Lament and Resurrection

To be a minister is to be a witness to suffering, and to walk with those who suffer. Alongside doctors and social workers, I feel as though it has to be one of the more painful vocations.

To be a minister is to hold the pain of the world in your heart as you groan for its redemption, longing for new creation.

To be a minister is to have the responsibility of comforting the weeping while myself silently asking, “Why, God? Have you forgotten us?” To offer up my strength to the weary, while myself feeling utterly broken and burdened, letting the tears come only when no one can see.

To be a minister is to be a witness to the brokenness and sorrow and death all around me, to cry out on behalf of humanity that things should not be this way.

Yet…to be a minister is also to be a witness to the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.

To cry out with conviction that things will not always be this way.

It is to preach and sing and live and proclaim forgiveness and reconciliation and healing and hope.

To witness to the story of resurrection in the dawning of each new day, in the first blooms of spring, in the redemption of a troubled past, in reconciliation after separation, in love after loss, in an empty tomb on Easter morning.

It is to know and proclaim with certainty that death cannot take our loved ones from us, because from their conception to eternity, they live and are safe in the arms of the Good Shepherd.

To be a minister is to be given the gift of proclamation – Hope springs eternal. Christ is all, and in all, and through all. The dwelling of God will be with his people, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. All shall be well, and all shall be well…and all manner of things shall be well.

Praise God.

 

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Published in: on February 29, 2016 at 10:15 pm  Comments (3)  
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Quinoa and the Problem of Sin

A few weeks ago, I read a thought-provoking blog article by David Calvin on trading the language of ‘sin’ for the language of ‘brokenness.’ To read it in full, click here. The point of the article is that we minimize our own responsibility for sin by passing the buck to a nameless third party. Hurt people hurt people, the saying goes; can we really be held responsible for sin when we are born into a broken world and are ourselves victims? David says yes, we must be held responsible; otherwise, excusing ourselves from our culpability, we allow injustice to run rampant.

What he writes is true; however, it is only one facet of the enormous — and in many ways, ambiguous and undefinable — problem of sin and evil.

What is sin? Is it an affront to God’s honor, as Anselm of Canterbury suggested? Or is it disobedience of God’s law, as John Calvin believed? Is it estrangement from God, or is it broken relationship, or is it deliberate rebellion? Is sin simply a way to describe our own actions, or is it a third party agent that acts upon us, such as Satan? Is sin a personal issue or a systemic one? Throughout history, both trained and lay theologians have offered ideas of the ‘fundamental sin of humanity,’ ranging from pride to ignorance, all of which depict an aspect of sin but seem fundamentally inadequate to describe it. Throughout Scripture, sin seems to be such a broad, sweeping category that we hardly know where to begin in defining it. We understand it only in terms of abstractions: it leads to death, it consists in the absence of God, it goes against the created order.  But what exactly is it? And how can we fight an enemy which we cannot see or name? The truth is, sin seems to encompass all of these explanations yet still transcends the limitations of our understanding. Derek Nelson, in his book Sin: A Guide for the Perplexed, outlines and addresses many of these different positions on sin, but it seems that we can only nail down a vague idea of what it means: “Sin implies something not being right in the complex relationships of oneself to God, oneself to one’s neighbor, and oneself to oneself” (Nelson, Sin, p. 17).

Something not being right.

Something is about as vague as we can get. Not being right seems fully subjective. This leads to ambiguity and disagreement regarding the nature of sin, something else which Nelson addresses. For instance, some Christians believe homosexuality to be a sin, to be against the created order, and thus something not right towards God. At the same time, however, many same-sex couples consider that Christians try to oppress them and deny them their rights, which would seem to be something not right in relationship to one’s neighbor. Is none of it sin? Is all of it sin? How do we begin to grapple with such an overwhelming topic?

I will admit now that I have precious few answers. To claim otherwise, I would have to claim to be a greater theologian than Calvin or Augustine or even the Apostle Paul. Clearly, as a first-year seminarian, I am not. All I can offer are my own fumbling attempts to understand this massive and complex issue, and while offering no definitive answers, I can offer simply the hope which Scripture gives. Understanding that sin can be explained in many different ways, I nonetheless turn to the social manifestation of sin — systemic injustice — to show why brokenness is indeed a legitimate understanding of this not-right-ness that surrounds us.

To do this, I will use a seemingly innocuous example: quinoa. Some of you may not even know what quinoa is; some of you have jumped on the bandwagon of health food and devour as much quinoa as you can get your hands on; still others mock those who succumb to the latest dietary fads. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, whether or not you consume quinoa matters very little in your everyday life and seems to bear even less relevance to this discussion of sin. Yet when we buy a processed and packaged ingredient such as quinoa, we think very little of where it comes from – and although it makes no difference to us, it may have far-reaching consequences for others.

