Monday, July 20, 2020

The Hope We Need Right Now

'Brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh-- for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.'
--Romans 8: 12-25

One of my wife Kristen's and my favorite tv shows is Supergirl.  Of all the entertainment casualties of the pandemic, losing the final episodes of this past season of Supergirl has really bummed us out because it was doing some great things.  The show is smart, witty, faithful to the spirit of its comic book origins, and very intentional with how it deals with contemporary issues.  

Supergirl, like her cousin Superman, hails from the planet Krypton and wears a red and blue uniform with a curvy ‘S’ emblazoned on the chest.  But on Krypton it’s not an ‘S’ but the seal of the House of El, Supergirl and Superman’s family crest.  It’s a symbol that, in the Kryptonian language, means ‘hope.’  Perhaps that is what makes the tv show so good, that despite all of the challenges she faces—both of the alien kind and the human kind—Supergirl always maintains hope, both in people and in the promise of a better tomorrow.  We both said that this is the show we need right now because it offers hope while not ignoring very real challenges that we face today.  And we both highly recommend it.

Melissa Benoist as Supergirl in the CW television series.

Our reading this week from Paul’s Letter to the Romans deals a lot with hope.  We might, at first glance, treat the kind of hope spoken of by Paul or Jesus as some kind of lofty promise that compels us to ignore the sufferings around us.  To be sure, I’ve known my fair share of Christians who look at suffering—either their own or the collective suffering of the world—and say, ‘Well, none of this matters anyway because my hope is in heaven, not here!’  That kind of hope CAN give us something to look forward to, but it does nothing to actually help us face the challenges of our present time.  The hope Paul gives to the Church in Rome is definitely not this kind of hope.  Rather, it's more like the hope that Supergirl gives, hope in something greater without dismissing the sufferings of the present.

Instead of offering some sort of pollyannic escape, Paul acknowledges the reality of suffering, and the pain of that suffering is expressed in groans—labor pains, Paul calls them, pains felt by the whole of creation.  Hope, then, for Paul, is born out of the disconnect between what is and what should be.  The agony of what is does not get denied, but instead is acknowledged, experienced, and lived through.     

Right now it can be said that the whole of creation has been groaning in labor pains for the better part of this calendar year.  COVID-19 came onto the scene, and creation groaned and cried out to all of us to stop what we were doing.  Humanity, meanwhile, has been doing our own groaning, some over being unable to work, some over having to stay stuck in their homes, some over being sick, and some over watching people die.  Meanwhile, all we have is time to sit and watch social media and cable news, and from this space an old, old groan has been heard once again, calling for justice for all of God’s people, and these groans, which were often drowned out prior to COVID, have joined together in chorus with all of the other cries coming from people and coming from creation itself.  These are all labor pains, I believe, and there is, there must be, something on the other side.  This moment right now that we find ourselves in is the moment when real hope is born. 

Desmond Tutu said that hope is being able to see that there is light, despite all of the darkness.  

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Martin Luther King said we must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.  


How could these two modern prophets speak of such a hope, of something that they could not see in their days of apartheid and Jim Crow, respectively?  Perhaps because they believed Paul’s words that we are children of God. 

Being children of God does not mean that we are free of suffering—just look at Jesus! But being children of God means we do not suffer alone or needlessly; we suffer together with one another and all creation, we suffer with a God who has suffered, all the while we live in hope of a redeemed and liberated world.  This redemption and liberation has already come in Jesus, in whom, Paul says, we have seen the first fruits of the Spirit—Jesus’ love, forgiveness, welcome, and grace.  Jesus has already won, already shown us what the fruits of the Spirit look like, but the creation still groans, and there is still hope that needs to be cultivated, still fruits to be yielded.  Yes, it’s the hope for the kingdom to come, but like Archbishop Tutu and Dr. King, it’s also a hope that allows us to look at the way things have been, the way things are, and say, “No!  This is not the way things should be!”  This is the very hope that Jesus gave, the good news he preached to those who were poor in spirit.  It’s the kind of hope that gets cultivated when we remember that we, too, are children of God, and if children, then heirs of the promise of glory that has both already come in Jesus and is still to come.

