Tag Archives: Sin

Edgar Bazan ~ Racism & Bias: We All Suffer

For 400 years, through slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights movement, and institutionalized racism, people of color (especially within the Black community) have been fighting and crying out for justice and equality. Justice is sought because they have been oppressed and abused for centuries; equality, because that is the underlying cause of their unjust treatment: they have been seen and treated as lesser humans because of the color of their skin.

I am a Mexican-American immigrant, and although my experience is not the same as Black Americans’ experiences, on some levels I can relate to the viciousness shown them. It is not uncommon to hear stories of people like me who have been told to, “go back to Mexico.” As upsetting as I find this, it makes me sad, for it reflects the failure of a society to nurture individuals that treat one another with respect and dignity.

As a pastor who serves a diverse and bilingual community, I will speak to these dynamics of prejudice that are persistently based on race, language, and economic and education levels. In all of this, the pervasive reality is that some people are inclined to judge others based on external factors. These judgments come with labels, and these labels add or subtract value to people.

For example, it is not unusual when I meet new people and introduce myself as a pastor, that they say: “so you are the associate pastor of the Hispanic church.” I am not offended by the Hispanic label, of course; however, the underlying problem is the assumption that because I am Hispanic, I must be the Hispanic associate pastor serving people like me. To put this in context, how often do we hear about white pastors, “so you are the white pastor for the white people”? Most likely never.

I invite you to explore the implications of this. Labels carry value (or lack thereof), and those at the top usually do not have the same labels – often they are the ones who assign them to others. Bias is not always a loud offense; sometimes it has the form of rather subtle but heavy weight to keep people “in their place” — often assigned by those in positions of influence.

These acts and attitudes have pained and oppressed many people of color over the years — centuries — and it breaks God’s heart, for it is sinful: a way in which we fall short of the glory of God.

So what does the Bible say about racism and bias?

In Genesis 1:26, we find the following statement that gives us a theological framework from which to address racism: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…’” This scripture teaches us that God created every human being in God’s image. Every person measures the same amount of the glory of God in themselves. There is no distinction nor differences in the worth between one person or another. Whether one is white, black, brown, God loves all the same. In the Incarnation, God became flesh, embracing all colors, races, and ethnicities that make up the human race.

Racism, however, denies the image of God in humankind. It seeks to destroy God’s likeness in every person, both in those who invite and ignore racism, and in those who are the recipients of it, repudiating what God created and the way God created it. Therefore, the Bible teaches us that racism is incompatible with Christian teaching; it is sinful, for it denies the image of God in others and oppresses those who are the object of God’s self-giving love. Ultimately, it leads to the violation and denial of human rights, of justice, and of inherent human sacred worth.

Now, bias on the other hand, is a more subtle form that still leads to oppression. The apostle James makes a compelling case explaining bias and cautioning against it. In James 2:9, we read, “But if you show partiality [or bias], you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” James was addressing an issue of showing special treatment to a particular person or persons based on their social standing. He illustrates this with a hypothetical scenario where two men come into a church gathering: one is rich and given the best seat in the house; the other is poor and asked to stand away or sit on the floor. The rich man is given privileges because of his wealth, but the poor man is despised because of his poverty. Such treatment, James says, is evil.

Although James addresses a particular issue of class discrimination, the principle helps us to address any and all other practices of bias, including those based on race. (It was not long ago that people of color could not sit on the front seats of a bus in America.) In many ways, this reality resembles a “caste system” in which hierarchical structures communicate to subjects, “you are not all equal,” and, “here is your label and place.” This has caused profound generational suffering and loss, including economic, cultural, and identity devastation for people of color and marginalized groups.

Many Americans would be appalled to think that such blatant partiality or bias that mirrors a “caste system” could exist in a country founded on the premise that, “all are created equal” and that, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is a right for all people — the American Dream. Nevertheless, even as this nation of ours may create more economic opportunities for people than any other place, we continue to have deeply embedded unfair policies and attitudes, like “redlining.” There are policies that are discriminatory, unfair, and inconsistently applied, when rule of law and distribution of community resource give preferential treatment to some people over others.

Most of these harmful practices reflect a subtle yet hostile and derogatory way in which some people are communicated to be more of a liability, or more valuable, than others. This stigmatization wears on people emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. But if someone is spared these additional burdens, because of the sound of their name or the color of their skin, they don’t realize that they don’t have to prove themselves in the same way to get ahead in life, even if they’re born into poverty or other serious trauma, while others may have those struggles but also bear the additional burden of race-based bias and prejudice.

Have you ever observed how someone who is not white is often questioned about their capacity to accomplish a task? And if they do accomplish it, they are seen as an exception? The tragedy is that this is normalized and internalized by both sides: “we are more” and “we are less.” As a pastor, it breaks my heart when I hear young people begin to accept the labels and positions assigned to them, whether it is because of the color of their skin or their socio-economic status. It is heartbreaking to hear them settle for less than they dream, for less than they are capable of accomplishing as individuals, because their abilities, intelligence, or character are constantly questioned.  These mental and emotional chains are heavy. To treat people in such a way is a terrible sin that plagued the early church and has continued to plague the church and society at large in every generation.

The apostle Paul, in talking about prejudice and favoritism in the church, wrote that, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Paul makes a compelling case about undermining the giftedness and value of people in our communities. By doing so, he says, we harm each other.

By now, I hope there is little doubt that we are called to face the pain, abuse, and oppression of a segment of our community that has been affected by racism and bias — “if one suffers, we all suffer together.” Not only that: the work towards eradicating unjust practices of racism and bias must be a top priority for followers of Jesus, not at all because of political affiliation or preferences, but because of our compelling faith in Jesus Christ, which is what James wrote: “because of your faith, you should not play favoritism but treat everyone as fellow brother and sister.”

My prayer is that the principle of “loving our neighbor as we love ourselves” will guide us (Matthew 22:39). Just as we care about our own needs, feelings, and desires, we must show the same care for the needs, feelings, and desires of others. So how can we foster and nurture communities (at church, home, work, school) where anyone is welcomed, respected, and treated with dignity?

We don’t need to have all the answers; we simply need to start asking the right questions from a place of compassion.

Featured image is an interior photo from the Don Bosco church in Brasilia, capital of Brazil. Photo credit: Vladimir Soares on Unsplash.

Maxie Dunnam ~ A Brand New Year: How to Leave Your Stuff Behind

Do you ever wonder how to leave your stuff behind? Loren Eiseley was one of my favorite writers, a distinguished anthropologist and essayist with the eye of an artist and the soul of a poet.  He saw beyond the surface and had that rare double gift which enabled him to enter deeply into an experience and then share that experience with us. In one of his poignant vignettes from boyhood, he shares a moment of time that bears timeless truth. 

Eiseley was 16, and one day he leaned out the second-story window of his high school and saw an old junk dealer riding in a cart filled with castoff clothing, discarded furniture, and an assortment of broken-down metal objects. A broken-down horse was pulling the cart.  As the decrepit figures passed below him, Eiseley had a sudden sense of what time means in its passing. He wrote: “‘It’s all going,’ I thought with a desperation of the young confronting history.  No one can hold it… we’re riding into the dark.  When my eye fell upon that junk dealer passing by, I thought instantly, ‘save him, immortalize this unseizeable moment, for the junk man is the symbol of all that is going or gone.’”

