varieties of shame

Following on from the last post, I’ve been thinking more about possibly helpful – or at least unavoidable – forms of shame.

First, I want to acknowledge just how unhelpful some forms of shame can be.  I think shame is most unhelpful when it focuses on the person and not the behaviour.  “You should be ashamed of yourself…” “Shame on you!” “I hope you’re ashamed…”  All of these focus the shame on the person.

Behind these statements is probably some kind of distorted sense of protective fear that wants the person to see what they’ve done, to take responsibility for it, and to change.  But the problem with focusing the shame on the person is that it actually does the opposite.  It takes their focus off of their behaviour and onto themselves as being shameful.  They feel labelled, categorized, tagged-and-bagged as ‘bad’.  This make a person feel trapped in this ‘bad’ state, and can make them feel like ‘bad’ people are simply bound to keep doing ‘bad’ things.

Let me quickly say that I don’t think the opposite is helpful either.  To say with glee simplicity: “It’s OK, you are awesome!”  Such popular positivism is well-meaning, and probably intends on letting kindness make a space for people to be their own guide and learn in their own time.  However, it can also have the opposite effect.  I don’t think any of us can truly or completely silence our conscience which reminds us that we are not perfect.  Overly-positive commentary from others, whilst well-meaning, can actually end up reminding us of our negatives.

The goal is the acceptance of our behaviour and taking responsibility for it.  And some forms of shame may just be helpful, necessary or unavoidable for this.

I am happy to be shown otherwise, but maybe it is helpful for us to feel some kind of shame when we have done something wrong.  And I am distinguishing shame from guilt.  Guilt is, I think, a logical admission, a verdict, in our minds that we did something.  Shame, in this sense, makes our admission a felt reality, an experience, in our hearts.

But now… what about shame that is sourced not in our own judgment of our own behaviour, but shame that is sourced in the judgment of others, our family, our church, our city, our society?  Can that ever be helpful or healthy?  I am daring to suggest it can.

One possibly helpful example is an anti-smoking campaign in Aotearoa-New Zealand: “smoking: not our future”.  This, it seems to me, is a movement that attempts to use shame in a helpful way.  Rather than pointing the finger, negatively, at people who smoke, it signals the future, positively, at a society which smokes less.   In principle, at least, it should be a good thing to promote good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour.  Some forms of shame seem to be unavoidable for this, right?

How does this basic dynamic become unhelpful or even harmful?  I reckon it happens when people use shame in ways that are a) disproportionate to the behaviour, b) self-righteous, c) impatient or d) forceful.  In principle, even putting someone in prison can be done in ways that are a) appropriate for the crime, b) humble, c) measured and d) gentle.

So much moral discourse in our culture seems to assume that the way to help people avoid depression and self-harm is to avoid anything that makes people feel shame.  I wonder if some of our overly-positive language serves to trap people in their own prison of self-judgment?

What if we accepted that sometimes people feel shame for good reasons, such as to come to a place of surrender and acknowledgement and taking responsibility?  Our role is to empathise with one another in our mutually-experienced guilt and shame.  We all get it wrong all the time about all kinds of things.  It doesn’t have to be a morality contest… It can just be life.

Shame doesn’t have to be linked to self-hatred and self-harm.  Shame can be re-claimed in a context of self-care and self-honesty.

If shame is such a wrong thing to feel, then it only makes us feel even worse when we feel ashamed.  But if shame is a normal part of human living and learning, then maybe we are strangely enabled to not stay trapped in our shame, but to work through it to acceptance and change.

Theologically speaking, the Gospel of Grace doesn’t imply that we are ‘basically good’ people who have never done anything shameful.  Rather, it is precisely because we have done those things, and (hopefully) have a healthy sense of regret, guilt and shame about them, that the Gospel of Grace is such good news.

on guilt and shame

It seems to be an unquestioned assumption in modern western culture that guilt and shame are bad, unhealthy and unhelpful.  Most of the moral discourse is dominated by statements that flow directly from these assumptions.

I can relate!  Who wants to feel guilty?  Who enjoys shame?  Not only that, both guilt and shame are shot through and warped with all kinds of unhelpful messiness.  Like power, sex, or money, they can easily be used poorly and people get hurt.

But are these concepts entirely worthless?  Is there any worth or value to them?  Here are some thoughts…

Good Guilt?

