The law never has the last word

Photo by William Fonteneau

Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Second Sunday in Lent
Click here for Revised Common Lectionary readings.


If I were preaching out loud, I’d offer a moment of silence for those gunned down in this week’s tragedy in New Zealand. I’d share how heartbreaking it is knowing our siblings have suffered one of the most horrifying acts of senseless violence imaginable.

And then I’d lay down the law. I’d share this Tweet from Bishop Talbert Swan…

[embed]https://twitter.com/talbertswan/status/1106537782338600960?s=12[/embed]

And this one from Frank Schaeffer…

[embed]https://twitter.com/frank_schaeffer/status/1106536372142256129?s=12[/embed]

I’d ferociously condemn white supremacy and nationalism along with the evil and backward theology that has perpetuated it over the decades and centuries. I’d point out that our president is an active accomplice in this demonic spirit of white supremacy that they somehow justify in Jesus’s name. I’d cast all of this out with every fiber of my being.

This is a time of profound mourning and loss. A time that begs us to name what needs to be named. A time, even, to shake our fist at God and ask where in the hell he/she/it is. Like this week’s psalm so boldly proclaims —

Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!

And I’d really want to leave it there. I’d want to drop the mic and end on that law-slinging note. And maybe I’d be justified in doing so.

But then, unfortunately, I’d have to switch gears. Because the law never has the last word. The gospel does.

And here we have the inconvenient thing about the Grace of the gospel. Not only does the God portrayed in the gospel extend grace towards us progressive, socially conscious, politically correct, #woke, righteous ones. Not only does God swoop in to try to enfold the wary and terrified souls of the victims. But we can’t ignore the promise that God also extends God’s merciful Grace and unconditional love towards — yes, I have to say it — the shooter.

As an American progressive riddled with white guilt, it kills me to the core to say that this white man who mercilessly gunned down innocent people of the Muslim faith is loved by God. Because that might make me… Like him. A fellow bad guy. An accomplice, perhaps. It might make me a white supremacist sympathizer.

I mean, would I say this if my wife and daughter were gunned down by anyone of any shade of skin? Would I be so quick to jump to the gospel?

Hell no. No way. I plead guilty in my hypocrisy here. I can’t jump that fast from law into gospel as others have.

But this isn’t about me. It isn’t about any one/group of us being the righteous ones. Or any one/group of us being the condemned ones.

Yes, this is what our dualistic minds do — it’s where we always start. Maybe it’s where we need to start. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Take the people doing blatant harm and lock them away so they can’t hurt anymore. This all makes sense at a practical level and I’m grateful for the law.

AND (not ‘but’) this has never gotten humanity very far. It seems that all that happens is this: one group feels great for a while, one group feels condemned for a little while, and then the cultural narrative shifts back and forth throughout time with one side attacking and the other side reacting. Ping pong, ping pong.

If I were preaching, I’d condemn this shooter and everyone in his psychographic category. But all I’d be doing is preaching to the choir. Even now in this post, I’m merely shouting into the echo chamber of my own algorithmic bias. Other raging progressives might rage out with me as we have this big giant ragefest. And maybe this is fine. I’m sure God is working through this rage-loop in some way.

But God isn’t just going to change the world through progressives like me preaching at each other. Because the more we ‘win’ — if the people on the ‘other side’ still have hardened hearts — all they’ll do is dig their heels in and the cycle will continue (sound familiar?).

In my heart of hearts, I know that God, in God’s mysterious and dauntless ways, is mostly going to change the world through people like the gunman of this horrific act. God is going to change the world through entering into and softening/transforming the hearts and pulling the testimonies and confessions from people just like the man who killed so many in this ruthless act of violence late last week.

This God, as Jesus showcases in this week’s readings, only desires to gather us — all of us — like a mother hen gathering her brood under her wings. Jesus is rabid in his determination to get to Jerusalem so he can demonstrate his most epic act of love. And along the long and daunting journey there, he goes about his work.

Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.

Jesus the Christ was never in the condemnation business. He was about what love looks like in action. In his death, he took the violence out of circulation entirely. No more. This God would rather suffer and die than perpetuate the finger-pointing sin accounting business as his culture commanded him to do.

But we are not willing. No… At least I know I’m not. I’m not seeing how it’s possible to seek and share refuge under the warm wings of our divine creator when something like this happens. I’d rather instead turn towards those who share my hatred and rage against ‘them’.

And so, I pray for us all…

May God enfold the victims of this horrendous act with her love and healing. May they know that God herself cries with them in every single teardrop.

May we find the courage to name and put language to our rage, our condemnation, our suffering, our grief, and our sadness. May we shake our fists and embody the pain of this world in full color. And then…

May we accept the guidance of the holy spirit to find that slight crack in all of our hardened hearts to open up to the love, mercy, grace, and peace our creator extends to every single one of us, no matter our transgressions against God, self, or the other. And may we let the softening of our hearts lead our feet in the actions we take to heal this world in partnership with God through Christ…

Amen.