Quinoa is grown in the Andean highlands, in parts of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru; and before the quinoa fad hit the U.S., it was part of the diet of those who grew and harvested it. The invisible hand of economics – and ecosystems – is often beyond my power to grasp. But whatever the reason, quinoa suddenly became all the rage, increasing the demand for the popular gluten-free grain and driving up the prices. Farmers are trying to grow as much quinoa as fast as possible to meet the rising demand, which is beginning to abuse and overwork the land. Because of the way ecological factors come into play, quinoa is an unsustainable fad. In addition, quinoa is becoming an outsourced commodity rather than a cultural staple; it is worth more sold internationally than consumed domestically. The farmers who grow the quinoa can no longer afford to eat it.

This is an example of systemic injustice; here, the root cause of sin is ignorance. It is not pride or rebellion that makes an unknowing Christian buy quinoa; it is a far bigger problem than that, and one which we are nearly helpless to fix. If we all agree to stop buying quinoa, then what will happen? Farmers will have thousands of tons of unsellable quinoa, which will cause a severe blow to the economy. Yet I found myself cringing the other night to see multiple pounds of uneaten quinoa cakes in the cafeteria waste bin.

Here is a situation in which ‘brokenness’ seems to be the only way to describe sin. I am not intentionally causing harm to my neighbor in Ecuador; the economy is broken, the ecosystem is broken, the whole societal structure is broken by sin. I am broken by sin, and beyond fixing myself.

Brett Dennen, in his powerful song Ain’t No Reason, poetically describes the hopeless state of humanity:

“There ain’t no reason things are this way; it’s how they’ve always been and they intend to stay. I can’t explain why we live this way, but we do it every day.”

The first time I heard this song, one line seared itself into my memory: “Slavery is stitched into the fabric of my clothes.” In one phrase, this sums up the brokenness of systemic sin. When you touch your iPhone, think of the hands that put it together, worn down by poverty and the unceasing demands of a greedy world. You didn’t know as you stood in line for it that you were the cause of suffering. Are we held responsible for this ignorance? Are we condemned by every bite of quinoa?

When we examine the social effects of sin and the systemic repercussions of it, we are no longer discussing individual responsibility. We can look at an individual person and call out their infidelity, their lies, their theft. But when we zoom out and look at injustices such as racism and sexism, it becomes a victim/victimizer issue – whites against blacks, or men against women. When we zoom out even farther to look at the even larger picture of ignorance in the face of social injustice, the lines become even more blurred. Thus the greater the scale, the more it becomes about brokenness rather than individual sins. To say that we must take responsibility only for our personal sinful acts is to greatly oversimplify this massive disease in our world.

The whole creation groans. This is Paul’s attempt to grasp the enormity of our world’s not-right-ness and somehow address it in a meaningful way. Yet we hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay.

While we try to navigate the murky waters of right and wrong, we must take responsibility for our own contribution to systemic brokenness, seeking both to address the not-right-ness within us and to advocate for the not-right-ness of the world. Yet there is only so much we can do. I encourage fair trade, thrift shopping, gardening, and paying a little more to support small businesses rather than large corporations. Yet in the end, we all contribute to brokenness in ways that we simply cannot help. We will all, at some point, buy the metaphorical bag of quinoa out of ignorance. And so we repent of our individual sins, but we also cry out to God for the redemption of brokenness too big for us to fix.

Scripture does not and cannot tell us what sin is, for it is too great for us even to comprehend. Yet it does tell us of redemption and hope that is also greater than we can comprehend. We do our best to live in the Kingdom, yet in the end all we can do is hope for an infinite, unfathomable grace that can cover the sins of the world, known and unknown, confessed and unconfessed, repented and unrepented. Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.

And in times when the hopelessness of sin and brokenness overwhelm us, I find myself comforted by this beautiful quote from Chris Wright:

“We need a holistic gospel because the world is in a holistic mess. And by God’s incredible grace we have a gospel big enough to redeem all that sin and evil have touched.”

I don’t have answers.

But I have hope.

Mother Teresa, Pope Francis, and a Touch of Compassion

The thought first came to me while watching a video on Mother Teresa. I still find it difficult to articulate. But if I could attempt to describe it, it would be something along these lines: We are compelled to serve others in humbling ways simply because their humanity, in all its brokenness and — well, humanness — deserves recognition.

It came to me during a shot of Mother Teresa caressing the fingerless hand of a leper. Something inside me drew back in revulsion, and then was ashamed at my reaction. I tend to shy away from what is gross or uncomfortable, but after all, the hand is suffering and can’t help how it appears. It is a very human part of a soul whom I am called to love, and I must love it because it is a part of them. I must honor the mundane and even the downright unpleasant, because it is a part of God’s good creation, and it is a privilege to care for it.

