Friday, June 24, 2011

Original Sins, Pt. 3

The descent of Original Sins begins with the desire to decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong.  We want to decide this not only for ourselves, but for everyone around us as well.  Once we do this, it is a very easy and natural step to begin deciding who is right and who is wrong.  Those we decide are wrong become “they’s, while those who we decide are right become “us’s”  It’s always interesting to me that in any definition of they’s and us’s, insiders and outsiders, those who are acceptable and those who aren’t, we always place ourselves in the circle of us’s, insiders, and acceptables.  I don’t think I have ever come across a person who is a strong believer in predestination—the belief that God has elected some for salvation and some for damnation—who didn’t believe that they were part of the elect.  Whenever Gallup does a poll of religious beliefs, of those who believe in a literal hell, none believe they are going there.  Hell is for other people.  Hell is for the they’s.  Us’s are safe.
To understand the next episode in the Genesis narrative of the Original Sins, we must first understand an important condition in the Creation narrative.  In Genesis 1 God tells the humans that he has provided plants and fruit trees to be their food.  But this is true not only for humans, but for all the animals as well. “And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." (Gen. 1:30 NRSV)  So there were no carnivores or even omnivores, every human and animal was vegetarian.  (I’d like to see a lion eating a salad, wouldn’t you?”)  Now this isn’t a statement about the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, nor is it a statement about the morality of eating meat.  I am a meat-eater and don’t consider it a matter of morality or a consequence of my sin nature.  The point is this: when God created the world, violence was not a part of it.  There was no killing of animal life.  Contrast this with the creation narratives of other Ancient Near Eastern cultures of the day, such as the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, in which the world was created in a frenzy of violence between the gods.  Enuma Elish says that the essence of the world is violence, that by its very nature creation is violent.  In the biblical account, the world is created in peace, order being formed out of chaos, and violence is not a part of it.
There is no violence.

The next story in the downward spiral of Original Sin is Cain and Abel.  Both men offer sacrifices to God; Cain, being a farmer, offers a grain offering.  Abel, being a shepherd, offers the firstlings of his flock.  (You may be wondering if there is no killing of animals for food, why Abel is allowed to kill lambs, or why he is herding sheep in the first place.  The short and easy answer is that this killing is a ritual killing for worship, not for food, and therefore doesn’t fall under the classification of a violent killing.  The long and complicated answer is…long and more complicated than that, having to do with the text history of source documents, and…you’re already bored, aren’t you?  And that’s at least part of my point.)
We are told that God had regard for Abel and his offering, but not for Cain and his.  We aren’t told why God regarded one and not the other, and we can only assume that since the reasoning was omitted that it’s not important.  Could simply be God had a hankering for lamb rather than cereal that day.  What’s important is Cain’s reaction.  He gets really mad, which isn’t a problem, just the potential of a problem.  And God warns him: sin is crouching at the door; you must master it.
But Cain doesn’t master it; he lets his anger master him, and he murders his brother.  Now violence has been introduced into God’s creation.  One human killing another.  A brother killing a brother.   This is new.  This is horrible.  This has ramifications for all of human history.  Remember, this is an archetypal story—a pattern that sweeps all humans up, either as perpetrators, co-conspirators, complicit observers, blissful ignorers, or victims. 
First, we decide that no one else can decide for us what is right and what is wrong—we’ll decide that for ourselves.
Then, having decided what is right and what is wrong, we move to deciding who is right and who is wrong, dehumanizing and objectifying those we decide are wrong.
Next, having decided who is right and who is wrong, it’s a short step down to deciding who deserves to live and who deserves to die.
Once a person decides that abortion is wrong, for instance—a perfectly reasonable position—it then become easy to decide that a person who performs abortions is not a person who performs abortions, but an abortionist.  A thing.  A thing that must be eliminated.  A thing that must be shot down, blown up, exterminated.  Sure, only fanatics do that, but when we allow a person to be called a thing, when we ourselves call them a thing-name, we create an environment where fanatics do fanatical things.
Bad example?  OK.  How about terrorist?  That’s a good thing-name that leads to more violence.  The only good terrorist is a dead terrorist.  How about Jew?  That was a good thing-name that throughout history, and not just in Nazi Germany, led to violence.
This thing, this violence, this killing of humans by humans, God’s children committing violence against God’s children—this is the Original Sin.  This is the one that has ruined God’s creation, destroyed families, destroyed even entire civilizations.
But we’re only in chapter 4 in the narrative of the Original Sins.  There are 7 more chapters to go.  Because it gets worse.  That’s the nature of violence: it always gets worse.  It always drags us down.  It always breeds more violence.  And we don’t know how to stop it.

