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.

Job 01 – A Different Way to Think About Satan

More like an undercover cop and moral auditor than an eternal tormentor.

A quick word on pronouns, and my usage of them from here out:  I believe God transcends/is all inclusive of gender.  I was raised, as many Christians were, referring to God using male pronouns.  I’ll admit it is what is most comfortable for me, but I’m committed to recognizing not only the divine female within God but also the overall inclusivity of God, and am making it a practice to now refer to God (and any angels, spirits, etc discussed in the Bible) with the gender neutral pronouns xe, xem, xyr, xemself.  I realize this may be awkward for some readers, but the more we practice the better we get!  I will continue to refer to Jesus using masculine pronouns as he came to Earth as male.

In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest manamong all the people of the East.

His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would make arrangements for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinnedand cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.

One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”

Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job?There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. 10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. 11 But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”

Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

13 One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, 15 and the Sabeans attacked and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

16 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the heavens and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

17 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and made off with them. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

18 While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 19 when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”

20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
    may the name of the Lord be praised.”

22 In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

Today I’m going to discuss a new understanding of Satan that I reached after reading this chapter.  But first, I feel it’s necessary to explain where I come from, theologically, when discussing Heaven and Hell and the Devil.  I don’t have a fully formed notion of “heaven” and “hell,” if they exist at all, and who is going to end up in which place.  I came of age during the release of the “Left Behind” series, and for most of my teen years was terrified of the Rapture and what came afterwards and if I would be one of those left behind or not, and firmly believed there were those who were “saved” and those who were not.

Then, after sophomore year of college, a friend committed suicide.  He was open about his struggles with mental health, and I never knew him as anything but bright, kind, generous and loving.  Seriously, everyone loved him.  And I just couldn’t imagine that God would condemn him to eternal hell for his brain being sick.  If you think about the brain being an organ (which it is), condemning someone to hell for acting out of a mental illness is like condemning someone to hell for Chrons disease, or endometriosis.  I simply could not accept this hard and fast saved-not saved, heaven-hell duality.

Also, after having kids, and knowing how much I love them even when they are driving me insane-I mean literally have to put them in their beds and walk out of the house to cool down before I go back in-I can’t imagine a loving God rejecting any of us for forever. Yes, that includes people as terrible as Stalin and Hitler.  Sure, God might be angry at us, and might punish us, but condemn us to hell forever? I just don’t see how a parent could do that.  I pray I never get tested in this, but I can’t think of one thing that my daughters could do that would make me stop loving them.  I might be deeply wounded, horribly shamed, or incredibly angry, but those feelings would still be rooted in a place of love.  And if God is much more perfect than I, wouldn’t Xe love all Xyr children, too?

Finally, the idea that hell and the devil even exist seems counter-intuitive to the idea that there even is a omnipotent, loving, good and just God.  No one can deny there is suffering in this world, and I don’t believe all suffering is part of “God’s plan,” so does that mean I have to believe that God isn’t omnipotent, loving, good and just?  Does that mean I have to believe in hell and the devil?  It’s something I’ve wrestled with, and this chapter gave me another option, which I’m excited to share with you now.

Briefly, let’s take a look at a few ways the Bible designates Satan, starting with…well, Satan.  “Satan” is not a name, or at least, it didn’t start out that way.  “Satan” is a title, it means “accuser.”  The story of Job is an old one, possibly as old as 2000 BC, and in it, the Hebrew word for Satan is always preceded by the definite article. In other words, it reads “The Accuser,” so xe is kind of like a prosecuting attorney, presenting all the facts against us.  By 600 or 500 BC the article is dropped, and “Satan” becomes an actual name, but it started as a title. Second, we’ve already seen “serpent,” in the story of Adam and Eve.  Related to this description is “dragon,” which is used in Revelations. Both are often symbols and bringers of knowledge and wisdom, if not in Western cultures certainly so in other cultures.  Additionally, Lucifer literally means “morning star.”  So, it is a harbinger of the light of day, which, to me, sounds pretty positive.  Could it be another allusion to Satan being the bringer of knowledge, or of bringing things to light?

So, with this in mind, what if we’ve been viewing Satan the wrong way?  Not as an adversary to be overthrown, but more of a combined undercover cop-moral auditor?  Still not exactly someone you want to come up against, but also not an eternal tormentor.  My new thought, after reading this chapter, is that God created Satan as an impartial witness, one who can bring the truth to light, like the morning star, one who seeks knowledge over everything else.  When viewed this way, we can see why the serpent would encourage Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge – lacking more nuanced views of God’s design (including empathy and patience) the serpent saw a direct line to knowledge and wanted to go for it, and didn’t understand why it could possibly be off limits to anyone.  Seeing Satan as an impartial truth seeker also helps to reconcile how a God who is beneficent and loving and the source of all creation can exist side by side, indeed, create-a being like Satan who is not beneficent and loving.  I’m not saying that Satan is an extension or part of God like Jesus or the Holy Spirit is, but perhaps xe is, still, an agent of God: something God created to be apart from Xyr love of mankind and creation through which Xe could judge them fairly.

