Posts Tagged ‘sin’

Suffering and Redemption

// February 28th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Because Lent is a time when we tend to talk a lot about sin, I endeavored on Sunday to explain my framework for thinking about sin.  Some folks asked for a write-up, so here it is if you’re interested.

The reason this alternative view is important is that sin, in the Christian mindset, is thought to be responsible for evil, suffering, and death.  However, it is commonly thought that this is done through a bit of magic, the eating of an apple, and that the remedy is similarly magical, a ritual sacrifice.  My hope this Lenten season is to provide an alternate way of understanding that story that resonates more with our experience of being human, to connect the inner transformations of which we often speak with the transformation of the world in which we endeavor to participate.

One way that we commonly speak of suffering and evil that needs to be confronted emerged in our conversation on Sunday.  People often imagine that God causes suffering in order to impart some lesson, which sounds like something that many battered women and children hear from their attacker.  That is just not a God I want anything to do with.  However, it can’t be denied that we often learn things from suffering.  We find reserves of strength we did not know we had.  We find humility in the loss of control.  We find hope on the other side.  But perhaps it is better to understand those gains as redemption of suffering rather than its reason for being.  That is, rather than understanding God as one who makes us suffer so that we can learn these things, perhaps God is one who is with us in our suffering to help us turn it into something that brings life.  This is what we have always done with the story of Jesus.

The suffering and death of Jesus is the specifically Christian way of examining the problem of evil, suffering, and death.  In the face of tremendous loss and humiliation, the followers of Jesus had to try to explain what happened.  They had to try to make meaning out of this tragedy.  We still do that today.  It is the story that we tell and retell and interpret into our lives.  Through our God-given hope and humility and strength we redeem this tragic event.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we talk about the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death, theologically, personally, and socially.  We will examine Paul’s writings on the subject in Romans 4.13-25 and the story found in Mark 8.31-38, both important texts for the theology of substitutionary atonement, the theology to which I am hoping to provide an alternative.  One programming note: during Lent we are doing a silent meditation at the beginning of the service, so please try to arrive by 11am and enter quietly so as not to disturb others.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

Progress Report

We are still working on the building.  Special thanks to Mike Trozzo for all the painting time he has put in.  There are a few things we could use some help with.

First, labor.  There is still more painting to be done.  We have a board meeting scheduled for this Sunday after church.  However, we realized that we might need more work and less talk, so it will be a Board Meeting/Workday.  We would love to have your help.  We’re going to order pizza for lunch.  (To see what tasks are available for your labors, please see our Google doc task list.)

Second, buy stuff!  We’re slowly filling in furniture needs, but there’s always more.  We started a registry list at MyRegistry.com.  Just pick something out and buy it.  All the shipping is set up.

Finally, we have studios to rent.  If you know someone who wants a small studio or office, send them our way.  They are small, about 80sf, but enough room for a desk or wall space for painting.  We’ll try to accommodate people as best we can.  We’re looking for $200/mo in rent.  Email board@churchinthecliff.org.

My Understanding of Sin

// February 28th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Because Lent is a time when we tend to talk a lot about sin, I endeavored on Sunday to explain my framework for thinking about sin.  It differs from things we might have heard growing up in a modern American Christian context, whether Catholic or Evangelical.  In the spirit of this church’s emphasis on questioning and conversation, I am not stating that this is the only or right or best way to think about sin.  I am only setting it forward as a starting point that frees us up from some of the issues that plague other frameworks and to try to shift the conversation away from personal piety and guilt.

There are traditionally three ways that sin is considered.  First, behavior.  Sin is doing the wrong thing.  Second, as a condition.  When Eve ate the apple, it stained our nature so that we are evil from birth.  Finally, relationally, socially, and cosmically as systems that sustain injustice.  Not only are humans flawed, but the world is fallen, incapable on its own to produce the Good.  Each of these ways of thinking about sin generates a different response to sin and those ways are not always compatible.

We can see examples of this in the early Christian writers wrestling with the question of salvation: By grace?  Through faith?  By works?  Is it our behavior or God’s that matters?  And what are we saved from?  Our own condition or the injustice of the world?  In my opinion and in my experience as a pastor talking through issues of suffering and evil with people, our explanations of sin lead only to confusion and frustration, rather than the experience of freedom promised by the gospel.  So, here is my understanding of sin, which I hope will serve as the backdrop for our conversations throughout Lent.

