Tag Archives: sin

Ash Wednesday: Called into the Fullness of Our Humanity

soil in potThere is an old Jewish saying that says that everyone should carry with them two notes – one in each pocket. In one pocket, the note should proclaim “for you the universe was created.” The other should say, “you are dust.”

Ash Wednesday is the day we bring these two notes with us to this place of reflection and transformation. As we begin our journey of Lent through the desert, we enter into a time of discovery (or rediscovery) of what it means to be human – in all the fullness that is: from the wonder of our birth (“for you the universe was created”) to the acceptance of our death (“you are dust”).

Ash-Wednesday-cross2Of course, it’s the “you are dust” one we expect to be the focus today. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: we’re reminded of our mortality. Although, I wonder, do we really need the reminder? Death is a constant intruder into our lives. Who among us has not suffered the loss of a loved one? Tonight we mourn the tragic deaths of 17 people in a Florida high school. Whether expected or sudden, known or unknown to us personally, the death of another confronts us starkly with the fragility of life. If you’ve ever faced a life-threatening illness or been through any kind of health crisis, you’ve probably come fact to face with the stunning realization that you are mortal, you will not live forever.

So in a way, Ash Wednesday is a non-life-threatening way of helping us deal with our precarious existence on this mortal coil. It also brings us into solidarity with all our fellow travelers on the journey between birth and death. It levels the playing field, doesn’t it? The rich ruler is no different from the poor beggar. All of us, from the least to the greatest: ashes to ashes.

Now traditionally, Ash Wednesday services stop here, with the reminder of the brevity of life, the reminder that we came from dust and will soon enough return back to the earth, dust once more. And during the penitential season of Lent, we often give up something as a way of denying ourselves, fasting in a sense, in order to become more attuned to our lowly status. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with striving for a little humility. Any-thing that helps me remember that I’m not master of the universe is useful.

But if we’re honest – and I believe that Lent is a season of truth-telling about ourselves – we’ll recognize that most of us move back and forth on a continuum: on one end) feeling like we’re master of the universe, on top of the world and on the other end like we’re at the bottom of the heap, like the gum on somebody’s shoe. In other words, some days we need the reminder “you are dust.” On other days, we really need somebody to tell us “for you the universe was created.”

Unfortunately, there are some people who dwell on one end of the spectrum or the other most of the time. If you’re an autocratic bully, being told that the universe was made for you, is not a helpful Lenten message. If you’re the one who’s been beaten-down and abused by the bully, being told to humble yourself because you’re nothing but dust itself borders on the abusive.

universe-1044106_640The wisdom of these ashes, this dust of the earth, is that we are called to be fully human in all the beauty, sorrow, messiness that entails. This dust is beautiful. I’ve put it into the baptismal bowl to say in a visual way that – even before our baptism – we were all created in a beautiful image of the Divine – from the stuff of the earth.

And I believe that this is a message very much needed in our culture of denial about the beauty of our bodies – no matter what shape, what abilities, what gender, no matter what. Our bodies are beautiful. I dare you to look in the mirror when you get home and declare, “My body is beautiful!”

In this season, when we think a little more about sin, perhaps we could call it sin to denigrate bodily-ness in all its forms: from neglecting or not appreciating our own incarnated belovedness in this skin and bones to abusing the belovedness of the body of Mother Earth. There should no longer be a hierarchy of spirit over matter, a duality we inherited from the Enlightenment – not from scripture. In fact, as Matthew and Luke tell it, Jesus was born in the bloody messiness of human birth and died, really died in the flesh. In between, he called those who listened to a new way of being in the world.

And so we are called, too. Not to a life a self-flagellation or life-denying humility, nor to one of selfish indulgence. Jesus calls us to a life of deep truth-telling. And make no mistake about it, this can be a very scary and dangerous thing. You may discover things about yourself that you don’t want to know. You may find that you really do need to make changes in yourself that will be hard.

So if we believe that going into the metaphorical desert will ultimately bring about trans-formation, are we willing to go? Are you willing to enter into a truth-telling journey of self-awareness. Yes, it’s a bit more challenging than giving up chocolate. Unless you’ve discovered that chocolate is hindering your journey. It may well be. The idea is to ask yourself what is holding you back from being fully human – which incudes a deep connection to the presence of the Divine within you and around you. That’s the challenge of Lent.

You are dust. For you the universe was created. This Lent, live into the tension of those two great truths. Welcome to the journey.

Amen

 

 

 

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Historic vs Progressive Christianity: Can We Talk?

she likes itI just read a blog post which warns me what to look for if I suspect my church is heading down the heresy path to progressive Christianity. Since my congregation has long resided on that path, I was curious to see what these warning signs might be and if I’d agree with them. You can read the “5 danger signs” for yourself here.

