Tag: Sin

Introducing a new video:

We have stitched together two brief audio excerpts from prominent New York pastors Andrew Mead (Rector emeritus at Saint Thomas Church 5th Avenue) and Timothy Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian Church), that discuss the idea of Christian freedom versus bondage to sin. All the pertinent source materials are listed at the Youtube website.

From the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:
“Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us
the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known
to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns
with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and
for ever. Amen.”

Thwack!. I am enjoying a beautiful spring day, attending a minor league baseball game with my family. My attention is diverted toward my bratwurst when suddenly a shadow seems to appear above me. Is it a bird? Then fans around me gasp and lunge as the shape– now clearly baseball sized–appears to be zooming toward my head. The maroon-uniformed batter down below has hit a foul ball and its wayward trajectory is about to ruin my day, or worse. Fortunately another spectator with a glove catches the ball, snatching it out of my orbit. This man in the stand cheers and waves his catch around like a trophy. He has caught the foul ball!

This baseball memory came back to me the other day as I was in a hospital corridor. Sunlight was streaming though patient windows. Spring was in the air–until suddenly it wasn’t. For some reason the door to the surgery recovery unit was closed. As I pushed it open, I soon learned why. Wafting down the corridor was an acrid stench that almost felled me. It was like bowel gas mixed with something infectious, like the purulent stinky drainage from a boil or the rot of an infected abdominal wound. It slapped me in the face and drove away all other thoughts. I started to hold my breath as I exited the unit. Soon I was back outside in the sunlight and the fresh blossom-scented spring air.

The word “foul” has layers of meanings that are worthy of reflection. When we go astray (like foul balls) we have deviated from God’s intended trajectory for us. It has happened to all of us: “all we like sheep have gone astray”, as you may remember from Handel’s famous chorus which is taken straight from Isaiah 53. Paul in Romans 3 also reminds us that we have all “fallen short” of God’s glory.

What is worse, though, is that our misdeeds make us, in a sense, smell bad–we “stink to high heaven” as an old saying goes. In Isaiah 65, God says the following of his wayward people. Here I use the Living Bible translation, for its descriptiveness:
“These people are a stench in my nostrils, an acrid smell that never goes away.”
When we stray from God’s will, we become like that odor I encountered in the hospital. Or like my dog, who sometimes on walks through wooded parks will suddenly dart into some leaves and roll in the liquifying remains of some dead rodent, thereby acquiring an awful odor. (When this happens, he finds that he very quickly gets some kind of bath).

But there is a promise to the faithful. Through the prophet Hosea, God exhorts His people to return to Him, and promises to make Israel smell good: “His splendor will be like an olive tree,
    his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon.” In Ezekiel God says, “As a pleasing aroma I will accept you, when I bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you have been scattered. And I will manifest my holiness among you in the sight of the nations.”

Blast forward four centuries to the New Testament, and we find that the apostle Paul used the idea of fragrant burnt offerings as a metaphor for the Christian life. He asked his readers to become “living sacrifices”–they are to be as consumed by passion for the things of God as to be on fire, and as dead to self as the animals consumed by that fire on the altar.

“But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?”
(2 Corinthians 2:14-16, Holy Bible, English Standard Version).

The Living Bible clarifies verse 16: “To those who are not being saved, we seem a fearful smell of death and doom, while to those who know Christ we are a life-giving perfume.”

So, don’t be like my dog, or like that festering sore. Instead turn from worldly ways and embrace God’s love; let God bathe away your stench. (Though I won’t pursue this further in this little meditation, I will mention in passing to any non-Christian readers that the Christian initiation rite of baptism is a rich metaphor for such a spiritual bath–consider looking into this further).

I’ll conclude with another passage: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
(Ephesians 5:1-2)

(photo by “R4vi” from London, UK, obtained from Wikimedia Commons and used in accordance with Creative Commons 2.0 license)

“Would you like me to take a picture for you?” I asked a group of 20 somethings, who seemed to be struggling to get a picture. I was at the Grand Canyon, snapping photos with my family. “No thanks,” one replied, “we’ve got a selfie stick.”

