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 14 – Truths vs. Greater Truths

Seeing the forest through the trees.

“Mortals, born of woman,
    are of few days and full of trouble.
They spring up like flowers and wither away;
    like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.
Do you fix your eye on them?
    Will you bring them before you for judgment?
Who can bring what is pure from the impure?
    No one!
A person’s days are determined;
    you have decreed the number of his months
    and have set limits he cannot exceed.
So look away from him and let him alone,
    till he has put in his time like a hired laborer.

“At least there is hope for a tree:
    If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
    and its new shoots will not fail.
Its roots may grow old in the ground
    and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
    and put forth shoots like a plant.
10 But a man dies and is laid low;
    he breathes his last and is no more.
11 As the water of a lake dries up
    or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,
12 so he lies down and does not rise;
    till the heavens are no more, people will not awake
    or be roused from their sleep.

13 “If only you would hide me in the grave
    and conceal me till your anger has passed!
If only you would set me a time
    and then remember me!
14 If someone dies, will they live again?
    All the days of my hard service
    I will wait for my renewal to come.
15 You will call and I will answer you;
    you will long for the creature your hands have made.
16 Surely then you will count my steps
    but not keep track of my sin.
17 My offenses will be sealed up in a bag;
    you will cover over my sin.

18 “But as a mountain erodes and crumbles
    and as a rock is moved from its place,
19 as water wears away stones
    and torrents wash away the soil,
    so you destroy a person’s hope.
20 You overpower them once for all, and they are gone;
    you change their countenance and send them away.
21 If their children are honored, they do not know it;
    if their offspring are brought low, they do not see it.
22 They feel but the pain of their own bodies
    and mourn only for themselves.”

There are some who think v. 12-14 are at the very least innocently mistranslated, but possibly even changed completely and intentionally, to more fully support the idea of resurrection.  Indeed, I got excited when I read that passage – “I will wait for my renewal to come.”  Isn’t that what we’re taught, as Christians, to wait for?  I mean, the return of Jesus is the renewal this whole Christian “thing” is all about, right?

So let’s say that this passage has been manipulated.  I can totally believe that: before they were codified into a collection we now call “the Bible,” these stories (especially a really old one like Job) were oral traditions that were retold and later written down in a centuries-long game of telephone, if you will, so things were bound to change, at least a little.  But does that mean we should totally scrap it?

In short, no.  But this is a good time to plug in a little reminder about reading the Bible in context, which can be easy to forget, especially in a project like this with a laser focus on one chapter at a time.  Is it true that the key passage of this chapter has been manipulated to fit an agenda?  Quite possibly yes.  But how does it, and this chapter at large, fit into the greater truths the Bible is trying to convey to us?

Taken as a whole, this chapter – and most of Job’s three-chapter speech here – aren’t really about renewal and allusions to resurrection, but about God’s infinite power and the insignificance of humans in the face of such an almighty force.  I think two verses from chapter 12 could serve as Job’s thesis in this three-chapter speech: “To God belong wisdom and power, counsel and understanding are his…to him belong strength and victory, both deceived and deceiver are his.” (13:13, 16)  So, even ignoring the potentially problematic passage, we have our first greater truth: God is great.

The second greater truth takes a little inference, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch.  The second greater truth is that even though we are “like a fleeting shadow” in our mortality, we are important to God, God sees us.  In this chapter alone Job mentions God watching man three times: in vv. 3, 6, and 16.  In all of Job’s the chapters making up Job’s speeches so far, God watching man is mentioned nine, possibly ten times (in v. 7:8 he could be referring to his friends or to God when he says “you will look for me but I will be no more”).  True, it is mostly in a negative sense, more like a kid with a magnifying glass over an anthill than a beneficent Lord, but we must remember the place of pain and lack of understanding from which Job is speaking.  In fact, because of his suffering Job is extra important to God.  Remember, the cause of all this suffering was a wager between God and Satan – so Job’s actions through his suffering are of keen interest to the celestial court of this story, even if Job’s days are just as fleeting as the rest of ours.

So if God is great (Greater Truth One), why are we important to God (Greater Truth Two)?  I honestly don’t know.  But perhaps the key to that mystery lies in the Greatest Truth: that God is love.  We may not understand all of God’s ways, but even with all the suffering we see in Job, all the suffering we see in the world, we can know that we, our insignificant, flawed, mortal, fleeting selves, are important to a power much greater than our own.  God is watching us, all the time.  Xe sees our successes, and rejoices with us, Xe sees our failures, and mourns with us.  One, or even hundreds, of controversial translations in the Bible cannot dissuade me from that fact, because I can see the forest through the trees, or in this case the truth through the words, and it bears repeating one more time: God loves us. God loves you.  Praise be to God.

***

I’m going to switch gears here because we’ve reached a good stopping point in the cycle of speeches between Job and his friends. I’m setting aside the Book of Job until next Lent and reading Psalm 6 and Psalm 32 in the remaining time before Holy Week, which starts a week from today.  During Holy Week I’ll read corresponding Gospel passages, specifically Matthew 21, 26, and 27.  Then for Easter I’ll read Matthew 28, if you want are reading along (or ahead) as we go.