I believe that glory is on the other side of this suffering, and I take to heart Paul’s words to a suffering community in Rome and lean on them as good news for our country and our world right now.  The sufferings of the present time cannot compare with the glory about to be revealed, I do believe that.  However, we cannot think that the glory somehow erases the suffering or justifies it.  The resurrection did not erase or justify the cruel, cruel injustice of the crucifixion.  We hope for light at the end of this darkness, but we must not succumb to the false gospel that the suffering we have endured is good for us.  
Our prayer right now is to lean on the hope God gives us, so that we may have strength and courage to endure what we are experiencing now and work for a better and brighter tomorrow, one in which we have learned from the sufferings of our past, so that we may not repeat them.  This is the kind of hope that both keeps us from fully falling into despair while also staying away from any kind of apathetic acceptance of the pain we have endured. 

The poet Emily Dickinson wrote that hope is the thing with feathers; that perches in the soul; and sings the tune without the words; and never stops at all.  That sounds a lot like the Holy Spirit to me, perching in our souls, singing without words and never, ever stopping.  The Spirit is God’s agent of hope in a world that, right now, desperately needs it. 

Emily Dickinson

Look around you and you will find hope, but it is not the pie-in-the-sky, high, high hope.  It is the kind of hope embodied by those who refuse to accept sickness, death, and injustice as a “new normal.”  This is the hope preached by the prophets of old and by modern prophets like Archbishop Tutu, Dr. King, and Congressman John Lewis, who died this weekend. This is the hope Jesus gave to the outcast and marginalized.  And this is the hope we need.  There is light in this darkness, brothers and sisters, and there is glory on the other side that will be revealed to us, to which these present sufferings won’t even compare.  Our God has already won and will win again.  And our God has called each of us a beloved child.  

Congressman John Lewis

That belovedness does not keep us from suffering, but it does free us to see that our future does not have to be a repeat of our past.  So let your groans be heard and mingle with the very labor pains of creation, and from those cries may you find the hope to meet the challenges of today and ensure a glorious tomorrow.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Missing the Mark

"I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
--Romans 7: 15-25a

If you look out the window of the oratory in our home, you will see a large target leaning up against a tree.  That is my wife Kristen’s target.  As some of you may know, my wife is a pretty darn good archer; in fact, one day, after she hadn’t shot her arrows for several weeks, she said, ‘I’m gonna go shoot,’ and she went outside, immediately shot a bullseye, and came back inside and said, ‘Well, I’m done.’

At least we know we won't starve when the apocalypse comes.

When she took up archery, though, Kristen taught me something that I had never known before.  Did you know, she asked, that the word ‘sin’ is an archery term?  As in, the thing that Jesus came to free us from?  Yes, it’s an archery term that was originated by Aristotle.  The Greek word is hamartia, which literally means ‘to miss the mark,’ as in an archer missing the target.  I must say, though, my wife rarely misses her target, so I guess that means she’s not prone to sinning…

All kidding aside, the word hamartia appears 141 times in the New Testament, and each time it gets translated as ‘sin.’  I know that some of you who read this blog have had experiences in church settings where the sermon each week is about nothing else but sin.  Perhaps you've heard sermons that sounded something like this:  Sin was brought into the world by the misdeeds of Adam, Jesus died to save us from sin, but sin continues to exist, and it is up to us to fight it by avoiding what we perceive as sinful behavior and going to church regularly.  Does that kind of message sound like some of your experiences?

But here’s the thing:  the desire to stay away from sin so fiercely is often counterproductive and can unintentionally lead us to sin.  We create lists in our heads of dos and donts, what is and is not sinful, which reduces our faith journey to just being about following a set of rules, and our relationship with God and one another ends up just being legalistic.  God then becomes a great big judge in the sky to fear, rather than a partner with us to love and who shows us how to love.  This isn’t what sin, what hamartia is about.

Of the 141 times hamartia shows up in the New Testament, a quarter of those appearances are in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul knew that avoiding sin wasn’t about just following a set of rules, but instead it had to be relational and contextual.  If it’s just about following laws, what do you do when those laws get complicated and confusing.  He says in chapter 7, verse 22 that he delights in the law of God, but he sees in his members another law that is at war with the law of his mind, making him captive to the law of sin.  That’s four sets of laws he’s talking about!  How could he possibly keep track of it all and avoid every single pitfall? He can’t.  Nobody could. 