We cannot shy away from the unattractive parts of our humanity, or pretend they don’t exist. We must embrace the blood, the sweat, the tears, the snot, everything that makes a person human.

I find feet to be creepy and disturbing, but they deserve to be washed with all the respect and tenderness of Jesus.

Hands deserve to be held.

Faces deserve to be touched.

Eyes deserve to hold a steady gaze.

The broken, the diseased, and the deformed yearn to be touched, and to be the one whose touch brings a smile to their face or tears to their eyes is just as great a privilege as holding the hand of a boyfriend or girlfriend — because in so doing, we affirm their humanity and our own.

The second time I thought — or rather, felt — this concept was when I saw these poignant pictures of Pope Francis blessing a man whose face was disfigured with a rare skin disease.

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It was fascinating to read comments like these from non-Christians who were touched by a picture of authentic love: “I assumed that any religious figure in public life was a fraud, but this guy makes you want to go to church to hear more. I’ve never felt that before.” And they say this because, from what I know of Pope Francis, he spends more time simply living like Jesus than pontificating stuffy religious principles. And profound theological insights, unless they manifest themselves in service which is profoundly practical, are not profound at all. We must spend at least as much time washing the feet of society as we do theorizing about heady ideas.

Very few speak the language of theology…

…But every broken person longing for a touch understands the language of love.

When, like Jesus, we engage in the brokenness of the world, it declares that humanity is worth something. Love is not only a feeling or a stagnant reality. Real love declares a truth, and in so doing, creates it. It does not merely exist, but by its very nature it calls into being the reality which it chooses to profess. In other words, by loving those whom the world considers unworthy, we declare a new reality — that they ARE worthy — and our very act of loving them makes them so.

Jesus took up His cross and declared that we are worth dying for.

As we selflessly love and serve and give, we profess the same reality — and in so doing, bring the Kingdom to earth.

The Rich Young Ruler….is ME

A man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.”

“Which ones?” the man inquired.

Jesus replied, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

–Matthew 19:16-20.

Lately I’ve felt like I’m stuck in a rut and going nowhere, and I find myself asking that question a lot.  I keep trying and trying to attain worth by my own means and am so frustrated at my lack of progress.  Like him, I constantly cry out, “What do I still lack? Why isn’t this working? What could I possibly be missing?”

In my youth ministry class the other day, we were all taking turns introducing ourselves, and we had to include something “deep” about us.  So I confessed that I feel like often people only see the blog version of me and think I have everything together, and because I feel like I have to keep up that image, my greatest fear is being speechless (see my recent post When the Words Don’t Come Out Right).  Recently, someone saw a little too deep inside me for my comfort, and it happened.  The speechlessness.  The mild panic.  The feeling of being exposed and vulnerable.  I apologized that he ended up seeing the not-well-put-together side of me, to which he responded, “That’s the best side of people though…people aren’t well-put-together.”  It took a while for that to sink in.

“Does he really believe that?” I wondered. “Does he not think less of me for not having everything figured out?”

And I realized how often I think the same thing about God.  It’s so hard for me to accept the fact that I can be loved for no apparent reason.  That God just wants a relationship with me.  That he just loves me because I’m me.  Just because I exist.  I’m so used to only receiving affirmation for being a hard worker, for being a deep thinker, for being wise or mature or for being any number of things…but never for simply being.  I don’t know how to accept love in the midst of, and even because of, my brokenness.  But isn’t that the whole point of the gospel?

Last night at AfterDark Nashville, everyone was given the opportunity to write on an index card anything that was keeping them from God and nail it to a 14-foot cross, symbolically leaving it behind for good.  On mine was written the simple question, “What do I still lack?”  And as the nail was driven through the paper into the wood, I knew the answer.  Nothing.  I lack only the ability to let myself be loved.

The nagging fear of inadequacy is nailed to the cross, and I’m ready to be done with it.  It’s time to stop relying on my own nonexistent strength and rest in the love of my Savior, because in the end, that’s the only thing that will get me across the finish line.  So as I seek to grow in this new understanding of my relationship with God, I may be taking a break from blogging for a little while.  I may post occasionally, and I’ll be back soon, beloved, probably with a ton of archived journal entries and the thoughts that God has shared with me in the silence.  But this semester, I want to do a little less doing and a little more being as I seek God rather than affirmation.  And in the meantime, you all will be in my prayers, as I hope you will keep me in yours.

The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you…he will quiet you with his love…he will rejoice over you with singing. –Zephaniah 3:17