Convoy of Hope

Here's an article from the Frederick News-Post about the Frederick Convoy of Hope our church participated in last week. 

And here's a short video about it:

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Original Sins, Pt. 2

Following up from my last post about Original Sins, the beginning of the Original Sins is when the humans decide that they want to decide what is right and what is wrong for themselves.  They don’t want God deciding it for them.
The first consequence for the humans is the loss of innocence.  By this I don’t mean the loss of some state of spiritual perfection, but rather the loss of the blissful naiveté a person has when they don’t have to live out in the real world but live under the protection and benevolence of their parents or some other authority that has been providing for them and guarding them from the harsh realities of the world “out there.”  They had it good, but wanted more, and with the privileges of having more come the responsibilities.
So the beginning of the Original Sins is when we want to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong.  Now watch what happens next in the Genesis narrative.  When God finds The Man and The Woman hiding their nakedness from him and from each other, God knows what they have done.  “You’re naked?  Who told you you were naked?  What made you aware of it?  Did you eat of the tree that I gave you explicit instructions to leave alone and not eat from?”
Nailed.  Now, the smart thing, the mature thing to do at this point is to just admit that they screwed up and face the consequences, but not only are the Man and the Woman not ready to handle deciding what is right and what is wrong, they aren’t ready to take responsibility for the consequences.  That’s the thing about that decision.  One might argue that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with deciding what is right and what is wrong as long as you are willing to admit when you mess up.  The fact is that human history has proven that we are pretty bad at deciding what is right and wrong, and that it’s better left to someone wiser, someone who has a broader view of things than we have access to.
But watch what happens.  The Man doesn’t take responsibility, but instead deflects blame to the Woman.  “This Woman, the one you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit.”  There’s a not-so-subtle dig at God as being at least partially responsible, but note what has already happened in the relationship between the Man and the Woman.  The Woman has become “The Woman you gave to be with me,” which is a far cry from “Now, at last!  She is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!”  An exclamation of oneness has turned into “You’re the one who gave her to me; I didn’t ask for her.”
I may have done something wrong, but it’s not my fault.  It’s her fault.  And you’ve got to take some responsibility here as well.  The Man has moved from wanting to decide what is right and wrong to deciding who is right and wrong.
The Woman is no better.  “The serpent tricked me.”  I might have done something wrong, but it’s not my fault.  It’s the serpent’s fault.  One wonders if even here there is an implicit dig at the Creator; after all, who made the serpent and put him in the Garden?  Who made him the craftiest of all creatures? 
This, too, is an archetypal story, one which portrays a pattern which all humans follow.  Not only are we very poor judges of what is right and what is wrong, we are most often too immature to claim responsibility, trying to shift blame to someone else.  In the process, we de-humanize them.  We make them less than what they are.  They cease to be, at least in that moment when we are scapegoating them, children of God, created in his image and likeness; they are no longer bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.  They become an intrusion into our happiness, a disruption of our paradise, an encroachment to our tranquility. 
Instead of being an inseparable part of an “us”, they become—well, they become a “they.”  An other.
What is archetypal here is not just the behavior, but also the downward regression of the behavior.  It’s a small step from thinking you are capable of deciding what is right and what is wrong to thinking you are capable of deciding who is right and who is wrong.  It’s actually a very natural step, but it is a very dangerous step because when we take it people cease to be people and they become things.  A person who commits adultery is not just a person who commits adultery, they are an adulterer.  A person who commits murder is no longer a person who commits murder, they are a murderer.  A person who steals is no longer a person, they are a thief.  That’s what they are.  We define them by that thing that they are.  And when we define them by a thing, they themselves become a thing.
So ultimately this downward regression is not just a regression of behavior, though it certainly is that.  And it is not just a regression of relationship, though that is certainly evident as well.  Ultimately it’s a regression of personhood.  We begin to treat the other as something less than a human created in God’s image and worthy of his love, affection, and continued good graces.  They become something worthy of blame.  They become a label, a thing, an object separate from us.
And when we do that, it’s actually our personhood that regresses.  We become less than human; we become less than what God created us to be.
That’s bad enough, but the descent of Original Sins continues.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Dad Life Video

