part of me is sinful, but the rest isn’t – I just need to be better! We live in a 50/50, a give- and-take, society rather than a 100/100 give-and-give society. If 50/50, then we could never reach perfection; we would get rid of Sin, but still only be half righteous! We are made in God’s whole image, not just His profile. We are fully Sin and fully Christ. We’re all good and all bad all the time. We can forgive myself for one because of the other. We can fully accept God’s forgiveness and His perfecting grace knowing this.
But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.
Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.
So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen.
Romans 1:18-25 (New Living Translation)
Paul seldom speaks of sins, but he often speaks of Sin – Sin in the singular with a capital “S”, Sin as a power that controls world and mind, person and nations.
The Eternal Now
We often focus on “sins”, those external actions which reveal the Sin within people; the actions which result from when “God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired”. God allows us to follow our natural human nature to its ultimate climax. We are punished by the results of our own actions. Yet, if it is natural how do tell the difference between punishment and living; is it a matter of degree or of intent? To St. Paul, Sin is knowing God and still worshipping something other than God; not being in relationship with God. If we focus on the symptoms in others and ourselves rather than the root cause, how can we find the cure?
So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins.
Romans 8:1-3 (New Living Translation)
People who call themselves Christian – parents, teachers, preachers – tell us that we should be “good” and obey the will of God. For many of them the will of God is not very different from the will of those socially correct people whose conventions they ask us to accept.
The Eternal Now
Does our popular and private understanding of “sin” get in our way of accepting salvation? When we talk about will-power, whose will are we talking about? Is will- power idolatry? The next six blogs, I will be looking at Paul Tillich’s theology of sin through his interpretation of the Apostle Paul.
Skunks don’t like it too hot - This can go a couple of ways. Of course there is the obvious hell reference. But there is also the military and biohazard concept of something hot being dangerous, such as a “hot-zone”. Do I avoid hot-potato issues or avoid the hot-zones where I’m needed most?
90% of skunks don’t survive their first winter - How good of a job do I do nurturing new Christians? Where do they magically go once confirmed? Is all of my emphasis on pre-natal care and growth in numbers by giving birth? In nature there are two successful strategies: a lot of births and minimal nurturing – few will survive to reproduce; or few births and long-term nurturing. Which applies to my church?
Skunks use burrows made by others - “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:6) We can’t all be a Paul, some of us must be an Apollos. Who am I?
Skunks use scent-markings so others know where they’ve been - What mark have I left on the world? Will my actions linger long after I’m gone? Will they linger as skunkiness or as refined perfume?
Skunks have good hearing, but poor vision - Am I a consumer or a leader?
Skunks are mostly silent - Has anyone heard my witness?
Skunks are omnivores - I think Peter had a crazy dream about that…
Skunks are opportunistic - Do I wait for people to come to me or am I out there in the world doing things?
Male skunks provide no parental care – How many men are in the pews beside me?
Skunks have distinctive markings so that non-skunks will avoid them - Do I dress to impress? How welcoming and open am I to others?
Skunks around here are scientifically named Mephitis mephitis (aka "Offensively unpleasant odor offensively unpleasant odor") - They are named for what they are and they live up to their name. Will they know I’m a Christian by my love?
