Monthly Archives: May 2015


What is sin? It’s not that simple.

It used to be easy to say what is sin. Then Jesus came along and messed it all up.

What is sin? In the old days it was easy. There was Hebrew law, and whatever was against Hebrew law was sin. The end. Theoretically, if you knew the law, you could follow the law and poof! No sin. If you didn’t follow the law, there were human consequences— anything from offering a sacrifice to stoning at the city gate. By the time Jesus was born, the teams were well established: sinners on the left, self-appointed righteous on the right, and let’s not think too much about the parts of scripture that say things like, “they all have turned away” and “no one does good; not even one.”

But then, everything changed.

Suddenly there was a prophet running around performing miraculous signs and wonders, only instead of saying the things he was supposed to say— like, “The love of God is upon the righteous, the pharisees; but the tax collectors and prostitutes will know the bitterness of his wrath,”— it was just the opposite. To the righteous he was saying, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” while to the sinful it was, “Then neither do I condemn you.” To make matters worse, he said, it’s not just about human consequences any more, now it’s about all eternity, and once again, the worst news is for the A-students: “How will you escape being condemned to hell?” and “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

What happened? What about those super clear bright-line laws, given to Moses, enduring for thousands of years? A big part of the last 23 books in the New Testament are an extended effort to try and thrash out an answer to that very question. Christ exhaled grace and truth together as naturally as the air he breathed, but the rest of us have been struggling with it for thousands of years now. Here are three things that, in our times, I think we tend to forget:

  • The law isn’t “whittled down”; it’s all or nothing
  • Sin still exists and does damage
  • There is no more bright line
Not whittled down

I sometimes hear Christ described as if he were some sort of “book-keeper in chief”. Like his coming to earth, his sinless life, his death and resurrection, all amount to some grand simplification of the tax code: strike a few confusing line items over here, close a few loopholes over there, shake out the dead wood, and there you have it: the “new law”. It’s basically the same arrangement as before, but now it’s non-Christians on the left and Christians on the right, and list of stuff we gotta do is somewhat shorter.

He didn’t come so we could go on condemning others and congratulating ourselves: he came to show us that in God’s eyes, we are all the same.

The problem with this line of reasoning is, Christ didn’t come to shake up and simplify the tax code: he came to abolish taxes. He didn’t come to whittle away at the law and make it easier to comply: he came to set us free from the law. He didn’t come so we could go on condemning others and congratulating ourselves: he came to show us that in God’s eyes, we are all the same.

That the whole law is still in effect, we have abundant evidence in scripture:

  • For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law. (Matthew 5:18)
  • For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (James 2:10)
  • Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ. (Galatians 5:3-4)

That we are free from the whole of it is also well supported:

  • It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)
  • Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:2)

Many of us live as if we are free from certain sections of the law, yet hold condemnation in our hearts for those who transgress against other sections of the law. In so doing, if we believe that only certain sections of the law are still “in effect”, then we ourselves are transgressing pretty seriously against one of the major points of Christ’s message.

The sin is still out there

The Hebrew laws are a favorite objection to Christian faith, because the world has changed a lot since they were written and few take the trouble to ponder how they would have sounded, or what they would have meant, to the original audience against a backdrop of Hammurabi and Draco (of “draconian justice” fame). But what’s clear to me when I read them are the grace notes of protection from the things that can harm us here on Earth.

Even though most of us no longer live under those laws, the potential for sin to harm us still carries all of its full force. For me, the entire initial draw of Christianity was the news that another way was open to me than the one I’d been on, that I could be free from the monkey of sin on my back. When scripture records Christ talking to a sinner about their sin, I’ve been there, and I can sometimes feel the waves of their relief rising from the page.

Far from the antagonistic talk of damnation and hellfire that many of us imagine, when done the way Jesus intended, a talk about freedom from sin should be a time of rejoicing for all concerned, as it was for Zacchaeus the tax collector, or for the woman at the well, or for the woman accused of adultery, or for me.

In my view, Christ urges us to help our brother remove the speck from his eye, not to make him more acceptable to God, but because having a speck in your eye is painful. And the process of having it removed is, in the main, a tremendous relief. If it turns into a combative process fraught with resistance, antagonism and hostility, it might be time for the doctor, not to blame the patient, but to question whether she’s doing it right.