Saw this video for the first time this morning.  Wish I had seen it before.  Enjoy.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Original Sins, Pt. 1

The term “Original Sin”, though it has a rich history in the church, is not one that I grew up with, but the concept was quite familiar to me, being couched in phrases like “the total depravity of Man.”  I was taught that you’re not a sinner because you sin, you sin because you are a sinner.
Born a sinner.  Adam and Eve sinned, so I’m a sinner.  I never had a chance.  That just never seemed fair.
Turns out that not everyone teaches the exact same thing about Original Sin.  Some teach a version like what I just described, what I call Inherited Guilt.  Others teach that the sin of Adam gives us a sin nature, a proclivity to sin, but that we bear no guilt for Adam’s sin, which was his alone.  And still others treat the effect of the Original Sin as a slight defect in each person that has been passed down from the original pair.
What each interpretation shares is an emphasis on the effect of the sin of Adam which has been passed down.  In each case the sin is original in that it is first.  Original Sin refers to the first sin, the one that introduced Sin into a previously sinless, perfect world.  In essence, it matters little what that sin was—instead of eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the sin could have been cussing, shoplifting, or jay-walking and the effect would have been the same.  It was the fact that the world—and humans—were perfect, and that first sin spoiled it all.  Ruined the perfect creation and the perfect creatures for all time.
I see it very differently.   I think it matters quite a bit what that first sin was—is.  My reading of the text is that the first sin was Original not because it was first, and not because it corrupted our spiritual DNA such that we pass some fallen gene to our progeny.  No, my reading says that the first sin is Original in that it is archetypal i.e. that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden in Genesis 3 is a pattern of behavior that we all follow, a pattern that represents a downward spiral of the human condition that has effects for the entire Creation.  That pattern is the main problem that God has to address in subsequent chapters and books of the Bible.  In other words, we aren’t guilty because of what Adam and Eve did, we are guilty because we do what they did.  The word adam in Genesis 2 isn’t even a proper noun like Fred or Bill or George.  adam is Hebrew for Man, both in the gender-specific meaning of male, and in the general sense of humanity.  Translating it as a name takes us out of the picture.  A better translation would just simply be Man,  and that includes all of us.  I am Adam.  I am Eve.  Their story is my story.  It is our story.  It is the story of Everyone.
The pattern works like this.  It is not insignificant that the first sin consists of eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for that is where the downward spiral necessarily begins.  It all begins with wanting to decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong.  Genesis 3 has been described as a coming of age story, and that’s not a bad way of looking at it.  If you have ever raised teenagers—or are young enough to remember your own teenaged years—you know that there comes a time very early on when they are convinced that they are ready for the adult world, and they try to take on adult privileges and actions that they are not ready to take on.  They cannot see the ramifications of the behaviors they want to take on.  “Stop treating me like I’m a child,” they yell, and while they are right, they aren’t small children any more, we know they aren’t adults yet either.  They are perhaps ready for some independence, but not the kind nor the level they are seeking.  Part of that is wanting to make decisions for themselves about what is right and what is wrong without external—read “parental”—control.  They will listen to their friends, they will listen to the entertainment culture, they will listen to their emerging adolescent urges—these are the serpents that entice them—but they don’t want to listen to the people who really have their best interests at heart.
So they sneak around and start doing stuff while we’re not looking that may be fine for an adult in the proper context to do but inappropriate for a not-quite-adult: sexual activity and drinking seem to be the main expression of this desire for independence. 
There sometimes comes a point where a parent is forced to say, “OK, you want all of the privileges of adulthood but without the responsibilities, but a true adult shoulders both.  Get out, get a job, find a place to live, arrange for your own transportation, pay your bills, etc.  Everything you need is already provided for you as long as you understand that you aren’t ready quite yet for adulthood.  But if you insist against our wishes to become live as an adult even though you aren’t quite that, then you must live with all the consequences of that decision.  Because that is what an adult does.”
Adam and Eve—The Man and The Woman, Everyone—decided they were ready for something they weren’t really ready for—to decide what is right and what is wrong.  Having made that decision, God made them live with the rest—they were made to leave the nest and make it out in the rest of the world where nothing is given to you, where you have to scratch for a little bit of bread by the sweat of your brow, where you have to submit to those bigger and stronger than you, where life is hard, rarely fair, and death is always  lurking around the corner.
But this thing They did is not the Original Sin, for the story doesn’t end there, it continues through the rest of Genesis 1-11.  Rather than seeing their sin in the Garden as merely the first, I would argue that it’s significance is that it is the beginning of the downward spiral that affects the entire created order.  To further understand the Original Sin that afflicts the world we have to keep reading beyond Genesis 2.  There is a sense in which it’s more proper to speak of Original Sins, a series of sins in a downward regression that results in what Paul calls “the present evil age.”  If we don’t understand this downward regression, we won’t understand the nature of the Kingdom of God, which means we will fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the Gospel message.
Hang with me.  There’s more to come.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A New View of Discipleship