After that, Eiseley said he could never regard time without a deep sense of wonder. He sought to receive every moment as a kind of gift that was only his.  It’s an image to consider as we begin this new year.  Let’s look at our scripture lesson, found in Genesis 45:1-28, which you can read here.

Tucked away in this story of Joseph’s sojourn into Egypt is a verse packed with far more meaning than appears on the surface. It is a word that carries a whole wagon-load of goods for reflection. It teaches us an eternal truth that we do well to consider as we move into the New Year. It is helpful in practicing how to leave your stuff behind.

Rehearse the story.  Sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph found favor with the Pharaoh and became one of the trusted officials in Pharaoh’s court.  A strange irony of fate (the providence of God, of course) brought Joseph and the brothers who had betrayed him together again.  A famine ravaged the land of Canaan, the people were without food, and they came to Egypt to buy food from the Pharaoh.  They soon learned that the person with whom they dealt was the brother they sold into slavery, so the tables were turned.  Here they were, asking food from the person they cast away. 

When it came to Pharaoh’s attention that Joseph’s brothers came, it pleased him. He instructed Joseph to bring the whole family from Canaan, promising to give them the goods of all the land of Egypt. It is at this point we find the power-packed verse.  Do this, said Pharaoh: “take some carts from Egypt for your children and your wives, and get your father and come.  Never mind about your belongings, because the best of all of Egypt will be yours.”  I like the way the King James’ version translates that. “Regard not your stuff, for the best of all the land of Egypt will be yours.”

Regard not your stuff.  

There’s all sorts of meaning in that.  One translation renders it, “leave your stuff behind.”  Now some of us who have moved a good bit, like Methodist preachers, know what that means. We moved from Mississippi to California years ago.  Moving across the continent made it even more difficult to decide what stuff we were going to take and what stuff we were going to leave behind.  Moving is expensive.  My wife, Jerry, collects rocks, and she had bushels of them.  She knew better than to get into a discussion about taking those rocks from Mississippi to California.  Do you know how heavy rocks are?  So Jerry did a very cunning thing.  She packed her choice rocks into kitchen canisters and cake tins and brought them along.  The movers were mystified, I’m sure, as they handled those cake tins and canisters, and I learned of it long after I had paid the bill!

“Regard not your stuff,” said Pharaoh, “leave your stuff behind…for the good of all the land of Egypt is yours.”

By the time most of us get to be adults, we have accumulated a great deal of stuff – all kinds of stuff.

We’ve learned so many wrong things, stored up so much misinformation, learned to respond in so many destructive ways. We’ve adopted all the biting, snarling, snippy styles of relating, become secretive and cynical.  We carry a lot of stuff around, and it burdens us down.  It’s hard learning how to leave your stuff behind. We get all glued up in our limited world of habit. 

So this word of Pharaoh to Joseph’s brothers is a good word for us, particularly as we begin this new year: leave your stuff behind. What is some of the stuff you need to leave behind as you begin the new year?  What can you drop off your weary, bending back to make your trek into the New Year a bit easier and far more meaningful?

Leave behind self-pity. 

Self-pity is a burden most of us are unwilling to drop off.  Someone hurts our feelings and we carry our hurt with us forever.  We’re treated unfairly and we never forget it.  Something happens in our family and it seems to us like we’re being put down: someone else is receiving special treatment, so we get a kind of complex.  We suffer physically and we get the idea that the whole universe is out to persecute us – such an easy snare to fall into! As long as we carry this burden of self-pity, we can blame our failures on someone or something else.

To go through life with the burden of self-pity is to go through life hampered.  It is to stumble along at an uneasy, faltering pace, so we need to leave the bundle of self-pity behind us.  We need to stride into the future, not with self-pity, but with self-affirmation.  And when we rehearse the gospel, we know that we can do that because the whole of Scripture, especially the Gospels, is an affirming, not a destructive word.

Jesus said that not even a sparrow fell to the ground without the Father taking note. Then he added, “you are of more value than sparrows.” And how extravagant is this? “The very hairs on your head are numbered.” Each of us is a unique, unrepeatable miracle of God, and there is a place in God’s heart that only I can fill…that only you can fill.

“For thee were we made, oh God,” said Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”  No wonder he said that; the psalmist himself had captured it long before – “You have made us a little lower than the angels, a little less than God, and crowned us with glory and honor.” 

We don’t need to go into the New Year with self-pity because God is on our side.  To let go of self-pity is to begin practicing how to leave your stuff behind. God created us. And God is going to be with us.

Leave behind illegitimate responsibility.

The next bundle of stuff we need to leave behind is illegitimate responsibility.  I’m talking about the responsibilities which we rigidly claim for ourselves, but which don’t legitimately belong to us.

Our journey will be more meaningful if we can determine that there are certain responsibilities that are ours; these we will accept and give our resources to.  There are other responsibilities which we simply have to leave with others and with God.  Parents, there is a limitation to the responsibility we can take for our children.  We must do all we can to nurture our children to live productive, helpful, meaningful, Christian lives.  But beyond a certain time and place of nurturing, we must commit them wholly to God, and leave with them and with God the responsibility for guiding themselves.

This is conditioned by a special word to young parents. A Chicago suburbanite put on a last spurt of speed to catch his train but missed it.  A bystander remarked, “if you’d run a little faster you would have made it.”   “No,” the suburbanite replied, “it wasn’t a case of running faster, but of starting sooner.”  Young parents, you can’t begin too soon to relate a child to God – to demonstrate clearly to your children your own commitment and values.  We can’t depend wholly upon the church to instill within our children a love of God’s Word.  That won’t do it;  of course the church has a responsibility, but parents are primarily responsible. When we have been faithful in our parenting, we can leave our inordinate feelings of responsibility for our children behind.

There are responsibilities that we can and must assume – but many of us are weighed down by responsibilities that don’t belong to us. We must leave them behind.

Leave behind cancelled sin. 

There’s a lot of stuff we ought to leave behind, along with self-pity and illegitimate responsibility. What stuff do you still need to leave behind? We can’t name them all, but let me mention one other bundle that we need to cast off as we stride into this New Year: the bundle of cancelled sin.  The phrase comes from Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Oh For A Thousand Tongues To Sing.”  He claims that this is the work of Christ.

He breaks the power of canceled sin,

He sets the prisoner free;

his blood can make the foulest clean;

His blood availed for me.

Scores of people who beat a steady stream to my study door for counseling are burdened down by cancelled sin.  Somewhere in the past, they did things, got involved in situations, and were caught in relationships about which they feel morbid guilt.  They carry this around as an inside burden which no one knows about.  But like a malignancy, it grows and spreads until it poisons the person and brings a sickness like death.

The heart of the gospel is that God through Christ forgives our sins, and our sins are cancelled by God’s grace.  But obviously, this fact and experience are not enough.  Cancelled sin still has power – destructive power in our lives.

