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Archive for July, 2016

Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 5: Sin is Separation

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2

At an early age, I learned I was a sinner. I believed my thoughts and actions were unacceptable to God, and the only thing I could do about it was try to hide my awful nature. I pretended to be a “good, little boy” to friends and relatives, and especially to people at church, so they would consider me one of them – the “good” and the “chosen” – instead of the wretched misfit I thought myself to be. I am not certain how I came to believe I was such a terrible person – I suspect it was at church. I do not recall my parents instilling an aberrant self-belief, but sin was a weekly topic in the church where I grew up. That God knew my every thought and watched my every action convinced me I would undoubtedly spend eternity in hell. As an adult, I accepted I was not worse than other folks I knew, so if I were condemned to hell, I would be in good company. I realized that everyone sins, and sin is a common and shared characteristic, more than something I alone struggled with.

Today, however, I view sin differently. I read once that sin is separation, and that concept opened up an entirely new understanding of sin for me: Sin is what sets us apart – apart from God and apart from each other. When I sin against you, I do something that divides us, something that harms our relationship. In order to restore our relationship, I must confess my sin (admit I did wrong), repent (meaning “turn around” or change or apologize), and seek your forgiveness (ask you to reengage our relationship). That sounds like a pretty natural and common progression in any relationship worth maintaining.

Traditionally, we track the “original” sin to the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve defying God’s command not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their “punishment” was expulsion from the Garden, where they had enjoyed a direct, unfettered relationship with God. In other words, they separated from God. I now believe the original sin was not the eating of the fruit, but the leaving of the Garden itself – their willful separation from God. The very act of a soul taking on flesh and blood and becoming human is an act of separation – a sinful act, if you will – because as humans we enter a reality that appears individualistic and separate. From our human vantage point, we cannot see God, and we cannot see our interconnectedness with each other. We believe ourselves to be separate, independent entities, and that separation is the illusion at the root of most of our problems.

At times, we Christians are quick to point out the sins of others and equally remiss in pointing out the divine grace and forgiveness that is as close as their next breath. In the very act of judging another, we commit sin by driving a wedge between another and ourselves.Sin – creating division with others – is its own punishment. God need not punish us further. In fact, God reaches out to rejoin with us. When I was a child, I had a miserable self-image because I did not feel worthy to be in close relationship with others. Yet, close relationship is what we were created for, and is the reality behind the illusion. Without it, we are miserable.

Sin is separation. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 4: Our Possessions Possess Us

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  

Matthew 6:19-21

Front yardMy wife and I are blessed to live in a large house on 5 acres of land. It is located in the rolling hills south of Lawrence, Kansas, among a beautiful mix of field and forest. We enjoy stunning sunsets on a regular basis and can view much of the night sky that is invisible to our city brethren. Even when our children were home, we had plenty of room for everyone and everyone’s stuff. Musical instruments, clothes, books, music, furniture – you name it, we probably have it.

As I age, I notice that much of what I was excited to possess in earlier days requires an amount of time and resources that is disproportionate to its current value to me. So many things I simply had to have in my younger years now have me wondering I was thinking. Even trying to thin out the excess, however, is a difficult process. First, one never knows when something might come in handy – or when a friend or family member might need it. Second, there is sentimental value in much of what we have. It is difficult just to throw that away. Third, passing things on to others means cleaning, moving, and organizing. It is often easier to hoard (or to leave the problem for my children).

Jesus warned us not to store up for ourselves treasures of the earth. Actually, I think his point has to do with what we value, more than what we possess. If we keep things we do not need, however, we are assigning a value to them – even if only the value of not having to get rid of them. There are reasons, however, that holding onto stuff in excess of our need is inconsistent with Christian teaching. First, there are those who really need some of what gathers dust in our homes. Second, there is a maintenance cost associated with everything we keep, and those costs are resources unavailable for other, more important uses. Third, and most important in my opinion, our possessions possess us.

In too many ways, I am a slave to my possessions. When I spend my weekends maintaining my large yard or trying to keep our big house clean, I have neither time nor energy to dedicate to other needs of my family, friends, and community. If I must first rearrange my old stuff to make room for new stuff, I accomplish nothing of value – for myself or others. If my heart – my time, my attention, and my God-given resources – is consumed in caring for my stuff, where, when, and how can I have a heart for others? It is a challenging spiritual dilemma, and one I will likely wrestle with the rest of my life.

Our possessions possess us. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 3: The Way Out is Through

Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34a

                       “I shouted out, who killed the Kennedys? When after all, it was you and me.”