No bright line

So, back to the original question: how do we know what is sin? So many of us want to answer this question with reference to Hebrew law, or some subset thereof. We have been trained to think that way by our culture and our pastors and our own study of scripture. But there are only two ways to reference Hebrew law:

  1. Certain whittled-down parts of it, which scripture does not support as discussed above, or
  2. All of it, which none of us live by.

Instead, the same New Testament scriptures that free us from the law give us some new ways of understanding what is sin:

  1. Sin is whatever causes damage
    “By their fruits ye shall know them,” says scripture. It’s talking about false prophets in Matthew, but it’s just as applicable to us (Luke 6:45) and our actions (Galatians 5:19-23). If something in your life is producing a harvest of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, then you want to think about that when evaluating whether it is a sin. Contrariwise, if it is producing hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like… well, then you want to think about whether it needs to go, no matter how outwardly pious it might seem.
  2. We each determine what is sin for us, and it’s nobody else’s business
    People get really mad about this one. You hear terms like “accommodating the culture” and “being lukewarm for the gospel” and “moral relativism” and so on. But for people who are mad about this way of defining sin under the new covenant, your beef is with folks like Paul and James:
    – “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God… everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:22-23)
    – “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (James 4:16)

I think the point of all of it is, there’s no more room for the pharisees among us in God’s not-so-new economy. If you want to know what is sin, it’s many thousands of years gone by since it was as simple as finding a verse and then pointing a finger.

The cost of serving Christ

Smelly clothes and the cost of serving Christ

Shane Claiborne knows about the cost of serving Christ. Twenty years ago, as a college student in Philadelphia, he learned that a group of homeless families, sheltering inside an abandoned Catholic cathedral, were 48 hours from eviction. Thinking of Matthew 25:40, he rallied to action, plastering his campus with fliers proclaiming, “Jesus is being kicked out of the church!” So was born a movement called The Simple Way; the entire trajectory of his life was set by that initial act of obedience.

Glyn Franks knows about the cost of serving Christ too. Founder of “Second Chances Bread of Life”, he was served with eviction papers for attracting homeless with his food distribution.

If we are to be true followers of Christ, it may not cost us our whole lives (as it did for Shane), it may not cost us our homes (as it may for Glyn), but it is going to cost us something. We will have to give up things we would rather keep. We will have to draw near to people we would rather not. We will have a cross, in whatever form it takes, that we must daily take up and bear.

There is going to be a cost

A pastor friend likes to pose the question, “If you were on trial as a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” The truth is, my life, in most ways, looks an awful lot like the lives of my unbelieving friends. Yet if Christ paid a price— the ultimate price— for his message, then why should I expect that I can have everything the world values and still consider myself as a bearer of that same message?

In fact, in Luke 14, Christ urges would-be followers to first sit down and decide if they are up for it, with the rather extreme summary, “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” If this standard is to be read as a literal, material one, then I don’t know any true disciples of Christ. No one I know has taken a vow of poverty.

Speaking personally, I have made my peace with this verse by an attitude of heart surrender, that nothing I have is withheld from God, no area of my life is “off-limits” if God were to call me to use it, or even sacrifice it, for his purposes. The time that I spend writing this blog is actually part of that; carving out that time is a sacrifice of sleep or family time or both that does not come cheap. It is an ongoing effort for me, and a regular area of prayer, to review my life and look for new areas that God is calling into submission.

Going among the undesirables

As is abundantly illustrated by the story of Glyn Frank’s eviction proceedings, there is no love lost towards the homeless in our society. Nobody liked homeless people back in biblical times either; that is not a new problem. The book of James makes the point specifically, right down to the smelly clothes:

Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in…

And yet, says the scripture, we are to welcome the beggar just as graciously as the rich man, if not more so. This is far from a theoretical question. My church is in an urban area where we are privileged to have homeless attendees with some regularity. Three weeks ago the police showed up mid-service on a Sunday morning, having received a complaint that we were busing homeless people in to attend. We hadn’t been, but what if we were? Surely it should not be a criminal matter to show mercy and compassion toward the down-and-out. 

But the challenge of overcoming the distaste we have for certain of our fellow men goes so much deeper than that. Our aversion toward the homeless pales in comparison to our outright rancor toward those with differing belief systems and behaviors, and in my personal experience, this is just as true among Christians as anyone.  The passion we feel is a good thing, but it can be wrongly applied.

I once met a missionary in Mexico who gave me a catalog of his life-long prejudice against Mexicans. But living and working among them, those prejudices had fallen away, one by one, until none were left. Much great work of the kingdom was the final result, but the first step was to overcome his natural instincts, and to go serve those he scorned. In the words of Christ, “Go ye and do likewise.”

