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.

Job 12 – A Warning to Those at Ease

“Those who are at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.”

Then Job replied:

“Doubtless you are the only people who matter,
    and wisdom will die with you!
But I have a mind as well as you;
    I am not inferior to you.
    Who does not know all these things?

“I have become a laughingstock to my friends,
    though I called on God and he answered—
    a mere laughingstock, though righteous and blameless!
Those who are at ease have contempt for misfortune
    as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.
The tents of marauders are undisturbed,
    and those who provoke God are secure—
    those God has in his hand.

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
    or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
    or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
    that the hand of the Lord has done this?
10 In his hand is the life of every creature
    and the breath of all mankind.
11 Does not the ear test words
    as the tongue tastes food?
12 Is not wisdom found among the aged?
    Does not long life bring understanding?

13 “To God belong wisdom and power;
    counsel and understanding are his.
14 What he tears down cannot be rebuilt;
    those he imprisons cannot be released.
15 If he holds back the waters, there is drought;
    if he lets them loose, they devastate the land.
16 To him belong strength and insight;
    both deceived and deceiver are his.
17 He leads rulers away stripped
    and makes fools of judges.
18 He takes off the shackles put on by kings
    and ties a loincloth around their waist.
19 He leads priests away stripped
    and overthrows officials long established.
20 He silences the lips of trusted advisers
    and takes away the discernment of elders.
21 He pours contempt on nobles
    and disarms the mighty.
22 He reveals the deep things of darkness
    and brings utter darkness into the light.
23 He makes nations great, and destroys them;
    he enlarges nations, and disperses them.
24 He deprives the leaders of the earth of their reason;
    he makes them wander in a trackless waste.
25 They grope in darkness with no light;
    he makes them stagger like drunkards.

The Bible is full of warnings for the “big guy” to get their act right.  One of my favorites is in Isaiah chapter 32, his warning to “complacent women.” Basically all of the prophets warn for those in power to stop being so corrupt and turn back to God.  And it’s a warning that still needs to be heard today.

In this warning, Job once again gives voice to the downtrodden the world over.  “I am not inferior to you,” Job tells his friends in v. 3 (and again at the beginning of the next chapter).  And I think v. 5 might be my favorite line of this whole book so far, where Job calls them out on their sanctimonious bullshit: “Those at ease have contempt for misfortune as the fate of those whose feet are slipping.”  Basically, “you don’t know what it’s like, I’m over here drowning and you’re trying to offer me swim lessons. Throw me a freaking life saver!”

The whole second half of this chapter can be read as a warning to Job’s friends, who are a stand-in for people in power just as Job is a stand-in for the downtrodden.  “To God belongs wisdom and power,” (v. 13) Job declares – something his friends have been quoting at him the whole time.  But the difference is they were using it to try and suppress Job while upholding their own righteousness, while Job is reminding them – and us – that even our own righteousness is not enough to stand up to God.  “He leads priests away stripped and overthrows men long established, He silences the lips of trusted advisers and takes away discernment of elders [v. 19-20]….He makes nations great, and destroys them [v. 23].”  This is one big reminder that even those who have the appearance of power and security, like Job’s friends, are not immune to correction from God.

I feel I am blessed, because I stand between two worlds: a world of privilege and a world of need.  I am white, cis-gender, able-bodied, and middle class.  I am also female, the mother of a special-needs child with crap insurance (goodbye, $700 every time we go to the developmental pediatrician), and a farmer whose livelihood is directly tied to the vagaries of climate change, predators, and agricultural policy.  So while I have certain comforts–certain privileges, if you will, I never feel fully secure.  Why is this a blessing? Because it helps me to remember others in need, just as Paul’s affliction kept him grounded in reality. (You can read about Paul’s thorn in his side, as he calls it, in 2 Corinthians chapter 12.)  It is easy for me to identify with people who are suffering.  Are you struggling to pay your medical bills? I feel you – reference my developmental pediatrician statement above.  Are you struggling with a condition some people don’t even recognize – such as an “invisible” disease like MS or fibromyalgia or a little-heard of (and therefore dismissed) disorder like Executive Dysfunction?  Again, I feel you – even nowadays not everyone recognizes that Autism is a real thing.  I found a hateful blog post recently where someone claimed individuals with ASD are “retards” who are “possessed by the devil” because their parents are sinners. I just pray that man never has any grandchildren who get diagnosed and have to suffer though his vitriol.  Even being in a interracial marriage has helped me be more empathetic.  It is one of the main reasons I’m such an avid supporter of gay marriage.  Not that long ago – I’m talking 1967, when my dad was a teenager and Chris’ dad was already in his mid-twenties, interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia.  (They even made a movie about it.)  If two people care for each other, want to build a life and a family together, want to spread love in this world that so desperately needs it, why would we stop it? To borrow Job’s words, they are not inferior to me, and I will not have contempt for their misfortune.

I’ve talked about examining your privilege before, but I’m going to mention it again, because Lent is a great time to do it, and it’s actually a great practice in gratitude, too.  Think about all the things you’re grateful for.  Some examples could be good health, your family, or a new job. And then, just think about those who lack that particular blessing.  Counterpoint examples could be those suffering poor health or mental illness, children of all ages in the foster care system, and those struggling with unemployment.  None of these seem particularly controversial on the surface, but dig a little deeper and our society often has contempt for these groups:  I can’t afford insurance that would cover mental health services for my (otherwise healthy!!!) daughter with ASD.  Funding is being cut for Health and Human Services, the government agency responsible for the Administration of Children and Families, Head Start programs, and TANF (all which benefit foster children and children in at-risk situations).  The stigma against unemployed people has been documented in a controlled study by UCLA.  None of these are actions of love, but actions of contempt.

I get it, not everyone is going to be a social justice warrior.  Some just don’t have the time or inclination, but that doesn’t make them bad people.  There are lots of legitimate reasons a person may not be active in implementing change: raising a family, starting a business, caring for a sick loved one, struggling to make ends meet themselves.  But even little actions make a difference.  What if everyone made just one (more) phone call to their representatives about an issue that they heard on the news?  What if everyone donated just $10 (more) to a charity of their choice? What if everyone bought one less thing made of plastic, or one more thing from a female entrepreneur?  I don’t know what would happen, but I bet it would be good.  So today I’m challenging you to do a little more to make a difference. I know it’s hard, with everyone and everything asking “more” of us, but like I said, the steps can be little to start.  I’d love to hear what little steps you’re taking to make the world a better place, perhaps you might inspire someone else to do the same thing.  Above all else today, let us not have contempt for other’s misfortune, for they are not inferior to us.  Let us not be too at ease, for then we ourselves are at risk of the greater misfortune of God’s displeasure.  We have the chance to be agents of God’s love for all mankind – let’s take it.