Tag Archives: Sin

Masking Tape Mess

For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.
Romans 7:18-19 (NIV)

For most of my childhood there was a line of masking tape on the floor in the doorway to my brothers’ bedroom. My bedroom was across the hall. The masking tape was the visual border my brothers placed at the entrance of their bedroom sanctuary. I was told, and reminded regularly, that I was never to cross that masking tape without their permission and presence. Their room was sacred space and it was off limits to me.

So, naturally, I snuck into their room every chance I got.

It’s silly isn’t it? The rules telling us what not to do stirs inside of us the desire to do (and get away with) the very thing the rule is made to prohibit us from doing. The small town where Wendy and I live has a long tradition of being a religious community. The kids in our community are raised feeling pressure of the community to be “good” kids and “Christian” kids. Parents have told me that what their “good Christian” kids now do is to have one social media account to broadcast their “good” kid image to the world, but then they have a secret social media account on the same platform to get away with all the “bad” things they want to say, show, share and sext with their friends.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s a perfect word picture of the human nature problem that Paul is getting at in today’s chapter.

A few weeks ago my friend Katie presented a word picture that I love. The law, she said, is an x-ray. It shows us what’s broken, but it’s not going to heal us. The doctor is not going to wrap the x-ray around your arm in order to heal the break.

For a long time institutional Christianity and its adherents (myself included, I confess) have given the world the perception that being a follower of Jesus is just another religion with another set of rules. Yet when I read Jesus’ teaching and study His example, He is always about freeing me from the silly, broken system of rule-keeping that only seems to feed this insidious, secret desire to do the very things I’m not supposed to do. Jesus calls me to something higher; Something that C.S. Lewis described as “further up and further in.” Self-sacrificing Love, permeating grace, and radical forgiveness that is led by Spirit, built on Truth, and fueled by resurrection Life.

The further I leave behind legalism and religious rule keeping, the more I embrace and experience where Jesus is calling me to follow, the less I feel of that pesky desire to step across the masking tape.

90 M.P.H. Down a Dead End Street

Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness.
Romans 6:19 (NIV)

It is one of those moments in life that is indelibly etched in my memory. Madison was about six years old or so and was sitting next to me as I shuffled through some new photographs that I’d just picked up from being developed (before digital cameras, we had to take rolls of film to get developed and wait for them). There was a photograph of me in the stack and Madison picked it up and held it up with a loud giggle. “Look,” she said. “It’s FAT DADDY!”

Ugh.

Throughout this life journey I have warred with my natural human appetites like every other human being on the face of the planet. I have lost many battles along the way. As a child I was exposed to pornography, and it secretly fed the seemingly insatiable cravings of a young man’s sexual appetite for many years. As a young husband and father trying hard to suppress and control my sexual appetites, I began feeding a different appetite. This time it was my craving for food and for sweets in particular. The result was Fat Daddy.

Through my battles with personal appetites I’ve experienced the reality that the pleasure from indulging my appetites is subject to the law of diminishing returns. I’ve observed this to be true no matter which appetite I indulge: my taste buds, my sex glands, my adrenaline glands, my need for security, my desire to control, my need to be loved, or any other appetite known to humanity.

I start with a craving. I indulge that craving and I feel a burst of pleasure. My craving is satiated for a moment. Slowly and subtly, the law of diminishing returns set in. What was such a blissfully guilty pleasure for a moment now feels, well, normal. My natural craving ups the ante. My brain and spirit collude to agree that if a little guilty pleasure didn’t do that much harm, then just a little more can’t be that bad for me. This cycle slowly repeats itself until I find myself way down the road in a place I never expected, nor wanted, to be experiencing really negative consequences for myself and the ones I most love in the world.

