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.

Genesis 17 – Patience and Listening

God patiently waits for us to listen.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan,where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant,you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.”

17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

19 Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” 22 When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him.

23 On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael was thirteen;26 Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that very day.27 And every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.

I bashed Abraham (so renamed as of this chapter) pretty hard in my last post, and I was still in a bash-y sort of mindset when I was reading this chapter. The main question I kept asking myself was “Why him? Why did God chose Abraham? What was so special about him?”

The answer? Nothing, really, except Abraham was a ready listener.  I’ve already illuminated Abraham’s many shortcomings or possible shortcomings (twice denying his wife to save his skin, questionable faith when sleeping with Hagar…) But everything I’ve read about Abraham shows that he listened to God, and was ready to receive his message.  Sometimes he was incredulous, as in this chapter when he laughs at the idea of a man one hundred years old having a child by a woman who is ninety (17:17), but wouldn’t you laugh, too?  But when God said “leave your country” (Gen 12:1), Abraham left. When God said “I am your shield, your very great reward.” (Gen. 15:1), Abraham believed him (15:6). When God requested a sacrifice, Abraham brought it forthwith (Gen. 15:9-11). And when God made circumcision a sign of his covenant with Abraham – more about that in a minute – he did it.  Not only did he make sure he and his son were circumcised, but the Bible takes care to tell us that “all those born in his household, or bought with his money, every male in his household,” (17:23) were circumcised.

Abraham’s failures occurred in the God’s silences.  That lays the blame at God’s feet – let me see if I can phrase it a different way.  Abraham’s failures occurred when he stopped listening for God.  No, God is not going to verbally converse with us all the time, not even with Abraham, but He is still there, it’s just up to us to seek His guiding hand and follow it.  Abraham didn’t trust God when he gave Sarah to the Pharaoh.  Some argue he didn’t trust God when he left for Egypt during the famine in the first place.  I’ve argued that he was also guilty of at least impatience with God if not flat out faithlessness when he agrees with Sarah to sleep with Hagar.  But don’t we all fail in our faith sometimes? Maybe even on a daily basis?  And when faced with really dire consequences – starving to death, being killed by the Pharaoh, seeing the end of your bloodline in a patriarchal society – it’s hard to trust God’s plan.

And you know what the beautiful thing about that is?  God forgave Abraham.  His forgiveness is so pervasive it’s not even really mentioned, just implicit.  At any time God could have cut Abraham off for his faithlessness, but He recognized Abraham’s human fragility and forgave him for it. Perhaps even Abraham’s lapses in faith are even part of God’s grace: You can’t hold a conversation with a drowning man.  Perhaps God let Abraham go to Egypt, even though He was fully capable of saving him from famine, because He knew Abraham was not in a good place to listen.  But, when the time was right, God continued to talk to him, because He knew Abraham was ready.

And perhaps that is why God waited until Abraham was a full one hundred years old to make this covenant with him.  Think of your grand- or great-grand parents and all the wisdom they have accumulated over their lifetimes.  Age generally seems to give people a larger world-view. I hope, as I get older, to be less bogged down in petty details but also able to enjoy all of life’s small pleasures more fully.  Abraham, wised-up and mellowed-out, wouldn’t balk at a little genital mutilation the way a twenty-something year old man would.

Something I learned about circumcision while reading this chapter: It wasn’t unheard-of before Abraham.  In fact, Egyptians and Phoenicians were among some of the populations who practiced circumcision at the time.  At least for me, knowing that it had a certain degree of cultural norm before the Abrahamic Covenant makes it seem like a less bizarre request.  There are a myriad of proposed reasons as to why any group performed circumcision – some in direct conflict, including both to limit sexual arousal and to improve sexual performance. But Abraham’s circumcision, the one that we are most concerned with here, was to signify this new covenant with God. It is symbolic.  God said to Abraham “Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, shall be cut off from his people.” (17:14)  People means family means offspring, so it makes sense that cutting the organ used for procreation symbolizes the cutting off from offspring should the covenant not be followed.

Should we still circumcise today?  I don’t have any boys, so I haven’t had to deal with that question directly.  Paul argues against it in the New Testament, others say it still holds as a symbol of faith.  I really don’t know.  It’s a topic I’ll think more upon as we cross it again, as it’s mentioned nearly 100 times in the Bible. (Thanks, Google!)

