Reframing Sin and Repentance

(The Reader’s Digest version of my sermon from April 28)

There is a Buddhist quip that says, “You Christians must be very bad people – you’re always confessing your sins.” Apparently, the Christian preoccupation with sin is obvious, and I, for one, believe this emphasis on sin is unnecessary and harmful.

The three words in scripture that are translated as “sin” are used over 1,000 times. It’s a big deal. But remember that in the ancient world they believed in a cause and effect God. Everything they did or didn’t do caused God to do or not do something. If they wanted life to go smoothly for themselves and their family and community, they better make sure they are following the laws – AKA not sinning. This held true in New Testament times as well. Sin was a big deal.

The concept of “original sin” proposed (and widely accepted for centuries now) by Augustine in the 4th century perpetuated the emphasis on sin. Original sin took the story of Adam and Eve literally and declared that because they made that first mistake by eating the forbidden fruit thereby disobeying God, all humanity ever since has been born with the stain of their sin. All people were born inherently bad and in need of forgiveness.

Because of this horrible theology, if you were brought up in a more conservative or fundamental church, chances are that you made some sort of confession of your sins each week during worship. If you were brought up Catholic, you had the dreaded confessional box where you were required to confess all the ways you’d messed up in your life to a priest, who would allot your punishment (or is that atonement?) of a certain number Hail Marys and Our Fathers, before you received the Eucharist (communion elements to us Protestants). Even the United Methodist communion liturgy, which I more-or-less followed for 14 years, included a confession of sin and assurance of pardon. Honestly, I have never appreciated that and no longer include that in our services. I don’t remember Jesus asking anyone to confess anything before he broke bread with them.

All of the above is just plain depressing. Now, trust me, I’m not saying there is no such thing as sin. BUT I firmly believe that the emphasis on it is wrong. Why? Because, first of all, I don’t believe most of us need help feeling bad for the ways we’ve fallen short. We are adept at self-deprecation without the church stepping in to help. Second, because in my opinion, sin has been used to beat people over the head, keep them in submission and keep them coming to church. It feels like there is almost an attempt to keep us in a place of brokenness, to destroy our self-esteem, and to keep us feeling like miserable, rotten sinners instead of setting us free. Shouldn’t the church  be about building people up and setting them free to live joyful, abundant lives instead of tearing them down?

Can you imagine if we treated our kids the same way some of the churches treat people? What if every morning when our kids woke up we reminded them of all the things they did wrong, told them that they were born bad and made them ask for forgiveness? The whole concept makes me crazy. But many churches have essentially does the same thing by requiring confession at each and every worship service. And the fact that some churches require young kids to learn to confess how bad they’ve been before they can share in a meal that was given in love by Jesus just turns my stomach.  What if, instead, we told our kids each morning that they were created beautiful, unique and loving? What if, at church we reminded people that their souls are the essence of God’s love and goodness?

OK… so where do we go with this? First, there is a huge part of sin that, as progressive Christians we need to just let go of. The story of Adam and Eve was a myth to help people understand who they were and where they came from. It was never intended to be taken literally. Original sin is abusive theology which keeps us bound to a belief that we are bad. Let me be clear – we were not born bad. We were born as a unique expression of the divine in all its diversity. Jesus did not die for our sins. Without an understanding of ourselves as inherently sinful  and without a belief that our personal sin helped nail Jesus to the cross, there is no need for a constant emphasis on sin.

Next, let’s broaden our understanding of sin. In Jesus’ parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin, he draws the analogy between finding the lost item with a repentant sinner (Luke 15:1-10). It is about being lost and found. Theologian Paul Tillich talks about sin as “separation from God.” Being lost, separating ourselves or becoming separated from God in some way. But wouldn’t it be better to use the names or words for those ways instead of lumping them all into the one dreaded word “SIN”?