This is the very thing that Paul is addressing in today’s chapter of his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome. He uses language and an analogy that all of his readers could understand. Slavery was a common, everyday reality in the world at that time. It was an essential part of the economy in the Roman Empire. There were even “white collar” slaves as former soldiers, physicians, and accountants were often slaves. One could even offer oneself to any number of slave positions in order to have work and the security of basic needs met. All you had to do is give up your freedom and subject yourself to being the controlled property of another. Of course this included your master’s legal right to punish you, torture you, sexually exploit you and summarily execute you at will. A person offering themselves into slavery would end up in very different circumstances depending on the master to whom they offered themselves.

Now Paul tells his readers “you’ve offered yourselves as slaves to sin and to ever increasing wickedness.” There’s the feeding of natural appetites and it’s law of diminishing returns that I have experienced multiple times with very different appetites. Every person I’ve ever known who has followed the path of indulgence and addiction will also tell you that they ended up enslaved to their appetite(s). One of my favorite lyrics is from Bob Dylan describing a person following their amorous appetites into a marital affair:

I took you home from a party and we kissed in fun
A few stolen kisses and no harm was done
Instead of stopping when we could we went right on
Till suddenly we found that the brakes were gone.

You belong to someone else, and I do too
It’s just crazy bein’ here with you
As a bad motorcycle with the devil in the seat
Going ninety miles an hour down a dead end street
Ninety miles an hour down a dead end street.

There is “the cycle” speeding me down the road to a place I never expected, nor wanted, where I will experience really painful consequences for myself and the ones I most love in the world.

Paul now urges me to make a different choice. He urges me to offer myself to God to be controlled by righteousness which leads to increasing measures of Life.

This morning in the quiet I can’t help but find myself looking back with regret at the foolish ways I have repeatedly “offered myself’ to my appetites along my life journey, and the dead end streets where I crashed. But, it doesn’t end there. I am also looking back at the crash sites where there stands one of those little wooden crosses to mark the spot. This cross marks the place where I followed Paul’s words from today’s chapter: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

To what, or to whom, am I offering myself?

Featured photo courtesy of Bob Dass via Flickr

Well…Sh!t

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.
Romans 5:12 (NIV)

I had a friend hit rock bottom. I’d suspected it for some time. In fact I had just mentioned my fears to Wendy a few days before. I could hear it in the voice and in the things that were said, and left unsaid, in our conversations. I sensed the spiritual tremors before the big one hit. I got the desperation call while I was standing on the jet bridge getting on a plane. My friend’s life was spiraling out of control.

Millions of people have reclaimed various forms of sanity, sobriety, and life through working what’s known as the Twelve Steps. It’s famous for people who are dealing with addictions in various forms, although I’ve known several people who have walked the Twelve Steps journey simply to experience it for themselves, and have found it profoundly profitable in their lives and relationships.

The first step of the Twelve Steps is simply this: “We admitted we were powerless against [insert your own tragic weakness here] – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

“Sin” is such a hard word to wrestle with in today’s culture of perpetual positive reinforcement. We like to gloss over, excuse, diminish, contextualize, ignore, and deny. Perhaps it’s the sense of judgment and the fact that it’s quite often been weaponized and used by the minions of legalism [see yesterday’s post] to assert power and control. Ironic, isn’t it? “Sin” can be leveraged for purposes that are, well, sinful. (I think there’s a good script waiting to be written on that theme!)

If it’s possible, I’d like to lay aside our preconceived notions of sin, for a moment. In fact, for the rest of this post I’m simply going to substitute the word shit for sin. Along my life journey I’ve found that the path of following Jesus and the journey of the Twelve Steps both ask of followers to begin by owning our shit:

  • I know the right thing to do, but I don’t do it.
  • I know I should quit, but I can’t.
  • As hard as I try to love him/her, I end up hurting him/her instead.
  • I’ve been hanging on to a secret that’s eating away at me from the inside.
  • I keep making the same mistake and ending up in the same shitty place.
  • I repeatedly use [choose from list below] like a drug to give me a moment of feeling good (or feeling nothing); Anything but the shit I don’t want to feel, face, or deal with:
    • Food
    • Alcohol
    • Drugs
    • Sex/Porn
    • Nothing: passivity, sleep, zoning out
    • Ceaseless entertainment
    • Acquisition of money and wealth
    • Acquisition of things
    • Acquisition of attention, popularity, and/or “Likes”
    • Success, career
    • Power and control
    • Anger
    • Relationships
    • Adrenaline and thrill-seeking
    • Vacations or travel
    • Hobbies
    • Sports
    • Religion
    • Appearance
    • Physical fitness, health

I could go on. Most of things on this list can be good, healthy, and Life-giving in proper doses and in a healthy context. I’ve observed along my life journey that most of the shit in our lives comes from taking a natural appetite and indulging it to unhealthy proportions.