For as long as I’ve been in ministry, church leaders have been complaining that, as hard as it may be to make new Christians, it proves to be even harder to make Christians into disciples. The evangelism task is always challenging, but once a person understands the danger of sin and the opportunity of new life, salvation becomes a welcomed experience.  There’s an urgency that accompanies the need to be saved.  “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation!”  (2 Cor. 2:6)  But once a person becomes a Christian, the urgency vanishes.  The crisis is over, the opportunity grasped.  All too often—all too often—there is no accompanying sense of urgency to the task of becoming a disciple.  The church may feel a sense of urgency because in the Great Commission Jesus told us to go and make disciples, not mere converts, but truth be told, there are more churches in which there is an urgency about evangelism than there are churches that approach discipleship with any kind of urgency.  I mean, nobody is going to hell for not pursuing discipleship.  Once saved, no worries.  Consequently, church leaders have long noted that there are a lot of Christians, but few disciples; lots of people getting saved, few actually following Jesus.
To try to address this, pastors and other church leaders keep demanding new discipleship programs to replace the ones that aren’t working, and denominational leaders and Christian publishers keep accommodating them, churning out the next-great-thing in discipleship to replace the last next-great-thing, which will be replaced by another next-great-thing.  It seems that no matter what methodology is used, the results are the same.  I agree that our methodology is flawed, but the change that needs to occur goes deeper than mere methodology. 
It’s time that Christians got a new view of the relationship between salvation and discipleship.
A person with an addiction is living a self-destructive lifestyle.  Whether that addiction is to drugs, alcohol, pornography, or video games, the addiction rules the person’s life.  It not only unleashes  its own brand of destruction on the individual, whether that be physical, mental, or emotional destruction, but it also allows little to no room for real living.  The person at best ignores and at worst destroys relationships with family and friends.  The addiction often gets in the way of their work, and careers they trained for and may actually have been successful in go down the drain.  Simple pleasures like watching a sunset or laughing with friends on the deck are replaced by the insatiable hunger of the addiction for more time, attention, and money.  At rock bottom, all the good in life has been replaced by the darkness of the addiction.
The decision to admit the addiction and get well is a momentous decision, and usually isn’t made without some sense of urgency; rock bottom is usually pretty low, and in some cases death is close by.  Getting sober is not easy; withdrawal is often painful, sometimes even dangerous, initial treatment usually long, difficult, and easily subverted.  Once achieved, however, staying sober can be just as difficult, just in different ways.  Achieving sobriety is getting rid of the acute symptoms of addiction, riding oneself of a lifestyle of destruction.  But staying sober means that a new lifestyle must be learned.  All an addict knows is the old lifestyle; a new lifestyle must be taught, learned, and practiced until it becomes natural, and all the while the person must be on guard against the ever-present pull of the old lifestyle. Any addict will tell you that they must be ever vigilant in maintaining their sobriety.  The moment they think they have it licked and can relax is when they are most vulnerable to a relapse, so they maintain a sense of urgency about it.
