“Sin”–A Four-Letter Word?

“I don’t drink and I don’t chew, and I don’t go out with girls that do.” A ditty that my father repeated jokingly, it presents sin as bad things an individual does and implies there is a catalogue of such sins. Furthermore, if you do them you are bad, and if you don’t do them, you are good. Such a view quickly escalates into the assumption that certain people are bad, especially certain kinds of people. And it sets the stage for debilitating shame and guilt, or unjust self-righteousness.

The true meaning of sin is missing the mark, being turned away from God’s ways rather than cooperating with God’s order and justice—a stance of a community or corporate body as much as of an individual. To sin is not to be a bad person; to sin is not about being unlovable or unloved by God. To sin is to be out of the flow of what is life-giving. Sin is a force within us and beyond us. Turning to God in repentance and surrender saps its power.

I heard an auto mechanic talk about the expense of medical insurance for his family under the Affordable Care Act. He said he had to have the insurance because of his wife’s many health issues. In order to solve his problem, he joked, “I could divorce her.” Then he added more seriously, “but that wouldn’t be a God-thing.” I wonder if the notion of sin is more of a deterrent to hurtful choices than thinking of some behavior as simply wrong or bad.

What if we regarded sin not as a code of wrong behaviors but as those ways that create in us a lack of compassion, that let us take care of me to the neglect and harm of others; those ways that put us individually and collectively out of the Garden of Eden, that push away the kingdom of God where there is peace and wellbeing for all? Might using the word sin to name such ways make an even more powerful statement of the damage they do and encourage us to repent?

Queries:

What have you been taught about sin, and how has that been helpful or hurtful? If hurtful, is there a way that word could be reclaimed and serve a positive function?

How does sin operate to divide us and to diminish our compassion?

Prayer:

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” Pray the Lord’s Prayer; perhaps you will want to put it in your own words.

For further reflection:

“I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . .” (See Romans 7: 14-25a).

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

Light

I love the light of winter where I live. The stars on a cold night glow with extra brilliance in the clear, dark sky.

After several cloudy days, the weather began to change in late afternoon. I went for a walk around the neighborhood at sunset. The departing light sent rays of beautiful yellow and gold onto a sky of blush pink with a hint of the blue that had been missing all day. Such beauty after a dull, gray day.

The next morning I woke in the dark but, by the time I looked out the window, the light was just beginning. The dark is no longer dark, even though I can’t see sunlight. There is a brightness at the horizon, moving into the darkness, creating colors I can’t describe. I hold my breath in awe.   Only a fleeting moment and they are gone as the light of day begins.

The darkness of night or the drabness of gray days seems to attune my eyes and my heart to receive the gifts of light on a clear or clearing day. I wonder if we need to be aware of darkness in our lives or in our world in order to notice the light and be moved by it.

Queries:

Where have you experienced light shining out of darkness?

What brings you awe?

Prayer:

Looking back over the past 24 hours or week or year, see where you have experienced the light shining. Give thanks for those gifts.

For further reflection:

“Praise the Lord! … Praise him, sun and moon; praise him all you shining stars!” (See Psalm 148.)

“In the beginning . . . the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep….And God said, ‘Let there be light’ . . . (See Genesis 1: 1-4).

Daily Prayer

It matters to me to have time for prayer daily. I recommend the practice to you. The prayer can take many forms and when and how it happens can vary as individual circumstances vary.

I particularly like morning prayer—since I am most likely to take the time because it happens before much else does. It also means that I start my day remembering that all is in God, maybe remembering to walk with Jesus. I practice Centering Prayer. Some people may want simply a time of stillness or a brief period of meditation, or even just a morning ritual stretch—maybe a reaching up “Good morning, God” and a bowing “Thank you for this day.” Or maybe a daily time of intercessory prayer on the commute to work, with a planned different category of persons or things to pray for and about each day.

The morning prayer could also be a devotional reading. There are plenty of books, monthly guides, and websites that can direct your content—readings from C.S. Lewis, Richard Rohr, Joan Chittister, poetry selections; Sacred Space; denominational guides such as Give Us This Day or Moravian Daily Texts. Sharing this time is especially sweet—with a person who shares your living space or by having a partner at a distance who is reading the same thing (or just praying at the same time). Bible reading can provide rich food—reading one Psalm a day or one each day for a week, praying slowly through a gospel one small passage at a time, or following a daily lectionary.

Evening prayer—remembering the day and noticing the gifts and learnings in the day, embodied prayer like praying the rosary, or simply taking time to commune with God—is just as valuable.

I find such prayer is like doing a jigsaw puzzle. When I start a new puzzle and the pieces are dumped chaotically out on the table, I like to find the edge pieces and put them together, forming a frame that begins to suggest some order for all the other pieces. A daily time of prayer creates a frame around all my day.

Queries:

What resistance do you have to drawing inward in prayer, stillness, or meditation, and especially to a daily practice of it?

What name do you use for that One who brings life– God, Higher Power, Jesus, Mary, Light, Love, Inward Teacher—and what does that name mean to you?

Prayer:

See suggestions above.

For further reflection:

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (see Mark 1:32-35).

“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight” (see Philippians 1: 3-11).

The Bible

I don’t want to read the Bible as a book of rules, or of science or history as we now understand those disciplines. I want to read it because it is a book of Life and a book about Love.

I cherish the Bible because it makes me part of a much larger story—not confined to my family heritage, to this culture, this country, or this time. Having heard, read, studied, and prayed the Bible for years, it is part of me and I am part of its story. It guides, comforts, teaches, and challenges me and keeps my life from being just about me. It reminds me that I am loved always and forever. It gives meaning and purpose.  A Vietnam veteran told my husband’s history class that he got through his service in the war by reading a pocket New Testament that he carried.

The Bible is a book for those who are open to faith. Well-educated intellectuals (“the wise”) may read it and scoff while those who have had less privilege (“little children”) understand it well and find comfort and hope. It makes me think outside my box. For example, in a world that sets up so many boundaries and divisions, I read “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28).

Admittedly I can also read passages that upset or mystify me. Sometimes I dig deeper and search for a way to make sense of the passage. Sometimes I let those go for a time. There may be another context when those passages will open up for me. I once read a single Psalm daily for a week. Almost every day something different in the Psalm caught my attention and spoke to me.

I don’t know what the key is that unlocks the Bible’s treasures for someone. But if one does want to be opened to the Bible, I feel sure a way will be provided.

Queries:

Why do you read, or not read, the Bible?

How has the Bible impacted you, or how could you be open to what it has to offer?

Prayer:

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119: 105).

For further reflection:

About scripture St. Augustine writes: “What you do not understand, treat with reverence and be patient, and what you do understand, cherish and keep.” See St. Augustine, Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany, trans. Thomas Comerford Lawler (NY: Newman Press, 1952), 70.

“I don’t read Scripture to learn doctrine. I don’t read it to find answers to every question. I read it to find God.” Carole Spencer, 1999, quoted in Catherine Whitmire, Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2001), 118.