So what do we do with the shit in our lives? Because we all have our shit. I can, perhaps, manage perceptions and appearances for a period of time, but the shit starts piling up and, at some point, life gets unmanageable. Which is when we have to honestly own our own shit, and admit that it’s not working.

Now we’re at the first step.

In today’s chapter Paul begins to help us understand how our shit fits into the Great Story and exactly why Jesus came and sacrificed Himself.

In the quiet this morning I’m reminded of Jesus’ first encounter with Simon Peter on the shores of Galilee. Having experienced a miraculous catch, Peter falls to his knees in front of Jesus and says, “Stay away from me. You have no idea the shit in my life.”

And I imagine Jesus smiling as he whispers to Himself, “Oh yeah. I can work with this. He’s one of mine.”

Fail, Rinse, and Repeat

Now when all this was finished, all Israel who were present went out to the cities of Judah and broke down the pillars, hewed down the sacred poles, and pulled down the high places and the altars throughout all Judah and Benjamin, and in Ephraim and Manasseh, until they had destroyed them all.
2 Chronicles 31:1 (NRSVCE)

I decided to become a follower of Jesus when I was a young man. As I began to walk this new journey there were a number of behavioral patterns in my life that I knew I needed to change. There were thoughts, words, and behaviors that were incongruent with the teachings of Jesus. Just like last week’s post I felt a certain internal conviction that I needed to “carry out the filth from the holy place.”

Some of these behavioral patterns were easy to remedy. I simply willed myself to behave differently and it happened. Other behavioral patterns weren’t so easily changed. For years I had fed certain natural appetites in unhealthy ways. These behaviors gave certain levels of comfort, pleasure, and masked some deep soul wounds in ways I didn’t even fathom. With the best of intentions I committed myself to changing the behavior only to find myself, in short order, back doing the same thing I vowed I wouldn’t do anymore.

In today’s chapter we read about the aftermath of King Hezekiah’s homecoming Passover festival. He’d invited all the Hebrew people scattered in the region to return to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast which commemorated God delivering the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. It was a huge success. Revival broke out. The people were humbled and recommitted themselves to the Lord. They repented of their idolatry and went out to tear down their pagan idols. They were going to change their ways!

But wait a minute. Haven’t we read this somewhere before? The people repented of their idolatry during the reign of Asa back in chapter 15. And again during the reign of Jehoshaphat in chapter 19. And again during the reign of Joash in chapter 24. Each time they repented, vowed to give up their idols and follow God. Then they find themselves right back in their idolatrous ways.

Conviction. Repentance. Commitment. Obedience. Temptation. Disobedience.

Rinse, and repeat.

Oh man, do I get that. Along my journey I’ve battled my own demons in the form of appetites out of control. I’ve found myself cycling around and around and around with these unhealthy thoughts, words, actions, and relationships. I feel like a total failure. Here I am again. Ugh.

Looking back now from almost 40 years in the journey here’s what I’ve learned:

  • The cycle is a natural part of the journey. There are lessons to be learned in it. There are lessons that can only be learned in the on-going struggle against our own out-of-control appetites.
  • The cyclical journey and on-going struggle led me on a long slog to dig deeper (multiple counselors and mentors), search farther (reading, studying, friends, accountability, support groups), and to become more brutally honest with myself about my own weaknesses.
  • Plumbing the depths of my depravity led to a deeper understanding of, and experience with, God’s grace and mercy.
  • Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you’re truly ready to change.
  • With each failure, each renewed commitment, and each return to the path of repentance it was hard to see that I was getting anywhere at all but in hindsight I can see that this wayfaring pilgrim was making slow progress towards addressing the core issues that lay beneath my surface behaviors.