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Is it right or wrong?

Photo by Harrison Moore

In the Q&O I hosted the other day, someone asked a question that I almost shrugged off as too simplistic. They asked if I thought it was wrong to take something that isn’t yours.

I typically avoid these kinds of questions. It makes me feel morally pious and pious, I am not. But I felt drawn to the question, so I stayed with it.

The first thing that came to mind was that it was conditional. If you’re stealing out of harm, then it’s wrong. But if you’re stealing to feed your family, it’s okay.

But what I’m learning is that, when it comes to the radical grace of this faith, the answer is never so simple. It’s never yes/no, true/false, right/wrong.

Asking whether it’s wrong or right has to do with law. And law is a human construct. Necessary, maybe, but limited.

I’m glad there are people who can legally put people in jail for trying to harm me, my family, and neighbors. I’m all for it. But the thing is…

Humans don’t tend to transform when you take a hammer to their heads.

Yes, it helps the victim or would-be victims. But as for the ‘offender’, it typically takes a lot of hammer blows to cause even the smallest change (if any) and then, the only hope is that they see the one thing that will change them at the heart-level.

This is grace. The universal grace that comes from life itself (some of us call it the love of God). It’s the cosmic download that speaks to us in language deeper than words that we loved in such a palpable way that no moral transgression can affect.

What I’m interested in is what happens after said moral violation. How do we respond to life after we’ve done something ‘wrong’ (yes, we’re all ‘guilty’ of these things to some degree)? What then?

If we’re closed off to grace, odds are, we’ll keep running into the human rule of law and the hammer blows will continue. Maybe not even in a legal sense; it could be the law of being ostracized by family and friends, etc.

But eventually, hopefully, something opens us up to this indwelling grace beneath all of our human self-judgments.

That’s when the transformation happens. Because theft or murder or harm or [enter any moral transgression here] doesn’t happen in an interior place of feeling eternally loved. The fruits of that tree are much different.

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The goodness in the middle of a sinful nature

Photo by Joel Holland on Unsplash

This week, if you’ve stuck with me, you know I’ve been writing a lot about sin. (If you care to catch up, I’ll include links at the bottom of this post.)

I don’t mean to be a Davey Downer (male counterpart to Debbie Downer). What I’m hoping all of this sin talk does is — as it did for me — help you realize there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with you (I mean, besides you’re terribly flawed, but it would be weird if you weren’t) and that you and your neighbors are in this struggle together.

[Seriously, though… If you're enjoying this morbid ride on the sin train, you have to read check out the video below with theologian Simeon Zahl — it changed my world and has inspired much of what I’ve been writing about this week…]

[embed]http://www.mbird.com/2017/05/hiding-in-plain-sight-the-lost-doctrine-of-sin-simeon-zahl/[/embed]

Anyhow, yes, it’s true. Sin is a thing. We all have it. Hopefully, if you haven’t noticed already, you’re starting to see this.

That being said, I don’t want to come off like I’m glorifying sin. I’m not fatalistic about this at all. I’m not saying you should go out and sin as much as possible because you’re always going to be a sinner, so you might as well live it up and rape and steal and murder and whatnot.

There’s the condition — the propensity to sin — that we carry around inside of us that will likely always be there. But then, on the other hand, we have the things we do. The acts we carry out in the world. These are the individual sins that we perform because of our unchecked, unhealed, unnoticed, and unforgiven propensities as sinners.

So, this is where I’ll throw in the disclaimer… 
Please, try not to sin.

But that’s just ridiculous because, the thing is, I don’t even need to say it. You already know this (if even at a level deeeeep down somewhere).

Acting on our sinful nature sucks. It hurts us worse than those we sin against, at least in the long run (yes, even if we murder them and never get caught). No, I’m not saying there’s some pitchfork-wielding dude in a red jumpsuit waiting to torture you for eternity. I’m talking about how our interiors eat at themselves when we sin.

But here’s the good news…

Sin never has the last word. There is always resurrection on the other side.

This goes for those on either side of the sin. When sin happens, yes, it’s a wretched thing. But there’s always new life on the other side. Maybe not right away, but it’s there.

What I’m hoping all of this sin talk does is to help you realize that you and your neighbors are in this struggle together in order to lessen your blind spots. Maybe you’ll think twice before fruitlessly keeping score against yourself and others (seriously, it does no good).

I won’t move totally into forgiveness at this point (we’ve gone deep already this week), but here’s the rub…

Forgiveness is the human antidote to sin.