No matter who it is that ignites your passions— be it liberals or conservatives, feminists or fundamentalists— drawing near to them, serving them, and showing love to them is the only Christ-honoring solution.

Be loved. I double-dog dare you.

Be loved. I double-dog dare you.

Show of hands: if a sweet little girl mistook you for a famous movie actor, how many would be flattered? Probably most? At one point in my life, I would have assumed that. And how many would react with shame? How many would feel hot tears of hurt and anger welling in their eyes? How many would perceive mockery and want to lash out?

Once, I couldn’t even have conceived of these responses, but lately I’ve begun to wonder: they might even be the majority reaction. Because here’s the problem: to believe that someone else could think well of us, we have to think well of ourselves. To believe that we can be loved, we have to love ourselves. And that, I think, is a lot less common than people realize. How much more difficult, then, to be able to accept and believe in the love of a perfect and infinite God? This is the reality seen in scripture. But, like a doctor who must wait for some natural recovery before the body can tolerate surgery, I think God’s biggest challenge with many of us is to heal us enough that we can tolerate his healing: is to grow a kernel of love inside us large enough that we will be able to tolerate his love.

Beating us over the head

I was reflecting on this recently in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians; specifically, in the part I had always blown off before. You know how, when you’re having a serious discussion, you have to kind of ease into it? Like, “Hey, how ya doing, howsa wife, howsa kids, great, me too, well, listen, here’s what I wanted to talk about.” There’s some small talk. It doesn’t mean anything. So that’s what I used to do with this scripture. I would just kind of mentally skip over it, like “that’s just the nice pious-sounding intro before he gets into the REAL scripture.” Here’s a sample:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.

Now, I’m not going to read out the whole thing, but it goes on, and on, and on like that. Easy to blow past, but let’s dig in for a second:

  • He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ (v3)
  • He chose us to be holy and blameless in his sight (v4)
  • In love He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ (v5)
  • His glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the one he loves (v6)
  • In him we have redemption (v7)
  • The riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding (v8)
  • We were chosen for the praise of his glory (v11-12)
  • Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal (v13)
  • The Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance (v14)

Do you see what I’m saying? Every verse is chock-a-block with the reality that God’s love for us knows no bounds. It’s like Paul is trying to beat us over the head with it, verse after verse, because he knows how resistant people are to this message.

The thing in us that hates us

Our world is not much of a place for unconditional love, especially lately. People who were supposed to be there for us, aren’t. Mothers leave, fathers leave. School friends turn against us and bully us on Twitter. Eventually, we internalize all of that external rejection, and then the voices in our heads become our own worst enemy. Gene Wolfe imagined it as an internal torturer, calling it “the thing in you that hates you.”

Whatever replaces “being loved” in your life, more likely than not, there is a multi-billion dollar industry supplying it to you.

Whatever may be wrong in our lives, don’t we say, “It’s my problem, it’s up to me to fix it?” But the truth is, no matter who you are, no matter how powerful and clever and creative you are, you didn’t create your sin by yourself, and you are not going to solve it by yourself. If you’re into alcohol, there’s a multi-billion dollar industry making it and serving it to you. If it’s shopping or food or pornography or gambling, there are multi-billion dollar industries for all of that too. Drugs are a multi-billion dollar black market. You didn’t come up with that sin by yourself.

A man in a twelve-step recovery program was once asked “Which step takes the longest?” Do you know what he said? It’s step 1: “we recognized that we were powerless, and that our lives had become unmanageable.” Other steps, people may take a month, or two months, or a year, but that step 1… people will stay out in the howling storm, demons of addiction shrieking around their ears, shouting how they’ve got it under control and they don’t need help, for a decade, or two decades, or five.

Not a “nice to have”

Let’s take another look at that first passage from Ephesians that we started with: “Lord Jesus Christ”, “in Christ”, “through Jesus Christ”, “in the One he loves”, “In him”… in these two paragraphs of scripture alone, Christ is mentioned 10 times. God has a plan of redemption, but it is not one in which we save ourselves. In this plan that I am talking about, Christ is not an optional add-on. Christ is not an “also ran”. Christ is not a “nice to have”. Rather, Christ is the cornerstone. Without the power of the blood of Christ unto redemption, the whole thing would collapse. But with Christ, that which is dead in sin can be made alive. That which is lost can be saved. And even those years that were a loss to sin can be made into gain for the good of God’s kingdom.