How then is the power of cancelled sin actually broken?  How do we leave this burden behind?  There is one key: confession and inner healing.  I believe that under most circumstances, not only confession to God but confession to another is essential for healing and release from the power of cancelled sin

This is the reason James admonishes us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another.  Once we confess to a minister or to an intimate friend or group, we don’t carry the burden alone.  The poisonous guilt that was bottled up inside is now released.  The cleansing and freedom that comes is wing-giving.  Forgiveness and acceptance are confirmed in our lives and the fear of others knowing who and what we are is taken away.

A medical analogy works well here. When an infection appears somewhere on the body, antibiotics are given.  If these do not destroy the infection, usually the infection is localized and has to be lanced.  The surgeon uses the scalpel and opens the boil in order that all the poison can be drained.  Confession is something like the surgeon’s scalpel.  When we honestly open our lives in confession, all the poisonous guilt that we have bottled up within has a chance to flow out.  Confession becomes the cleansing process by which the self is freed from the power of cancelled sin.

Now there are two requisites for redemptive confession – one, you must trust the person or the group to whom you confess; and two, your confession must not be destructive to another person.  We cannot disregard the health and wholeness of another in order to seek our own release.

The big point is that the burden of erased wrongdoing is too great for us to carry into the New Year.  You can leave that stuff behind, because God forgives.  God loves you and accepts you.  And if you’ve not experienced the release from cancelled sin, if the burden of it is still with you, you may need to find a person whom you love and trust with whom you can share.  Open your life to them, and allow the poison to flow out in your honest confession. Remember the promise of John’s gospel: “if we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.”

I want to invite you now to use your imagination. Picture yourself with a big trash bag. Move through every room of your life; select the stuff you need to leave behind. I’m talking about self-pity and illegitimate responsibility. 

Put it into the trash bag.

What cancelled sin still has power over you, what hidden hatred, what frustrating fear, what devastating doubt, what powerful prejudice?

Put it in the trash bag.  Do it.  Act it out in your imagination. 

Put it into the trash bag.

Is there an unresolved relationship with a husband or wife, a parent or a child, a neighbor?  Is there a jealousy you’ve never brought out into the open? 

Put it into the bag. 

It could be any number of things.  You know what weighs you down, and what stuff you don’t need to take into the New Year. 

Put it into the bag.  Be specific in identifying and visualizing all the stuff in your mind to put into that bag.

Now stay with me in your imagination.  Get in your mind the picture with which we began  – the junk man with his cart filled with cast-off clothing, discarded furniture, all sorts of abandoned useless things.  Do you see it in your mind?  He’s passing by. 

In your imagination now, throw your trash bag onto the junk wagon and let it be taken away. 

Have you done it?  In your imagination, just cast it onto the junk wagon to be taken away.  Be silent now and enjoy the relief and release of getting rid of that burden. Keep the image of the trash man in your mind for a moment, taking all your trash away.  Now substitute for the image of the junk man, Christ himself.

Do you see him?  Jesus. Listen.  Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. 

Leave your stuff behind – all your junk.  Leave it.

You are forgiven.  Your failure and weakness are accepted.  Your past is buried in the sea of God’s loving forgetfulness.

Go into the New Year with Christ, and go joyfully.

Andy Stoddard ~ The Gift of Brokenness

I’m a pretty happy and optimistic guy.  I tend to believe the best of other people, and by and large, I expect things to work out alright.  I take Romans 8:28 literally and seriously – God will somehow work out things for good.

I tend to be an optimistic and grace-full preacher.  I believe in hell, but I’m not a hellfire preacher. I tend to think that grace is a greater motivator to faithfulness than fear is. I have always taken Paul’s words in Romans 2:4 to heart with my preaching: “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” I like to leave people with a pep in their step on Sunday morning.  I like to leave them with grace on their lips. I want them to enter into the world hopeful, peaceful, and more focused on Jesus than on their sin. 

Except for Lent. 

In Lent, yes, we need to know that we are loved.  But there is something else we need to know. We need to know this – we are sinful.  We are broken. We are fallen. We are ashes, and to ashes we will return.

We can’t run from this.  No matter how powerful, wealthy, famous, or holy we are, we are ashes.  No matter how great of an influencer on social media we are, we are ashes. No matter how big a church we are part of, we are ashes.  We are ashes. We are broken. We are sinful.

And you know what? 

This realization of brokenness is one of the greatest gifts we can ever receive.  Lent is a powerful and beautiful reminder of the gift of that realization. Once we receive this gift, we can truly live.  This realization gives us several life-changing truths.

First, brokenness is equality.  We are all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.  We all inherit original sin. In our age, we like to talk more about “sins” than our “sinful nature.” Sins are things we do (what I jokingly call smoking, drinking, and cussing).  In our minds, there is always someone worse than us. Yeah, we’ve messed up, but look at themThey are much worse than we can ever be. 

If we look at our brokenness in terms of sin, then there are stratifications. There are better and worse than’s.  But that is not how we are called to look at it. We are all sinful. It isn’t just that we have all messed up, but it is that we all have a broken, sinful nature. We all desire that which is sinful.  You, me, our moms and dads, our preachers and bishops, all of us. We are all “sinful.” Jesus didn’t just come to forgive for our sins; he came to free us and restore us. When Adam and Eve fell, our nature was corrupted. That affects every last one of us.  Charles Wesley put it this way in his great hymn Love Divine:

Take away our bent to sinning;

Alpha and Omega be

We all have that “bent to sinning.”  Everyone one of us. All of us. You are sinful.You are broken. You are. Yes. You. Me.  All of us.

But here is the joy: that truth doesn’t make you the scum of the earth.  It makes you human. We are all broken. We are all sinful. We are all frail.

There is equality in our brokenness.  We all stand equal before God, no matter what. We are all broken. That makes us all equal, no matter what.

Second, brokenness is clarity.  If we ever, ever, ever really understand our brokenness, then we have the ability to see ourselves as we really are.  Broken and in need of a Savior. When we understand that, then healing can really begin.

One of the best books I’ve ever read is The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. If you’ve not read it, you need to stop what you are doing, go and buy it, and read it. In this book, he deals with our need for grace and the reckless God who gives us grace, unearned. Listen to what he writes:

At Sunday worship, as in every dimension of our existence, many of us pretend to believe we are sinners. Consequently all we can do is pretend to believe we have been forgiven. As a result, our whole spiritual life is pseudo-repentance and pseudo-bliss.

This clarity – you are sinful, I am too – when we realize that, when we truly know that we are sinful, then we are able to clearly see how amazing God’s grace is.  God knows the worst about us and loves us anyway. Our brokenness gives us clarity to see ourselves as we are, and to see just how much God truly loves us. 

Finally, brokenness is opportunity.  When we know our brokenness, as well as God’s great love for us, in spite of it all, we have an opportunity – an opportunity to be remade, reformed, reborn.  We go from being the Pharisees thankful that we are not tax collectors to the tax collector simply thankful for God’s love.

Understanding our brokenness allows us to truly reveal and marvel in God’s grace.  Understanding our brokenness puts on the path of recovery, the path of wholeness, the path of holiness. This path that understands it’s not about our morality and getting it right, but it’s about our humility and submission to Jesus and following Jesus. 

Our brokenness is our opportunity to be truly faithful.