It is a fact that we live in a finite world.  Existence is marked by scarcity, limits, loss, and ends.  To exist at all requires the possibility of non-existence.  To be, to have a point of view, is to understand that there are things that are not us.

These limits create fear.  We fear scarcity.  We fear death.  We fear the powerlessness of confronting all the not-us that is beyond our control.  Our psyche is structured to deal with this, to defend us against the threat of the world.  Our fears pile up to become delusions, doubts, and desires that help us cope with our finitude.  In themselves, they are not bad.  We hunger, so we know to feed ourselves.  We tell ourselves we are capable even when we are not sure.  We question things to find truth.  However, those good things can swallow us up and become our whole identity, so that each of us is nothing but a monad of fear colliding with other fearful bits of isolation in the world.  We no longer see the world clearly and become convinced that we are not enough and the world is not enough to bring about wholeness, peace, or justice.  The reality of the world and the formation of our psyche in response to its limitations is the condition of sin.

Out of that condition, we make choices.  You can see how a failure to see the world clearly might result in some bad choices.  We often choose to live into that fear rather than overcome it.  We fear scarcity, so we hoard.  We could trust that there is enough if we trusted one another to share.  We fear judgment, so we isolate ourselves or compulsively pursue perfection.  We could accept grace.  We fear loss and failure, so we disengage from the world, keep everything in our bountiful imagination.  We could have some beautiful failures and invest our hope in the next thing.  All of these choices to live into fear rather than hope are sin.  Note that this is not so much something to feel guilty about, but something to endure, overcome, and redeem.

Of course, our choices produce results.  The trick is that these results do not directly correlate to either our intentions or our calculations.  Sometimes, things simply don’t work out as we had hoped or planned.  Sometimes, things work out far better than we had hoped or planned.  But, either way, those results tend to inform our future choices.  If we take that risk and live into hope instead of fear and it ends badly, we’re less likely to try it again.  Fear is reinforced; we are cast further down into the condition of sin, our escape seems even more impossible, and our choices become more distorted.

The terrible reality is that fear has a lot of power in a finite world and we tend to structure our world in response to fear rather than hope.  Politics, economics, even ethics, are designed to cope with scarcity and limits.  We quantify, manipulate, and exploit our world and even one another.  This is what Martin Buber calls the It-world.  It, like the defense mechanisms in our psyche, is necessary.  We must design systems to distribute goods.  We must, at times, regard one another as objects to be used.  But, also like the defense mechanisms in our psyche, we can allow this to become our full understanding of reality.  We live entirely into the It-world and forget that there is a You-world out there, full of people to be related to with compassion and vulnerability.  Worse, the structures of the It-world become entrenched systems of power that exploit and oppress.  They become so pervasive that they seem to be the nature of things.  Gender, class, sexuality, (dis)ability, age – all manner of ways of dividing and labeling one another – are assumed to be embedded in the fabric of reality, each person occupying a predetermined place in a predetermined order.  In such a system, there is no room for the story of the individual, no room for vulnerability or variation, and no room for transformation.  This, too, is sin.

In this framework of sin, the tensions between the different ways of talking about sin are eased.  There is no conflict between the condition of sin, sinful behaviors, and the injustice and evil of the world.  The nature of the world forces us to make choices that have outcomes and those outcomes either support or resist injustice.  It is a self-sustaining loop.

The good news is that the remedy also consists of overlapping, intersecting constructs.  Those walls of fear that we use to keep the finite world from harming us can be taken down.  Instead of focusing on loss and limits, we can turn around – repent – to see promise and possibility.  But that is not enough.  We also must break the systems of power that capitalize on fear to oppress and exploit.  It is not a question of whether faith, grace, or works is operative, or even primary, in the work of salvation.  They work in concert, each bringing its own potential for transformation that feeds the others:  trust and faith in God and God’s children; the vulnerability and humility in accepting grace; and the courage to work against the oppressor.  This is salvation.