Guilt can be good.  As Auckland theologian Neil Darragh points out, guilt can be enabling guilt, in that it helps us to recognize and face our wrongdoing (or sin) and to seek and receive the help and grace we need to change and grow morally.  There seem to be two opposite extremes we can and do go to here.  One we might call false guilt or what Darragh calls ‘disabling guilt’.  Here the accusation is worse that the behaviour, or there may be no wrongdoing at all that matches the accusation.  At the other extreme, we have what we might call false innocence, or ‘getting off Scot free’.  Here there is an absence of an accusation (from others or from self), but a presence of wrongdoing or sin.  Both extremes fail to give us any help at ethical growth.

Good Shame?

Some of you might be thinking right now, “OK Dale, I take your point about guilt, but shame is another matter, it’s always bad…”  Perhaps, given a certain definition, that is correct.  But let’s try and get behind the word to the idea, and then we can think about what is the best word to use.  Hear me out :)

Some people, quite helpfully I think, have distinguished between guilt and shame by saying that guilt says what I did is bad, and shame says am bad.  That kind of shame is at best incomplete and distorted, and at worst crippling and harmful.  Another way to think about shame is in a relational sense.  When a society, community or family shares certain values, as they do, certain actions and behaviours will simply be in conflict with those values.  When a person does any of those certain things, they will naturally feel various kinds of shame, depending on how many people in the society, community or family know about it, and how much they know, etc.  This kind of shame seems to me to be natural and unavoidable.  And I’m willing to suggest here that it may even be helpful.

Having said that, I think a Christian influence on society, community or family will engender not just values concerning what actions cohere with those values, but also values concerning how to relate to people who act in ways that conflict with those values.  A Christian community, in this sense, has both standards and an impulse to restore those who break those standards.  In the remainder of this post, I’d like to suggest that the shame which seems unavoidable can serve a good purpose only in a community characterised by restorative discipline.

Restorative Discipline

As the two terms suggest, there are two dynamics are at work, I reckon, in how a Christian community deals with someone who breaks what they understand as Christian values.   One (discipline) has a necessarily negative posture, and the other  (restoration) is necessarily positive.

The positive dynamic is that of gentleness and restoration.   Galatians 6:1 says that when someone is caught in a sin (imagine all the dynamics involved when this happens… and imagine how it often plays out…) “you who are spiritual should restore them in a spirit of gentleness.”  As usual, Paul is writing these instructions as a corrective for what was happening.  In this case, it seems that some of the spiritual leaders at Galatia were not being gentle or restorative when people were caught in a sin.  Gentleness is appropriate because people whose sin is being found out are scared and defensive.  Restoration is the goal because God wants healing, community and forgiveness rather than brokenness, isolation and enmity.

It’s much harder to deal with the other more negative dynamic.  What words might we use?  We have all kinds of understandable discomfort with words like ‘discipline’ or ‘punishment’.  I think a good deal of our discomfort here flows from times where the ‘discipline’ or ‘punishment’ was seen to be disproportionate to the (mis-)behaviour.  But on the other hand, surely various forms of corrective action are appropriate for various kinds of misbehaviour.  Sometimes we need consequences to change.

At this point, it may be useful to remind ourselves of the need for a balanced view of human nature.  We can err on the side of viewing humans as ‘basically good’ or err on the side of viewing them as ‘basically evil’.  The tendency to think we don’t need corrective discipline (in appropriate forms) may flow from a belief that humans are so ‘good’ that they will quickly recognize their sin and repent of it.  The reality is that we are too often stubborn, dishonest, fearful and prideful.  Sometimes loving discipline (again, in helpful forms) is the only thing that can help someone come to terms with their sin.  This is the best context in which to understand Paul’s command to expel a member from fellowship in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5.  Of course the other side of the coin is to err on the side of viewing humans as ‘basically evil’.  The belief that humans have little good in them may lie behind disciplinary actions that seek to force someone to repent.  God does not bring us to repentance through discipline that is over-powering, intimidating, harsh or insensitive.  Rather, it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance, as Paul seems to have needed to remind some ‘strong leaders’ at Rome (Romans 2:4).

