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.

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All Things New — mp3

Oh hey guys, I got a lovely surprise this afternoon from Dean Barham of Woodmont Hills Church, who was thoughtful enough to send me an mp3 of my communion thoughts yesterday, so I thought I would share it with you.  Here it is via Soundcloud.

All Things New — communion thoughts by Lauren Calvin

Published in: on March 11, 2013 at 4:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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All Things New

This morning I was given the opportunity to share some communion thoughts at Woodmont Hills church of Christ, where my professor, Dean Barham, is the preacher.  First, I just want to say how much I love Dean.  He is one of the most humble, transparent, and sincere men it has ever been my privilege to know.  I am so grateful for the way he pours into his students to equip them for ministry and then gives them opportunities to live it out, like he did by inviting me to speak today.  Second, I want to say what a blessing it was to be a part of the Woodmont Hills family this morning.  They were so accepting, encouraging, and supportive.  But really, it wasn’t just for this morning; they are my family.  And I love that in the body of Christ, community has nothing to do with distance.

When Dean asked me to speak on Thursday, I knew within an hour what God was laying on my heart to share; not anything really creative or impressive to put the spotlight on me, but a simple telling of the story.  It was like I had no other choice; the entire talk, wording and everything, just kinda came together in my head before I could even consider anything else.  When I told Dean what I was thinking, he responded, “That’s perfect, because we’re actually going through the Story right now.”  How amazing is that?

This was my first time speaking outside of a small group or classroom setting, and it was such an incredible opportunity to get to share with my fellow Christians.  Of course, there were a few inevitable mistakes.  Attempting to go note-less, I lost my place second service and there was an awkwardly long pause.  Amazingly enough, afterwards a man came up to introduce himself and said (not kidding), “I’ve heard the story before, but the way you told it was so powerful.  When you paused like that to let it sink in, it brought me to tears.”  Exhibit A: God can use mistakes.  Ha!  But just because of the timing of this opportunity and a thousand other little things that I don’t have time to write about, I feel like this whole experience was God confirming my calling and giving me confidence to continue sharing the story.  So…here’s pretty much what I said this morning, run-on sentences and all.

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I don’t have anything super original or ground-breaking to share with you this morning, but I do have something beautiful to share with you: the same beautiful story that has been told for thousands of years, of God’s plan of salvation from Genesis to Revelation.  The church has come together to tell the same story for so long because it tells us where we’ve come from and where we’re going.  It’s the story of God’s redemption.  It’s the story of God fixing broken things.  It’s the story of God making all things new.

And God has been in the business of making things new from the very beginning, when the earth was formless and empty, and with a word He spoke the universe into being, and created everything that is good and perfect and beautiful.

But then sin entered the world, leaving an ugly dark splotch on the first page of God’s story.  So a broken-hearted God sent a flood on the earth to start over again, to cleanse the earth and make it new.  And again we chose to turn away from God.

But even then, God still had a plan.  He chose a man named Abram and gave him a new name, and promised that through his descendants, through God’s chosen people Israel, all nations on earth would be blessed.  For through Abraham’s line would come Jesus Christ, our Savior.

Centuries later, when Israel was in bondage in Egypt and the promise was all but forgotten, God came through again to redeem His people and lead them out of Egypt into a new land, a new life, a new hope.  Their exodus from Egypt came to be known and remembered as the Passover — the celebration of a new freedom.  God made a covenant with His people Israel and set up a standard to show them what it would look like to be a community of God.  But Israel too went their own way and turned away from God.

And at the most crucial moment in human history, God sent the promised and long-awaited Messiah, from the line of Judah, His own Son, Jesus Christ. He came to live and walk among us, to die for us, to bring peace with God.  But Jesus was not the political Messiah everyone expected.  He ushered in a new standard, exemplified a new way of life.  He showed us what we were created to be, what we could become, and what we could look like as God’s people.

