This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

How We Can Rethink Sin in a Way That Makes Sense Today.

Many Christians have a problem with sin.  I have been in churches where worshipers expressed frustration with being asked to say a Prayer of Confession at all.  I once tried to teach some suburban folks the Jesus Prayer but they balked at calling themselves “a sinner.”  Apparently, “have mercy on me” was enough of a stretch.

Sin gets a bad rap because it has been so horribly abused by those who reduce it to illicit personal behaviors.  When various traditions identify sin with anything from dancing to eating certain kinds of food, it is hard to take the whole category seriously.  When church authorities regularly administer “God’s condemnation” and punishment on people for silly and minor missteps, or even just being who God made them, it is easy to dismiss the whole thing as encouraging people to hate themselves so they could be more easily controlled.  I mean, it wasn’t that long ago that being left-handed was considered sinful.  Compound all this with the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of many who make allegations of sinfulness against others, while committing the same or worse acts themselves.  

So I understand that it seems quite right for us 
to reject sin altogether 
as a vestige of an obsolete and oppressive religious institutionalism, 
and be gladly rid of it.  

Yet sin remains a significant biblical and psychological category.  “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, an the truth is not in us,” says the Apostle John.  Dispensing with sin waters down faith, turning it into a complacent, shallow, empty, and deeply unsatisfying affirmation of the psychological, political, social and economic status quo.  To reject the idea of sin is to embrace the-world-as-we-know-it, and me-as-I-think-I-am, as just fine.  

Clearly, getting rid of sin as a theological category 
is a symptom of social privilege.  
For the opposite of recognizing sin 
is a complacency and contentment 
with yourself and the way things are. 

In the Greek of the New Testament, the word for sin is hamartia, which literally means “missing the mark” in a sport like archery.  Hamartia has to do with an awakening to a kind of self-awareness: first, that there is a “bulls-eye,” a better Self and world to which I may aspire, and second, that, as individuals or as a society we are not attaining it.  Sin is thus the recognition that the way we are living does not measure up to who we want to be, who we should be, or who we truly are.  The mark we are missing is our own essence.

Sin is a condition of ignorance, blindness, disability, and paralysis.  

It is classically defined as “separation from God”… which also means a fundamental alienation from our true selves, and from each other.  Sin is the sleepwalking “death” of unconsciousness, in which we think/imagine we are something we are not.  We humans are habitually conditioned to think that we are isolated, disconnected, independent, alienated, separate, limited, temporary, at-risk individuals, swimming in a dangerous environment against which we have to find ways to protect and provide for ourselves.  This condition is manifested and expressed in fear, shame, and anger.  It is then further enacted and extended in specific behaviors described by the traditional “sins” of lust, sloth, resentment, pride, vanity, envy, avarice, anxiety, and gluttony.

--We think we are doing good things, when we are really sowing havoc and destruction.  
--We think we are bringing goodness and light, when we are generating hatred and resentment.  
--We think we are facilitating progress and development, when we are reaping the fruits of lies, exploitation, greed, and self-serving violence.  
--The more sinless we think we are, the more catastrophic the effects of our behavior on people and creation.  
--Without any sense of personal or social sin, that is, without allowing that we have missed the mark of goodness and blessing, the more comprehensive the damage we do.

The cure for sin is confession, a sober acknowledgment of how far we fall short of the truth about ourselves.  Confession is a necessary step in coming to see our way of thinking and acting changed to reflect and express who we truly are, rather than the shallow, false self we think we are.

This change of mind is what the Greek word metanoia refers to, which gets translated as repentance.  In repentance we turn — as with the Hebrew word for it, shuv — from a way of thinking and acting based on a false view of the world and ourselves, towards a way of thinking and acting based on true and accurate perception.  

Metanoia 
is the process of adjusting our perception and behavior 
so that we draw closer to attaining the target.  
It is a matter of becoming one with the target, 
the goal, the end, 
and the destination.

The truth of who we are is revealed in Jesus Christ.  He comes into the world to take on and heal the blindness, paralysis, and bondage to death of our ego-centric, personality-driven false selves.  As “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he absorbs the institutional violence of the social structures we have spawned, giving up his life/blood which adheres God and creation/humanity back together.  In obeying, by the power of the Spirit, his commandments, which are all about forgiveness, love, humility, and generosity, we take on his life of connection, integration, and identity, becoming his Body in the world.  He reveals that we are spiritual beings who participate in the divine nature.  In Christ we see that to be made in God’s Image and likeness means that we are emerging and embodied spirits, integrated into, and actively sharing in, a network of communities and relationships, from the creation to the Creator.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

How We Can Reimagine Celtic Christianity Today.

I have been interested in Celtic Christianity for a long time.  Over a thousand years ago these amazing Christians gave us powerful models of how to follow Jesus, respect creation, do faithful scholarship, spread the good news, build communities, and deepen our spirituality.  For those frustrated by the standard Western — Catholic and Protestant — ways of doing theology and church, discovering these remarkable Christians is an astonishing and life-giving revelation.  

But Celtic Christianity has to move beyond a kind of romantic immersion in the  ways of 7th century Irish monastics.  As important as it is to learn about them, we have to do more than merely transplant some “Celtic” music and language styles into our worship.  There is a huge gap between the final dying out of a distinctively Celtic Christianity in the 12th century and now.  We have no ongoing tradition to connect with.  

What might a fuller Celtic approach to faith 
look like today?  

The word in Greek, Keltoi, refers to the peoples who lived mainly to the north and west of the “civilized,” that is, Mediterranean, world.  Keltoi more or less meant “barbarian,” “foreigner,” and “other.”  Might we not, therefore, use the word “Celtic” today to talk about theology and spirituality outside the boundaries, margins, fringes, and control of the centralized powers of the world?  Might Celtic not be a way to embrace a non-imperialist, indigenous way of being Christian?    

Celts do actually show up in the New Testament.  Rome fought a protracted war with these people; Celts even sacked Rome in 390 BCE.  The Romans called them Galatai, or “Galatians.”  When the Romans finally prevailed, they published a lot of propaganda across the Empire denigrating and mocking the defeated Galatai.  

The people of Galatia, in central Anatolia, were members of Celtic tribes whose ancestors migrated across the Black Sea.  Indeed, the Apostle Paul probably extended his ministry to that region intentionally to take advantage of the people’s famous hatred for Rome.  

Paul expected the message 
about a Judean man whom Rome crucified for sedition, but who then didn’t stay dead, 
thus exposing Rome’s powerlessness, 
to resonate with the Galatians.  
And it did.

So add to the outsider identity the fact that they were defeated by the Empire, and we have a model for what it might mean to talk about being “Celtic” today.  

I am suggesting that 
“Celtic” may be a way to describe 
a Christianity of the vanquished, indigenous, marginalized, exploited, 
and disenfranchised peoples of the world.  

Celtic Christianity looks at things from the perspective of the people at the bottom, the ones who do the work and are victimized by the wealthy and powerful.

Actually, as we see in Mary’s hymn and in Jesus’ whole approach to his mission, this preferential option for the poor is the foundation of Christianity generally.  Hopefully, the attention we give to the Celtic Christianity of long ago will lead us to a better appreciation of how we need to be a church of the marginalized in our own time.
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