This Lent, you are sinful.  You are imperfect. You are broken.  So am I. May we take this realization as a means of grace. And may we allow ourselves to be recreated into the people that God is calling us to be.  We are equal in brokenness, we are equally in grace. May this gift make us whole.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ The Pain of Misalignment: God and the Disordered Body

The statement on the website shouted loudly and clearly what many people instinctively know if they let themselves notice it: The Key to Relieving Pain Is Fixing Our Misalignment.

I was visiting a website that sells therapeutic insoles for people with aching feet. The promises of pain relief were backed up by “Science” and a compelling founder’s story from a man who just wanted his little boy to be able to play and run with his friends again. Most insoles give you cushioning, the site explained. But these insoles realign your ankles, counteracting the chain reaction that occurs when your ankles are misaligned. When your ankles are misaligned, your knees, hips, lower and upper back, and neck are all thrown out of alignment too. Align your ankles, though, and the other joints are restored to proper positioning.

The Key to Relieving Pain is Fixing Our Misalignment.

Look around, and you will find pain everywhere. An announcement goes out from a friend on social media who has just had five siblings placed in her foster home: clothing, car seats, basic toys are needed. What pain preceded the moment they arrived on her doorstep, children walking into a stranger’s home?

A regional newspaper announces a workshop on how to administer Narcan, a drug that can halt an opioid overdose, potentially saving the life of an unconscious drug addict. Deaths have skyrocketed, and people beyond EMTs and first responders are learning how to stock and use the medication.

There is, Mother Teresa said, a poverty of love. “The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”

We think we do not love each other enough. In part, we are right. Why can we not welcome each other? How has the tone of our words become so strained, sudden, explosive? Most people in North America do not buy a semiautomatic rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition and drive to a nightclub to shoot and kill people; but our words are high-caliber. Accusations are unloaded, pop, pop, pop. We hear someone’s words and take aim at their character instead of their reasoning, like a trainee on a shooting course who pulls the trigger at a pop-up of a civilian instead of a combatant.

We need love, we think. We need more love. We need to be more loving as people, toward other people. But this is like saying that we need more cushioning; we need more support. And while we do need more cushioning, the key to relieving pain is fixing our misalignment. Because we are not only impoverished in love; our loves are disordered, out of alignment. We can attempt to cushion them as much as we want; only realigning misplaced joints will relieve the pain, though.

There is misalignment in all our lives. Over a millenium and a half ago, a North African Christian thinker named Augustine diagnosed the nature of human disorder by thoroughly handling our propensity for disordered loves. The essence of virtue, wrote Augustine, is rightly ordered love. For Augustine, the problem is not that we don’t love each other enough; it is that we don’t love God enough:

“But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.”

Centuries later, C.S. Lewis parsed this out: “You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God.” Cushion the stride as much as you want: beginning with love for others does not address the fundamental misalignment. The right ordering of loves is essential for an aligned Body.

But you cannot love whom you cannot know.

To love means to know: not to know comprehensively – what finite mortal can comprehend God – but to know truly, truthfully, in reality, even if it is a tiny sliver of reality. If God is so transcendent as to be genuinely unknowable, then we cannot love God: God is too other to interact with. If God is so imminent as to be the same as all created matter, then we cannot love God: God is as finite as a summer dandelion. If all is only mystery, or if all is accessible and comprehensible, then we have the same problem: a God unknowable, or a God not worth knowing.

John 1 throws open a window on the Great Realigning. The universe was created in alignment, we read. But it did not recognize the one who created it, through the depth of its own injurious misalignment.

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

A God we can know is a God we can love. In loving God as the highest, greatest good, as Augustine would say, we find alignment: here, there is relief from pain. Here, where the sequence is adjusted. Here, the alignment of creation stands in sound wholeness. Here, we can now love our fellow-creature fully: because we love the Creator first. Our joints are rightly ordered, and our stride is sure and strong.

But what mercy is there in observing someone with a dislocated shoulder and offering ice for the rest of their lives? The agony of being out of socket is considerable. The arm is useless. The pain is blinding. We can place a cushion behind the joint that is out of socket, but we know that ultimately the key to relieving pain is fixing the misalignment. The short-term gasp of agony at resetting a dislocated shoulder is a mercy compared to the long-term pain and loss of use.

The right ordering of what has been out of alignment, dislocated, or out of whack is strange and painful at first. We have become accustomed to low-level pain that slowly increased until more and more energy was spent ignoring it; there is disequilibrium in the corrected stride. Proper alignment feels odd when we had learned to cope around dysfunction.

There was a time in my twenties when I attempted to jog around an indoor track while holding my then-boyfriend’s hand, a sweet but silly attempt. It became more challenging as I became aware that he was limping from a knee strain, and the limp made it impossible to match his uneven stride. If I continued to hold his hand, in order to match strides and not have our arms bang into each other, I had to adopt a limping stride too – but that was not good for my own legs. If we wanted to jog while holding hands, our strides would have to match; I would have to adopt the dysfunction of his knee, or else continue to abruptly bump into each other. Needless to say, we stopped the attempt at holding hands: our strides could not align unless I adopted an unhealthy one to match his injury.

We know there is misalignment in our world; everywhere we look, we see pain.

Where, today, is there misalignment in the Body of Christ? Where is the Body exhibiting a limp? What misalignment in an ankle is sending a cascade of disorder through the whole?

Each tradition must answer for itself; across the Body of Christ around the world, there are places of solid health and wholeness, and there are places of systemic dysfunction and injury. Places where limps were being concealed have been revealed in spectacular dismay, like a runner whose hamstring snaps in front of millions.

Christians believe that we cannot fix our misalignment ourselves, as much as we humans like to try to grit our teeth and force a bulging shoulder back into socket. We believe that rightly ordered love only results from God first loving us and making the heart of the Trinity known to us through Christ, the Word Made Flesh. We believe that the power of the Holy Spirit aligns our unstable hearts that are “bent toward sinning” – “prone to wander, Lord I feel it – prone to leave the God I love.” We believe that in Christ, we find the great aligner, who can reset what is out of joint in our lives, in our world, in our universe. There is pain in the reset, but peace in our steps as we look forward to a day when entropy – decline into disorder – is halted, and sound wholeness prevails.

“But, speaking the truth in love, may [we] grow up in all things into him who is the head—Christ—  from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God…”

Gently, the Apostle Paul says, disentangle yourselves from a stride which causes you to limp. The Body of Christ is not meant to adopt misalignment or to be a means of dysfunction in a world of entropy: rather, it is meant to grow up in all things into Christ, by whom the whole body causes growth when joined and knit together by what every joint supplies.

Christ, in your mercy, fix our misalignment; Christ, in your mercy, fix our misalignment, order our loves by centering our hearts on you, and relieve our pain.

Featured image: Sketch of a Foot, Vincent van Gogh

Michelle Bauer ~ Receiving the Mercy of Jesus Christ

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”   –   The Jesus Prayer

The Jesus Prayer has been prayed around the world in various forms since the early sixth century.  One way to pray this prayer is to repeat, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” on the inhalation of each breath followed by, “have mercy on me, a sinner” on the exhalation.  The repetition of this prayer resets our perspective. We are not the self-made go-getters we pose as. We are sinners in need of God’s mercy.

Whether we know it or not, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, we are all dependent on God’s mercy. God’s mercy is a gift and  we have a responsibility to offer this gift of mercy to others. When mercy is freely offered to those around us we bring God’s Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven.

