“We don’t do Lent it’s not in our tradition!”
“Why dwell on what is negative in your life – better to shrug off the shadows and enjoy!”
The humanitarian sciences have over time produced, for discussion and peer review, the psychological benefits of the hitherto sacred realm of penitence, forgiveness and absolution. One only has to google “psychology forgiveness therapy” to access thousands of discourses on the topic. With the fine tooth comb of contemporary research techniques, they are able to untangle what the ancients have long known – the health benefits of coming clean in a community context and starting out with a new slate, untroubled and unburdened by burdens of guilt, feelings of inadequacy, and emotional hangups.
Today we are offered Psalm 32, an ancient song of joy at being released from the claim of bad feeling as the result of human failure. It is good to write your own words in contemporary language alongside the old lines.
1Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
2Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
4For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
5Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah
6Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
7You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah
8I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
9Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
10Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
11Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
It’s easier to give a hungry man a fish than to teach him to fish.
It’s far simpler to superficially impress someone than to engage them by putting in some time and the hard yards.
Politically, the quick fix is more successful for one’s grasp of power than the blood, sweat and tears of inspiring long term vision.
The First Sunday in Lent sees Jesus being led by the Spirit into the desert to be tested by Satan over 40 days. See Matthew 4:1-11. It is one of the most dramatised and mystified events of the gospels.
At one level the struggle of Jesus in the wilderness is of cosmic proportions. It typifies an eon-long struggle between what is good and what is not as good because ultimately, it is inadequate. This is a more subtle battle than what is often portrayed as the struggle between good and evil, where choices are sharper and easier to take. Such duality has been strong in the popular imagination. To not feed the hungry when one can, to not attract followers with the best PR techniques one can muster, to eschew the ways of kings and emperors to bring about change – speaks of some higher and more beneficial end.
Jesus displays astute and sharp awareness as he answers each of these temptations.
This brings us to the ordinary day to day level. Jesus’ struggle in the wilderness oriented him to his task henceforth as he engaged what would be his life work one day to the next. Clear focus forged during the wilderness experience at the beginning of his public ministry kept him on track without distraction.
Similarly, we are called to clear focus as we live out our life’s purpose. To what extent are my goals, aspirations, projects, and relationships cultivated by a larger cosmic vision? Is it the same vision that inspired Jesus, the one that grounded the realm of shalom – the reign of wholesome other-centred relationship with self, neighbour, environment, universe and Creator? And are we prepared to pay the costs of exercising such vision?
Here is the golden text on which the doctrine of original sin is based.
Paul argues that as sin came into the world through Adam, tainting us all, so this tragic state of affairs is reversed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (the second Adam). This is the result of all surrounding grace, the eternally benevolent disposition of an unconditionally loving Creator who is finally revealed in the acts of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.
The problem with the doctrine of original sin is found in the accretions that have grown around Paul’s argument. The taint of sin became our core identity and our focus. It seemed almost impossible to get to an apprehension of grace because of this inherent shame, a distortion of the image of God into which we are called to grow. If we look around, there is certainly enough evidence in a world filled with violence, cruelty and greed to keep us wallowing in a mire of hopelessness.
While Paul’s argument in Romans is one of the most systematic expressions of his thought, I am not sure he was aware that he was writing a textbook in which selected passages would be deemed to be the sum total of the extrapolations that would become dominant Christian theology in the West. The theology of the Eastern churches (the various Byzantine and Oriental orthodox jurisdictions) have a much more balanced focus based on the doctrine of “theosis”, a full hearted embrace of the grace that opens the way to human, indeed the whole of creation’s, fulfillment in appropriating the purpose for which we were created.
This too, is found elsewhere in Paul’s correspondence with the fledgling churches in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean.
So, what is an appropriate response to this text on our Lenten journey, the season of penitence and reflection?
Acknowledge and own our sin (missing the mark), for sure, but don’t exacerbate it by wallowing in it.