Summary

Tying these threads together, I am basically suggesting that both guilt and shame, understood the right way and in the context of healing community, can be helpful and necessary.  We may have a thousand stories or personal experiences of why “they made me feel so guilty” or “that church heaped shame on me”, and many if not most of these could sadly be accurate indictments of leaders acting from control, fear, anger and power.  But I am daring to suggest here that if our community and the discipline of our community is characterised by love, honesty, truth, healing, then guilt and shame may just possibly be necessary wounds en route to repentance, reconciliation and growth.

love is grateful

I recently came across this gem of a quote on Facebook; beautiful in its profundity, and breathtaking in its brevity.

“Grace is the essence of theology; gratitude is the essence of ethics.” – G. C. Berkouwer

It captures the heart of what any Christian thinker has ever tried to say about the fitting human response to divine grace.  The only way to respond to being given a gift is to say thank you.

My curious (and a bit obsessive) mind, always on the look-out for frameworks, pondered what the opposite might be.  That earning merit (and love) is the opposite of being given Grace (and love), and is therefore the ultimate expression of bad theology.  And that entitlement is the opposite of gratitude, and is therefore the ultimate expression of bad ethics.

In the back of my mind, however, was the framework of love and fear (wonderfully expressed by Michael Leunig here, scroll down and you’ll see it).  It left me thinking there must be a correlation between gratitude and love, and between entitlement and fear.  So I wanted to tease that out below (all the while hoping for a bit of it to drip down from my brain into my heart!)…

Love is grateful.  Fear is entitled.
Love is surprised at what it has.  Fear always needs more.
Love can freely give as it has received.  Fear always takes.
Love can accept what it disagrees with.  Fear tries to force it to change.
Love can cope without recognition.  Fear clamours for attention.
Love is empathetic.  Fear is narcissistic.
Love sheds tears on behalf of others.  Fear only sees its own pain.
Love can fail and try again.  Fear gives up.
Love is life.  Fear is death.

ordinary sin

The doctrine of Sin has been something I’ve had an interest in for a while, and some of my research and writing has touched on both sin and the forgiveness of sin.  I think it’s a very important doctrine, and thus very important to understand with clarity and balance.

Scholars of Aristotle and Aquinas will be able to articulate it better than I, but I find the concept of the ‘mean’ or middle to be helpful here as at many points (nod to Aristotle).  Just as a ‘virtue’ seems to be flanked on both sides by two opposing ‘vices’ (nod to Aquinas), so also a healthy view of a doctrine (or dogma) seems to in between two extreme distortions of it.  Here’s a quick attempt to sketch this with regard to Sin.

The extreme of “totally evil” 

At one extreme, the “totally evil” view is based on the persistent and tragic experience of everything from indifference, busyness and rudeness to violence, terrorism and death.

The positive of this view is its ability to summarize (though perhaps generalize) and account for all of this activity with a single concept.  All of this ‘bad stuff’ is eventually the result of ‘sin’ at the personal level, and ‘Sin’ at a cosmic level.   Humanity and all of creation is ‘fallen’.  Like it or not, there is a great deal of accuracy for this view, both in terms of experience of reality and interpretation of Scripture.  A patient and discerning assessment of human nature can see past the cosmetic self-righteous and moralistic posturing that masquerades as ‘goodness’.  The best statements of so-called “total depravity” are about the full sweep and scope of Sin, reaching to every part of nature and human nature.  There is no ‘part’ of creation that is free from the influence of Sin and evil.  The brokenness and rebellion goes ‘all the way down’.   And the irony is that trying to deny one’s sinfulness and assert one’s goodness is itself one of the surest examples and breeding grounds for sin.

The negative of this view is… well.. its negativity.  In extreme form (hence me calling it an extreme view), it doesn’t appreciate or recognize any goodness to human nature.  And a thoroughgoing doctrine of Grace is thus undermined, because Grace creates and sustains at least some good in all people.

The extreme of “basically good”

This leads to the positive “basically good” view.  In a way, the very presence of the word “basically” is illustrative.  Philosophically, it can signal a nod to Locke’s notion that the ‘basic’ or original state of human nature is a ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate.  In terms of modern usage, it can also signal a tempering of what could be seen as an absolute rejection of any evil in human nature.  Few people would want to say that humans are “totally good” and I’ve yet to meet anyone who serious defends human perfection.  So the “basically good” view is a very attractive option for those who wish to assert the dominance of human goodness, whilst not totally denying the ‘accidental’ circumstances of human ‘wrongdoing’.

