Psalm 32 – What is Sin?

The greatest commandment is to love one another. The greatest sin is to act out of not-love.

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
    while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
    will not reach them.
You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
    which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
    or they will not come to you.
10 Many are the woes of the wicked,
    but the Lord’s unfailing love
    surrounds the one who trusts in him.

11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
    sing, all you who are upright in heart!

Lent seems like a good time to have a discussion about sin, since we’re supposed to be doing a little spiritual cleansing in preparation for Jesus’ return.  But what, exactly, is sin?  I want to make absolutely clear that this is just my own opinion.  I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, a little praying about it, and minimal reading about it, other than Bible passages such as this one.  All that being said, let me give you my ideas on sin, repentance, and forgiveness:

In order to discuss sin, I think we first need to (re)establish what I see as the greatest purpose, the greatest commandment asked of Christians.  And that is unconditional love for each other.  In John 13:34 Jesus says “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  I think all other commandments stem from this basic principle of love.  Resting on the Sabbath?  That is self-care, and when we take care of ourselves we can better care for others.  Honor thy mother and father?  Just another way of saying show filial love and respect.

So what is sin, then? It is a failure to love one another to the best of our ability.  So yes, we are all sinners, because we all fall short in that.  Personally, I fall short when I get frustrated with the kids, when I speak out of annoyance to my husband or parents, when I buy clothes without knowing where they’re made (because they could potentially come from unsafe or underpaid workers), when I don’t recycle (because poisoning the world with plastic is not an act of love for future generations).  As a society we fall short when we don’t welcome refugees clamoring for help, when we turn a blind eye to the harm we are doing to the earth that future generations will inherit, and when we deny the basic humanity of someone based on their skin color or because they pray differently than us.

So how do we repent, how do we change our ways?  It can seem futile, at first – one person cannot stop the all wars, pollution, and hate that is rampant in the world.  And even on a smaller level, we know that we ourselves can’t promise to never get frustrated, never get tired, and never give into less than loving impulses.  So what is even the point?  Let’s return to the parenting analogy I’m so fond of.  I want my girls to be the best they can be.  Just this week Marienne seems to be getting the point of “please” and Betty has been super helpful, cleaning up her playdough and putting her boots away.  My heart bursts with pride at these little accomplishments, and I do all I can to encourage that sort of behavior.  However, they also just today fought over a toy fish and had a hair pulling moment at the rice table.  I corrected them (redirecting for the hair pulling and a “reset,” which is like a pre-timeout, for the fish).  I was not pleased with that behavior, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped loving them, or that I don’t think they’re capable of more good moments.  And that is how I think God must view us.  Of course Xe is going to get angry at us making a mess of the beautiful earth he has given us, for fighting with and oppressing our brothers and sisters. Xe may even punish us for it.  But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t love us, and think us capable of good.  Nothing melts my heart more than Betty’s little “sowwy, Mommy.”  That’s all we have to do, too.  Turn to God with a heart-felt apology, a vow to do better, and we are forgiven.  Yes, we will mess up, we will “sin,” if you will, but that’s only part of being human.  Xe expects that.  But we can do well by God by earnestly trying to be better.

I admit – acting out of love seems simple, but it can get murky.  There’s lots of different ideas of what is good or bad.  I probably let me two year old do more things than some parents (play outside under minimal supervision, taste the dog food, wear lipstick on her eyebrows) because I think that it’s a safe way to let her learn and grow.  I probably also let my two year old do less things than some parents (I’m still terrified of her eating nuts and lollipops, and I still can’t let her cry it out for more than a few minutes at night).  Am I a “bad” parent for sometimes too lenient or sometimes overprotective?  Some might argue I am, even though I think I’m acting from a place of love.  Scale that difference of opinion up to larger debates like deciding to go to war (are we really promoting democracy or are we propping up an oil friendly regime?), or climate change (are we hurting small business owners by imposing stricter environmental standards?) and you’ll find good people on every side of those opinions.  The important thing is to really search your heart and examine your actions, and if you find you are acting out of greed, distrust, or even laziness instead of love, then it may be time to change your course.