It is worth noting that this is not radically different from a lot of traditional Christian theology.  Augustine is more nuanced than contemporary interpreters give credit.  Evagrius Ponticus’s demonology is almost a perfect analogue of modern psychology.  These authors and others were wrestling with the weighty issues of human experience.  Unfortunately, we have whittled them down to frightening caricatures, using fear to drive membership, and we have largely failed in Christian education to teach people to think critically or take their own experience and reason seriously.  We are left with only guilt and fear to transform people’s lives.  I think we can do better.

The Gospel According to Buffy

// July 11th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

I am a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I have watched the entire series, including the Angel spin-off, about six times.  I’m watching it again now.  Part of that is comfort; I know the show and know that I will enjoy it, so it’s easy to put on when I just want to relax.  However, when I want to pay attention, the show is very perceptive of the human condition.

For those who don’t follow the show – I’m not sure why such a person would exist, but I will try to have compassion for you – Buffy is a former cheerleader who is set apart by destiny to battle vampires and other monsters for the safety of humankind.  Or, as the intro explains: “In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.”  This, of course, is typical hero genre rhetoric wherein there are good people and bad people and the job of the good people is to destroy the bad people.  While fun, that is not what makes the show great.

Rather, the show is great precisely because it proceeds, over the course of seven television seasons, to deconstruct that very premise.  It turns out the vampires and demons aren’t all bad.  Not only are there good demons, but all the characters, demon and Slayer alike, are a mix of good and bad.  Through the eyes of a sixteen-year-old, coming to terms with her identity and her place in the world, we find that our easy labels don’t really tell the whole story.  Perhaps they don’t even tell a very interesting story.  Perhaps the more interesting story is that struggle for identity and meaning, for morality and integrity, that does not take place out in the world, but inside ourselves.

In Romans 7.15-25, this is precisely what Paul describes.  Sometimes, if we are lucky, we know the good, but often, if we are honest, we are unable to do it.  Whether we call it demons or passions or id or sin, there is something that compels us to act in ways that are contrary to our own will.  This something can grow into, not merely a collection of unwanted behaviors, but the very way that we understand ourselves.  This is the thing that Paul – and Buffy – truly want to save us from.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we place Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Paul the Apostle in dialog with special guest stars Evagrius Ponticus and Sigmond Freud.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

P.S. If you haven’t voted yet, and want to, please email board@churchinthecliff.org or vote in person on Sunday when the vote will close.

Come, Ye Sinners

// June 21st, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

I lamented in church last Sunday that I miss the altar call.  Certainly, it is damaging in a lot of ways.  However, what I like about it is it puts a person to a decision.  If Jesus is, in the words of theologian Schubert Ogden, the decisive re-presentation of God in that the words and works of Jesus put a person to a decision, then it seems fitting that a church should have a time when we are, in fact, put to a decision.  Perhaps the reason many churches don’t, including ours, is that this decision has become so intertwined in the public consciousness with the problem of sin.  Nobody wants to talk about sin.

I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but I was at an emergent church conference a few years ago and a man at my table explained that he was there to see what the emergent church was about.  He said that he liked a lot of what he had read, about rethinking the ways that churches are organized and the way that we worship and reflect on our tradition and the way we allow for questioning and hospitality.  What he did not like is that we do not talk about sin.  I was somewhat taken aback, but I realized that he was mostly right.  And it’s not just the emergent church movement; mainline churches don’t often talk about sin, either.  We talk about love and grace and justice, which all sound nicer.

As I talked to this man throughout the day, I learned that he was from Yugoslavia.  He watched family members die in the war.  He saw violence and starvation and rape.  He escaped to teach theology here in the States, but he can never forget what he witnessed.  Seeing such evil in the world, he needs theology – and the church – to account for sin, to deal with it in some way.  It can’t be ignored.

For most Christians today, if you ask about sin and salvation, they will provide some version of what is known as “atonement theology.”  There are different nuances, but the gist is that we are so bad and God is so good that Jesus, an innocent, had to die in our place to pay for our sins.  Most people believe that this is what Christianity is about.  Those who do not like the implications of this theology (violence and blood as necessary conditions of forgiveness; evil as an essential condition of being human; etc.) might reject the faith altogether.  Or remain in the faith and simply not talk about it.  Those who embrace it might make it sound friendlier, focusing on God’s love for us rather than God’s need for blood.  There is a growing number of people who argue against this theology, but it sometimes leaves us without a coherent way to talk about sin and, particularly, the way the Bible talks about sin.

