Everything is broken...

Most Thursdays are pastoral days for me at this stage in ministry.  My Sunday reflections have been written, the administrative concerns and assorted musical rehearsals of the community are over and next week's calendar has been sorted out and prioritized.  On this day, before my Friday Sabbath, I put together my weekly email note to the congregation and spend time visiting and listening to folk in the parish.  And having just completed the morning routine, I find I'm drawn to the wisdom of Psalm 36:

 Transgression speaks to the wicked 
          deep in their hearts; 
     there is no fear of God 
          before their eyes. 
For they flatter themselves in their own eyes 
          that their iniquity cannot be found out and hated. 
The words of their mouths are mischief and deceit; 
          they have ceased to act wisely and do good. 
They plot mischief while on their beds; 
          they are set on a way that is not good; 
          they do not reject evil.
Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens, 
          your faithfulness to the clouds. 
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, 
          your judgments are like the great deep; 
          you save humans and animals alike, O LORD.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God! 
          All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. 
They feast on the abundance of your house, 
          and you give them drink from the river of your delights. 
For with you is the fountain of life; 
          in your light we see light.
O continue your steadfast love to those who know you, 
          and your salvation to the upright of heart! 
Do not let the foot of the arrogant tread on me, 
          or the hand of the wicked drive me away. 
There the evildoers lie prostrate; 
          they are thrust down, unable to rise.

Patrick Henry Reardon in his Christ in the Psalms notes that this is a "meditative prayer contrasting (our) wickedness with the mercy of God." I am particularly taken with three key observations.  First, the Greek rendering of the Hebrew seems more direct in the opening verse:  Planning sin, the lawless man converses within himself; there is no fear of God before his eyes.  This is less obscure, yes?  That is, a worldview - a philosophy - an ethics of self shapes the reality of sin.

Second, sin matures and ripens in our lives when we banish any consideration of either the higher good or the reality of the sacred.  "Man (sic) does not simply fall into evil," Reardon writes, "his perversity is a veritable project of his mind, the object of an intentional strategy."  And third, just so that we cannot avoid getting the point of this comparison and contrast, the Psalmist lists seven different ways - the biblical number of totality - that those who don't rest in the Lord operate:

+ There is no fear of God before our eyes

+ We live by deceit

+ Our words are lies

+ We turn from good towards what is selfish

+ We ponder new ways to satisfy ourselves

+ We deliberately choose paths that are broken and hurtful

+ We rationalize away our cruel actions and thoughts

Why?  Because we have no fear of the Lord - literally no sense of awe nor any awareness that we are not the center of the universe.  Small wonder that our old friend Paul reminds us that if we are to serve God through Christ, we have to rearrange the very core of our thoughts.  Not only have all people sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3) but those who have another world in view must nourish it:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12)

Why, you might wonder, am I so drawn to this psalm and yet another post on sin?  There seems to be a very popular notion among some of the people I've been meeting with of late that they are not touched by sin.  "If I just try hard enough I should be able to get things right," someone insisted to me yesterday.  Another said, "You know, I think all God (or whatever) wants is for us to live by the golden rule - to be kind and loving - that's what really matters."  There seems to be an obsession that we can actually live in a consistently kind and loving manner - to hell with the evidence in the daily news or even our own experience - many genuinely believe this delusion.

And then they wonder why their lives are a mess?  Or out of control?  Or
even empty and confusing.  My question, in these conversations, is often:  "Do you really think you are capable of doing what is loving and kind consistently all by yourself?  How's that going for you?"  At first there is a blank look - then most people reply with something like this - "well, ok I am not totally consistent.  But I want to be... and if I just try harder I know I can do better."  Well, sure, maybe a bit but not consistently or in a way that will really make any difference in the long run. So let's be clear:  wanting to and actually accomplishing something are worlds apart. It is either adolescent arrogance, simple stupidity or naivete that suggests otherwise - and probably some combination of all three, yes?

Again, older brother Paul cuts to the chase:  we know (what) is spiritual; but I am of the flesh... and I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. (That is, it is helpful in showing me what is wrong.) But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but the sin that dwells within me... I can will what is right, but I cannot (consistently) do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do... (What's more) I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells (in all I do.) (Romans 7)

To be sure, this old language probably needs some updating (check out the way Peterson rephrases in The Message) because modern people don't understand the distinctions St. Paul's Greek is making between spirit and flesh.  But his point is still true: all by ourselves we can't consistently do what is good, loving, kind and true. There is NO objective evidence of this in the world or our lives so to suggest anything else strikes me as bullshit.  And modern people, if we are anything, are bullshit averse... 

So, Psalm 36 strikes me as a good breakfast meal in preparation for a day of pastoral visitation.  It keeps me focused on what is most important for me as pastor.  Like Peterson writes in The Contemplative Pastor:

How do I keep my professional integrity in the midst of a people long practiced in comparative shopping (for solutions not faith)... an illusion-bashing orientation helps. Take a long look at the sheer quantity of wreckage around us - wrecked bodies, wrecked marriages, wrecked careers, wrecked plans, wrecked families, wrecked alliances, wrecked friendships, wrecked prosperity.  We avert our eyes. We try not to dwell on it. We whistle in the dark. We wake up in the morning hoping for health and love, justice and success; build quick mental and emotional defenses against the inrush of bad news; and try to keep our hopes up.  And then another kind of crash puts us or someone we care about in a pile of wreckage.

So, because we have another world in view - another truth beyond the obvious - we can't be deluded or deceived when we start out the day.  Psalm 36 is a good beginning.