Saint Paul, who understood that sin was relational, not legalistic.

The harder we try, the worse it gets.  Paul says he doesn’t understand his own actions, that he does what he knows he shouldn’t do, what he doesn’t even really want to do, and he doesn’t do the things that he knows he should do, the things his heart tells him to do.  How often does this happen to us?  Even when we want to do good we end up missing the mark.  Consider a time perhaps when you thought to do something nice for someone, but instead of doing something that they would have appreciated, you did for them something you appreciated—like giving them your favorite DVD as a birthday present. 

Another common example is when you withhold the truth from someone because you think it will protect them, only to realize once they’ve learned the truth that it wasn’t nearly as harmful as you keeping it from them.   In both of these examples, the intention is not to hurt someone, but, as Paul shows us, sin can infect the heart of even the best of our intentions.  In those moments, we very simply miss the relational mark.  We sin.

Take Paul, for example.  His intentions were actually good when he was persecuting the followers of Jesus because of what the law told him to do.  He believed he was doing what was right.  It wasn’t until Jesus knocked him off his horse on the Damascus road that Paul realized how wrong he was.  Just because he thought he was doing good, didn’t mean that he actually was.  Sin is about impact, more than intention.

This is something that I have noticed is quite hard for folks.  How many of you have ever been in an argument with someone you care about after you said or did something hurtful, and your response was, ‘But I never intended to hurt you.’  That may be, but the intent doesn’t justify the behavior, which still has a harmful impact. 

An example from my own life would be that I grew up in a part of the country where the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia—what most of us call the Confederate flag—would routinely fly in people’s yards and appear on my classmates’ shirts at school.  I know from my own conversations with some of those folks that they would say that it was never their intention to promote hatred, but that doesn’t really matter when an entire population of people experience that image as a symbol of slavery and oppression. 

We are seeing those kinds of conversations happening right now, and the more we use our intention as a crutch—or the intentions of our ancestors—the more we miss the relational mark, the more we ignore and silence the voices of those who are telling us that they are being harmed, and the more we sin against one another.

This, I suspect, is what is at the heart of sin: an inability to accept when someone has told us that our behavior has caused harm, which then prevents us from learning from those experiences and growing in relationship with God and one another.  When we think of sin in this way, then yes, we are all sinners because we are all guilty of this on a daily basis.  It isn’t always helpful to just think of sin as the big list of ‘Thou shalt nots’ that we find in the Book of Leviticus because such lists can’t name every context and can’t cover all the relational nuances of every possible situation. Maybe, then, we can start thinking about our sins in those relational terms, accepting that we will miss the mark, but even when we do, there is a solution

What that solution is not, I must say, is shame.  Shame is different from guilt, as Brene Brown reminds us.  Guilt says that we have done something wrong, while shame says that we ARE something wrong, fundamentally.  We can feel guilty without going to a place of shame.  What shame does is make the moment about us, preventing us from hearing the other person and accepting our wrong-doing because it keeps us at the center of everything. If we are to move beyond our sin, we must move beyond our shame, beyond our need to protect our own image. Sometimes our shame can seem overwhelming, leading us to a place of extreme defensiveness. 

Still, for others, shame manifests in an extreme case of beating oneself up because they feel like the worst possible person. Even Paul fell prey to shame—he exclaims in the reading, ‘Wretched man that I am!’  But he follows it with ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’  Jesus frees us from shame and gives us the gift of grace to move beyond our sins, turning ourselves away from our past behavior and committing to being different.

This is what repentance is about.  The Greek word is metanoia, and it literally means ‘to turn oneself around.’  This is the solution.  We will continue to miss the mark, but we don’t have to hide behind our intentions or go to a place of shame.  This is true for individuals, for the Church, and for our country. 

If we are ever to deal with our sin, both personal and collective, we must repent.  We must accept when others tell us that our behavior has been harmful; we must admit and own that harm; we must turn ourselves around and desire to repair the harm we have done and that has been done on our behalf and work to restore the relationship that has been damaged; and we must embrace the gift of grace that Christ gives each of us.  The news of Jesus is good, the burden of Jesus is light, and all of us who are weary and overwhelmed can come and find rest in him.