As Jesus celebrated his last Passover meal with His disciples, this too He gave new meaning.  As Israel came together year after year to reenact the drama and tell the story of a new life, we as the church still come together week after week to tell the story of Jesus and celebrate the new covenant: a covenant not of justification by human effort, but a covenant of grace.  A covenant of one sacrifice, once for all.  A covenant written in the blood of the Son of God.

And as we gather to tell the story this morning with Christ in our midst, 2nd Corinthians 5:17 tells us that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!  But even there, God isn’t finished making things new.  He will continue to redeem and restore until the creation has been brought back to the potential for which it was created.

In Revelation God tells us that there will be a new heaven and a new earth.  He says “Behold, I am making all things new…there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  It’s done, it’s gone…and the new has come.  So now we take communion as a symbol, but a symbol is all it is.  It’s only a shadow of what is to come.  Paul says in 1st Corinthians 13 that when the perfect comes, the imperfect disappears.  For now we know in part, but then we will know fully; now we see dimly, as in a mirror; then we will see face to face.

When we see Him face to face — when the old order of things has passed away and we sit at the table with Christ in the presence of God and all the saints who have gone before us, when these elements are no longer a symbol but a glorious and eternal reality — it will be the biggest kingdom celebration the world has ever seen, because He will have made all things new.

So we take communion to remember Christ’s death and resurrection, but also in anticipation of the coming kingdom.  So as we gather together to break bread with Christ in our midst, think about the concept of renewal.  As we invite Christ to be here with us, as we say yes to His transformation in our hearts and in our lives, looking forward to the redemption that awaits us, as we commune together as the body of Christ, day by day, moment by moment, He is making us new.

Published in: on March 10, 2013 at 1:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Church Work that Transforms

A brief “bulletin article” I wrote for my theology class.  I may or may not have turned it in last minute, so it’s not my best work, but I think there’s an important concept buried beneath the wordiness.

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“Don’t get so caught up in the work of the Lord, that you forget the Lord of the work.”  This is one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite books, No Compromise.  It helps me to reevaluate and refocus my efforts when I start feeling burnt out on church work.  It reminds me to keep God at the center where everything revolves around Him, rather than compartmentalizing my life and seeing “church work” as distinct from my daily life.

When we ask ourselves what church work should look like, we first must ask ourselves what church work really means.  What constitutes mission?  Is it a mission trip?  A children’s ministry?  Or does it encompass far more?  If we exclusively relegate church work to the sacred sphere and continue on about our secular work without letting the gospel transform the way we engage in daily living, we miss the blessing of God’s redeeming work in the world.

I love the way Chris Wright phrases it in his book The Mission of God’s People: “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.”  As God’s people – as the Church – we have the opportunity to live within His redemptive purpose.  Our whole lives are active reflections of the work that God is already doing in the world.  And the most incredible part is that He has gifted each of us with exactly the right personality traits and talents to impact the world in the special way that He calls us.  There is a place and a purpose for each one of us that we can only find when we see our lives with God at the center, impacting every arena in which we live and work and do business.

So what should church work look like?  It should look like a natural extension of our lives.  If we give every part of our lives to God for His purposes, including the “secular” realm, church work becomes an integrated part of our holistic mission rather than a compartmentalized responsibility that can burn us out easily.  So let’s take a step back, look at the big picture, and accept God’s invitation to get on board with what He is doing in the world – this is the true work of the Church.

Redemption

You said You came to give me abundant life. Why then am I living in darkness and abiding in death?

You said it was for freedom that You set me free. Why then is my spirit fettered and my soul in chains?

No sooner was Your blood shed for me, than I drew my own blood to satisfy my debt. No sooner did You purchase my freedom, than I sold myself back to the world.

You opened the prison doors to a new life of promise, yet I forfeit the possibilities by enslaving myself time and time again.

How You must grow weary of bringing back this wayward heart. Come in search of me yet again, Father.

As Hosea redeemed Gomer though she enslaved herself — as You liberated Your people Israel from their self-imposed captivity — so also redeem me.

Published in: on September 22, 2011 at 12:36 am  Leave a Comment  
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