Consider Ephesians 2:1-5: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.”

God’s gift of grace allows us to rest. We do not earn; we receive. What would you like to rest from today? Sometimes it is easy to forget that we are in need of mercy.

Many great transitions in the Bible are marked by the word “but”. God breaks all the rules of cause and effect. “But because of his great love for us…”  Paul describes God as being “rich in mercy.” How is this good news? How is this God the same or different from how you have been taught about God?

In God’s rich mercy, you have been made alive! What parts of you feel alive? What parts still feel dead? Spend some time today talking to God about these areas. Ask God to help you always to be open to his mercy.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Is Sin Necessary to Know Jesus? Why It Matters

“Jesus has a body but the Father and Spirit do not. Discuss.”

One of my acquaintances posted this on social networking recently, provoking a number of responses. One person wondered if Christ had always had physical form. The discussion spun and doubled back, spiraled and swung.

And, as it happens, it matters.

Frequently theology – especially Trinitarian theology – is perceived in a way that frustrated NASA employees would recognize. It’s great that you made it to the moon, we say, but what have you done since? Wouldn’t all that money allotted in the federal budget better be spent helping people here on earth?

So classic theological considerations get shoved aside, weighty, meaningful questions reduced to the familiar old level of, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Those esoteric questions are very nice, but we face pragmatic, utilitarian urgency. Our times are too desperate to waste time discussing things no one can really know anyway, so we should stop discussing and just show up at the food pantry instead. That’s something that we know matters.

The problems, of course, are quickly uncovered. Many valuable discoveries that help human flourishing have been made by astronauts performing experiments on the space station. And theology matters: it shapes how we do what we do, and more particularly, why.

Jesus has a body but the Father and Spirit do not. Discuss.

So consider my friend’s question: it’s a great example. We affirm belief in the Triune nature of God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit, who create, redeem, sustain.

And as first-year theology students can tell you, contra Arius, there was never a time when He (the second person of the Trinity) was not. (Arius suggested that the Son was a created being.)

But to suggest pre-Incarnation physicality ultimately guts the Incarnation of any meaningful…meaning. Especially if we abandon the problematic “o felix culpa” thinking (“o fortunate crime,” a sentiment suggesting the blessed state of sin, because it allows us to know Christ as redeemer), we have to assume that the Incarnation was not necessary to the identity of God.

Think of that: without fallen, broken humanity, how would we have known the second person of the Trinity? As the Word. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. By him all things were made. Truly Wesleyan thinking that allows for abundant free will ought to consider the possibility that the second person of the Trinity could have been known in a way other than the cross. Brokenness led to our understanding of the second person of the Trinity as sacrificial lamb.

The distinction between economic and imminent Trinity may be helpful here – that is, the internal Trinitarian life and the life of the Trinity as engaged and known in creation. The Word Made Flesh in John 1 is subsequent to the Word-through-whom-all things-were-made. Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnation of the Word-Through-Whom-All-Things-Were-Made.

Jesus Christ, Word Made Flesh, still did exactly what In-the-Beginning-Was-the-Word-did – creating new reality, bringing new life. Which makes sense when you recall the Bible verse, “See, I am making all things new.”

It’s dangerous to ground our whole understanding of the second person of the Trinity in a scenario in which the only way we know him truly depends on human sin, as if fallenness is necessary in order to know the Word. Because of fallenness, we know the Word as Jesus Christ, the Word Made Flesh. But to suggest the only possible universe in which we could truly know God is one that has the crucifixion means that God in some way ordained human sinfulness so that we could know him.

There is a train of thought that would diverge here with my musing: as pointed out in the excellent article, “Seven Reasons for the Incarnation Besides the Fall,” the medieval theologian John Duns Scotus posited,

“I say, therefore, that the fall was not the cause of the predestination of Christ, and that—even if no one had fallen, not angels or man—in this hypothesis Christ would still have been predestined in the same way.” As Pope Benedict has explained, this belief arises from Duns Scotus’ conviction that the Incarnation was “the greatest and most beautiful” of God’s works and is not “conditioned by any contingent facts.” Instead, for Duns Scotus, God had always planned to “unite the whole of creation with himself in the person and flesh of the Son.”

And indeed there is beauty in the consideration that the Word might always have become flesh, whatever choices humanity made – though the Word Made Flesh in a whole, unfractured world would look astonishingly different than the Word Made Flesh in a cracked and broken universe.

Whether or not you affirm the notion that the Incarnation would happen in every possible universe, the rubber meets the road here: “to suggest the only possible universe in which we could truly know God is one that has the crucifixion means that God in some way ordained human sinfulness so that we could know him.”

And this is why NASA funding matters and why theology matters.

What do you believe about God? Do you believe that in God’s universe, sin has been allowed, or do you believe that God ordained sin as an essential part of the universe God created?

This matters, because it is the difference between tragedy and tyranny. It is the difference between Jesus sobbing with Lazarus’ sisters at stark human suffering, and God ordaining the Holocaust, rape, and child abuse so that we could know the Word as the Word Made Flesh.

For Arminian Wesleyan Methodists, there must be a possible universe in which human fallenness does not occur, in which we know the Triune God truly and authentically, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, who speak, are spoken, and bring to life. To truly celebrate the nature of God – love – and the power of God – sovereignty – we can affirm that God would make God’s self known in every possible universe.

And that’s good news.

One could even say – Gospel.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ The Prevailing Sin of Evangelicals

In the midst of an extraordinary amount of stone-throwing and name-calling from across the political and theological spectrum, the Church in North America has shuddered and shaken from its timbered ceiling (or its artfully exposed industrial lighting) to its hallowed stone foundation (or tiled coffee house floor).

(Astute readers perhaps will have noticed the use of the capitalized word “church” but not the use of the phrase “Body of Christ.”)

The various branches of the organization of Christian faith in North America are flailing in a storm that some see as a clearing, cleansing front needed to wash away theological detritus while others see a hurricane destined to imperil and destroy life as we know it.

The shake-up, for better or worse, has caused a great deal of soul-searching and reflection – though perhaps not as much as is needed, one might think after wearily skimming the morning Facebook news feed. What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be human? How has the way in which the Church relates to prevailing culture changed in the past 30 years? What leaders to we need to pay attention to right now? Who has the answers? Will my congregation die if we don’t change what we believe?

How did we get here?

To the dismay of many, a startling realization is beginning to dawn: we thought we were strong, faithful, and following where God led. But what if we weren’t?

I know that many of my progressive friends will read the above question in a different light. “You thought you were strong, faithful, and following where God led, but you weren’t, because you refused to be fully inclusive. Now you’re realizing that and you’re reevaluating what you believe and who you are. That’s a good thing, because now you can change.”

That angle is not the one predominantly preoccupying the evangelical consciousness right now, however.

(I use “evangelical” for lack of a better word to describe theologically orthodox Christians who place a high value on the understanding of Scripture as the inspired Word of God and, out of that understanding, hold a humble but defined traditional theology of marriage and human sexuality. Personally, I think “evangelical” is largely a useless term because of the number of meanings that can be painted onto it.)