The positive of this view seems to be the fact that it inherently avoids the absolutism of saying that humans are perfect.  It allows us to enjoy the widespread acceptance and agreement of modern society, which is quite nervous and concerned about those who think that there is something ‘wrong’ with us.  After all, that kind of talk makes people feel bad, and feeling bad is of course what makes people (accidentally) get tripped up into doing bad things, whether to others or to themselves.  Surely the way to fix things is to avoid this talk of ‘sin’ and restore people’s self confidence!

And here we see the weakness of this view.  At its core, this view is basically a way to justify oneself, and avoid responsibility for the ‘bad things’ that happen, either in the world or in one’s own life.   It is a ‘weak’ view in that it is not strong at helping to understand, account for, or of course do anything to change, the very real and tragic things that people do.  And wise therapists, social workers and addicts will testify that taking responsibility for one’s actions is the best way to work for change.

It seems that these extreme ways of looking at human nature tend to feed off of one another, rather like (and probably not unrelated to) right wing and left wing politicians. The more one person asserts human evil (more need for government and legislation?), the more another will assert human good (less need for government and legislation?); and vice versa.  What is needed is a view that avoids the extremes and includes the positives.

The Doctrine of Sin

It could be true that the biblical content on human nature may tend towards an emphasis on human guilt rather than human glory.  But the first thing to say about the Judeo-Christian notion of Sin is its remarkable breadth.  Humans are “very good” (Genesis 1), and “crowned with glory and honour” (Psalm 8).  To be a human is a glorious thing.  But at the same time, there are “none righteous” (Psalm 14 & 53), and too often it is true that we continually think evil in our hearts (Genesis 3).

The second thing to say is that there is something quite ‘ordinary’ and everyday about sin.  Every week at my church (Anglican/Episcopal), we are led by the worship leader or the priest in a confession that includes that we have sinned “in ignorance”, “weakness” and “through our own deliberate fault”.  That seems true to my life and the lives of people I trust to be honest.  Another great local Anglican confession prayer observes that “some sins are plain to us, some escape us, [and] some we cannot face.”  I’m thinking here of the vast spectrum of ways in which we all “get it wrong”.  We walk past one another without giving the human acknowledgement we all deserve.  We steal and cheat.  We parade our acts of charity on social media.  We lust after power, sex, status, moral standing, theological achievements, acceptance and a thousand other things that may be fine to pursue, but not lust after.  Even the ‘best’ person we can think of, if they are honest, has all manner of ‘ordinary sins’ the would admit to.

The third thing to say about Sin has to do with the implications… the ‘so what?’ of Sin.  So we are sinful.  So what?  Well, if we are sinful, then we ultimately need forgiveness, and need Ultimate forgiveness.  The forgiveness on offer through the gospel of Christ is something that is both a single once-for-all Act that cannot be repeated, and an on-going continual work that we must enter into more deeply.  Another bit of local Anglican brilliance announces that “God forgives you”, as a once-for-all fact.  But the stark announcement is followed by a gentle admonition: “forgive others… forgive yourself.”  This is an ongoing process to deepen for the rest of our lives.

the uncomfortable freedom of Grace

I just finished a job at work, and not only did it take longer than I thought (I had to return to the job site to fix things), I didn’t do as good a job at it as I would have liked to.  The clients are satisfied and will pay the invoice, but the workmanship was not my best.  My errors involved trying to same time and effort: a.k.a. rushing and being lazy.

I was doing another follow-up job last week and I noticed a mistake that had been made by another team member.  It seemed that he had also tried to save time and effort.

It is so much easier to focus on the mistakes that others make than my own.  My tendency is to maximize and catastrophize the seriousness of others’ mistakes (“Wow, that’s pretty bad…“) and minimize and normalize the seriousness of my own (“Ahh, it’s good enough…” or “It’s not as bad as…“).

Grace is good news.  We are loved as we are in spite of our mistakes.  Grace covers our sin and shame.

But that’s not all Grace does.

Grace-powered love casts out and frees us from our fear, saying with the authority and voice of Christ, “Fear not.” (Me phõbos)  One type of fear we can let go of, thanks to Grace, is the fear of not being perfect.  When we don’t have to be perfect, we can admit our mistakes (or sins), even the serious ones; and we can be a bit gentler on the mistakes (or sins) of others.