So to recap: the greatest commandment is to love one another.  The greatest sin is to act out of not-love.  We can strive to act out of love all the time, but, being human, we will fail in that from time to time.  But God loves us with a love stronger and more pure than anything we can ever know, and because of that, no sin is beyond Xyr forgiveness.  It’s not a free pass – we need to keep trying to be better and not repeating our mistakes, just like my girls will keep getting time outs each time they bite each other.  But they will also be forgiven afterwards, and we, too, can always turn to God with a contrite heart, ready to be forgiven and start fresh.  Going into Holy Week, the last week of Lent, I encourage you to stop and examine your heart.  Is there anything that’s been bothering you lately?  If so, I encourage you to pray.  Pray to God for forgiveness, if you feel you need it, and pray that Xe will show you the path of love, and pray for the strength of spirit to follow it.  And then keep doing that any time you feel you stray, come up short, or “sin.”  God will always, always welcome you back, because God’s love is greater than any sin.

Psalm 06 – Blessed Are Those Suffering Chronic Conditions

…or at least, they should be.

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
    or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
    heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
    How long, Lord, how long?

Turn, Lord, and deliver me;
    save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
    Who praises you from the grave?

I am worn out from my groaning.

All night long I flood my bed with weeping
    and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
    they fail because of all my foes.

Away from me, all you who do evil,
    for the Lord has heard my weeping.
The Lord has heard my cry for mercy;
    the Lord accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
    they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.

Technically I suffer from a chronic illness – hypothyroidism.  My thyroid doesn’t make enough of the hormones it is supposed to.  It’s pretty common, and mine is well managed with a little daily pill, so I often forget I fall into this chronic condition category.  The biggest impact this has had on my life was interfering with fertility when we were first starting to get pregnant.  But starting that little daily pill (it’s very little – like a tenth the size of a Tylenol) fixed that.  I have dry skin, get cold easily, and get tired a lot – which are all signs of the disease, but I don’t know if I can fully attribute those symptoms to it.  I also live in a house with a wood stove (which sucks the moisture out of the air), a drafty house (which would explain the chills), and have two small children (and what parent isn’t tired?).  If I feel I’m even more tired than normal, I get some blood work done to see if I need to up my dosage of Levothyroxine and that’s that.

Other chronic diseases that people close to me are living through every day include diabetes (type I and II), PCOS, endometriosis (I actually know several people with this supposedly rare disease), depression, a “benign” brain tumor, transplant recipients (fun fact: you’re on immuno-suppressants basically the rest of your life when you get an organ), rheumatoid arthritis, several people with hip replacements, and musculo-skeletal pain from things like slipped discs and something akin to tennis elbow.  I bet if you sat down and made a list, you have a lot of people in your life suffering through chronic conditions, too.

According to the National Health Council, 40% of Americans suffer chronic disease.  That’s 133 million people.  And 81 million of those people suffer from multiple conditions.  This doesn’t even count the un-diagnosed or under-diagnosed people that are out there, and might not count things like organ donor recipients – it’s hard to tell. I also don’t know if it counts pregnant people or people with disabilities like amputees – so that number is probably much, much higher.

But does society at large have mercy on the faint? Do we hear those who call out in anguish, “how long, how long?”  Outrageous prescription costs, limited accessibility accommodations, and judgmental attitudes show that we don’t.  It is easy to forget the suffering of others, especially when you are healthy yourself, especially when so many of these conditions are invisible.  Here’s just a few examples of some of the indignities and injustices people with chronic conditions have to suffer through:

  • Individuals requiring a wheelchair often have no option except to go for hours without it during air travel.  This may not seem like a big deal at first, since you’re just sitting, but that means no going to the bathroom, which also isn’t wheelchair accessible, and it means being completely reliant upon airline/airport employees for your mobility in and out of your seat and plane.
  • Chronically ill people are not “so lucky” because they “get to just sit there.”  Sitting allows them to handle debilitating pain for longer.  I’ve never had fibromyalgia or arthritis or any other chronic pain condition like that – but I did have very prominent and painful varicose veins during both my pregnancies that compression leggings couldn’t fully control.  My legs were throbbing my last trimesters, all the time, and I had to sit down often.  Unfortunately sitting down isn’t a magic cure, it just makes pain more manageable.  But some people seem to think pain disappears when you sit down, and then you’re able to indulge all your lazy desires.  If. Only.
  • People still think illness or disability is due to karma, sin, or some other morally-linked reason, and often say so to the ill or disabled person.  I’m not saying God doesn’t have the power to inflict illness of any sort on people, I just don’t think that’s really high on Xyr list of things to do.  I’ve already mentioned the blog I stumbled across that said Autistic children (like my own beautiful daughter) are possessed by the devil because their parents are sinners.  Paralympic swimmer Karni Liddell even had a 2013 #hearditwhilstdisabled campaign to bring attention to all the hurtful things people say.  That’s right, this woman is an Olympic swimmer, something my able-bodied self will never be, and still hears this bullshit.

It is a small gesture, but let me take a moment to offer a blessing to all those suffering with a chronic condition.  You are not a cautionary tale nor an inspiration for able-bodied people, you are a human being whom God loves and are worthy of both our respect and Xyr blessing, so God bless you.  The Lord has heard your weeping.  May all those who never took your pain seriously, who denied your worth, who stood in your way be overwhelmed with shame and anguish, may they turn back suddenly and be put to shame.  I pray you find peace and fulfillment in your life, and that God’s blessings are ever present.  I pray that government, health care, and society at large change their policies and attitudes towards those with chronic conditions, and I vow to advocate for that change with you.  God bless you.  Amen.

Psalm 38 – Did King David have Gonorrhea?

No one is beyond God’s love.

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
    or discipline me in your wrath.
Your arrows have pierced me,
    and your hand has come down on me.
Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;
    there is no soundness in my bones because of my sin.
My guilt has overwhelmed me
    like a burden too heavy to bear.

My wounds fester and are loathsome
    because of my sinful folly.
I am bowed down and brought very low;
    all day long I go about mourning.
My back is filled with searing pain;
    there is no health in my body.
I am feeble and utterly crushed;
    I groan in anguish of heart.

All my longings lie open before you, Lord;
    my sighing is not hidden from you.
10 My heart pounds, my strength fails me;
    even the light has gone from my eyes.
11 My friends and companions avoid me because of my wounds;
    my neighbors stay far away.
12 Those who want to kill me set their traps,
    those who would harm me talk of my ruin;
    all day long they scheme and lie.

13 I am like the deaf, who cannot hear,
    like the mute, who cannot speak;
14 I have become like one who does not hear,
    whose mouth can offer no reply.
15 Lord, I wait for you;
    you will answer, Lord my God.
16 For I said, “Do not let them gloat
    or exalt themselves over me when my feet slip.”

17 For I am about to fall,
    and my pain is ever with me.
18 I confess my iniquity;
    I am troubled by my sin.
19 Many have become my enemies without cause;
    those who hate me without reason are numerous.
20 Those who repay my good with evil
    lodge accusations against me,
    though I seek only to do what is good.

21 Lord, do not forsake me;
    do not be far from me, my God.
22 Come quickly to help me,
    my Lord and my Savior.

This psalm is a perfect example of why translations get contentious.  So, in my NIV translation, v. 7 reads “my back is filled with searing pain, there is no health in my body.”  But, in other translations, including the King James, RSV (basically the Catholic Bible), and American Standard Version (and maybe some others, those are just the three I checked), it reads along the lines of: “For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease; there is no soundness in my flesh.”  Based on which translation you read, we just went from a thrown back to gonorrhea.