I and many, many other theologians and religions see the spiritual path as the path back to our authentic selves which is connected intimately with our Source. But there are many obstacles on the path which contribute to our separation from God. We get caught up in the material world and look for fulfillment and purpose in all the wrong places. We get burned by the church and decide there is no God. We get hurt by others and become too broken to want to delve into the depths of our souls for fear of what we might find in the darkness… yet going through that darkness is the only way to find God. We make bad choices or hurt others and our guilt and shame blocks us.

All of these things can separate us from God, but I would not call them “sin”. We are lost, broken, exiled, confused, estranged, questioning, and searching.

When push comes to shove, what do I actually label as sin? Honestly, nothing, because I can’t stand the word. The closest I might come would be doing something illegal or harmful to another… but those stem from being broken, lost, hurt, confused and separated from one’s True Self and God. If you want to call yourself a sinner, that’s up to you, but don’t expect it to come from me.

Having said that, I may not preach about SIN, but I constantly talk about the other things that block our spiritual paths and so work toward healing and wholeness (remember, we reframed salvation as this last week – see previous blog if you need a refresher).

So… what about repentance? Most people think of punishment, contrition, and asking for forgiveness when they hear the word repentance. If sin is about being separated from God and Self, then repentance is about ways to find God and Self.

Interestingly, we’ve mostly lost the original meaning of the word as written in Scripture. In the Old Testament, “repentance” in Hebrew essentially means “to return to God.” Again, it is about being lost to God in some way and needing to get back. It is the very basis of the spiritual journey… finding our way home to God, who is IN us.

In the New Testament, repentance continues to have the same meaning, but the Greek roots of the word add the additional nuance: “go beyond the mind you have.”  In other words, what you’ve been doing isn’t working, isn’t bringing you to healing and wholeness, isn’t reconnecting you to God and Self… go beyond the mind you have, seek a higher mind, a higher path.

Repentance is the way of transformation, the path of reconnecting with your Self and God, the way of salvation – healing and wholeness, the way of new life.

So, yes, as Luke 15:7 says, I believe that there is “joy in heaven over one repentant sinner.” When one lost, hurting, broken person has gone beyond the mind they have and returned to their core, their Source, themselves, it is cause for celebration.

Peace, Kaye

Reframing “Salvation”

(This is the abbreviated version of my sermon yesterday.)

The generally accepted understanding of salvation (in a Christian context) is that if you “accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior” you will be saved from eternal punishment in hell and find your eternal reward in heaven. The problem for me is that I don’t believe that Jesus died to save us from our sins (see my blog called “No Contradictions” from two weeks ago), nor do I believe in hell, so this definition of salvation just doesn’t work for me.

There are three basic theological reasons this understanding of salvation doesn’t work for me. First, while salvation is mentioned many, many times in the Old Testament, the Hebrew people didn’t believe in an afterlife, so it couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with being saved from hell. The word salvation in the OT was much more about protection. God was their rock, fortress, shelter, refuge, stronghold and salvation. Israel was always seeking to be saved from its enemies (there were lots of wars back then) or from slavery or from exile.

Second, our primary understanding of salvation in the New Testament seems to come from Paul, who has been heavily influenced by Jewish culture, heritage and theology. By Paul’s time, while some Jewish people had developed a belief in an afterlife (although many today still do not believe in one), their biggest concern was to be “righteous” before God. This meant primarily keeping their 613 laws. Those who kept the laws were “righteous” or “right with” God; therefore, God would be pleased with them and would show them favor and shower them with blessings. But it was next to impossible to keep all those laws, so Jewish tradition celebrated Yom Kippur (a day of atonement) to seek forgiveness. On Yom Kippur, Jews publicly confessed their sins, which were then ceremonially heaped onto the back of a scapegoat. The goat was chased out into the wilderness, symbolically carrying their sins away. Then they sacrificed a perfect, blemishless lamb to make up (or atone) for their sins.