This may be one example of the less “comfortable” work of Grace.  After all, Grace “teaches” (paideuousa) us (Titus 2:12).  This word for teaching is diverse enough to include usages concerning discipline and punishment or training.

I can’t speak for others, but I am grateful for the ‘uncomfortable’ help of Grace in assisting me to admit my mistakes and accept the failings of others.

fruitful engagement with ‘other’ beliefs

I’ve had various interactions with various ‘non-orthodox’ (a.k.a. heretical) religious movements, and I grew up within one.  In my earlier, younger and sadly more arrogant stages, these interactions could easily become more heated, longer, and less productive than they should have been.  I just had another much more positive interaction with three young, polite Mormons.  There are two ways at least that I’m learning to make those interactions fruitful.

  1. Patient Intent.  My aim is to strike a middle ground between sending them away or trying to ‘convert’ them in one fell swoop.  I want, instead, to have a respectful conversation that gives them, and me, something to think about afterward.
  2. Respectful Engagement.  Instead of using whatever understandings I (think) I have as weapons to win a debate, I use those understandings as points of discussion.  This looks more like asking questions than making declarations.  For example, instead of saying (effectively) “You guys are wrong because you don’t believe in the Trinity”, I ask the question, “Could you tell me what you believe about God… you know… Father, Son and Spirit?”  This way they get to say what they believe in their own words, instead of having their beliefs described in worst form and then disregarded.

Having said that, here are a couple of those ‘discussion points’ for Mormons.

  1. The nature of God.  Mormons believe that ‘God’ was once a human, and that we humans can become ‘God’.  This relates to their belief that God the Father has a physical body.  They will use the language of “image of God” to support this, implying that to be made in God’s image includes being made in his physical form.  Here, it may be useful to point out the Christian distinction between the attributes of God that are God’s own unique attributes (Creator, divine), and those that we are meant to share as image-bearers (beauty, wisdom, justice, mercy, grace, etc.).
  2. Revelation.  Mormons believe that God is still revealing truth to humanity.  Significantly, this underlies their understanding of the Book of Mormon as an equal-level text to the Old and New Testaments.  Here, it is useful to point out the Christian conviction that whilst God is indeed still active in revealing truth to humans through Scripture and the Holy Spirit, Revelation has met its ‘finished’ point in the person of Jesus Christ.  No more is needed to reveal God to humanity.  And for Christians, the New Testament documents form together a sufficient and complete witness to that full revelation of God.  Other texts (at best) compliment that witness, or (at worst) confuse and conflict with it.

‘media’ and liturgical formation

James K. A. Smith has written and spoken much about liturgical formation; that is, how humans are formed, shaped and influenced by ‘liturgical’ actions, rites or practices.  For Smith, all of life can be seen with a ‘liturgical’ lens, as the human species (‘homo-liturgicus’) engages in various patterns of repeated activity.

One colourful example is that of a shopping mall, where seemingly mundane and ‘normal’ actions such as parking, entering, wandering, browsing, purchasing, exiting (and whatever else one does as part of a standard ‘trip to the mall’) are seen as liturgical rituals, that form us.  In the case of the mall, the repeated practices just mentioned form us into the mold of a consumer.  Through repeated participation in shopping at the mall, we learn and practice consumerism.

I had a related thought the other day, and I wanted to tease it out here. Essentially, it’s taking the liturgical and formational insights of Smith and reading them through the lens of the language of ‘media’…

It’s been a couple years since I’ve worked as a minister, and I’ve been increasingly exposed to ‘tradies’.  Many of these are people who don’t go to church (and aren’t likely to want to soon…).  These interesting people use different language, have different political views, listen to different radio stations, watch different TV/movies/videos, and have different approaches to social media than I’m used to.  Many of them (not all) haven’t shared my high standards for coffee shops.

Ironically, I’ve also been attending a different church, with a different form of worship in a different theological tradition.  I’ve also been listening more to Christian radio (including songs, advertisements, and teaching programmes). In short, I breathe the air of different ‘media’ than I used to.  Life feels different…  I feel more in touch with the tension between the Gospel and the world, and more pulled this way and that way by different ‘media’ that I am exposed to…

I find it interesting how (with exceptions, of course) people with ‘x’ political views might tend to gravitate towards this or that kind of radio, TV programmes, eating venues, Facebook groups, hobbies, brands of beer and chips, etc.  Whilst I don’t think it would be possible (or interesting) to make too direct a link between, for example, your particular political orientation and the particular band you listen to, I have been thinking about the extent to which the various (and many) kinds of ‘media’ we imbibe has a formative effect on us.