At every turnout, the magnificent colors and jagged contours of the canyon were a backdrop for people who seemed to be standing, alone or in groups, wielding their telescopic wands with smartphones stuck on the end. It looks goofy to my old fashioned eyes (I still lug a cumbersome DSLR around when I go to places like the Grand Canyon). But I must grant that it is simple and effective. It’s a brilliant invention. I will probably own one at some point.

The selfie stick has exploded in popularity in the past couple years. “Invented” in 2014 (though similar devices date from many years ago), it is now ubiquitous. The selfie is ubiquitous. According to Travel Weekly, 300 million selfies have been uploaded to Instagram as of June 2015. Never has snapping a pic of yourself been easier.

And just like that, one more way of interacting with others is gone. No one needs an outside person to stop and do an act of kindness–“no thank you, we have a selfie stick.”

As a society this may be seen as emblematic of a fundamental problem with our growing addiction to mobile technology: as individuals we are self absorbed (these tools have apparently been dubbed “narcissticks” according to this New York Times editorial), and some would say that we now have a “selfie culture”. Technology has allowed us to become increasingly disengaged from others, even as ironically we are addicted to the facebook posts and Twitter feeds of countless “friends” scattered across the globe. Unless we fight it, our focus is ever drawn down into our devices, into an endless reverberation of our own likes, thoughts, and desires.

By the way, I mean it when I say “we”–I am no cyber saint here. I must cry “mea culpa” as well: I take selfies. I have had dates with my wife in which I can’t resist the urge to get out my iPhone–and that isn’t because she is not lovely and interesting (she is!). My own kids tend to spend most of their vacation days looking at their devices regardless of how breathtaking the scenery around them may be.

If this self absorption is a problem, it is not new. Self-centeredness is a primordial element of the human story (recall the tale of that wretched apple seized by a man who wanted God’s knowledge for himself). The selfie is but a new and more democratic iteration of the time honored self portrait, or the bust, or the thrill of being on-stage. Although, given its intentional impermanence and nonchalance, it might be more accurate to say that the selfie is reminiscent more of “Kilroy was here”, scratched on pixels rather than walls (variants of this sort of thing can be found in antiquity). It is humans saying, “look! I was here! I matter!”

This brings suddenly to my recollection the fallen statue of King Ozymandias, whose decaying selfie was powerfully memorialized by poet Percy Bysshe Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Most of us (fortunately) aren’t tyrants. We know that our selfies are destined for nowhere glorious. Our “friends” will glance past them in a microsecond, or maybe linger long enough to click the “like” button. If really fortunate maybe someone will pause and comment, perhaps just to say, “OMG I was at the Canyon a week ago!” Then they will move on. It will take seconds, not centuries, for the significance of the selfie moment to fade. We know this but can’t resist the urge to keep doing it. It is the way of the self absorbed. It is our way. “Look, I was here. I matter!”

This is why Christians have a story to tell. Have you become a Christian? Have you been adopted into God’s family? If so, you matter, because you have God as an audience. When you become a Christian, your cosmic portrait will never fade. Unlike your snapshot of yourself against the Grand Canyon, you won’t disappear from God’s in-basket in a few minutes. Your name won’t be blotted from the great Book of Life.

But, the next time you are at the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls or wherever, if you see a handsome bearded 40-something with a charming family approach you at a scenic overlook, don’t run. Instead take pity on us and agree to snap our picture. I’ll show you how my clunky DSLR camera works.

According to Christianity Today writer Ed Stetzer, the fallout from the Ashley Madison leak may affect many Christian leaders. He has estimated that as many as 400 pastors may be resigning soon. We have already seen a tragic suicide of a Christian leader (see our earlier posting). More stories will be coming to light, possibly even in a church near you. You may read Mr. Stetzer’s article at Christianity Today.