How did we get here? We thought we were strong, faithful, and following where God led. But what if we weren’t? These thoughts haunt laypeople and clergy alike who have spent years serving in the church and who now survey their surroundings in shocked disbelief. The sweeping changes in society over an extremely short time in the scope of historical context – a few decades, half a century at most – have left a reverberating tremor of shellshock.

No matter how many “statements” are issued from denominational spokespersons, individual clergy, and faith-based organizations, there seems to have been little direction, discernment or comfort gleaned from what many feel are either empty platitudes or hopeless, feeble claims of continued perseverance in the practice of the faith. This is understandable in part: there’s a great deal in flux in North American culture, in key denominations and in many pews. But behind a great deal of conversation lurk the questions above. We thought we were strong, faithful, and following where God led. But what if we weren’t?

It is time for the Church in North America to repent – but of what?

We must ask ourselves, “what made us think we were strong, faithful, and following where God led?” Were we confident we were being faithful because we could afford a new building? Were we assured we were strong because attendance grew and we implemented the leadership trends du jour? Were we assured we were following where God led because we practiced relevance and offered a traditional and contemporary worship service?

None of these are the fruits of the Spirit.

We should’ve recognized the symptoms – pastoral scandals brushed over and shrugged off, millions of budgetary dollars spent on state-of-the-art buildings while the missions and outreach dollars stayed steady or shrank, congregations of predominantly one race or socioeconomic status staying of predominantly one race or socioeconomic status. None of this characterizes the Spirit-filled Body of Christ. 

It did, however, characterize the Church.

What if the prevailing sin of evangelicals in the past 30 years was the same as the prevailing sin of progressives today – the cult of the individual? Protestants have this struggle wrapped tightly throughout our Reformer DNA. It was extraordinary, a gift of grace that individual people could read Scripture in their own language. It was extraordinary, the idea that the individual can reach out in response to God on her or his own because of the priesthood of all believers. It was extraordinary.  It also had a deadly-sharp edge, as all Truth does – for individualism, run rampant, becomes as much of an idol as a statue of a saint or a gilded icon does to uneducated peasants.

If there is a prevailing sin of evangelicalism, might it be the cult of the individual? Take, for instance, the far-right fundamentalist trope – “God says it, I believe it, that settles it” – and place it alongside what could easily be the far-left progressive credo – “I feel it, I believe it, that settles it.” Both hinge on the individual. And while we have inherited a robust faith that celebrates the one – the one up in the tree, the one lost or left behind, the one who came back, thankful – it is not a faith that relies on the individual. Far from it.

The Christian faith springs from belief in the Trinity, first and foremost – Father, Son, Holy Spirit (not suggesting that God is gendered, but that God is persons, that God is relationship – that God is love…). Unlike our Muslim and Jewish friends, we do not claim God is one without also claiming God is three. And of the Threeness of God, we believe that the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, Word-Made-Flesh, Emmanuel-God-With-Us, has called us to be his Body on earth empowered by the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

There is no such thing as a solitary God in Christianity, this Three-In-One “I AM,” and there is no such thing as a solitary Christian.

Yet for decades, evangelicalism swooned into a vast approach not unlike marketing rather than evangelism – and make no mistake, the two are different. For one thing, marketing targets consumers, not believers. And when you market, you see demographics made up of individuals. The North American Church began attempting to market the faith to what it perceived as “swing voters” – every young new emerging generation, seen as the trendsetters that predict the future.

“Now hold on a just minute,” pastors counter, having spent thousands on demographic research, relocation trend watches and seminars on relevance. But I counter that a small but important tell-tale sign that North American evangelicalism got too self-centered is the fascinating migration of Protestants to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. I have begun to lose count of the number of friends from college and seminary – not counting friends of friends – who now have icons in their living rooms, rosaries next to their beds, and a surprising but joyful number of children springing up.

Fed up with the elevation of the individual, this minor but very significant trend reveals people from their 20’s to their 50’s deliberately seeking out traditions that emphasize a great many practices and doctrines before the individual comes into play. Eastern Orthodox followers spend seasons fasting together, feasting together, venerating together. Roman Catholics turn to a higher authority than the individual in the pew, looking to time-worn dogma, to a faith community of extraordinary countercultural fellowship. Both traditions practice exclusivity, interestingly enough, something that occasionally offends unwitting Protestants expecting to “take communion” like everyone else. Yes, both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have strong traditions of mysticism – something experienced by the individual. In the main, however, you do not have the tail wagging the dog.

Before we repent, then, for what “those people” are doing (“thank you, Lord, that I am not like that person over there…”), fearing that they will bring about the Apocalypse during our lifetime or our children or grandchildren’s lifetimes, Church, we must repent for being an organization of Christian faith but not the Body of Christ. We need to face that we have made an idol out of self, a god of the individual. It is not about us. It is about Jesus Christ – and him crucified…

We have shaped the Church in our own image, so that it is a safe, suburban place to be, with mall lotion in the ladies’ room and shrubbery trimmed to perfection. We have shaped the Church in our own image, so that we worship only in ways that will attract people we want to be seen with. We have shaped the Church in our own image, so that “benign” segregation is practiced while we allow cultural differences to trump unity in Christ. We have shaped the Church in our own image, so that it is something that will appeal to our grandkids or our yoga friends or our IT colleagues, though hopefully not the foreclosed-upon, the elderly poor, or the bi-racial kids of a single woman missing several teeth driving a broken-down car.

If we attempt to address theological challenges with answers that rely on the individual, we return immediately to where we started.

We thought we were strong, faithful, and following where God led. But what if we weren’t?

“It’s not as I would have it,” said Rev. Richard Coles, priest in the Church of England, gay, living celibately with his civil partner, on the doctrine of the Church of England. “But then – it’s not about me…”

What a splash of cold water in the face. It’s not about me. When’s the last time you heard an activist, commentator, pastor or church member say that? (And that’s what was so stunning about the shooting victims’ families confronting Dylann Roof, after all: “I forgive you” is a profound wail of pain combined with the acknowledgement that it’s not about me. “Accept Jesus Christ.”)

I’m not sure what to think about this community worship our pastor set up with a neighboring Black church. I want the other church to know I like them, but I don’t know how they perceive me and I don’t know the songs they seem to love.

It’s not about me.

Is my ministry making any difference? Are my family’s sacrifices worth it? If we build a new $7.5 million worship center, that will be something I can look to for affirmation that something I’ve done is of value, that something will outlast me.

It’s not about me.

I don’t want my friends to think I’m ignorant, predictable or gullible because of my traditional theology of human sexuality.

It’s not about me.

I don’t want my friends to think I’m ignorant, predictable or gullible because I feel called to volunteer and serve with AIDS ministries.

It’s not about me.

If there is anything that God is calling us to face, it might just be the reality that there has been a stark difference between the organized Church and the living, Spirit-filled Body of Christ.

I am crucified with Christ, therefore I no longer live.

If there is anything that God is calling us to celebrate, it is that we are not alone – we are not individuals squabbling over foyer paint color – we are called to live and breathe the fellowship of the saints, the suffering of our Lord, the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the community-generating creative motion of the Father.

We confess we have not loved you with our whole hearts. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

Tom Fuerst ~ I’m Not a Worthless Sinner

Sometimes I hear Christians say the oddest things. And, no, I’m not just talking about odd Christians who predictably say odd things. I’m talking about the normal, seemingly pious things that come out of normal, reasonable, devout Christian mouths. And these things remind me of the great task before me as a pastor.

