Now there’s a lively topic. Over the years more than a few members of my congregation who were raised in conservative evangelical or fundamentalist churches have come to me with serious questions about sin. More often than not they carry within their souls a very deep sense of guilt about their own sin and their conviction that whatever “the world” is, it is irreparably contaminated by sin. They wonder why our church doesn’t do more to emphasize the corrosiveness of sin, call worshipers to repentance of sin, warn about the eternal damnation that is the reward of sin, and publicize the living hell that non-Christians are already in and from which they have no hope of deliverance. In spite of what the far right wing of our own denomination claims, that is not the Anglican way.
Reflecting on a growing awareness of God’s grace that has been developing over two thousand years, we are awed by a universe that was created out of love, sustained for love and redeemed by love. In it we discover ourselves to be the objects of God’s love, and fallen though we are, we are God’s children yet. However, our critics and my recovering fundamentalist parishioners have a point. In pushing against the evangelical obsession with sin we have often not given it enough airtime.
What exactly is sin? The simple answer is that it is to miss the mark, but what then is the mark? In the end I think it comes down to this. Sin is anything that brings hurt into our own lives or the lives of others; it is anything that diminishes or places obstacles in the way of receiving the fullness of God’s blessings. We are all and each sinners because we all and each engage daily in that which hurts others and us. Daily we diminish or trivialize the abundance of God’s blessings poured into our lives and the lives of others. Daily we create obstacles to and new ways of avoiding those blessings. And when I speak of others I mean not only our immediate neighbors, but also society as a whole. Is some particular act a sin or not? It depends not on the act itself but on the consequences of the act for self, others and society.
Sometimes we get ourselves into situations where painful choices have to be made. Abusive marriages, betrayed relationships of every kind, even pregnancies that endanger not one life but many require decisions that cannot be made without sinning. As often as not something sinful got us into these predicaments in the first place. We are not, it seems, wholly innocent victims. There are, of course, sins of great magnitude that bring enormous waves of evil into existence, cause unspeakable hurt and reverberate for aeons around the world, perhaps even throughout the universe. I suppose we could start making lists but I’m not sure it would do much good because most lists are made up to show all the evil and sinful things that someone else has done in order for the list maker to illustrate how sinless she or he is by comparison. Ah, how we love to judge others with the eye of a damning god!
Now here is where it comes down to for Christians. In Christ Jesus God demonstrated that “the world” was not lost but saved, and that, as Paul taught, we individually are saved by grace through faith. It is a gift given by God through Christ and all anyone has to do to get it is to receive it. The act of receiving changes everything. It takes away the guilt of ulcerous burdens that eat away at flesh and soul and opens a path to new life in which the abundance of God’s blessings increasingly floods into our lives. More needs to be said, but this is enough for the moment. Think about it.

Victory and Defeat

I hear a lot of political talk these days about victory and defeat. What would victory look like if we finally won in Iraq or Afghanistan? Has anybody ever heard a member of the current administration explain what he or she means by victory? I don’t think these are rhetorical questions; I’d really like to hear an answer. After all, we are investing thousands of dead soldiers and more wounded ones, not to mention the financial cost to the taxpayers. I wonder what the Iraqis and the Afghanis think all this has cost them? What are we buying with all that blood and destruction of families? On the other hand, what would defeat look like? Defeat is both frightening and shameful; one has only to listen for a few moments to right-wing radio pundits to learn that. But on a more pragmatic level, what is meant by defeat? Does it include any disengagement from the field? Or does it, perhaps, mean the events that would follow in the lands left behind. What is it that we are so afraid of, ashamed of? I would like an answer that does not involve smarmy sophomoric sarcasm. Since it appears that the bulk of those still supporting the current administration label themselves as Evangelical Christians, indeed as does the president himself, I would also like to hear how their answers can be worked into the teachings of Jesus with an emphasis on his Sermon on the Mount.