Over the next few weeks, the lectionary brings us Romans and Matthew.  Specifically, we have Paul’s thoughts on sin and Matthew’s ideas about hell and condemnation.  These probably sound like ugly topics because of our history with those notions.  But I believe there is something in the discussion of sin, and even hell, that is liberating.  We read these texts through the eyes of Anselm and Luther and Calvin and uncritically accept that this is the only way, that we are “sinners in the hands of angry God,” dangling over the fires of Hell, begging only for mercy. This is not the God that I know.  This is not the way I understand myself as a human being or the relationship I have with God and others.  Like Paul, I understand any discussion of sin in the Christian context to be a conversation about freedom, reconciliation, and wholeness.

I hope you will join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about sin and the freedom of life in God.  There is a lot to unpack here, but I have every confidence that God will show us the way.  I promise there won’t be an altar call.  Not this time.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

Sin and Suffering

// March 28th, 2014 // 2 Comments » // Church in The Cliff

We had a rich and wide-ranging discussion on Wednesday night after dinner. We began discussing the long-promised fifth chapter of Marcus Borg’s Heart of Christianity, which concerns the place of Jesus as central to the Christian faith. As discussions of Christianity often do, this one eventually turned to the Bible. Specifically, we talked about how our witness to the life of Jesus was written decades after his death and how our reading of that witness is affected by millennia of other readers. Even the text we now have is translated from original languages through the lens of our entire Christian history and the theologies and imagery that have developed along the way. As if on cue, the lectionary this week presents us with John 9.1-41, the story of the man born blind, a text that is rich in reading possibilities.

Unfortunately, the possibilities that are reflected in our usual translations can be dangerous. The Pharisees ask Jesus whether the man was born blind because his parents sinned or because he did. The question reflects a common view in the ancient world: bad things happen to bad people. If someone is ill, someone must have messed up. Jesus, in his Jesus-y way, is kind, saying, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of [the one] who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” It’s not anyone’s fault; we shouldn’t blame the victim. But is this response truly any more kind?

The second part of his answer is curious if we take the problem of evil seriously. There are a lot of explanations for the presence of evil in the world if one – as Christians typically do – assume that God is good. We often describe it as a condition, the consequence of sin brought into the world by Adam and Eve and a sneaky serpent. As mentioned, the Pharisees assumed that it was the direct consequence of the blind man’s or his parents’ actions. Another theory developed in the few hundred years before Jesus’ birth is that people suffer, not because they are evil, but because they are good in an evil world. All intriguing and problematic theories, but Jesus does not offer those. Instead, he appears to say that it is God’s fault.

It would seem that this man was born blind because God wants to show off. Perhaps more generously, all of existence is here to testify to God’s greatness, including suffering. So this man was born blind, reduced to begging his entire life, bringing shame on his family in an honor/shame culture, all so that Jesus can come along one day and make him better. Now people can say, “Wow. God really is awesome.” Is God awesome? Is that God awesome? The God that makes people suffer for decades and then shows up at the eleventh hour to provide relief – is that a God worthy of worship? Can that God rightly be said to be good? I have to say, I don’t think so. There must be better ways to deliver a message than in our broken bodies heaped under a mountain of mud, sitting at the bottom of an ocean, or tormented in a fire from which there is no escape. God must have better ways of showing love than inflicting us with leprosy and paralysis and diabetes and cancer and spousal abuse and stray bullets. Count me out.

Fortunately, we have nerds. All nerds are great, but Bible nerds might just save our souls. Bible grammar nerds get an extra star in their crowns.

One thing our translations obscure about the texts they represent is that Greek is all mashed together. There are no divisions, no visual cues for the reader to understand how the words go together. There’s no punctuation to tell us where a sentence ends. There are not even spaces between words to tell us where they start and stop. Look at Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees in verse 3: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” This certainly supports a common view that has emerged in the Christian tradition: that suffering is good because God wills it; that we suffer to learn a lesson or to demonstrate God’s grace. But what if we break up the sentences a little differently: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind. So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of [the one] who sent me while it is day.” Perhaps God and God’s love are revealed in our response to suffering. Perhaps suffering is, in fact, a bad thing, but we can redeem that suffering with love.