For now, I’m just thankful to have a God that is patient with us.  It is something I will try to remember when things aren’t going my way.  Sometimes things don’t go our way, that’s true, and we chalk it up to not being part of God’s plan.  But perhaps it is not part of God’s plan because he is just waiting for us to be still and ready to listen. Again, it’s not easy to quiet yourself in the midst of a crisis (whether that crisis be dealing with as little as a traffic jam or as large as car crash), but it’s something I’ll try to remember, since God always remembers me.

Genesis 07-Greater Truths

Love and hope for our fellow man.

The Lord then said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven pairs of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made.”

And Noah did all that the Lord commanded him.

Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters came on the earth. And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood. Pairs of clean and unclean animals, of birds and of all creatures that move along the ground, male and female, came to Noah and entered the ark, as God had commanded Noah. 10 And after the seven days the floodwaters came on the earth.

11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month—on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. 12 And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.

13 On that very day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, together with his wife and the wives of his three sons, entered the ark.14 They had with them every wild animal according to its kind, all livestock according to their kinds, every creature that moves along the ground according to its kind and every bird according to its kind,everything with wings. 15 Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark. 16 The animals going in were male and female of every living thing, as God had commanded Noah. Then the Lord shut him in.

17 For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. 18 The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. 19 They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. 20 The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than fifteen cubits. 21 Every living thing that moved on land perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. 22 Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. 23 Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.

24 The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.

The flood story has fascinated me since sixth grade, where I distinctly remember learning in Mrs. Fowler’s 4th period Social Studies class that Sumerian culture also had a flood story.  And indeed, many, many cultures have a flood story – Wikipedia has a whole list of flood stories from around the world, beyond the famous Noah of the Bible and Gilgamesh of Mesopotamia. Here was hard proof that MY religion was based on historical facts, not just some nebulous mythology.  Perhaps other civilizations had missed the boat (ha, ha I know, I’m a total cornball) on recognizing the Abrahamic God as the true God, but that flood happened and they knew it was because some deity was angry.

It’s funny how as you get older you don’t know it all anymore.  I’m sure I’ll say the same thing about my current self in 20 years.  But anyway-I’m still excited about the pervasiveness of the flood myth, but less as a validation to my own religion and more as a validation to the greater truths of humanity.

What are the greater truths we share, beyond a more-or-less “historically accurate” flood story?  That’s what I’m reading the Bible to find out.  But my hypothesis lies in the subtitle of this blog: Radical Love.  Human history is filled with examples of radical love – stories of sacrifice, of miracles, and, yes, of epic romances.  This flood story is a story of God’s wrath, but also a story of His love for us.  God looked upon the Earth and humanity in despair.  But in his despair he found love for Noah and his family, enough to carry them through an earth-ending calamity.  If He can find the one good man out of an entire world of wickedness, don’t we owe it to Him to search for the good, for to common ground, in our fellow man?

I’m not saying to turn a blind eye to injustice in order to keep the peace.  But do recognize that your opponent, whoever that may be, is a person.  A living, breathing person who eats and sleeps and fears and feels.  Better yet, recognize that your opponent may not be a person at all, but a larger system of injustice, such as institutional racism, and that your opponent is a product of their environment.  Call out the wrongs in society, for sure, but also extend a hand of recognition, too.  It’s been a while since I’ve used a parenting analogy, so here we go:  Sometimes, when one of the kids is throwing a shit fit, the best way to calm things down is to drop everything and hug them, let them know that I am here and listening to them and that it’s going to be alright – no need to throw things and hit and yell. I recognize their human needs, and they calm down (usually, unless someone has the Leapfrog counting phone out of turn, then all bets are off).  Simply acknowledging the anger (fear) of another person can help to calm the storm.

Hope is another “greater truth” from this flood story.  Many (not all, but many) of these similar flood stories start with God (or whoever) being willing to save the flicker of good left in humanity, and ends with God (or whoever) making a promise to carry on the Earth after the flood.  That little flicker of a divine flame can literally save the world.  So again, I repeat: If God can place the hope of mankind into one flawed man, don’t we owe it to Him to search for the divine flicker good in our fellow man?  I think it’s a good place to start.