The Gold of Summer

It’s mid-July here. The green fields of late winter through early summer have turned golden with the ripening of the wheat. If you drove into our valley today it might seem to you a dry and arid place, which in some ways it is. We are, after all, on the high intermountain plateau, and all around us are high deserts and the almost treeless hills of the Palouse. But that would only be a part of the truth. The mountain snows and big rivers provide the water needed to produce a land of rich fecundity. In these hot, dry and golden days we are sated with an over abundance of local peaches, plums, apricots, strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, sweet corn. Wheat harvest will be over by the end of August. Apples and pears won’t be far behind. With the planting of winter wheat the hills will begin to green up by November. The colors and textures of our fields, hills and mountains are in continuous change, and we never get tired of the great kaleidoscope of beauty that rotates through the seasons.

Our Immutable God?

As a young boy in confirmation class I learned that among the many attributes of God was God’s immutability. Basically that’s the idea that God, being perfect and whole in God’s self and the first cause of everything, cannot be moved or changed, because any change would imply imperfection of some kind. It is way of thinking about God especially popular among Protestant churches but it has its roots not in the bible but in Greek philosophy. I don’t think we can help it. Even though most of us have never read a word of Greek philosophy, that way of thinking is so embedded in the ethos of our western culture that we cannot escape it. Some early Christians tried to bridge the gap by incorporating the God of the bible with the Greek ideas of divinity through some fantastical weaving of what we call Gnostic myths that postulated two gods – one Greek and one Hebrew, the Greek god having superiority.
But if, as Christians, we believe that God’s truth is revealed through Holy Scripture, then it has got to be obvious that the one and only God has almost nothing to do with the staid, cold, distant and unchangeable Greek god of my confirmation class. The God of scripture is a God passionately engaged with humanity and all of creation. God loves, gets angry, can be persuaded, invites conversation, changes his mind, makes new plans, even wonders what will happen next. Make no mistake, scripture also reveals God as the creator and sustainer of all that is, whether seen or unseen. In the stories of creation, God speaks and the world comes into being. But, whatever that spoken word was, we hold that it also became flesh and lived among us as one of us in Jesus of Nazareth. God deigned to become, in some sense, human in a way so completely unlike any Greek, Egyptian or Hindu myth about gods taking on human form. God in Christ experienced the fullness of our human lives with all its possibilities and limitations. Out of nothing more than love for us, that of God through which creation came to be, also engaged in the reality of creation as a creature.
I’m not sure when that finally penetrated my mind, but I think it was through a more thoughtful reading of the Hebrew Scriptures to let them shine light on the texts of the New Testament. I feel very sad for those who still cling to a Greek idea of God because it is so lacking in life and wonder, so distant and so small.

What is a Conservative?

I grew up thinking I was a conservative. I still do, and yet I can find almost no common ground with those who pass as today’s political or religious conservatives. For instance, I hear today’s political conservatives proclaim their belief in freedom and then engage in every way possible to restrict freedom for all and deny it to some. I hear them proclaim democracy and then concentrate as much power as possible in the hands of their few elite. I hear them rail against “activist judges” and then engineer the appointment of judges who set back the clock of civil rights by decades. I hear them condemn with contempt everyone who even appears to perhaps disagree with them in any way as effete left wing liberals at the same time that they espouse their commitment to the very Constitution that embraces a vigorous public debate in the context of an active government that provides for the welfare of the people. If that is what it is to be a political conservative, then I will have nothing to do with it. So let us turn our attention to religious conservatives, or at least to so-called Christian conservatives. If I understand correctly what I often hear on radio, see on television and occasionally encounter among folks around town, there are three tenets to their faith: acceptance of the sixty-six books of the standard Protestant bible as the literal and historically true Word of God; condemnation of homosexuality; and opposition to abortion in any form for any reason. It is a faith that seems to have precious little to do with understanding and living into the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is disinterested in the dynamic and progressive revelation of God’s self in the drama of the Hebrew Scriptures. And it dismisses the centuries of men and women who have given themselves to lives that shed yet a bit more light on what it is to be a Christian. It is unable to recognize the possibility that God’s grace might flood over those who do not confess Christ as Lord. Therefore, it cannot accommodate the moral ambiguity of our human condition, nor is it able to shine the light of Christ into the darkness. It seems to me to be an impoverished sort of religion at best. I believe that these two forces, if they continue to act in tandem, are the greatest threat to our nation, our democracy, our security and our freedom. Oddly enough I don’t see them as a threat to the Church or to God’s work among us. They are in irritant to be sure. They mislead and do much damage to the lives of many, but in the end God wins. That’s the way it is with God.