I won’t claim that this is the right reading of the text, or even a better reading. However, it does show that there is a choice that the translators made and that choice reflects a particular theological point of view. It is not neutral. It is not objective. It is not “simply reading the text.” It is a choice and that choice has consequences in the way that we as Christians live our lives. Now, this does not mean that reading the Bible is pointless. May it never be! Rather, it calls us to claim our own voices, to read critically and humbly, and to always know that our reading has consequences. Like our response to suffering, the way that we read a text – or do anything, really – can be revelatory of God’s work and God’s love. Or not. It’s our choice.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk further about the story of the man born blind. I know I said this last week about the woman at the well, but this is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. I could probably say that about every story in the Gospel of John and that won’t be the only common thread between these two stories. I hope you will read ahead and I look forward to a rich conversation on Sunday.

Into the Wilderness

// March 8th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Jesus’ baptism was a spectacular event. The heavens open and the Spirit of God in the form of a dove lands on Jesus’ shoulder. Then a voice from the sky says: “This is my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It is an unquestionable validation of who Jesus was. So he leaves. The Synoptic Gospels say that he was either driven or led by the very same Spirit that had so gently lighted on his shoulder. He goes away (presumably) to the barren landscape that surrounds the Dead Sea to fast. After forty days without food, he starts to see things; after forty days alone, he starts to hear voices.

The devil appears to tempt him. The first temptation is the obvious one for someone so hungry: bread. The second temptation is a little more subtle. The devil suggests that Jesus throw himself from the top of the temple, but he packages it with the promise that God would never let Jesus be harmed. Self-destruction gilded with ego and a sense of destiny. Finally, the devil takes Jesus to the top of a mountain, like Moses, and promises to give him everything he sees. Of course, Jesus rejects all of it.

This story can be read as Jesus’ triumph over the devil, his absolute resistance to sin. As such, it might encourage us to similar aspirations. However, it can also make us feel like crap. If I hadn’t eaten in forty days, I would certainly go for the bread. Reading it as an example of the many ways that Jesus is better than us shortchanges what Jesus actually did as well as our potential response. It minimizes what Jesus did because it tends to put us in mind of his divinity rather than his humanity. Jesus has a body and that body needs food as much as you or me. This is not a supernatural act. It minimizes our response because it seems unattainable and, perhaps, irrelevant. It would be extraordinary for one of us to fast for forty days; we would be nonfunctional. We’re not going to do it, so what use is this story? I’ll highlight one aspect of the story that I find both illuminating and challenging and then we can talk about many more things on Sunday.

Every time Jesus is tempted, whether to indulge in his own powers or to accept the “gifts” the devil offers, Jesus turns back to God. God’s word is food enough. God’s faithfulness does not need to be proved. Serve God alone. Many of us like to think that we are special, but Jesus recently had it announced from the sky that he is, in fact, special. There is so much that he could have done with that, but he responds with, “It’s not about me.” This may seem like a strange thing to say in a Christian context, but it’s not really about Jesus. Jesus is interested in the things of God, not the things of Jesus.

This is spectacular and miraculous. It is a triumph. It certainly shows how Jesus was better than us. However, it is also a perfectly human response; it is something we can do. At our lowest points, when we are hungry or feel powerless or feel like life is not worth living, we can turn toward God. Note that this does not solve Jesus’ problems. He’s still hungry in the middle of a God-forsaken land facing the probably tragic future of a child of destiny. Note also that he is not burying himself in charitable acts or work or thrill-seeking. Instead, he is pointing toward God. On this inward journey of purgation, he becomes keenly aware of the vast scope of God’s presence. That shapes his identity as the Beloved and his call to ministry and, ultimately, his death at the hands of the powers of his world.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we begin our Lenten journey with a discussion of sin, temptation, and guilt, of deprivation, life, and death. Remember that this Sunday is the beginning of daylight savings time, so set your clocks ahead one hour. We don’t want to miss you!