Remember to what it is that grace calls us, again from the Apostle Paul: And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
He appeals to theology, rhetoric and personal investment as he attempts to bring healing to human divisions based on status, party allegiance and ambition. It all sounds rather too familiar.
Our reflection today leads us to 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, a window into Paul’s approach to bringing about reconciliation. Did it work? History on this particular phase of the story of the church in Corinth is silent. The fact that Paul’s rather disjointed Corinthian correspondence is included in the canon of Christian scripture, however, indicates that by about the 4th Century CE, his words were deemed universally worthy of classification as sacred writ.
In today’s passage, Paul appeals to the restored relationship with God through the acts of Jesus Christ as the unifying beacon to draw fractured parties together. Of course, this is another text that is employed to support the “original sin” doctrine, (only by the grace of God in Christ are we saved from the wretched state that fragments us, and boy, aren’t some of our sins here in Corinth original!). The text can just as easily, however, be interpreted through the exemplary atonement or “free will” lens. (Salvation – aka healing of division – is found by looking to the example of Christ in drawing people together – behave as Christ behaved, love as Christ loved, be enlivened by his Spirit that dwells within and amongst you, and the appeal of factionalism will melt away).
Succumbing to passive acceptance of human hubris will not heal the divisions in our community. Only alert awareness of the role to which the awakened are called in exemplifying the manner of the perfect love enacteded and revealed through Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, infiltrating the community as salt and light, will do the job.
Today, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, I respond to the challenge not to give up something, but to take something on – a discipline of some kind. A way forward might be to begin a daily reflection according to my spiritual tradition. This Ash Wednesday, my guide requires me to write a prayer of confession for use throughout Lent.
A resistance arises within me, for the traditional rubrics of confession across the spectrum of Christian traditions are rooted within the Augustinian notion of original sin, by no means a universally accepted Christian understanding of the human condition. The moulding of my understanding has been more influenced by Abelard, or even Pelagius, eschewing the notion that we are driven by an innate corrupt nature from birth, but acknowledging the freedom of choice in our moral judgements and expressions.
Psalm 51, set for the beginning of Lent, nevertheless says:
5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
In isolation, it is a favourite proof text for the notion of original sin. The very event of being conceived and born into the human race seems to doom us to passive perdition. Our being is forged and lived out in this experience of corrupt alienation from the source of life for which we must continuously beg forgiveness and receive absolution. The dispensation of such absolution is institutionalised in systems open to manipulation and control by fellow human beings who are similarly blighted, no matter how sanctified. The fact that I rebel against the injustice of this might simply prove the point! On the other hand, I might be drawn to argue against such a defeatist notion of the human condition by focusing on the celebrated maxim of Augustine’s fellow great Doctor of the Church, Irenaeus: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.“
The prooftext for so-called “original sin” is not the whole of Psalm 51, which pointedly, is not a treatise on systematic theology. Rather the Psalm in its fulness is the cry of a contrite heart, aware of falling short of one’s innate purpose and identity. The psalmist is aware of the way forward, and it is in the direction of awakening awareness:
6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
It is the psalm of someone who is aware of the choices and decision making pertaining to their destiny, and their willingness to steer the course that will take them there. The poet has a growing self-awareness of the traps and snares that lead to deviation from the way and his own susceptibility. He seeks to focus on the tradition, values and relationship that keeps him on a true path.
The psalm indicates no final arrival at a resolution to the disquiet it expresses, but confidence that contriteness and desire is benevolently received.
17The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
If one can confidently embrace one’s own brokenness and dissatisfaction at being “not yet there,” perhaps one is well oriented to begin the Lenten journey.
Oh, the prayer of confession I’m supposed to write?
Let the above words lead me to a place of stillness and quiet that, this day, reveals the opening of the way further forward.
Just when you think the Australian Government can do no worse in its cruel and dispiriting treatment of maritime asylum seekers, it pulls another rabbit out of the hat.
This so-called low key cartoon strip campaign does little more than throw down a challenge to those desperate to flee to safety. Rather than threaten with blockades that grumble “no way” all sides of our parliament should be seeking ways to enable a safe way for people to seek asylum in this whole region.