Every so often I hear well-intended, good Christian people say things like, “We’ll, I’m just a worthless sinner begging for grace.” I hear things like, “the closer I get to Christ, I see how disgusting I am and how great he is.”

I understand these sentiments. I even used phraseology like this for a long time. At one point in my Christian life I wholeheartedly agreed with that old hymn “At the Cross,” which says “Alas! And did my Savior bleed, and did my sov’reign die? Would he devote that sacred head, for such a worm as I?”

But now I can’t stand such…such…worm theology.

Worm Theology is probably a good moniker for such belief. It imprisons humanity in this notion that our sin has made us worthless. It fetters us to the falsity that the evil within us has so completely broken us that we literally have no value.

It sounds pious. It sounds like a good understanding of the holy character of God lies behind it. It sounds like something Christians should say. But is this at all what the scriptures teach? Or is this just a leftover from the shame-laden sermons we heard in our youth?

When I look at the text of scripture, I see a God who saves us, not because we are worthless, but because we are of infinite worth. We were worth the price of God’s only Son. How much more could God give to communicate our value?

The closer we get to Jesus the more we’re supposed to see how much we are loved. The cross is not meant to shame us into feelings of worthlessness; the cross is meant to show us the fact of our worth.

In fact, the cross may even be a call to stop thinking about ourselves altogether. The more enamored we are with Jesus the less we will obsess over our sin or even our righteousness. Yes, of course, I sin. I do bad things. I wreak occasional havoc on my family, friends, church, and society. But my primary identity is not in those things. My primary identity is that I’m a child of God, one for whom Christ died, and someone God is putting back together again little by little.

God didn’t make trash. He doesn’t redeem trash. He doesn’t tell us that we’re trash. He doesn’t want us to think we’re trash. We’re royalty in the family of the King of kings. Stop swimming in the pig dung and realize that your Father has placed a ring on your finger and a royal robe on your back. He welcomed you home as a long-lost loved one. It’s time to ignore the angry dying rants of Christendom preachers who thought they had to devalue humanity in order to lift up God in the world. It’s time to forget the voices of shame imposed by people who deem themselves prophets. It’s time to disregard the death-bringing denouncements of the worm-theologies of your youth. I am a sinner. But I am not a worthless sinner. The cross of Jesus means that God thought we were worth the price of redemption. We are no longer defined by our worst moments, but by his greatest moment.

Read more from Tom Fuerst at www.tom1st.com

Maxie Dunnam ~ Confession

Confession is an essential spiritual discipline. The primary need for confession is simple: that we might experience forgiveness. The witness of scripture is that a dominant desire in God’s heart is the desire to forgive.

Psalms are prayers. The Book of Psalms is, in fact, the prayer book of our Hebrew religious heritage. Many of the Psalms are specifically prayers of confession; and most of them have a dimension of confession within them.

Will you take a moment to pray with me some words from Psalm 19?

Eternal God, in your presence we seek to be mindful of who we are. “But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. Keep your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:12-14).

Another psalm, Psalm 51, is one of the most familiar in scripture. Likewise, it is one of the most familiar prayers. Read Psalm 51:1-12 here.

In this psalm, King David’s prayer, we can see that he must have known about God’s desire to forgive. This psalm is a powerful witness of the awareness of sin and the need for forgiveness. King David, “a man after God’s own heart,” according to scripture, gave in to his lust and used his power to commit rape and adultery with Bathsheba and then to send her husband into battle so that he might be killed. His sins find him out and he can’t live with his sinful self. He cries out to God in contrite confession and desire for forgiveness.

It is clear not only in the Old Testament but also in the New Testament that a dominant desire of God’s heart is to forgive. The story of the woman caught in the act of adultery is a vivid witness. Read John 8:1-11 here.

When the accusing men bring the woman to Jesus, it puts Jesus in a “no-win” dilemma. If he elects to show mercy on the woman and free her, he clearly will be disobeying Jewish law; if he condemns her or does not intervene in preventing condemnation, he will be going against everything he has taught about compassion and forgiveness.

The problem is clear: sin and the need for forgiveness. Jesus expands the focus. He does not deal only with the sin of the woman; he forces the accusers to look at themselves. In both instances – the woman and her accusers – confession and forgiveness is Jesus’ aim. Look closely at Jesus’ action.

The accusers make their charge, but they are not prepared for Jesus’ response. They must have been speechless, immobilized by Jesus’ offer, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).

Jesus then bends over to write in the sand. Was he allowing the people some relief from their own engagement with him in order that they might deal with their own consciences? Or did he write something that probed even more deeply and burned more searingly upon their calloused hearts? Whatever it was, when he arose no one was present to condemn the woman, and Jesus announced to her his forgiveness and call to a new life.

In her book Learning to Forgive, Doris Donnelly offers a perceptive commentary on this action of Jesus. She says that he binds “the accusers to their sins to render them capable of repentance. On the other hand, he offers to free the accused woman from the weight of her shame and guilt by forgiving her sin” (p.114).

See how that confirms the witness of scripture: God’s dominant desire to forgive. For the woman and for the accusers, Jesus was offering an opportunity for confession and forgiveness. We could add witness after witness from scripture.

Confession as Response

Beginning at the point of our believing that it is God’s desire to forgive, confession becomes not a morbid discipline, not a dark groveling in the mud and mire of life, not a fearful response to a wrathful, angry God who is out to get us if we don’t shape up. Rather, confession becomes an act of anticipation, a response to the unconditional call of God’s love: the promise that “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

“The blood of Jesus…cleanses us”: here we come to the meaning of the cross. Our redemption by Jesus on the cross is a great mystery hidden in the heart of God. To try to reduce it to a formula or penalties or priests and sacrifices of appeasement is to try to bring it down to a human level and always to miss a measure of its power.

It is necessary to note two truths in the way the cross is related to confession and forgiveness. One, the cross is the expression of God’s great desire to forgive. Not anger but love brought Jesus to the cross. Two, without the cross and the forgiveness that is the core of its meaning, confession is merely psychologically therapeutic.


One of the greatest barriers to personal wholeness and spiritual growth and maturity is our unawareness of, or unconsciousness of, our sin and guilt. John states the case clearly:

If we claim to be sinless, we are self-deceived and strangers to the truth. If we confess our sins, he is Just, and may be trusted to forgive our sins and cleanse us from every kind of wrong; but if we say we have committed no sin, we make him out to be a liar, and then his word has no place in us. (1 John 1:8-10, NEB)

Self-examination and confession go together as one discipline. One of the primary purposes of this discipline is to keep us aware of our true condition. We are masters of the art of self-deceit. Or in another angle of perception, in many instances others see us better than we see ourselves.

What happens is rather clear. We know that there is a tension between good and evil within us, but we are fearful of dealing with that tension. We suppress our feelings. We begin to suppress the conflicts between our warring passions. When a sinful lust or desire emerges we push it under the rug of our consciousness. We do this so much that we lose track of the truth and to some degree numb ourselves to the conflict.