Grace & Peace,
Scott

Jubilee: Gwyneth and her goop

// May 4th, 2013 // 1 Comment » // Church in The Cliff

I was watching Bill Maher this week in tiny increments between paper writing as I nibbled on a sandwich.  One of his guests was Jimmy Kimmel, who I, if I may speak openly, do not care for too much.  Normally, Bill’s guests are asked questions about pressing issues of the day, but Kimmel was asked about television industry decisions and celebrity news.  In particular, Kimmel was asked about Gwyneth Paltrow and her more-fabulous-than-thou shopping blog, goop.  It seems that every week, Gwyneth tells her fans what to buy and make and do that will make their lives into hers – minus Chris Martin’s soothing, melancholy, triumphant piano ballads.  That costs extra.  I was not really aware of this fount of wisdom.  I knew that people loved to hate her, but I wasn’t entirely sure why.  So I’m looking at goop now and, I have to say, I do want her life.  I mean, I don’t have a lot of use for a grey (British spelling!  So sophisticated!) Corsica bikini or an exclusive eisha (I don’t know what that word means!  So sophisticated!)  kids romper and I am heartbroken that the extra large nest bowl in wasabi is out of stock, but I pop over to the recipe section my life feels back on track.  I now know what I should cook: parmesan polenta and grilled radicchio wedge, plus some lentil “meatballs” for Dixon.  I might be joking, but I’m not really.  Her life does seem fabulous.  And I love stuff.  I love my Dyson DC-17 Animal vacuum cleaner, bought with my first poker tournament winnings.  But now I see they have a DC41 Animal Complete, which sounds so much better and now I’m sad.  🙁  I love the Vitamix blender that Lisa bought despite my skepticism about green smoothies, which turn out to be delicious!  The Vitamix makes all the sauces that y’all devour on Wednesday nights, but I would make even if you weren’t there because it is so easy to throw food in the Vitamix and blend.  Stuff makes my life better.  It really does.  I’m sure of it.  Definitely sure.

So it is with some trepidation that I come into this week of Jubilee.  At the heart of the Jubilee ethic is a theology of enough, a trust that God has provided enough.  And it is only when we trust in God’s provision that we have the courage to share and ensure that everyone will have enough.  As I consistently demonstrate, that is easier said than done.

A couple of weeks ago, we considered what kind of people our economic system forms us into.  This week, we will come from the other side and think about who we are in our relationship with money and consumption and, well, stuff.  What is it that drives us to want?  Who do we think we will become when we acquire?  And what are the consequences?  What systems are created out of our fears, doubts, and desires?

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center as we discuss the role of personal sin – fears, doubts, and desires – in systems of power.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

What I Meant to Say Was…

// June 13th, 2012 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

On Sunday, I was highly critical of Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas, as well as others of his ilk that are famous for their criticism of homosexuality.  You can read my comments here, but the main point was that any ethical stance must risk something.  This follows from Jesus’ claim in John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  My claim was that, in saying that “gay is not okay,” Mr. Jeffress risks nothing and, therefore, finds nothing and gives nothing.  Mind you, this is not an apology; I stand by that statement.  However, my intention was to hold myself and our church to the same standard and I think I failed in that.

I did ask the question in our conversation, but, being a conversation, it didn’t go exactly where I thought it would.  As we used to say about software design: This is not a bug, but a feature.  Some tremendous insights were given, as well as some difficult and important questions.  However, I don’t want to let the questions I started with slip by: What do we risk as a church?  What are we willing to risk?

Valen suggested that we risk a certain kind of alienation.  Because we hold certain positions on social issues, such as being open and affirming of all kinds of queerness, and because we take practices to be more important than beliefs, we often find ourselves on the margins of the dominant Christian tradition.  (I say “dominant,” not because that tradition is necessarily the largest, but because it is currently the loudest.)  I agree that we risk this kind of alienation, whether that means outright rejection by family and friends, criticism by other Christians, or just the awkwardness of trying to explain what the hell we are doing.  However, I wonder if that is enough.  It strikes me that Robert Jeffress and others often claim, not just alienation, but victimization by a larger culture that is hostile to their values, values that they take to be from God.  It also strikes me that some of us enjoy alienation; it feeds my need to be special.  So, while our alienation is very real and, at times, uncomfortable – painful even – I want more, for myself and for our church.