Sympathy for the Devil, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

We live in a violent time. Pundits of every persuasion speak with certainty about the causes and cures for the current violence. I am unconvinced. What I am listening for, but not hearing, is anyone recognizing and accepting personal responsibility for a solution.

Long ago, I was taught that one cannot solve a problem without accepting some level of responsibility. Once I recognize my part in a problem, I am able to begin making meaningful changes that may actually have a positive impact. The change, however, must begin within. If not, I join the legions of complainers, finger-pointers, hand-wringers, pontificators, and other reactionaries that only perpetuate the problem. As Christians, we have the audacity to claim Jesus took the sins of the world – past, present, and future – to the cross to purchase our salvation. But do we understand the nature of that sacrifice? Do we know how to apply it in practical ways? One lesson of the cross is how to participate in the reconciling of social ills. What Jesus modeled for us is this: The way out is through.

Jesus, an entirely innocent victim, knew a horrible death he did not deserve was waiting. He would endure the worst torture that humanity knew how to inflict at the time. The social systems of Jesus’ day, like today, were unjust and violent. They wrongly believed, as we believe, that progress – however the culture defines it – comes by force. Jesus recognized the corrupt underlying system and, in his humanity, refused to participate in or perpetuate it. Once accused, he did not get defensive, or try to shift the condemnation onto others. He knew the only way out of the situation – to begin a social healing process – was to accept his condemnation, take up his cross, and go through it. And in that act of civil disobedience, Jesus modeled what happens when we go through a difficult challenge – we come out the other side changed. All efforts to avoid, go around, or deny a problem leave it for another day.

What are my roles in today’s issues? Where are my actions toward others discriminatory and unjust? Which of my cultural assumptions are repressive? How do my words exclude others from kinship as fellow children of God? Specifically, what am I doing, or not doing, that is contributing to the problem? As a Christian, American (the only category of American without an ethnically-based prefix), heterosexual, white male, I have no meaningful experience with discrimination. I am near the top of the socio-economic ladder by accident of birth. Until I understand and accept my role in perpetuating a violent, discriminatory culture, I remain firmly a part of the problem – without ever pulling a trigger.

From the cross, Jesus looked with mercy on those who inflicted the horrible injustice upon him and asked that God forgive them. They did not know what they were doing; and neither do we. The spiral of violence we find ourselves in will only be solved when a critical mass of people accept responsibility for their part, say “Enough,” take up their cross, and go through the problem, including acceptance of its inevitable consequences.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only love can do that.” In these dark times, only love can carry us through to the other side. We underestimate how rare that sort of love is, however, let alone the level of sacrifice and focus it requires. Not all of us will survive, at least not physically, but deeply-imbedded social ills require much sacrifice for the future good. Jesus showed us the way. Non-violent leaders like Dr. King and Gandhi gave their lives for it. They faced evil head on, absorbed the worst evil could throw at them, and came out triumphant on the other side.

The way out is through. How did I miss that?

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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 2: Alone Time is Important

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6:5-6

Growing up, I learned to pray in community. My father prayed before family meals, and our pastor led us in prayer at church. Of course, the Lord’s Prayer, spoken collectively, was a common fixture in worship. There was also a prayer at bedtime, spoken with a parent, that went,

        Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep;

        If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

I remember sitting in church as a child wondering how the preacher could possibly think of so much to pray about. The prayers seemed to drone on, and it was very difficult to remain focused. I kept my eyes clamped shut as long as I could, afraid someone might catch me peeking. Prayer was not very comforting in those days.

I am not certain when I learned to pray by myself, but however it happened, time alone with God quickly became my favorite method of prayer. I am an introvert, so time alone is a necessary part of my life. Jesus modeled this for us. Many times in the Gospels, he goes off alone to pray. Like spending time with a close, intimate friend, words are not always necessary in prayer. In fact, I find more of my prayers as I age to be of the silent type. I have no idea what I would say to God that God does not already know better than I can put into words. Being in God’s presence is more than enough. In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought.” I find this to be true. In his first letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul writes, “Pray without ceasing.” This seems to be an encouragement toward wordless prayer – staying in communion with God at all times, but not necessarily with words. St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, use words.” This applies to prayer, too. We can remain in constant contact with God without all the dialogue. In fact, our dialogue makes it impossible to hear what God might be trying to tell us.

My point is not that we should always pray silently. Rather, alone-time with God is important. We need worry less about what we say and more about being present. Whether in meditation, contemplation, reflection, yoga, or any number of other methods, a quiet mind ignites our awareness of God’s presence. If Jesus needed quiet, alone-time with God in order to center himself, recharge, and reconnect in the days prior to television and the internet, think how much more we need it today.

Alone time with God is important. How did I miss that?

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