Just a day or two ago, a friend alerted me to this letter, relayed by Glenn Greenwald, which is from a distraught female who pours out her reasons for using the service, and how she now faces loss of a job, a job ironically that involves promoting marriage: “I expect to be ridiculed by colleagues, to lose my job, and to be publicly shamed, especially as a hypocrite.”

This exposes what is a clear Achilles heel for Christians, and really also for anyone else who tries to live up to a higher standard. We are imperfect and fallen. If we set our standards high, we will fail, and thereby open ourselves up to condemnation as hypocrites. This seems to be a poison that differentially destroys the lives, reputations, and witness of the “good guys”. Those who have no high moral profile can shrug and say, “so what? At least I am not a hypocrite.”

There are few delights as intensely and loudly expressed as the orgasmic glee that the world shows when a Christian leader or other paragon of morality is exposed as a hypocrite, and is silenced. Mr Greenwald opines: As I acknowledged, there is an arguably valid case for such outing: namely, where someone with public influence is hypocritically crusading for legally enforced morality, holding themselves out as beacons of virtues they in fact violate, and harming others through that advocacy. It’s possible this emailer falls within that category: She says her past work involved “encouraging traditional marriage for the good of children.”.

Public shame and guilt are, of course, only possible when there is a high standard in place. In a situation where there is no such standard, wrongdoers may be–and are–shameless.

The flip side of the Christians’ hypocrisy issue is the basic problem of moral darkness for everyone. We are all sinners, and this includes Christians and non-Christians alike. We are impure, smudged by sins big and small. Injustice, suffering, addiction, lechery, and malicious deeds engulf our lives or the lives of those we love. Evil seems to reign everywhere. Ours is often a bleak and dark world. Even the torch bearers can succumb to the lure of darkness. Does that mean there is no light? The question for the fallen (and the falling) is this: Should we all just wallow in sin, shrug when lives are ruined, and turn a blind eye to injustice and evil? (In a similar vein, should you ignore the advice of a doctor who is fat or smokes, even if that advice is good?)

Or should we strive for something better and nobler? We Christians may not perfectly live up to our ideals, but at least we have have them. We recognize a a higher good toward which we are striving. Our own darkness has been pierced by a flickering light–the light of God’s love–and we wish to share that light with others, in order to make this dark world brighter.

Though I agree with the overall gist of his essay, that we should not judge too harshly the private lives of others, I take issue with that statement by Mr Greenwald which I quoted above. Perhaps it was not fully thought out, but at best it is just plain silly, at worst, beastly. I have met thousands of people and I am waiting still to meet someone who has been harmed by “advocacy for morality”. On the other hand, every day I meet people who have been deeply harmed by the rotten and despicable immorality of others. In fact, just this week I have spoken with a woman who had a terrible childhood, because her single mother was engaged in the “worlds oldest profession”, and decided to “sell” her own daughter to abusive men starting at the age of 13. She is still emotionally scarred many decades later, and is requiring ongoing psychotherapy. It was not moral advocacy that ripped into her young life, tortured her mind, and sexually invaded her body.

Anecdotally, and statistically, great harm has been done in the past half century to the children of divorce, and to those conceived in illegitimacy (or, as we used to say, “in sin”). Immorality, not morality, is what has created rape victims. Immorality is what causes young girls to be kidnapped for the sex trade–They aren’t being harmed by moral crusaders. I wonder how many lives would be more whole and happy if not for the immorality of our age, the immorality that is reflected in the very existence of such a service as Ashley Madison.

Sadly, as I observed a moment ago, even the bearers of the light of Christ cannot avoid being touched by the darkness that surrounds them. But we are all called, by Jesus himself no less, to do our part to spread the light. When we fall, there will be consequences; repentance is called for. That doesn’t mean, however, that we all just embrace darkness. Though we may stumble and fail, we should hold aloft that torch anyway.