Paul (originally Saul before his conversion) was a very well educated, devout Jew, who was zealous in keeping the law. Jesus obviously pushed a few of Paul’s buttons when Jesus not only breaks the law, but even suggests that the leaders may be following the “letter of the law” but have forgotten the “spirit of the law.” After Jesus death, Paul is ruthless in persecuting Jesus’ disciples and followers, until he has an amazing conversion experience where he comes to believe in Jesus. Now Paul has to figure this all out in his head… how can he fit Jesus into his understanding of God and Judaism? Aha! Clearly, Jesus was the ultimate sacrificial lamb to atone once and for all for the sins of humanity. This leap makes perfect sense… in Paul’s worldview. In a modern worldview human sacrifice is barbaric, period. Which brings me to my third point.

I do not believe in fear-based theology and this dominant understanding of salvation is based in fear. Fear of a God who believed we were so bad that a beautiful, kind, loving human being had to die to save us. Fear of a God who is still judging us and will condemn us to eternal punishment (and here I thought Jesus had already saved us from this??) if we’re not good enough. Fear of hell itself.

But, if God is pure, unbounded, unconditional love (as I believe God is), then this fear can not emerge from that love. Scripture says, “Perfect love cases out fear” (1John 4:18). So, God’s perfect love can’t possibly have this consequence of people living in constant fear.

Because of these three things, the understanding of salvation from eternal punishment breaks down (at least in my head). So, what do we do with this concept of salvation? Let’s reframe it in a way that makes sense.

The root of the English word “salvation” comes from a Latin word that means “wholeness” and “healing”.  It is the same root we use in the word “salve.” Wow. That puts a whole new spin on things, doesn’t it? What we all seek is wholeness – to be healed and have all the broken parts of our lives brought back together. Wholeness – for our souls, who are constantly seeking their source, to be at one with the Creator and creation.  Wholeness. Jesus is our salvation… he helps us become whole. Yes. That makes sense.

Jesus was all about bringing wholeness to people – physically, spiritually, emotionally.  He brought the outsiders back within the circle of love and community, healing broken relationships. He let people know they were forgiven, thus releasing them from the guilt and shame they carried and leading them to wholeness. He taught about a God who loved everyone, was for them, was with them and wanted them to have life in abundance – wholeness. And, Jesus loved with a pure deep love until the end so we could see what wholeness looked like.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Leaving Church, throws another little spin on it:  “Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk…And I love this line: it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall.

Have you ever looked at someone and said, “You saved me, ” because they got you out of a tight place where you thought you had no options and then suddenly there was one? Or they gave you a new perspective that helped you to heal? Or they helped you become yourself?

Sometimes that is said more superficially than others – “thank you so much for watching my sick child while I go to work, you’re a life saver!” But sometimes there is someone there who helps pull you out of the pit you are in and gives you hope and love. They literally save you from the broken life you are living and set you on the path to healing and becoming whole.

For me there is so much more health and beauty in understanding salvation in this way. Jesus came for our wholeness. God works in our lives helping us to become whole. We are loved into wholeness by a God who shows us new paths, possibilities and opportunities. Yes.

Let Go

“Let go” – two single syllable, deceptively simple words that are a key component to any healthy life.

I did an exercise in my college class today which involved the class creating something and then, in a rotten twist by me, required them to destroy it. The purpose was to poignantly illustrate the process of letting go. It only took them about 20 minutes to create the project, it was in their possession for a grand total of about an hour, and still it was very difficult for a few of them to let it go. Some of them had put their heart and soul into their projects and already had plans about what they would do with it. Imagine the dirty looks I got when I told them to smash it?

So, it’s no wonder then, that after we spend years building relationships, establishing homes, working hard, nurturing children, and developing our spirituality, that it can be extremely difficult to let them go. Even when our relationships aren’t working, or a great job opportunity requires a move, or our children grow up, or our old Sunday School understanding of God doesn’t make sense anymore, the known and broken can be more comfortable than the unknown with potential. But, we have to learn to let go or we will not grow – emotionally, intellectually or spiritually. It is a constant process of dying and being reborn, that we can learn to move through gracefully, or go kicking and screaming. Most of us probably use an odd combination of both.