Sobriety is hard work, and it’s work that must be done every day.  But it’s worth it, because they are now free not only from the destruction their addictions caused, but they are also free to live the lives they want to live.  They are free to enjoy sunsets, walk hand-in-hand on the beach with a loved-one, and laugh with friends on the deck.  And they do not think of their sobriety as an event.  It is a lifestyle.  The moment they decided to get help was an event, but sobriety is something they do every day, because the first day they don’t do it is the first day of their relapse into hell.
The problem that Jesus came to address is that we, the whole human race, are addicted to a self-destructive lifestyle.  In seeking to take control of our lives and our worlds—wanting to have the right to decide what is right and what is wrong for us and for others—we lost control of our lives.  We became addicted to control, addicted to power, addicted to violence when we don’t get our way.  And it’s killing us.  It’s not only killing us, but it’s killing all creation.  We are hell-bent on destroying any last vestiges of Eden that still exist in our world.  This is the message of Genesis chapters 1-11; this is the original sin, the one that afflicts all of us.
Jesus came to deliver us from our addiction to ourselves, from the destructive forces that our addiction imposes on us.  This is what Paul means when he says that Jesus came to deliver us from Death.  He doesn’t mean that Jesus came to deliver us from the fact that our lives don’t last forever, he means that we are living in a way that doesn’t let us live while we are alive, and Jesus came to deliver us from that life and to a way of life that does let us live while we are alive.  A life dominated by this addiction isn’t worth living for one minute; a life characterized by the love, grace, and selflessness of Jesus is worth living for eternity.
The problem is, we don’t know how to live this life. We are skilled in living a life of addiction but clueless in living a life of sobriety. What good does it do if Jesus simply delivers us from the acute effects of our addiction if he doesn’t also offer us a way to live that also deals with the chronic effects of our addiction?
Forgiveness of sins is just the first step, the necessary prerequisite for learning to live a life fit for the Kingdom of God.  The problem isn’t just that our sins will keep us from entering the Kingdom of God; the problem is just as much that we are so unprepared to live in the Kingdom of God that we don’t want it when we get there.  Salvation involves the forgiveness of sins, but salvation also involves teaching us a new way to live that resists the ever-present pull of our addiction to Death.  Just as a daily walk of sobriety is salvation to the alcoholic, so also is a daily walk in the life-giving lifestyle of Jesus salvation to the person addicted to Death. 
.  Without the daily devotion to the lifestyle of Jesus, we don’t know how to live in the Kingdom of God, and so we will live in the only lifestyle we really know well, the one that comes most naturally, and that is the lifestyle of the Kingdom of Death.
In the end, discipleship isn’t what comes after salvation; discipleship is our salvation.