It’s all we have. It’s all we can do. The rest has been taken care of. God’s source code is grace. There is nothing being held against you or anyone else by any divine force (I mean, that guy you swindled last week might be hiding behind the bushes with a baseball bat and a blowtorch, but that’s a human thing, not a God thing).

All that said, go in truth, sinner. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to your neighbor. Forgive as you’ve never forgiven before. And let grace lead the way.


Previous posts in the week about sin…

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Embrace the sinner

Photo by Madara Parma on Unsplash

I’ve been writing a lot about sin this week. Sin is a word that makes many of us cringe, but it’s one that I believe we’ve greatly misunderstood and holds a key to our liberation as humans.


It blew me away when I discovered that the Jesus-as-human-shield interpretation isn’t the only option. There is a multitude of different theological interpretations of the crucifixion, but this is the one that our mainstream evangelical culture has latched onto.

It’s not the one I’ve chosen to focus on, personally. As I’ve said before, I don’t think the idea of us owing Jesus something for stepping in front of his angry dad in order to save us from sin does anyone any good (however, to each their own — if it serves you well, stick with it and close this post).

[If you’re getting triggered by the word ‘sin’, click here to read an earlier post of mine where I provided some context about a different (?) way to look at the word.]

I don’t believe that Jesus’s mission was about sin management. His work as a radical Hebrew mystic didn’t consist of blaming sinners. I’ve never heard of him telling anyone to ‘work their way to the top’ and be status quo, law-following citizens. If anything, he was constantly questioning our societal norms — especially when it came to the dominant power structure of his day (which still lingers in the human story today).

Jesus gravitated towards those who society deemed as ‘sinners’ and was labeled a ‘drunkard’, a ‘glutton’ and worse for it (again, I think that a lot of people in Jesus’s day would’ve pegged him as a sinner himself — do your own research/follow your own heart on this and please don’t take my word for it).

It seems to me that Jesus’ work was to reveal that we all are sinners.

He looked at those (particularly in power) who felt justified through their good and so-called ‘good’ works as almost a waste of time. Like they might be too far into their own self-righteousness to see that they aren’t any better or more justified than the beggar, the widow, the orphan, or the leper.

But here’s a distinction we have to see…

His intention wasn’t mass condemnation, but rather, mass forgiveness.

Since we can only condemn what’s outside of us, we must own up to our own sin in order to find the compassionate forgiveness it takes to allow God to heal ourselves, each other, and our world.

(To live in the kingdom of God, as he typically put it.)

It’s never just about ‘their’ sins. 
And it’s never just about our sins. 
It’s all a continuum.

So…

May we embrace and enfold the sinner in ourselves,
As well as the sinner in our neighbor.
Christ, save us from each other,
And save us from ourselves.

Amen.

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Oh, how we turn in on ourselves

Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash

I’ll be writing a lot about sin this week. Sin is a word that makes many of us cringe, but it’s one that I believe we’ve greatly misunderstood and holds a key to our liberation as humans.


I love how my Lutheran friends describe the notion of sin. They liken it to a ‘turning in on oneself’ (I’ve also heard it framed as a ‘curling’ in on oneself).

When I cast organized religion away (or what small dose of it I had in my life) forever in my 20’s (you can see how that panned out), the notion of sin was the thing that acted as the nail in the coffin. I didn’t like the guilt and shame that religion seemed to espouse.

I knew I did some things that could be categorized as ‘sin’ — behavioral things like telling the occasional lie, cussing, sex, etc., but I never murdered anyone or raped anyone’s spouse. So why should I be lumped in with THEM?!

That’s why I liked secular spirituality so much. The narrative in that world is that we are perfect, whole, and unicorn-like beings. I mean, who CAN’T get behind that?

But then I’d put the book down, go out in my daily life and — yes — do something hurtful or self-defeating (as mild as it may have been). Something just didn’t add up, but it felt so good to turn a blind eye and find comfort in my so-called sinlessness.

In his book, Unapologetic, Frances Spufford wins the award for the world’s best-ever definition of sin (in my opinion — even better than the Lutherans) by calling it ‘our human propensity to fuck things up’.

If I’m gonna be honest, this is me. And just about everyone I know.

People more theologically trained than me attribute the tale of what happened in the garden to the moment when human consciousness became aware of itself. It seems to be a part of our evolutional design — for better or for worse. We reached a place of self-consciousness where we could judge, get jealous, prideful, slothful, (you know, all the seven deadlies).

Yeah, that would make sense.

It behooves us to realize and make peace with the glaring fact that sin — in this light — is real. And we all do it.

We have to remember, the words in the Lord’s Prayer are as follows…

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Not…

“Forgive those other people who sin because they’re really messing things up for those of us who don’t.”

[Aside: Wait, does this mean that even Jesus was a self-acclaimed sinner?… Hmmmm??? *Bites pinkie fingernail*]

Yes, I have good days. Really good ones. Especially after I read a good self-help book. I’m sooooo blissed out — it’s amazing. But it’s temporary. Eventually, I go back to — yes — fucking something up. Sometimes in a big way, but more often in several small sins-of-omission type ways.