Psychologist Jean Houston said to grow into our potential, we must overcome our own personal resistances and are required “to die to one story, one myth, in order to be reborn to a larger one… Development involves giving up a smaller story in order to wake up to a larger one.”

I share this because I know that my blog last week, and my Easter sermon probably challenged some of you in the “personal resistance” department. But for me, personally, letting go of the traditional understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross was like being freed from a smaller story to embrace a larger one. The larger story pulls us out of a focus on sin to a focus on love. The larger story begins to reframe other words that have been used to beat people over the head, like “saved” and “sin” and “repentance.” The larger story brings me back to my authentic self, deeply connected with a God who loves until the end.

I hope to explore this a little more in the weeks ahead and I hope you will walk with me.

Peace, Kaye

No Contradictions in God

Yes, I’m supposed to be on vacation… shhh… don’t tell anyone. I just wanted to share a few of my Easter Sunday thoughts with those who couldn’t make it.

We all know that there are all kinds of contradictions in the Bible and that you can use the Bible to substantiate almost any position you’d like on almost any subject. I can understand how that happens. Afterall, the Bible was written by men who were trying to share Israel’s experience and understanding of God as they had been told or learned. Different ideas and perspectives on God and Biblical topics makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is contradictions existing within the very being (or energy, if you like) of God.

The God that I know and believe in is very simply LOVE. Pure, unconditional, unbounded, unfettered love. Any theology that suggests that God can somehow be that and vengeful, vindictive, angry, punishing, hurtful, or jealous at the same time makes no sense to me. I just can’t do the mental gymnastics (nor am I willing) needed to make those contradictions in God acceptable. It makes much more sense to me that the contradictions took place in those who shared the stories of God and wrote down the stories of God, than it does for those contradictions to actually exist IN God.

Sacrificial Atonement Theology, that we often hear on Good Friday or Easter is a perfect example of a theology that Christians have adopted over the centuries that attempts to make sense of Jesus’ death, but ends up turning God into someone who I don’t believe God can be.  This popular theology (for the last 800 years or so) states that Jesus had to die because God required the sacrifice of a perfect human in order to forgive the sins of humanity and bring us back into full relationship with God.

Let me flesh that out a little more.  That theological understanding of why Jesus had to die was finally fully articulated by St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1097. It goes like this: Adam and Eve (taken as a literal story and not simply myth) disobeyed God and everyone inherits their sin, known as original sin (you can thank Augustine in the 4th century for this). Because of their sinfulness, and because God is a just God, their disobedience requires punishment. Their penalty for their sin is death, they are cast out of the Garden of Eden where they were immortal, and now we all live outside of Eden where we are all mortal and die. However, God loves us and doesn’t want to punish us, but God’s honor has been shamed. God is torn between love for us and requirements of justice, and so comes up with a plan to fix the sins of humanity. God decides to require a perfect human sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity. Jesus is born to a virgin (hence not incurring the human sin of his mother’s sexuality) and God requires Jesus to die on the cross to pay the price we all owe to God for Adam and Eve’s sin. Because Jesus was obedient and did the “will of his Father” in enduring great pain and suffering and dying on the cross, we are brought back into full relationship with God.

— Interestingly enough, another theologian, Abelard, came along shortly after that and said, “Who will forgive God for the sin of killing his own child? How cruel and wicked that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything, or that it should in any way please him that an innocent man should be slain – still less that God should consider the death of his son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world!”

—Personally and professionally, I do not believe in Sacrificial Atonement. I do not believe in a God who requires human sacrifice. That is completely contradictory, in my mind, with a God of LOVE. I also do not believe in glorifying the suffering of Jesus, because that leads us to glorify and somehow make sacred the suffering of human beings. (For example: “Be grateful for your suffering, endure your suffering, because then you are being just like Jesus.”) Finally, I do not believe in glorifying the cross – it was an instrument of torture and death. We are the only world religion that has a weapon as its symbol… seems wrong to me (though I admit it took me a long time to realize that).