The need for sanctuary cities to assure we behave humanely is an ancient one. In Israel, the official sanctuary cities were to assure a fair trial for those who killed someone by accident and protect them from blind vengeance:
“Tell the Israelites: When you cross the Jordan River and enter Canaan, select certain cities to be places of refuge. Anyone who unintentionally kills another person may run to them. These cities will be places of refuge from any relative who can avenge the death. So anyone accused of murder will not have to die until he has had a trial in front of the community. There will be six cities you select as places of refuge, three on the east side of the Jordan River and three in Canaan. These six cities will be places of refuge for Israelites, foreigners, and strangers among you. Anyone who unintentionally kills another person may flee to these cities.” (Numbers 35:10-15)
The Law given to Moses included the humane treatment of outsiders throughout Israel, not just Sanctuary Cities:
“Never mistreat a foreigner living in your land. Foreigners living among you will be like your own people. Love them as you love yourself, because you were foreigners living in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33-34
“If a slave escapes from his master and comes to you, don’t return him to his master. Let him stay with you and live among your people wherever he chooses, in any of your cities that seems best to him. Never mistreat him.” (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)
In his prophetic vision, Ezekiel gave us God’s Laws for life in a future Zion, God’s Kingdom:
“Divide this land among yourselves for each of the tribes of Israel. Divide it by drawing lots. This land will be for you. It will also be for the foreign residents who live among you and have given birth to children while they lived with you. Think of them as Israelites. They will draw lots with you for their inheritance among the tribes of Israel. Foreign residents will receive their share of the inheritance with the people of the tribe among whom they are living, declares the Almighty Lord.” (Ezekiel 47:21-23)
“Sanctuary • noun (pl. sanctuaries) 1 a place of refuge or safety. 2 a nature reserve. 3 a place where injured or unwanted animals are cared for. 4 a holy place. 5 the part of the chancel of a church containing the high altar. — ORIGIN originally denoting a church or sacred place in which, by law, a fugitive was immune from arrest: from Latin sanctuarium, from sanctus ‘holy’.” (AskOxford.com)
What do you think? Should Sanctuary Cities be allowed to continue in the U.S.? Is it a coincidence that a Sanctuary is a place of holiness and a place for the injured or unwanted?
Back in the day, heretic, heathen and apostate were perfectly good ways to curse (cuss in my neck-of-the-woods) others and put them in their place. Although it makes light of God’s authority as judge, it avoided taking His name in vain; unlike bloody, zounds and other quaint oaths. We could be blue with out breaking the Father’s number three (3 of 10). Unfortunately it also involves ignoring the Son’s number two (2 of 2).
In pagan religions, to place a curse on someone is to gain some control over them and/or their destiny (playing God). We are still unperfected humans, and are still judgmental (also playing God). Judging really isn’t so much about others as it is about ourselves. We have this confused notion that if we are less sinful than another, we are by default a better Christian than they. As if Christianity is the antonym of sin!
So, what are some modern Christian curses?
Pharisee – As in “She is such a self-righteous Pharisee!”
It is a catch-all phrase that also can be used instead of: hypocrite, legalist, orthodox, dinosaur or The Man. Has also been thrown at OT Christians, holier-than-thou rollers, liturgical traditionalists, and church trustees. We see Pharisees not as brilliant experts, but as unenlightened blind-followers who have skewed priorities favoring stability, hierarchy, and conservation over mission, love and revolution. In other words, their priorities are not my own…
While the meek get the blessedares, the Pharisees get the woetos. They’re prim and proper Puritans judging me for my tarnished shoe-buckles; judgmental in their blatant perfectness. My wife and I have a game. One asks “Who be da Pharisees?”, and the other responds “We be da Pharisees!”
Un-Christian - Example: “Arguing is so un-Christian!”
If you think about it, this is a pretty sinful allegation. A Christian is one who follows Christ; to say they are un-Christian is to say they are not followers. What most of us intend to say is that they don’t follow Christ well, that they are poor Christians; again relative to the yardstick of ourselves! This can bounce back on us a couple of ways:
1. If following is going where led or told to go, then how many of us are good followers?
2. And then there is that annoying “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”
Worldly – “The Church today has become too worldly.”
We come close to the heresy of Gnosticism when we talk about everything fleshy being bad and everything spiritual as good. Some go as far as to say that Satan’s dominion is the earth and God’s is elsewhere. We talk about others as idolaters, choosing mammon over manna, worry over faith, or personal success over brotherly love. All life (including plants) reacts to external stimuli based upon natal or ingrained survival mechanisms; as fleshy creations, so do we. Calling someone worldly is akin to calling them a Satanist.