Would God have tested Job without Satan’s recommendation?  I don’t know.  Xe tested Abraham’s faith asking him to kill Isaac, so maybe it’s not outside the realm of possibility.  But seeing Satan as an agent of God, instead of an adversary of God, makes the stories more similar. In both, the faith of man is being tested through great hardship.  Why does our faith need to be tested in the first place?  I honestly don’t know, but perhaps it has something to do with growth.  All good parents want to see their kids grow, and God is nothing if not a good parent. These aren’t perfect correlations, but I think the following examples still fit: I make my kids do hard things on a regular basis.  Climbing up the ladder to the big girl slide all by themselves, sitting on the toilet, and, as babies, letting them cry it out to get back to sleep were all controlled situations where I stepped back and essentially asked more of them.  Sure, I could have helped them, but they wouldn’t have grown. Job’s test is far harder than most of us will be asked to pass, but God was watching over him the whole time.  Perhaps, when being tested by the devil, or Satan, or whatever you want to call xem, we are not being tormented by a demon but instead being encouraged to grow, to achieve new knowledge, and new spiritual insight, just as Job did.

This new view of Satan also makes failure a little easier to accept.  It took Marienne months to build up her confidence to go all the way up the ladder at the playground all by herself.  Potty-training is still a work in progress.  Do I condemn my daughters because they haven’t learned certain skills yet? Of course not.  Do I continue to get them to try? Of course I do, that’s the only way they’ll learn.  So perhaps we need to cut ourselves, and everyone around us, a little slack.  We’re all trying, let’s keep encouraging each other.  Satan may be setting up sting operations for us and pointing out our failures, and possibly we’re even punished for those failures (like when I put one of the girls in time out for scratching her sister-a favorite form of combat in our house). But even then, God is there rooting us on, watching us with pride as we learn and grow.

Genesis 09 – A Response to Events at the Indigenous Peoples March

Don’t stand in the way of the divine in all of us.

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.

“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

“Whoever sheds human blood,
    by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
    has God made mankind.

As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.”

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: 13 I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. 16 Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

17 So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”

18 The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) 19 These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the whole earth.

20 Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. 21 When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. 22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.

24 When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,

“Cursed be Canaan!
    The lowest of slaves
    will he be to his brothers.”

26 He also said,

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem!
    May Canaan be the slave of Shem.
27 May God extend Japheth’s[b] territory;
    may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,
    and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.”

28 After the flood Noah lived 350 years. 29 Noah lived a total of 950 years, and then he died.

I usually write these a few days in advance, so I finished Chapter Eight last week, before events at the Indigenous People’s March transpired.  I’ll share it on Friday, but today I’m going to share my thoughts on Chapter Nine.  I have been angry the past few days: little and big angers.  The little angers have been normal domestic problems that are nothing more than a flash in the pan, and heightened by the fact that I am so close to a child-free project that I am getting impatient.  But the bigger anger, the anger over how Nathan Phillips, a war veteran who was trying to diffuse a tense situation, was first smirked at by an arrogant and entitled teenager, and now is being wrongly vilified as one of the instigators.

It’s all over the news now that that boy in Mr. Phillips face was “smiling to diffuse the situation.”  If you haven’t heard me say it elsewhere already (because I’ve said so several times now), I am a woman who has received her share of unwanted advances. I know what smiling to diffuse a situation looks and feels like, and that boy is not doing that, at all.  He is intimidating, he is threatening, and not from any “fight of flight” position.  Let me be as gracious as I can, given my anger: perhaps he is just young and stupid and doesn’t fully comprehend how his actions were perceived. What grieves my heart is now he never will: His parents, whatever publicity firm they hired to spin the story, and whatever outlets chose to buy this load of bullshit have all reinforced the idea that he’s done nothing wrong, that he can go out and act like that again.

What does this have to do with chapter nine of Genesis? Honestly not much on the surface, but I’ve been at a total loss as to what to write until I decided to just go ahead and write about this, and then things started falling into place.

The first thing I noticed is here we have two examples of wrongs being held to reckoning.  Let’s start with the second, in 9:25, where Noah says, “Cursed be Canaan [Ham’s descendants], the lowest of slaves shall he be to his brother!” Now, this may seem like an outsized response to just accidentally stumbling across his dad naked.  I don’t have proof of this for this particular passage, but these “uncovering” and “naked” passages are often euphemisms for sexual acts, like when Ruth uncovers Boaz feet.  (She had sex with him, in case that isn’t clear.)  So, did Ham violate his father? I don’t know, but it seems likely to me, and the punishment would make more sense. In 9:6 the wrongs and reckonings are more hypothetical, but still firm in the decree: “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.”

Humans are made in God’s image, and from the two passages in this chapter, it is abundantly clear that we all have a divine right not to be violated by another human. Killed, raped, or otherwise visited upon by violence. Now, this child in Mr Phillips face did not kill or rape him, but he was still very much in the wrong, and he will have to answer for it.  I only pray it is in his own conscious, and that he can rectify himself with God.  As abhorrent as I may find him, he is still a mother’s son, and still a child of God, and anyone who visits violence upon him is as much if not more so in the wrong than he is.

Let me try to end on a hopeful note, since this chapter does.  God provided Noah with a covenant and a sign of that covenant-a rainbow.  There’s a reason the rainbow has also been adopted by the LGBTQ movement as a symbol of gay pride: It represents the diversity within that community, and celebrates that diversity.  Why did God pick a rainbow?  It comes after a rainstorm, the likes of which had never been seen before and won’t be seen again, so that makes sense.  But it’s also ephemeral and colorful, just like our lives.  No, this is not a “life is too short, let’s celebrate our diversity and all get along” ending.  This is a “life is too short to not recognize the divine in all our brothers and sisters, so get out there and speak out against injustice” ending.  Your life is short, my life is short, their life is short.  We ALL deserve to live it to the fullest, and people who stand in the way of that, like this teenager and all the people who condone or turn a blind eye to his behavior, sin not only against their fellow man but sin against God.