Progressive theology’s answer to The Million Dollar Question: Did Jesus have to die? Is NO. Jesus did not have to die because of some master plan that God had to forgive people for sin. Was it inevitable that Jesus die? Probably.

Let’s look at Jesus for a minute… John Shea says, “Jesus’ deepest identity is his relationship to [God] which overflows into a mission of love to an alienated world. Whatever else Jesus is, he is this first and foremost. .. What he desires is to give the life he is receiving from the Divine Source to other people. He is faithful to that task…” to the end.

Jesus kept loving until the end. His options were to fight, to run and go into hiding, or to stop preaching his message and stop trying to help people know and respond to the God of love that he knew – all of those things would have been contradictory to LOVE.

I can’t imagine that Jesus wanted to lose his life. However, I do believe he understood that there were potential consequences to his resistance to Roman imperialism and oppression. And I believe he played the cards he had, while he could, to make the most impact.

That brings us to Resurrection.

I don’t particularly care how you understand the resurrection. Whether you believe that he was physically raised from the dead, or whether his body was hidden somehow and he appears in spirit, or whether you don’t believe any of it, doesn’t particularly matter to me. I personally don’t worry about that too much.  However, I realize that the stories of the resurrection attest to the fact that somehow his followers experienced Jesus’ presence after his crucifixion. In a religion that did not really believe in an afterlife – Jesus was alive.

It was the ultimate “no” to the domination systems who brought about his murder. You can kill the person, but you cannot kill their spirit or their love. His love did not die on the cross… the energy of his love, the spirit of his love lived on and still lives on.  God is present through the violence and suffering back to life again. Please notice that I DID NOT say that God causes the suffering so that we can experience life again. It is God’s constant, abiding presence (especially in the dark times in our lives) that leads us to the open doors, the opportunities, the right paths.

We spent Friday night taking time to honor the sadness in our own lives, the suffering, the pain… On Easter we remembered that God has been with us through that dark night, that God is there in the gap between death and life, and that God is present as we come to life again. Joy is possible after sadness. Life is possible after death. Hope is possible after despair. Healing is possible after being hurt. There are open windows after the doors have closed in our faces.

THIS is how Love works. Love is alive. Love dwells among us. Love compels us to love one another as we love ourselves. Love will never die.

Some days are Good Fridays… some days are Easters

Really, there is no reason on Earth why Good Friday is called Good Friday. I’d vote for something along the lines of Sad Friday, Awful Friday or This-Really-Stinks Friday. We all have those kind of days. The days that are steeped in grief, hurt, betrayal, despair and hopelessness. And I believe it is important to honor those days. Everyone would like to fast forward through those “Good Fridays” and go straight to Easter, but it just doesn’t work like that.

Even the earth knows it needs the dormant, down times for seeds to prepare to push their way to the surface of the soil and start a new life. We, too, can’t ignore our need for quiet, darker times to work our way through our challenges before we’re prepared to poke our heads out of the soil of life and start again.

Oddly enough, I like Good Friday. Certainly not for the horrific death of Jesus. But because it gives us a day to be real. For one day we have permission not to put on a happy face and try to show the world how well we’re doing. For one day we can honor the darkness in our lives, feel the grief, allow the brokenness and cry the tears. It’s okay, because it truly is a Sad, Awful, This-Really-Stinks kind of day. I’m pretty sure we need to give ourselves permission to have these days whenever necessary or we’ll never work through the struggles we face.

Honoring the Good Fridays in our lives (though it usually takes us much longer than three days) make the Easters so much more authentic as well. The joy is real, because we’ve worked through the darkness instead of just stuffing it. We really can see new life around us and within us. We know intimately that transformation and renewal is possible.

I encourage you not to simply breeze through this week, or take it at face value, but to be fully present to the spiritual lows and highs of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.