Which one is “right?” I don’t know.  Going through some different translations, I’ve also seen v. 7 complain of not the back or loins but sides, insides, or no specific part of the body at all, just that the writer is “burning with fever.”  Is it possible David (the attributed author of the Psalm) had an STD?  Sure, he had at least eight wives, for a start.  Also, some venereal diseases can be spread through non-sexual contact-if you come in contact with someone else’s blood, for example, so it’s possible he picked something up during warfare.  I’ve also seen hypothesis that David had arthritis, which would certainly cause his back to be filled with searing pain, and can even attack your eyes-v. 10 says “even the light has gone from my eyes.” Another suggests David had diabetes, which can cause cascading health problems if not managed properly, including pain and vision problems. Maybe poor King David had all three.

Whatever his ailment, there are two lessons we can learn from this Psalm: first, prayer isn’t always pretty.  This is one long lament.  This one is a little more organized, but some of these lament psalms are pretty all over the place, which just makes them more genuine, in my opinion. When in distress, especially physical distress, who among is at their most coherent? Certainly not me!  But we don’t need to be.  God understands even our unspoken prayers, the ones we don’t even realize we’re praying. “I groan in anguish of heart / All my longings lie open before you, Lord, my sighing is not hidden from you,” vv. 8-9 say.  In other words, we have no secrets from God, he even understands our wordless sighs.  Taking time out for dedicated prayer is a wonderful practice, but don’t feel like that’s the only way to speak to God.  We can pray to him anywhere, anytime, in any way.  I whisper quick little prayers of exasperation pleading for help and patience (sometimes interlaced with more than a few f-bombs, I’ll admit) trying to get two uncooperative children out the door or any time the dogs get loose.  So like I said, prayer isn’t always pretty – but doesn’t that make it more approachable, and, in turn, God more approachable?

The second lesson is, no one is beyond God’s love.  David is a murderer, adulterer, and afflicted with serious physical problems-whatever they may be.  But he is also beloved by God.  God gave David a kingdom and extended David’s line even unto Jesus Christ himself.  In fact, Son of David is one of Jesus’ special designations.  Remembering no one is beyond God’s love is a hard lesson to keep in mind, because I find the beliefs and actions of so many people – people who call themselves Christians – to be absolutely repugnant and counter to what I believe true Christian teachings are.

But there is the double-edged sword, if you will, of that exact belief: If I believe God is above all about love, even if I think someone is not loving, I am required to be loving to them.  As I’ve said before, “loving” is not the same as giving everyone a free pass.  Even here, David recognizes this, as he believes he is being physically punished for sins of the spirit.  I get uncomfortable blaming physical ailment upon people’s “sins,” because many good people are sick through no fault of their own. As an aside, all this talk of “guilt” and “sinful folly” backs up the possibility that this affliction, is, indeed, an STD, if David is mourning his sin of coveting another’s wife (or wives).  But the point is God’s own beloved David had his fair share (or more) of rebuke and misery.  If someone is acting in a way that is harmful to others (say, promoting hate-speech against Muslims or other non-Christian groups), I will speak and act against them.  I will not, however, condemn them.  If possible, I will try to show them the error of their ways, lead by example in my own life, and, should they have a change of heart, I will rejoice with them.

I haven’t even touched upon the fact that it is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.  So I will quickly, in closing.  Lent is a season when we remember Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, resisting temptation.  I just recently learned that “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word lencten, meaning spring.  Spring is certainly a time of hope and renewal, and some may think it seems weird that such a somber period in the liturgical calendar comes at such a time in the year.  But, we also have the saying “April is the cruelest month,” and as a farmer, I now know why that is so, and why Lent occurs now. Early spring is one of the leanest times of year, something we forget in the age of supermarkets and year-round peaches.  Historically, early spring is when winter stores of food are lowest.  And while the earth is greening, there is still little in the way to harvest.  We wait in anticipation for the renewal of the Earth and the return of our Savior, watching the ground come back to life but unable to yet partake of it’s bounty.  Now is the perfect time to consume a little less, spend a little more time in prayer, and work on building a world worthy of Jesus’ resurrection on just a few short weeks.  Whether or not you practice giving something up during Lent (some years I do, some years I don’t), I do hope you’ll spend a little more time with God, even if it is just starting with praying for your lost car keys.  Remember that you are worthy of God’s love and can always talk to God, even if it isn’t pretty.