Now, please, let’s not be shameful about this. I mean, if everyone is ‘guilty’ of sin, is anyone really ‘guilty’ of it? We’re all in this sinning game together. Every. Single. One of us.

The way I’ve heard scripture translated is like this…

God doesn’t love us more or less because of our innately sinful nature. The God of the living is not a damning God, but a redeeming God.

God doesn’t wait for us to be ‘perfect’ (whatever that means) in order to love us. This God — the spiritual ground of our being — is right here in the middle of the mess we make for ourselves ready to love us back to life.

And so, we sin. May we know it and own it. Not to give us a pass but to bring our propensity to the light — not as a means to remove it, but as a way to have it healed time and time again.

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Forgive us our trespasses

Image: Vincent Guth

This is Part 6 of the weekly series where I break down, line-by-line, the Lord’s Prayer and interpret it however I wish (because everyone should do this). This series is inspired by the book, ‘Power Through Constructive Thinking’ by Emmet Fox. If you’ve missed the previous entries in the series, you can read them all here.


And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.


The immature understanding of forgiveness is limited to letting someone get away with something bad. That was my understanding of forgiveness for years.

Although I repeated this line many times, I also felt a deep misalignment with it inside because I knew people who had done horrible things and I also knew there was no way I could be okay with it.

I’ve grown to understand that ‘forgiveness of sins’ lives much deeper than that.

I’d say, in fact, that forgiveness is central to our problems in life.

The true meaning of sin is something along the lines of, missing the mark.

It doesn’t necessarily mean ‘disobedience’ or ‘rudeness’ or ‘inappropriate behavior’ (although those can be included in the definition). It doesn’t mean that we’ve not checked off a box or two from some dogmatic rulebook a bunch of robed humans drafted up.

No…

To sin means to live out of alignment with Life itself.

I see God/Life/Source as a huge, rushing river. It’s going somewhere. For gajillions of years (give or take a few), this universe has been progressing towards something. If you zoom in and look at your life, you’ll see that it’s working the same way on a micro level.

Stand back and take a look at the rushing river of your life…

Which way is it flowing?
Have you been in that flow or bucking it?
If you’re saying the latter, this is all sin is.

No, I’m not saying to fall victim to the forces that seem to be against you. That’s not going with the flow; that’s helplessly standing in the middle of the rapids and getting knocked around against the rocks.

There we are, all alone, isolated, self-contained, wondering where God is (or whatever savior we’ve adopted).

God is right there. God is the flow. Jump in that raft and head downstream.

We are at one with this flow, undivided from Life.

We ‘sin’ (or, ‘trespass’) — when we try to make our own flow either by either playing the victim or asserting our individual will against someone else in order to get ahead — it’s an uphill battle.

The thing is, I don’t believe God cares. God just flows. We can close our eyes to it as much as we want, but it still just keeps on drifting along.

This belief in life apart from the Flow (aka, God) is an illusion. And this is where we miss the mark.

Now… When we talk about forgiveness of sins, we see that this prayer doesn’t just stop at asking God for forgiveness. It puts our forgiveness in direct relation to our forgiveness of others (AS we forgive those who trespass against us).

Again, this has nothing to do with some man in the clouds keeping score…

Has she forgiven her? No? Well, I can’t give her a point then…

If you hold on to resentment and condemnation of another, you have stepped out of the Flow and locked yourself in bondage with that person.

Setting others free means setting yourself free, because resentment is really a form of attachment. It is a cosmic truth that it takes two to make a prisoner; the prisoner — and a gaoler. There is no such thing as being a prisoner on one’s own account. Every prisoner must have a gaoler, and the gaoler is as much a prisoner as his charge. When you hold resentment against anyone, you are bound to that person by a cosmic link, a real, though mental chain. You are tied by a cosmic tie to the thing you hate. The one person perhaps in the whole world whom you most dislike is the very one to whom you are attaching yourself by a hook that is stronger than steel. 
 — Emmet Fox

Same goes with self-condemnation or resentment. This is not the Flow. It doesn’t do any good and only leads to suppression and projection.

By forgiveness, you set yourself free. Whether what that person did is wrong or right in your individual book doesn’t matter. What matters is that you set yourself free to live your life downstream.

Finally, forgiveness has nothing to do with having to like someone who has done you wrong. You don’t have to be pals with them — in fact, this has nothing to do with them at all. It has to do with you being rid of your chains.

This all might make sense as you’re reading (it sure does as I’m writing it), but in all honesty, forgiveness is hard. It’s one of the hardest things we humans can do. But I hope you see a glimpse of how vital it is to a vibrant life.


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