Barbara Barkley said…
I'm not sure that people of faith actually believe they can do "better" on their own. I think we hope that through faith and continual commitment to God we can do better. And as we see, even that connection to the Divine leaves us imperfect, wanting, lacking, broken, sinful, doing evil - struggling. We are still human, but at times this is so hard to accept. Why do our prayers not make us whole? Why does our faith not heal us from our brokenness? We are human and God is God. But that can be a very unsatisfying answer for those seeking, daily to walk towards God, towards wholeness, towards Shalom.
RJ said…
I would agree, Barbara, that people of "faith" do not think we can do better on our own. I was speaking about those who are often SBNR - those who are curious and even attracted to the sacred - but have not made a commitment to practicing any faith tradition or discipline. My experience of late with these folk suggest they really do belive, albeit in what strikes me as a simplistic way, that compassion can be accomplished by an act of the will.

People of faith, however, know that this cannot be done on our own. Yes, there is a disconnect and even a perpetual wound in many of us. But treating that wound as a source of wisdom - something like Good Friday to Easter - means that God (and we ourselves) can use our suffering for something greater, yes?

I believe that in time many of our wounds are healed - certainly scaled over and not raw - but not only over time. And I have come to believe that these wounds also carry wisdom and lead to gravitas, too. And while this is not a conversation or perspective to have while someone is aching, there is a place for helping them (us) really learn to "wait upon the Lord."

That's what comes to my mind right off the bat.
sandhilldiary said…
I'm still inclined to think that the traditional language - "sin", that difficult little three-letter word - is part of the missed connection.

You know what that word means when you say it; they know what that word means when they hear it. The gap that isn't being crossed is that these aren't the same meaning.

To give a different example: I've seen a lot of conversations about racism explode when some of the participants are using that word - racism - to mean institutional bias, and other participants are hearing it to mean individual bigotry. The word can mean either thing; sometimes it means both things at the same time. Problems come up when it's being used to mean one, specific, maybe kind of technical thing, and it's being heard in a different, broader, more personally directed usage.

So it is with "sin." For so many of us it's really, really hard to hear that word and direct it toward "the unbridgeable gap between the limited human soul and the Almighty, into which we eternally reach but beyond which we cannot grasp" instead of "something on this list of things you do that makes God hate you for being a Bad Person."

Something you wrote earlier this month - I'm looking for the passage but haven't found it yet - tells me you understand this all too well, and I'd be surprised if you didn't. I don't think that the perception of the gulf between limited humanity and the eternal is limited to people of faith - traditional or modern; I do think that the SBNR crowd often don't have clear ways to articulate that understanding AND many of them are averse to traditional Christian language precisely because they (or people they know) have ended up on the clobbering end of bad theology.

I had a "shower epiphany" this evening in which it occurred to me that when I look at them through this newly developed theological lens, a lot of the behavior that would be described as "sin" in the "you're bad for doing that" sense of the word - controlled substances, self-indulgence, indiscriminate sex, rage, indifference to suffering - turns out to be a symptom, of sorts, of "sin" in the "uncrossable gulf" sense. All the things we people do either to try to fill the holes in our souls where the Holy isn't, or lashing out from pain and frustration and hopelessness...

The critical difference hinges on how one takes that one difficult three letter word.

RJ said…
I think that is brilliantly stated and love it!

That is exactly where I am - the behaviors that are sometimes wounded or broken or self/other destructive or just unhealthy - are symptoms. Like the old country western song: we're lookin for love in all the wrong places. And, from my experience, until we are open to the reality that we can't bridge this gap - and the only way to do so is not by our effort but more akin to the 12 step surrender and/or trust (different people have different reactions to that word, too) - we are delusional.

For example, one guy I know keeps telling me he has to do better. Well, maybe, I reply but what does that mean? Try harder is his answer. So, again, I ask: how's that going for you? Not as a smart ass but because I know it doesn't work. And then he tells me it hasn't worked so well but COULD if... he had more rest, less pressure, blah, blah, blah. Look with all the rest and money and love in the world, we still can't cross this divide all by ourself.

Now, I'm not unsympathetic to the pressures of life, but the whole "things would be better if..." is a dead end. In AA they call it the geographic solution: if I just lived in NYC I'd get laid... or get the acting job I want... or whatever. The only problem here is that wherever you go, you take yourself with you. And left on our own, we cannot consistently live in truth, beauty and compassion. There is just no evidence we can do it.

At Eucharist on Wednesday we spent time talking about how it is we are open to God touching us - and loving us - so that we can rest even in our brokenness or wounds. It is both an act of the will AND a surrender.

I am totally with you on every bthing you've written. Thank you.

One more thought: I find I keep going back to the traditional language because it works better than most of the alternatives. See what you think about that one over the next 10 yearss, ok? I would really like to know your reflections on this.
sandhilldiary said…
Thanks man. I appreciate the space to have these conversations. This is stuff I will be grinding on for a long time, a lot of sharp jagged edges there.

All I pray is that in ten years time I will not have forgotten how hard it is to shatter and reassemble bad theology into something... less injurious. Because I don't have the luxury of settling exclusively into traditional Christian language even if it called me.

We UU's are a patchwork of heathens and heretics assembled from all the scraps trimmed away in the formation of the traditional church - I think that's why so many orthodox Christians draw the line of the Church Universal somewhere short of the UU's doorstep... and why so many within our walls are eager to keep it that way. But whether we (or anyone else!) owns it, we are also heirs to the Protestant tradition... and this jagged, complicated, paradoxical borderland is where the Spirit calls me.

Damn if I know what I'm doing, RJ. Sometimes it almost makes sense, and so I keep going.

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