Behind our fear of dealing with the tension between good and evil within us is the false notion that to admit sin is to admit weakness and failure, to risk being accepted by others and even by God. I can understand how that may be so in relation to others. But just how this has come about in relation to God is a mystery. The heart of the gospel is the graceful forgiveness of a loving God. And, in fact, the essential for forgiveness and healing is confession. “If we confess our sins, he [Jesus Christ] is just, and may be trusted to forgive our sins and cleanse us from every kind of wrong” (1 John 1:9, NEB).

Naming the Demon

Look now at confession as a process of naming the demon. When we examine ourselves and confess, we need to be explicit and name our failure, our sin, our problem, our guilt, our pain, our broken relationship, our poisoned attitude, our rampant passion – name these specifically. There is healing and redemptive power inherent in the naming process. Rollo May, in his “Love and Will,” has written clearly and helpfully about this dynamic:

In the naming of the demonic, there is an obvious and interesting parallel to the power of naming in contemporary medical and psychological therapy. At some time, everyone must have been aware of how relieved he was when he went to the doctor with a troublesome illness and the doctor pronounced a name for it.

May goes on to share his personal confession:

Some years ago, after weeks of undetermined illness, I heard from a specialist that my sickness was tuberculosis. I was, I recall, distinctly relieved, even though I was fully aware that this meant, in those days, that medicine could do nothing to cure the disease. A number of explanations will leap to the reader’s mind. He will accuse me of being glad to be relieved from responsibility; that any patient is reassured when he has the authority of the doctor to which he can give himself up; and the naming of the disorder takes away the mystery of it. But these explanations are surely too simple…

Not that the rational information about the disease is unimportant; but the rational data given to me added up to something more significant than the information itself. It becomes, for me, a symbol of a change to a new way of life. The names are symbols of a certain attitude I must take toward this demonic situation of illness; the disorder expresses a myth (a total pattern of life), which communicates to me a way in which I must now orient and order my life. This is so whether it is for two weeks with a cold or twelve years with tuberculosis; the quantity of time is not the point. It is the quality of life. (pp. 172-73)

Until we “name the demon,” identify, clarify, and willingly state clearly our concern and confession, our confession will not be complete and will not have full healing and forgiving power.

Take a few minutes to reflect on this principle of “naming the demon.” Can you give a name (write it down) to something in your life that you feel guilty or shameful about, something you know is wrong, a destructive relationship or habit – something you have never specifically acknowledged?

Remember what we affirmed earlier: the cross is the expression of God’s great desire to forgive, and without the cross, confession is only psychologically therapeutic. There is positive value of confession simply at the level of psychological therapy, but our focus is greater than that. Confession is discipline for spiritual growth.

When we practice confession, with the love of God expressed in the cross as the dynamic invitation to which we are responding, our relationship to God changes. We do not remain separated, estranged, under judgment; we are accepted. This is an objective change in our relationship to God. There is also a subjective change, a change in us. We are no longer paralyzed with guilt. We no longer feel mean or ugly or dirty or powerless or sick of heart and mind. We are healed. We experience an inner transformation.


For Further Study:

  • Learning to Forgive, Doris Donnelly, New York: Macmillan, 1979
  • Love and Will, Rollo May, New York: Norton, 1969

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Stolen: How Much Do You Own?

How much do you own?

If you’re well-established (in whatever cultural context you find yourself), you likely have a general idea of your net worth: the sum total of assets in your possession. If you’re a Sophomore in college, you’d likely have to tally for a while: student debt vs. the worth of a ten-year-old Buick and a dorm room full of discount duvets and electronics a few generations old. And when it comes to the big picture of life, how much do you own?

The philosophical context of your ambient culture likely forms your ideas on this: can anyone own land? As The Gods Must Be Crazy portrayed, can anyone own individual possessions?

Ownership is a fascinating concept, if a regularly disputed one in court.

And it’s a concept that has weighed heavily on my mind ever since my personal dwelling was broken into recently (yes, we had an alarm system installed – after the fact…). Because after the initial pit in your stomach lessens, after you realize that a stranger has seen your child’s bedroom, after you burn with outrage or disgust when you discover someone has rifled through your refrigerator, your brain slowly cranks back into action.

Do you remember the first time you stole? I do.

I was a child and my grandmother had a beautiful key, an old-fashioned key, a key with curves that reflected the light from her lace-curtained window and I loved her but I wanted it.

I asked. She said no. She might need it to unlock the beautiful antique cabinet.

We were getting ready to leave in the winter chill and the front room was empty from the bustle of loading the car and my puffy lavender coat had two empty pockets. The key came home with me – unknown to anyone. It was my secret. I felt proud of my daring last-minute heist. And then it began to burn and wouldn’t stop burning – not my clammy fingers, or my polyester-lined pocket, but deep in my mind.

And after our trip home, as I felt it down in my winter coat pocket while we walked into a local store, a cold clink rang across the floor. I had dropped it. My mother heard and turned. She picked it up and gave it to an employee while I stood mute while they talked about where it might possibly have come from.

Disaster had fallen.

Eventually, after staring at a paperback that stared up at me from a household end table (with cover art featuring – yes, really – an antique key), I broke down crying, confessing my breach of One Of The Actual Commandments, feeling horror in my chest as Mom said gently that we needed to call Grandma and that I would have to tell her what happened.

Do you remember the first time you stole?

It’s not likely we’ll ever get back the things that were taken – especially those intangibles like “peace of mind.” And it’s the intangibles that really stir ire. Things are just things (maddening at first, yes, but in the end moths and rust doth corrupt and thieves break in and…well, apparently, they steal).

But what I can’t get back is the blissful pre-break-in peace of never having had my home violated. There are many clichés about lost innocence, like before and after the assassination of JFK, or before and after 9/11.

Are those instances just a bite-sized serving of the tragedy of Paradise Lost? Theologians – with greater and lesser success, perhaps – have analyzed the fall of Adam and Eve ad infinitum. Pride, they say, drove the great sin that shattered paradise. Or woman’s frailty (thankfully that theory has fallen out of grace, itself). Or disbelief and lack of faith that God had their best interest at heart.

There’s a simple truth, however, that the average preschooler is capable of comprehending: Eve and Adam both took something that didn’t belong to them. As simple as that. They behaved as if they were lord of the manner (so to speak), deserving everything there, entitled, even.

What a different attitude than the beautiful old priest in Les Miserábles who (portrayed so well in the 1998 film version) confronts the story’s infamous thief with generosity when he demands to know why the thief didn’t take other items – since he could have had them too. And he pushes his treasures into the thief’s hands, forcing him to receive them, and after the baffled policeman leaves, states that now he has purchased the thief’s life – redeemed it, in fact…

And the thief, hanging next to Jesus as they slowly die in front of strangers, hears the words, “today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

It’s been years since I stole the curved, shiny antique key of such beauty.

I probably have stolen much more recently than that.

Stolen a moment of someone else’s praise by upstaging them.

Stolen someone’s joy by complaining about something trivial.

Stolen moments from my Maker by insisting that my leisure trumped time in prayer.

Holy God, this whole world is your gift, and we do not own any of it.
We are not entitled to it. We can only receive it with gratitude and humility, and give it away again freely and without regret.
Help us to realize we don’t need to try to take what is given to us in love.
And Lord – have mercy on us thieves…