Right off the bat, I did agree with one of the author’s opening comments: “it is difficult to pin down what actually qualifies someone as a Progressive Christian, due to the diversity of beliefs that fall under that designation.” This is most certainly true! The intrafaith conversation has to happen within all the strands of Christianity.

Now clearly this blogger is coming from a particular theological standpoint (she uses the term “historic Christianity”). There’s no doubt that she’s out to expose those who embrace a progressive Christian theology as “false prophets” infiltrating our churches. However – I think she’s done us a service. Take away the pejorative nature of the “5 danger signs” and you have a pretty good outline of some of the big differences within Christianity today. 

For example, #5:
The heart of the gospel message shifts from sin and redemption to
social justice
There is no doubt that the Bible commands us to take care of the unfortunate and defend those who are oppressed. However, the core message of Christianity is that Jesus died for our sins, was buried and resurrected, and thereby reconciled us to God. This is the message that will truly bring freedom to the oppressed. 
Many Progressive Christians find the concept of God willing His Son to die on the cross to be embarrassing or even appalling. Sometimes referred to as “cosmic child abuse, ” the idea of blood atonement is de-emphasized or denied altogether, with social justice and good works enthroned in its place.

There’s a lot to discuss in there. This question of Christology is really at the heart of our intrafaith challenge. I begin to get into it in Chapter Eight in my book with an opening quote from United Lutheran Seminary professor Kristin Johnston Largen: . . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously. 

So I’m not dissing the author of this blog because I certainly understand where she’s coming from. It’s what I learned and preached for many, many years. But I would take exception to having my Christology defined as simply “social justice and good works.”

But here – in the willingness to share and to listen, to thoughtfully agree and disagree – is where the intrafaith conversation can happen. I imagine sitting down with the blogger over coffee to share our stories of faith and belief, listening without judging to “her side,” speaking without the need to convince or win her over to “my side.” 

I think we might eventually even be able to come up with a really good study guide. We could change the title to something like “5 Discussion Points Between Historic and Progressive Christianity.” Although that’s definitely not as sexy as “5 Warning Signs.” We’d have to work on that.

 

Is Sin Our Problem – or Is It Shame?

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I’ve been thinking a lot about shame lately. For many people – myself included – shame is a much more insidious problem than our guilt over our sins. Make no mistake – I’m not denying the reality of sin or of our need to confess and repent. Though I would like to see us pay at least as much attention to our systemic sins (such as racism) as we do to our individual wrong-doings.

As Lent approaches, I’m wondering if the attention we give to sin is the best way to go. In his book The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg asks whether ‘sin’ is the best way to name what is wrong and why we are lost. Not that he denies the reality of sin either. Borg doesn’t dispute that sin is a primary image within the Bible. But there are other images of our human predicament as well, each requiring a kind of healing. He writes:

To list some but not all of them: we are blind, in exile or in bondage; we have closed hearts; we hunger and first; we are lost. Each of these images for our problem has a correlative image; that is, each implies a remedy, a solution.  If we are blind, we need to see. If we are in exile, we need to return. If we are in bondage, we need liberation. If we have closed hearts, we need to have our hearts opened. If we hunger and thirst, we need food and drink. If we are lost, we need to be found.

But what do we need to help us heal when we feel shame? And just to be clear: I’m not equating shame with guilt. Guilt is about what we ‘ve done; shame is about who we are. Some use the phrase “toxic shame” to describe the feeling that we are somehow inherently defective, that something is wrong with our very being. Toxic shame can come about for all kinds of reasons: being bullied as a child, being sexually assaulted, for example. Veterans diagnosed with PTSD often experience shame. Unhealthy family dynamics can bring about shame in children.

Unfortunately, the church has often been guilty of shaming its members – usually for sexual “sins”. And while the church does offer a path to confession and forgiveness for our actions, it’s much less equipped to offer healing for the shame that affects our being.

So how can we in the church promote this kind healing?  As Borg would put it: If we have been shamed, then we need . . . what?

I suggest that the first step is acknowledging this as a human condition from which many of us suffer. Maybe instead of focusing exclusively on our sinfulness this Lent, we lift up all the ways we can be broken and out of sync with our true humanity. And instead of offering only confession and forgiveness, we also offer a listening ear and compassion.

For some, especially those who have suffered severe trauma, psychological therapy is also needed. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church could also participate in what author John Bradshaw called Healing the Shame that Binds You?

Marcus Borg used to tell of  the Buddhist who once said , “You Christians must be very bad people—you’re always confessing your sins.” Maybe we could learn from that critique.