This will demand imagination, leadership – and, most importantly, will – for many years of political and media propaganda have manipulated the public’s mindset to fearful and selfish preoccupation.
Started off in the electroplating industry when everyone wanted there stuff chromed. That era has gone.
Moved into department store retail, and the end of this era is now pronounced.
But I was only there a short while before training for my life’s work – local church ministry (the end of which has been forecast for some years now).
At the age of 64 – I still might make it beyond what used to be the retirement age.
Then again I might have to return to blogging!
Church yesterday was an exercise in role-playing the 1st century church that met in the home of Philemon of Colossae. Creative imagination saw Philemon, his presumed wife Apphia and his presumed son and heir Archippus presiding over our regular congregation who had variously become the merchants, stewards and household slaves that met in Philemon’s atrium as a house-church.
The church meeting was in full swing when a messenger arrived bearing a letter from Philemon’s esteemed mentor, Paul. The porter was permitted to admit the messenger, who turned out to be Onesimus, a slave who had absconded Philemon’s household some time before.
Freeze-motion techniques enabled each group of participants to respond to what was about to unfold.
- Philemon is suddenly confronted with a householder’s shame – a runaway slave.
- Apphia presumably adhered to the strict Greco-Roman customs of managing the household. The absconding slave had disrupted the smooth manner of organising domestic arrangements.
- The household slaves glanced uneasily. Onesimus’ disappearance had caused them trouble and some shifting in the pecking order.
- Merchant guests and retinues forming the congregation were particularly interested in what was about to unfold. What would be the implications for their own household order?
Our role-players slipped into their roles as a forlorn Onesimus stood before Philemon clutching the scroll he had brought. Cat-calls, wise-cracks and incriminations filled the hall. Then Philemon commanded Onesimus to read the message aloud.
In faltering voice, Onesimus read the scroll which is the letter of Paul to Philemon. Interjections from the gathered church continued and then abruptly stopped. The person playing Onesimus had stopped reading and was weeping real tears. He had become Onesimus… and we had become the ones whom the apostle was directly addressing through Philemon.
It would have been easy to step in and halt the exercise. But no – now was the time to let the church be the church. The role play continued to its conclusion, but it was no longer a role play. It was church no longer separated by centuries, culture and tradition from its roots. The church in 1st century Collossae and 21st century Wembley Downs had become one.
The Onesimus in us all had become restored once more.
We could have explored further the issue of slavery and why it took 1700 years for Christians to raise a voice towards its abolition. Even now human bondage is deeply entrenched in our world community, deemed by multiple interests to be an economic reality that can’t really be completely dismantled (who made the clothes we wear right now, and under what conditions?). The Philemon exercise demonstrated unmistakably, however, the radical dimensions of communal transformation that can take place even within inequitable and oppressive systems. The quest to transform human identity in the way of Christ does not stop within the church community, but it certainly starts there – and is nurtured there.
This exercise was inspired by the work of Dr Greg Jenks, a presenter at the Common Dreams Conference, Canberra, 2013.
Eminent common sense – would that it were more common!
Bruce Sanguin shared 10 succinct pegs for evolving practitioners of the Jesus way to hang their hats on at the Common Dreams Conference in Canberra tonight.
- Kick the apocalyptic habit. Things ain’t all bad, indeed the world is ablaze with the glory of God if one cares to look.
- Be inclusive of the tradition that nurtured you and provided your confessional DNA.
- Affirm providence – the loving nurture that pervades the cosmos.
- Get out of your heads – drop into your yearning. In avoiding the fear of the irrational, do not neglect to embrace the trans-rational.
- Offer hope.
- Preach beauty
- Return to the wisdom of the body – personal and planet – remember the Christian faith is incarnational.
- Redeem legacy of indigenous wisdom through listening to first peoples elders.
- Complain less and build the Kingdom of God more.
- Love all creation.