I’m not sure what I’m asking.  Often, the greatest risks are surprises.  (Thanks, God!)  But I want to continue pushing this question as a church.  We often struggle with issues of identity, but often that question is focused around beliefs, how we understand ourselves as Christians and as a church.  What if, instead, we focused our identity around action?

Our next series, starting in July, will be on social justice issues.  My hope is to lift up the things we are already doing and to ask what more we can do.  Do our actions match our values?  Is there an identity we can claim?  What would anyone outside our church recognize as Church in the Cliff?  If we disappeared, would it make a difference to anyone but us?

I also wanted to address some of the questions highlighted by a visitor.  Like many of us, it seemed that she is moving away from a more conservative tradition, but is unsure of what faith looks like outside of that.  She was looking for a bottom line, a set of beliefs on which to ground herself.  As many expressed in the conversation, our faith tends to be organized around practices more than beliefs.  Although the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus appear to be important to all of us, we probably all understand those things a little differently.  Our task is to love one another as we negotiate their meaning.  However, I would like to provide my version of what those things might mean as succinctly as I can.

In the traditional view, Jesus was both human and divine and his death on the cross is payment for our sin.  In the church of my youth, and probably what is now the dominant view in American Protestantism, the critical thing is to accept this fact in order to be saved.  I can say clearly that I no longer understand things this way.

I do think Jesus is both human and divine, but not in a way that is substantially different from any of us.  In a difference of degree, Jesus was so clear about the task of his life and so faithful in pursuing it, that the divine part was in complete control.  He was not under the sway of fear, controlled by the limitations of being human in a finite world.  And he did die for our sins.  That is, he died because of the sins of those who were – and are; as Pope John Paul II suggested, Christ is crucified all day every day – controlled by fear.  Fear of loss, of death, of rejection, of pain, all drive us to control others, to isolate ourselves, to insulate ourselves.  Jesus stood up to that fear and lived through it unto death.  Our task as Christians is to live into that story, stand with those who suffer even unto death.

This means that salvation is not one moment.  Yes, a big decision is helpful as a milestone, a marker of the day we decided to turn toward God and live into that story.  But we must make that decision every day, every moment we are beset by fear and loss and death.  We must look for salvation every day because sin persists every day.

This also means that salvation is not for us; it is for the world.  If walking in the Way of Christ and the Wisdom of Sophia is just entering heaven and avoiding hell, you’re missing the point.  In fact, it lives into precisely the fear that drives the world into sin.  Instead, we as Christians can live into God’s dreams for the world, a world beyond fear of loss and limitation and death, a world of faith, love, and hope.

This, to me, is the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Others in Church in the Cliff may see it differently.  I look forward to continuing to discuss it and to sharing life together through it all.

Scott

Demons of Reason: Pride and Shame

// March 14th, 2012 // No Comments » // Uncategorized

This week we continue our pilgrimage home to the self and to God through the eyes of 4th century mystic Evagrius Ponticus.  The past two weeks, we have discussed demons that attack through the body and the passions.  Now we arrive at the reasonable demons: vainglory and vanity, later known together as pride.  I say reasonable demons because, according to Evagrius’ understanding of the human soul, these demons attack the best part of the person, the reason.
Evagrius understood his eight evil thoughts hierarchically, progressing from the body to the mind, animal passions to divine reason.  The term “reason” may be confusing because he did not mean it exactly as we would today, as intellect, knowledge, or logic.  Instead, reason meant participation in a divine reality, the union of a person and God.  But as we draw closer to God, the demons simultaneously become more intense and clever.

Here, the demons turn our virtue, for which we have striven so long, against us.  Vainglory tempts us with praise.  The goal has always been to become compassionate and serve our neighbors.  This need and the validation we receive from filling it become ends in themselves.  We lie to others about our virtue and lie to ourselves about our own needs.  We not only harm ourselves for the good of others, but we forget what it means to be loved for ourselves rather than what we do for people.  Only our virtue matters because love must be earned.