I have frequently cussed out others in this manner. It is hard sometimes to really believe deep down that Jesus erased my sins without my deserving it, let alone everyone else’s. In a self-help (worldly) world, we get frustrated when we can not erase our own sins from our conscience. So we do the next best thing – we blacken the sins of others so ours look lighter; like getting a tan so our teeth look whiter.
We beat each other over the head with our understanding of God, assuming still that sinner is the opposite of Christian. The antonyms for sin include: virtue, goodness, righteousness, sinlessness, godliness, holiness, uprightness, honesty, ethics and morality. One can have these attributes without being Christian, just as one can lack all of them at times and still be Christian. Who then are we to judge? Not one is perfect.
Maybe I’ve not been cussing after all. I’ve just been pointing that others are imperfect. Just like me. I'm being inclusive!
10. The Webster’s Dictionary definition includes: to subject to drills; to use; to execute duties; to exert authority; to do habitually; to worry; to take exercise; and to undergo training. Now does that sound good for you? It seems way too much like work to me.
9. From the Latin word “exercere”- meaning “practice”; “Ex” means “out” or “away”, and “arcere” means “restrain”: I hate to practice; I don’t like being left out; and I sure don’t like to be restrained!
8. The word is way too close to “excise” for my comfort. What if the doctor prescribed exercise, but missed the “er”? I don’t want anything cut off thank you.
7. Jogging is streaking with your clothes on. I really don’t see the point.
6. Doing pushups is waging a conflict with gravity: you’ll never win and may offend the earth by repeatedly pushing her away.
5. There is no dignified way to do jumping-jacks. I’m a Midwest Methodist – I do not jump up and wave my arms!
4. Running on a tread-mill is a rodent trying to escape on its wheel. At least give me a giant hamster-ball so I can have fun knocking people off the sidewalk…
3. Swimming laps is getting nowhere slowly. If a dog paced back and forth over and over you’d send it to the vet or a pet-shrink wouldn’t you?
2. If I lift a weight I will automatically look like an artificial freak. I’ll stick with my God-given freakishness.
1. It gives me way too much time with myself. That is never a good thing. If I start listening to the voices in my head we’re all in trouble…
Have you ever thought about how reputations are made? I posit that in many cases, they are just like nick-names; it’s hard to give yourself a name that will stick and harder yet to lose one that others give you. I thought “Professor” or “Bones” were good, but instead I was “Pencil-neck”… By now, you know me well enough to know that I am and always have been a quitter; but that was not my rep as a kid.
We used to play flash-light Hide and Seek in the neighborhood. I found a nice warm dog house to hide in. The dog and I soon fell asleep. Hours and hours later I woke up after bed-time, was ticked that no one found me in time for supper. After that, I was considered the ice-man of patience, the ninja king of stealth, the dog-whisperer.
I beat up the much bigger school bully on the bus once. I got detention, but backhanded praise from the teachers at the same time. I had sat next to the only black kid on the bus. I fought not to defend my seatmate from abuse, but because I had been called an n-word lover. Ever after I was the psychotic defender of the downtrodden. The bully respected me for it and had me over to his house; I was proud. I never had the black kid to my house.
Do we earn reputations, or are they thrust upon us? I had a reputation for being freakishly smart, but I never worked at it or applied myself. Though in retrospect it was a misused gift and no accomplishment of my own, I was quite proud of the distinction. I fell victim to my own image; like Samson, Saul and Saul.
Do we strive to live up to our reputations, or do we abuse them? I ridiculed a teacher in a history class once by pointing out in front of everyone all the historical inaccuracies in what he was saying. In the school paper I told people to ignore guidance counselors because they didn’t know anything. I felt better about myself by tearing others down. “Smart” is relative.