Just as life can be viewed through the lens of ‘liturgical’ rites and practices that we engage in, so also it can be viewed through the lens of ‘media’ that we consume.

As one who has done some study into gathered worship, I find the language of ‘media’ to be very fruitful.

I am suggesting here that all worship is shaped by the media that the worshippers (including worship planners and worship leaders) consume.

Think of various kinds of worship gatherings.  Not just what happens in the service, but what the space looks like, how it feels, what it communicates.  And yes, of course, what happens in the service.  How it begins, what the climactic moment is (if it has one),  what seems to be important, etc.

Arguably, ‘good worship’ should be rooted in the ‘media’ of the gospel, and relevant to the ‘media’ of culture.  The result being that worshippers are formed more into the image of Christ.  What do I mean here?

One the one hand, worship should be dripping with gospel ‘media’, including (but not limited to):

  • Symbols of the Story
    • (most churches at least have a cross, right?)
  • Language of the Scripture
    • (the Bible is read – or at least referred to!? – at least a few times, right?)

On the other hand, worship should be expressed in the ‘media’ of culture, examples include:

  • sounds
    • (language and wording that ‘these people’ can understand)
  • sights
    • (imagery and art that is intelligible and moving for ‘these people’)

In terms of a service of worship being ‘rooted in gospel media’, it is a matter first of whether or not it is, and then to what extent it is.  It is possible to conduct a ‘worship service’ in which very little of the Gospel is presented.  Perhaps the service consists of images and language that is entirely cultural and devoid of any symbols or words of Scripture.  Indeed, the very notion raises the question of just what ‘gospel’ is believed by this community?  If they do and say ‘this’ when they gather in ‘this’ kind of space, they must believe the gospel to be ‘this’.

In terms of a service of worship being ‘expressed in cultural media’, it is not a matter of ‘if’ it is or not, but rather how deep this expression is, and whether this cultural expression is with or against the ‘grain’ of the Gospel.  A few examples may be helpful, and I’m trying not to obviously signal this or that style of worship.

On the one hand, sometimes the ‘media of culture’ expressed in a service can go against the grain of the Gospel.  This happens when a cultural medium is used that is rooted in a cultural pattern that the Gospel subverts or judges.

  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of consumerism may unintentionally (or deliberately!?) use language or symbols that can present the Gospel as offering a product to be enjoyed.
  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of moralism may commit the opposite error of using language or symbols that present the Gospel as being concerned primarily with good behaviour.
  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of modernism may use language or symbols that witness to the underlying modernist worldview that newer is always an improvement on the old.
  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of traditionalism may commit the opposite error of using language and symbols that are always suspicious of new expressions.
  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of individualism may use language or symbols that focus entirely on the faith, experience and interests of the individual.
  • worship shaped by the ‘media’ of rationalism may use language or symbols that frames the gospel as mainly a matter of having correct doctrine.

The goal at work here, particularly for planners and leaders of worship is three fold:

  1. Be very familiar with the ‘gospel media’: the Scriptural story, biblical imagery…
  2. Be in touch with cultural media: the sights and sounds of a particular place and time…
  3. Having done that, be patient in discerning which cultural ‘media’ will point to the Gospel, and which will distract from it.

A controlling image here may be stained glass.  The light of the gospel can (and must!) shine through many different coloured panes of culture.  On the one hand, if there is no gospel media in the service, there is no light! On the other, if the panes of cultural media are contrary to the gospel, the light won’t shine through!

Coming back, finally, to the theme of Christian formation, the idea here is that worship is most effective at forming disciples into the image of Christ when the service is both rooted in the trans-cultural, trans-temporal and Christ-shaped Scriptural media, and reflected in the language and symbols belonging to ‘these people’.

human sin: an example

The sinfulness of humanity is nothing I am ‘proud’ to believe in.  Sin is tragic.  But, rather an illustrate this with a list of actions that are easily diagnosed as harmful, it’s more interesting to give an example where sin may not be so obvious.  Whether it’s an Olympic opening ceremony, a corporate philosophy or a debate over gun legislation, I am continually reminded of how easy it is to forget how deeply flawed we all are.  Human history and nature, business goals, or one’s ability to handle immense power are not as flawless as we may be tempted to imagine.