Vanity is a different sort of deception.  We think that all our good is ours alone.  We have good things – money, success, relationships, beauty – because we are good.  In fact, we are better than everyone else.  We confuse ourselves with the image of success we present to the world.  Our energy goes toward propping up that ego image rather than discovering the self that God made us to be.

Vanity and vainglory later get collapsed into “pride” in the Seven Deadly Sins and I would like to add an evil thought as pride’s opposite: shame.  The opposite of pride was supposed to be humility.  It is not guilt and it is not shame, but a realistic understanding of ourselves as parts of a much larger whole – a community, a church, an ecosystem, even God.  Instead, we push virtue out of the picture entirely, forcing a choice between pride and shame.  This is particularly dangerous when it is superimposed on systems of power that divide us: race, gender, sexuality, class, ability.  “Humility” is demanded of the powerless by the powerful and becomes shame.  Shame is a means of oppression, which makes all moral reasoning useless.  That is, shame pulls us away from participation in the divine reality because we do not believe we can be loved.  But God says otherwise.

Join us this Sunday at 11am at the Kessler.  We’ll talk about pride, shame, and humility and how we can have clear sight of who we are in relation to God and the world.

Grace and Peace,
Scott

February 26: Our Demons, Our God, Ourselves
What does Jacob wrestle with?

March 4: Demons of Desire: Gluttony, Lust, and Avarice
How do we draw the world in and push God out?

March 11: Demons of Resistance: Sadness, Anger, and Acedia
How do we push the world away and God with it?

March 18: Demons of Reason: Pride (and Shame)
How do we lie to ourselves?

March 25: Fear
What is the source of the demons’ power?

April 1: Palm Sunday
What happens when we find the voice that God gave us?

Demons of Resistance: Sadness, Anger, and Acedia

// March 7th, 2012 // No Comments » // Uncategorized

One of my Lenten practices this time is to fast on Mondays. The hunger is not the worst part. Rather, I find myself watching the clock and wondering when dinner is. When I realize that I’m not going to eat dinner, it is devastating, not because I want the food, but because I want to get away from what I’m doing and indulge the senses. But the real Lenten practice is interrogating these demons, so I now know who I’m dealing with: Acedia.

Evagrius calls Acedia the “noonday demon” because it strikes in the middle of the day. It is a bored restlessness that makes the sun move slowly across the sky. I did not think that I was vulnerable to it, but I think that is only because I did not know its name. We become so used to our own patterns of escape that we are no longer even conscious of them. It’s like there is nothing at all to be named, like we simply are this way.

As I work on being more attentive to these feeling during this Lenten season, I discover that Evagrius is right that the demons attack more viciously the closer we get to God. Preparing for Sunday is an intensely personal and spiritual activity for me. It cuts to the quick of who I am in all my strength and all my insecurity. I like the wrestling, but I also know I won’t leave unscathed. Right when I’m on the edge of an epiphany, the noonday demon tempts me to just walk away, so I quit. Get a snack, watch TV, play a game, drink some wine, check facebook – anything to avoid finding out who I am.

Evagrius also says that Acedia causes more trouble than all the other demons. When Acedia wins the battle, he props the door open for all the other demons to come back. Sadness, also known as Melancholy or Sloth, and Anger naturally follow Acedia. We know we have abandoned the fight and so we rage at the world or weep at its passing. We become certain that there is a better world out there and we are simply in the wrong place or with the wrong people or not the right person to be in that world. But God promises us that each of us is the right person for the life we have together and the world God desires.

Join us at 11am this Sunday at the Kessler as we discuss how to dismiss the demons that resist the world and find the way of Christ and the wisdom of Sophia, the very presence of God, in our lives.

Grace and Peace,
Scott

February 26: Our Demons, Our God, Ourselves
What does Jacob wrestle with?

March 4: Demons of Desire: Gluttony, Lust, and Avarice
How do we draw the world in and push God out?

March 11: Demons of Resistance: Sadness, Anger, and Acedia
How do we push the world away and God with it?

March 18: Demons of Reason: Pride (and Shame)
How do we lie to ourselves?

March 25: Fear
What is the source of the demons’ power?

April 1: Palm Sunday
What happens when we find the voice that God gave us?