To me, one of the most beautiful and memorable promises of scripture speaks to this exact point, in Joel 2:25, when God promises, “Then I will restore to you the years that the locust swarm devoured.” Out of soil that the devil has sown for death, God can make many good, green and living things to grow.

Resisting the unfairness of God

Learning to enjoy the massive unfairness of God

The gospel message has a problem. Always has had. Here it is: a lot of the very people who embrace it most whole-heartedly seem like they don’t really like it.

At its core, the Christian message— the “good news”— is intended for all of life’s “outsiders”: you are welcome too! So how have we gotten into the “us” vs. “them” mindset— insiders vs. outsiders— so often encountered in relations between Christians and non-Christians today? One factor, found in scripture, is that some believers can find themselves offended by the “unworthiness” of those still “in sin”— the unfairness of claiming that God’s love is for “them” as much as “us”.

Biblical Examples

Believers have never liked the breadth of God’s grace; it goes way back before Christ. Jonah is a classic example. Forget  the whale; the real story is about the prophet called to preach to people he considers undeserving. He would literally rather be thrown in the ocean to drown. Spoiler alert: when the whole city of Nineveh finally turns to God as a result of his preaching, Jonah is furious at God for showing mercy toward “them”.

Several of Christ’s parables address the same point:

  • In the prodigal son, one of the bible’s great portraits of redemption, an inescapable feature is the anger of the righteous elder brother.
  • In the vineyard laborers, the hard-working laborers grumble against the master for over-kindness; he responds, “Do you begrudge my generosity?”
Alive & Well Today

A recent study showed that atheists are nearly the least trusted group in America, ahead of only convicted criminals. Discussing the article on reddit, many posters used scripture to vociferously defend that scornful attitude. The only scripture I could think of, as I read their harsh, condemning remarks, was Romans 2:1: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else. At whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you do the very same things.”

In today’s culture wars, so much of our focus seems to be on detachment. If we can demonstrate from scripture that someone else’s behavior qualifies as a “sin”, we feel we have justified any possible range of responses without need for further reflection. But viewed in the lights of scripture, our responses may be more troubling to God— more “sinful”— than the sin that provided the justification in the first place.

If you see anyone as “enemies of Christ”, go among them, befriend them, do good to them. That’s what Jesus did for us when we were all his enemies.

We may quote Psalm 14:1 to justify our condemnation of an atheist, but can’t we, surely, keep reading for just two verses more to see that our own shortcomings are every bit as offensive? “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man… there is none who does good, not even one.” You would have to change the scripture if you wanted it to read as an indictment of atheists only. We quote scripture to call another of God’s creatures “a fool”, but in so doing, in the eyes of God, we have literally used a word, and committed an act, that Christ said was no better than murder.

A Christlike Response

It is impossible to imagine that we are more aware of, or troubled by, the world’s sin than was Christ himself. So why do we feel we can justify responses so much more stringent than his? Christ’s separation from sin manifested in his own personal obedience, not in aloofness from others less pure. It was an article of faith among First Century pharisees that intermingling with sinners was tantamount to approval of their sin and rejection of God’s law. Christ’s free intermingling with “sinners” on non-hostile terms was consistently seen by the pharisees as scandalous (see here and here and here and here, for example). Why, then, does our behavior towards the sinful of our own day resemble their attitude so much more strongly than his?

In response to the problem of error and doubt and malice, Christ came near. Into a world where “none does good, not even one,” Christ boldly came and lived and called himself by the name “son of man”. To the heavenly ear, I imagine that sounded as discordant as a pastor unapologetically proclaiming himself as “son of harlots” or “son of drug-dealers”. The words of scripture abound with tenderness for those we reject as “lost” or “fallen” or “disgraced”: “feed my lambs“, “restore them gently“, “repent and live!

If you see anyone as “enemies of Christ”, go among them, befriend them, do good to them. That’s what Jesus did for us when we were all his enemies.

Pain into beauty

Spinning pain into beauty for National Poetry Month

My nine-year-old daughter surprised me this week. April is National Poetry Month, culminating on the 30th with “Poem in Your Pocket Day“. (To observe, you choose a poem and carry it around in your pocket.) She had been looking forward to the day all week. I assumed she would choose one of our light-hearted favorites— Kenn Nesbitt’s “I Bought a Maserati“, or Shel Silverstein’s “Polar Bear in Our Frigidaire“, or pretty much anything from A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young.