This morning I’m recognizing that the people of ancient Judah were a macrocosm of the human struggle against our human weaknesses and out-of-control appetites. Another call to repentance, another revival, another turn away from what was tripping them up. Somehow I don’t think this is the last time. The cycle of struggle was pointing them and me to a very important truth. I can’t do it on my own.

I need a Savior.

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Overturning the Scales on the Spiritual Economy

There is, however, some good in you.
2 Chronicles 19:3 (NIV)

In the past few months my past has resurfaced. It happens once in a while. My many failures are a matter of public record. I have spoken openly about them. For certain individuals my record makes me questionable, and every so often the questions come around again.

I find spiritual economics to be a fascinating thing; The way in which we determine, quantify, and respond to the “good” and “bad” (or “righteousness” and “sin”) within ourselves and others. The way we use key indicators within our spiritual economy to determine our view of everyone and everything around us.

The Chronicler and his ancient world had a very ordered system. He dictates for us whether Kings were winners and losers in the spiritual economy. The good and bad are spelled out in black and white terms. In the previous chapter Jehoshaphat made an alliance with Ahab, so in today’s chapter the Seer Jehu calls him out for his “bad,” but then declares “There is, however, some good in you.” The rest of the chapter goes on to describe Jehoshaphat’s exemplary efforts to promote and improve domestic justice in his kingdom. We the readers feel the scales on the spiritual economy tipping back and forth.

It’s no wonder that to this day we perpetuate variations on this system of weighing and judging people on our personal, spiritual economic scales. It’s a very human thing to do. Yet, one of the radical things that Jesus brought to the table was a radically new spiritual economy. He turned the system upside down. In Jesus’ spiritual economy there was no one who measured up on their own. No personal righteousness was enough to tip the scales to the “good.” Every person was in need of grace and mercy. As James 2:10 says “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” So the “righteous” religious people who were “good” in the standard spiritual economic system incurred Jesus’ wrath, while He made a habit of hanging out and showing kindness, love, grace, forgiveness, and mercy to the “bad,” the sinful, the marginal, and the questionable.

This morning I’m once again looking back across my journey. I don’t think I would have fared particularly well in the Chronicler’s spiritual economic scale. I don’t fare particularly well in the spiritual economic scales of some of my fellow believers.

Two things come to mind as I mull these things over in my heart.

One is a passage I memorized long ago. I like how The Message puts it:

Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.
Ephesians 2:7-10

The other is these lyrics from Bob Dylan:

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea.
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there.
Other times it’s only me.
I’m hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow fallen.
Like every grain of sand.

Broken Down and Built Up Again

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.
Jeremiah 18:1-4 (NIV)

Life is a series of screw ups. Let’s face it. I like to project an image of having it all together. I’ve spent most of my life thinking that there’s some acceptable level of life perfection out there (that everyone else seemingly has) while I quietly haplessly flail my appendages behind a series  of nicely painted stage flats. I’ve come to the conclusion along the journey that the real illusion is thinking that any one is any different than me. God’s Message is perfectly clear (in several different places) on this count:

  • No temptation has seized you except what is common to all
  • There’s no one righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.”
  • All have sinned and fall short.”
  • Whoever keeps the whole law and stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

I’ve always loved the word picture God gave Jeremiah in today’s chapter. He tells Jeremiah to throw on his sandals because he was going on field trip. They end up at the house of the local potter who was working at his wheel. If you’ve ever tried your hand at a potter’s wheel you know how tricky it is. It looks so deceptively easy, but one slight miscue and the whole pot falls apart in your hands and you’re starting again from scratch.

I had a friend one time who was walking with me through a terribly difficult stretch of my life journey. I went through a litany of all the things that had gone wrong in my life, the mistakes I’d made, the consequences I was facing, and the stresses that felt as if they were tearing me apart. My friend smiled at me warmly and quietly observed that my life was breaking down, being “deconstructed” so that God could remake it like a Potter reworking the marred mess of clay in His hands.