I have recently come into contact with a few of the people I went to school with. My reputation as a kind wise-ass still holds, even though in my mind’s mirror I see myself back then as small, mean and petty. So I guess I need to re-posit my theory; external communal reputations (ex-reps) are hard to live down, but internal self-generated reputations (in-reps) are even harder! Ex-reps are hard to live up to; in-reps are hard to live down to. Sometimes it just takes time and its associated wisdom; other times it takes a bad haircut, a revolution or being blinded on a dusty road; Samson, King Saul and Saul/Paul had to learn a new perspective to better see themselves.
On what do we stake our reputations? On ourselves? On others? On God?
“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3:36.)
My wife and I had been dating for a short time, still exploring a new relationship, when it became time to “meet the family.” (Come on guys, ‘fess up--don’t we hate those words?) Getting past her father turned out to be relatively painless; but I’m still not sure if the part about the shotgun was a joke or not. No, it was the matriarchal aunt who was the greatest hurdle. Finally, the awkward introductions were out of the way, the obviously prepped six-year-old cousin’s “so, when are you two getting married” well behind us; it was time to eat. As a starving archaeologist this was no small event, and highly anticipated! I lowered myself into my chair amid the mouthwatering aromas, but before I even had a chance to cram something into my mouth, the aunt challenged me: “So, tell me, Tim, have you been born again?” Time stopped, and my stomach gnawed with hunger (or perhaps fear). Well, I wasn’t expecting that.
My wife still doesn’t know who she kicked under the table, but it wasn’t me, her intended target! After what seemed an eternity, I went from “deer in headlights” to bull manure mode!
“Well, when I was a religious studies minor in college, I grew to believe that you only need to be born again if you first died to the faith,” I said. I handled a very profound question in a flippant and thoughtless manner.
It was to me a sensitive and personal subject. I had tried, both before and after, to be a believer, but everywhere I turned I was being told that you cannot be a true Christian unless you were first “born again.” As I had not experienced the lightning strike moment of ecstatic conversion we’ve all seen on television, I assumed that I failed or that I wasn’t worthy, and gave up. Only after many years have I come to realize that it is not always a moment of fiery Spirit: being born again is sometimes a gradual awakening to find the Spirit already preveniently there, working with and through you, waiting to be found and acknowledged. If I had only known that back then!
Being “born again” is often portrayed as a sudden life-changing moment, a single Big Bang point in time. To me, however, it happened stealthily over time; caught by a Master Angler. God works on us, and with us, in a variety of ways. If we look at the Bible as a guide to spiritual growth, and view stiff-necked Israel as the stereotypical person, we see many kinds of rebirths. Adam and Eve died to Eden, and were reborn in a wild and scary world. The world died in a flood to be reborn through Noah. Abraham was reborn through covenant, Joseph through slavery, Moses through exile. Rebirth can take a lifetime, a generation or centuries.
Jesus’ death was payment for our freedom from slavery to our sinful natures. His rebirth from physical death reminds us of our rebirth from spiritual death. Our baptism reminds us of this rebirth, and reminds us of the childlike wonder of true faith. As we separate ourselves from our earthly encumbrances, we allow the Spirit to flow freely. By freeing the Spirit, we free ourselves. Jesus unlocks the chains, but we don't always know it. We sit there feeling the weight of the chains and fail to recognize freedom. But gradually it dawns on us; I don't when but I'm sure glad now...
The Bible is full of rebirths; even for the most unlikely. (How about the Christian persecutor Saul--who would have seen that coming?) God waits for us back home with the porch light on, while we grow in the Spirit by being repeatedly born anew each and every day. God is not always in the thunder or earthquake, but often in the still small whisper. Contrary to what we see on TV, inviting Jesus into our lives is the beginning, not an end. As professed believers in Christ, we are changed by his presence to want to follow His example and let God work through us. We should seek not be be just reborn as a new person in Christ, but to be reborn as a child of God, as little brothers and sisters of Christ, as Christ.
“Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation--but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs--heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory.” (Romans 8:12-17.)