Instead, when the day came, she chose— and memorized!— part of a 200-year-old composition by William Wordsworth called “Lucy“. Here is the part she chose:

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
   Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
   And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
   Half hidden from the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
   Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
   When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and oh,
   The difference to me!

After she was born, my wife was pregnant six more times. We lost them all.

What you have to know about our family is, our daughter should have been an older sister many times over. After she was born, my wife was pregnant six more times. We lost them all. Boaz, Brooklynne, Benny Kenny, Bella, Hope, and Parker. Those are the names of all our angel babies.

No one knows who Wordsworth’s Lucy was, though plenty have speculated. Most surmise that she was some early romantic love of Wordsworth’s, if she was even real at all. For my part, the only way that all the pieces fit is if she was Wordsworth’s daughter.

There are three things I can tell you about losing a child.

  1. First, much of the world is indifferent, so we treasure those few who understand with us how important they are.
  2. Second, they are never forgotten; the idea that you will “go back to normal” or “let it go” is incorrect.
  3. Third, after all the heart-wrenching grief, the one response that emerges again and again is the need for beauty.

In the initial print run of When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner included a thought experiment. What if a child were born ill and died? There would be some momentary sadness. But what if heroic doctors can postpone death? The child reaches adulthood, marries, starts a family, but then still dies in the end… Now we have an actual tragedy. 

Attitudes like this that trivialize early loss are quite common. Wordsworth’s poem captures it with the words, “She lived unknown, and few could know…” When we left the hospital after our first loss, it was an affront to find that the sun was still shining, commuters were still commuting, and the world in general was still going on its merry way, while our world was at a standstill.

In many ways, great loss is like a nightmare, but in other ways, it is like just waking up. Our eyes were suddenly open to a larger reality, to which we were previously, blissfully unaware. Seen in these new lights, much that was previously familiar took on new meaning. This included many scriptures. God’s eye, scripture assures us, is on the humblest and the least, the most forgotten. “The last shall be first.” “His eye is on the sparrow.” “A little child shall lead them.” “A stillborn child is better off than he.”

Never forgotten

For several years, my wife and I were part of a support group called Empty Cradle, founded in the early 1980s by still-grieving parents after a decade of much recommended “moving on” hadn’t worked. I believe this reflects our innermost essence where we bear the image of God. Scripture speaks over and over again about how God doesn’t forget:

  • My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:29)
  • For he has said, “Behold! I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
  • Can a mother forget the baby at her breast, and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. (Isaiah 49:15-16)

Our lives include certain practices that allow us to continue including our angel babies as part of our family. A lot of people don’t get it, and some even think it is wrong or morbid or emotionally stunted. Significantly, though, our fellow bereaved parents always understand it at once. (Interestingly, Wordsworth wrote about it too, in a different poem called “We Are Seven“.)

Bottom line: a family has who it has. For us, a line from Lilo & Stitch captures it perfectly: “This is my family. I found it all on my own. It’s little, and broken, but still good. Yeah. Still good.”

Pushing through to beauty

God creates. He can’t help it. Look around our world, and you will be awestruck by the way that beauty is lavishly, extravagantly, wastefully on display. In her masterwork Hinds’ Feet on High Places, Hannah Hurdard portrays unseen wildflowers in silent array, always shouting a praise song of beautiful color to God, and unheard water droplets tumbling down a waterfall, harmonizing in the same song.

Like Rumplestiltskin spinning straw into gold, we spin our pain into beauty.

Whether in the paint fragments of a 5000-year-old potsherd or the star pattern of the holes in a $2.50 colander at Goodwill, humanity is and always has been like that as well. We have to glorify, we have to create, we have to seek beauty, even in a workaday kitchen utensil. No where is this more clear than in an Empty Cradle group. Quilt squares and Christmas ornaments and photo montages are all part of the way that we work through our grief together. Like Rumplestiltskin spinning straw into gold, we spin our pain into beauty. Romans 12:21 says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” and this I think is what it means.

Yesterday was April 30th. We carried beautiful poems in our pockets, about the beauty that was and is, even in the midst of darkness. This morning was May 1st, and we woke at 5 a.m. to pick flowers and make May baskets for our neighbors and friends.

We are like marked men. Having lives profoundly touched by darkness, we are now capable of only two choices: to lie back and let the darkness overtake us, or to never cease in being part of the light.

What are the ways that you choose beauty to fight back against the darkness in your own life?