It’s a good thing to have wise companions walking alongside you on your journey.

I find myself so drawn to this notion of the “one-and-done” transformation, the miraculous touch leading to a perfect ending, or God suddenly drawing my number in the Life lottery and suddenly everything is as it should be.

I’ve come to observe that the truth is a lot earthier, more substantive and repetitive. The word picture of the Potter and the clay is not a “once in a lifetime” deal. Rather, I find that life is a constant process of being broken down and rebuilt. My job is to allow Living Water to make me more pliable in the Potter’s hand, to release myself to the steady flow of the wheel spinning, to allow myself to be molded at the Potter’s touch; To stop resisting, even when life breaks me down again and the process starts all over.

Have a good week, friends. Here’s to being pliable.

Indulgent Thought Both Then and Now

These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit.
Jude 1:19 (NIV)

The letter Jude wrote to Jesus’ followers in that day was prompted by one specific reason. There were individuals coming to various local gatherings of Jesus’ followers and spreading the belief that if all their sins are forgiven then they have carte blanche to do whatever they want. In the minds of these individuals they had a spiritual “get out of jail free” card and they were going to use it wherever their unbridled appetites took them. This was, of course, a tempting message for those longing to unbridle their appetites with a neighborhood shrine prostitute. The result was trouble in River (of Life) City.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” we are told in the book of Ecclesiastes. Get any group of humans together and you’ll find a few (or more) individuals working the angles, looking for the loopholes, and seeking ways to twist things to their own advantage. This is human nature. The skewed thinking Jude addresses was not an isolated issue. Paul addressed similar troubles and similar lines of thought in his letters to Jesus’ followers in Rome and in the city of Corinth.

Fast forward 1500 years and we see the Roman Catholic church turning such thought into a lucrative racketeering opportunity. In those days the church sold “Indulgences.” These indulgences were basically guaranteed forgiveness, an actual “get out of hell free” card which could be used on demand with any future sin you might commit.

“Headed to your brother’s bachelor party at Brunhilda’s Bawdy Bordello? Stop by the church and stock up on indulgences, then have a great time!”

“Your friend’s spouse has been overly flirtatious lately and you’re tempted to see just how far things might go? Don’t go there until you buy yourself an indulgence from Brother Maynard over at the monastery! Come to think of it, buy two: one for you and one for your lover. You don’t want the threat of their soul being in mortal danger to cool off your mutually hot passions!”

Back in the day this lucrative money-maker for the Roman Catholic church and it was predicated on the same twisted thinking as what Jude was addressing in his day. In fact, it was this very religious racketeering that led Marty Luther to publish his medieval blog post on the local church door in Wittenberg (see featured photo) 500 years ago this October. His “95 Theses” post went viral and led to the Protestant Reformation.

Of course, along my life journey I’ve come to understand that human appetites come in all forms. There are “pretty sins” which we commonly overlook because they are covered in the religious veneer of self-righteousness. “Pretty sins” are simply appetites of human pride and ego-centric power which lead me to diminish and judge others in order to exalt myself and my ego. It was these same appetites which Jesus condemned in His rant toward the religious people of His day. Those “pretty sin” appetites are every bit as powerful and tempting as the “ugly sins” we routinely march out in order to shame people (and make ourselves feel better). In fact, I believe the pretty sins and their underlying appetites may be even more insidious and more dangerous.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. People are people. There is nothing new under the sun. The same human foibles Jude warned against in his letter were present in Martin Luther’s day, and they are present today. This morning is a heart-check for me. I don’t want Jude’s warning to stimulate my “pretty sin” appetites and send me off on a personal witch hunt looking for heinous local heretics who think such things today. I find myself more inwardly focused and asking:

“Are there any places in my life that I am glossing over destructive thoughts and behavior under the indulgent defense of ‘Oh well, I’m forgiven!‘?”