One simple example is giving a gift.  How selfless, generous and wonderful, right?  But, speaking honestly about my own experience of giving gifts, our motivations can be very often quite mixed.  Giving a gift can be motivated, partly or even mostly, by a desire for the benefit of the other.  However, other motivations can settle in among this, including but not limited to: being the best (generous/lavish), being the most (creative), being first, being included (“people like being around people who give gifts”), etc.

Our motivations tend to show up when our gift is refused, disregarded or otherwise received in a way we did not expect.  I recently found myself giving something that I’d hoped would be received and recognized in a particular way, and when it wasn’t, I had to check my motivations in giving it.

It can be confronting to face our mixed motivations, especially if/when we take pride in being a ‘good person’.  Of course, the point of this reflection is not to deny that we have any goodness, but that the very  notion of human sinfulness, particularly in the Christian theological tradition, is that we are not only flawed in obviously ‘bad’ ways, but even our ‘good’ actions and characteristics can be hindered, blunted and shaped by the influence of sin.

And if you don’t know me well, you need to know that my understanding of sin (from Scripture and theology) has less to do with us feeling constantly like a failure for breaking a significant amount of a very long list of specific actions which are ‘wrong’, and more to do with us being beautiful-and-broken all the way down to our motivations and identities.  And more importantly the great thing about the Gospel of Jesus is that God has eternally decided to love and work on, in and through us anyway.

May this work of transformation be something that we surrender to and collaborate with.

foolishness

This year, Resurrection Day falls on April “Fools Day”.  How fitting… Only a fool would believe in something like Resurrection, right?

Well… yes.  One of the more unpopular and counter-cultural aspects of Christian faith is its ‘foolishness’.  The Lord of all existence, meaning and being chooses not to select the best, the smartest, the most moral, the most successful, the strongest, the most desirable, to work through.  No.  In God’s economy, what society tells us are our assets are so often (if we hold them with pride) our liabilities.

Sure, in one sense, it is ‘foolish’ to deny the possibility of a thing like Resurrection.  How ‘unscientific’ is the emotion of disgust that poisons the well of honest and patient consideration of just what might be possible in this mysterious existence.

But the label ‘fool’ will inevitably be found on the backs of those believing in the impossible; that the days of Death are numbered, that another level of Life has emerged, undying, from the Tomb.  So be it.  I’m a fool.

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.

1 Corinthians 1:18-29

active faith

Trust and obey, says the grand old hymn.  A lovely pairing, and a very biblical one.  This pair captures the nice middle ground between two extreme ways of understanding Christian life and discipleship.

At one extreme (hint: extremes are bad… almost always), we have faith that is ‘aggressive’ in the sense that it is all about doing and obeying.  Trusting hardly gets any air time, if it features at all.  People who advocate this kind of faith usually are pushing back against believers who do nothing…

At the other extreme, we have faith that is ‘passive’ in the sense that it is all about knowing and trusting.  Obedience, if the topic comes up at all, is usually something that you are not to ‘do’ but happens automatically.  People who advocate this kind of faith are often pushing back against a ‘religious’ or ‘strict’ approach to faith, full of ‘dos’ and ‘donts’…

In the middle, we have a faith that is active or assertive.  Faith and belief are married to deeds and actions.  The two mutually reinforce one another.

Jesus loves to describe the kingdom life with vivid metaphors.  Sometimes we get too used to them, and other times we just read them wrong, in the light of our pre-existing frameworks.

One of these metaphors is the image of the fruit tree.  Good trees bear good fruit.  One extreme (‘aggressive’ faith) sees the fruit as being all our work, which legitimates our faith.  The other extreme (‘passive’ faith) sees the fruit as all God’s work, and not ours.  We don’t ‘produce’ the fruit, we just ‘bear’ it…

The ‘aggressive faith’ folk have to remember that Jesus’ metaphor assumes sunlight and water and that ‘God gives the increase’ wherever there is growth.  The ‘passive faith’ folk have to face the reality that the word behind ‘bear’ is the same word used throughout the New Testament for a lot of doing, working, etc.

The strange mystery is that as we trust and obey God, we are enabled to be and to do.  We hoist the sail, God’s spirit blows, the boat moves.