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Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation by Barbara Taylor

June 17, 2015

SOSAnother book by one of my favourite preachers, though not without its flaws.

True, we don’t preach about sin and salvation much any more, or at least not in the mainline denominations but it’s there in our liturgies.

She doesn’t seem to understand situation ethics as she suggests that it has done away with the notion of right and wrong, good and evil. Not true. Joseph Fletcher spoke of ‘the lesser of two evils’ but it was evil nonetheless.

She has an amusing story to illustrate the theology of grace trumping sin: When I was at Yale Divinity School in the 1970s, I remember becoming irate because the books I wanted were never in the library, nor was there any record at the front desk that they had been checked out. When I asked the librarian what was going on, he told me that the Divinity School had the highest theft rate of any graduate school in the university. “How embarrassing;’ I said. “Why do you suppose that is?” “Grace,” he said, with a rueful look on his face. “You guys figure all has been forgiven ahead of time, so you go ahead and take what you want.”

I did not preach about it in chapel the next week. It would have sounded petty, for one thing, to preach about stolen library books while broken soldiers were still being shipped home from Vietnam.

She’s good on structural sin inasmuch as it applies to America: We live in the richest, most powerful country on earth. We police other nations without their consent, and employ their workers for a fraction of what we would pay our own. We are not always welcome when we travel abroad. We throw away more food each year than some small nations produce, and we have no rivals in terms of our despoilment of the earth. “We all live by robbing nature,” writes the farmer-poet Wendell Berry, “But our standard of living demands that the robbery shall continue.”‘

While most Americans continue to cherish the illusion that we live in a classless, equal-opportunity society, our courts, our prisons, our public assistance programs, and our schools all tell a different story. It is difficult to believe that we are still debating whether hate crimes are really crimes, and whether guns really kill people. Meanwhile, our technological achievements serve not only to make the rich richer but also to make sure the poor will remain poorer. A first grader who does not have a computer at home will struggle to keep up with classmates who do. Computers may soon rival automobiles as the possessions most necessary for survival in America—a prospect that cheers stockholders’ hearts, and increases the despair of those who live below the poverty line.

Her description of the Ash Wednesday is decidedly old-fashioned. The ashing comes ion the middle of, not at the beginning of the rite (unless her denomination is also old-fashioned).

And she’s wrong to say that catechumens joined in the already established Lenten fast. It was the other way round.


 “to speak of sin in any compelling way, we need to go diving for the core experiences that word names… We may discover that sin is our only hope.”

“My concern is that neither language of medicine nor the language of law is an adequate substitute for the language of theology.”

“People hear the guilt coming and they leave the room. They are tired of being judged and threatened by Christians who say “love” and do fear.”

“My own working definition of it is that the modern age is over-the age in which we believed in the power of the state, or the academy, or the church to bring out the best in us. In the age just past, nationalism has brought us Hitler, science has brought us the atom bomb, and religion has brought us some really awful television programming, not to mention apartheid or the civil war in Northern Ireland. Humanity has turned out to be hard to perfect, and the old structures we relied on to do so have let us down.”

“The threat of sin and the promise of salvation sound too much like part of the old control mechanism for keeping people in line, which has failed even at the highest echelons of church leadership.”

“All sins are attempts to fill voids;’ wrote the French philoso­pher Simone Weil. Because we cannot stand the God-shaped hole inside of us, we try stuffing it full of all sorts of things, but it refuses to be filled. It rejects all substitutes. It insists on remaining bare. It is the holy of holies inside of us, which only God may fill.

When we are ready to honor the bare space instead of trying to stuff it full, then we are ready to consider what kind of new life God may be calling us to. Our answers will be as varied as our sins, but they will involve more doing than saying, more refor­mation than remorse. Meanwhile, I do not believe that sin is the enemy we often make it out to be, at least not when we recognize it and name it as such. When we see how we have turned away from God, then and only then do we have what we need to begin turning back. Sin is our only hope, the fire alarm that wakes us up to the possibility of true repentance.

While the public confession of sin is a regu­lar feature of most Christian worship, ancient tradition provides for heightened penitence during the season of Lent. The word comes from the old English word for “spring,” a refer­ence not only to what is happening in the natural world but also to what is happening in the spiritual world. Lent covers the six weeks before Easter, the great Christian festival of new life, when the hard, buried bulbs of our souls come into full flower.

As any good gardener knows, new life requires some assis­tance. The life itself is entirely God’s gift, but the cultivation of it calls for work. There is some tilling and fertilizing to be done, some weeding and pruning of dead branches. Without such intentional participation in the renewal of life, the roses will even­tually disappear under the poke-weed, and the Japanese beetles will eat all of the peaches.

For earlier Christians, the season of Lent was set aside for the greening of the soul, which began with penitence and fast­ing. New converts were prepared for holy baptism on Easter eve, and people whose sins had separated them from the community were invited back. Those who decided to accept the invitation knew that more would be required of them than simply showing up. During Lent, they would join the whole congregation in the solemn work of self-examination and repentance, designed to renew their faith in God and restore their fellowship with one another.

I think it is safe to say that Christians need never fear the com­mercialization of Ash Wednesday. Hallmark will never spend much money on research and design, and shopkeepers will not dress their windows in sackcloth and ashes. There is no appar­ent danger that repentance will ever catch on with the culture at large, especially since it does not sell all that well in church.

After last year’s Ash Wednesday service was over, I did some shopping, went to a meeting, drove home, and cooked supper. While I was doing all of that I wondered what my noontime repentance was really worth. I had repented of my blindness to human need and suffering, but I still drove past the homeless man at the intersection with my window rolled up. I had repented of my contempt toward those who differ from me, but I still thought mean things about the people in the meeting whose votes can­celled mine. I had repented of my waste and pollution of God’s creation, but that did not stop me from buying a new Hewlett-Packard Office Jet printer so that my old Panasonic could end up on a junk heap somewhere. You see the problem.

neighborhood in Washington, where low income Ethiopian, Latino, and Anglo families have all settled in uneasy proximity to one another.

Unlike traditional churches, the Church of the Savior is a collection of independent faith communities, all dedicated to re­storing wholeness to people with broken lives. Each community has evolved its own mission group, and the fruits of their labors are evident in a short drive through the neighborhood. Columbia Road Health Services provides affordable health care for anyone who needs it. Christ House is a medical recovery residence for homeless people, and Kairos House is a permanent home for thirty-seven chronically ill homeless men who are not going to get better, in this life at least.

The Family Place offers prenatal and pediatric care as well as a whole range of services for families, and Good Shepherd Ministries provides educational and recreational programs for more than a hundred children and adolescents. Samaritan Inns helps addicted men and women rebuild their lives, and Jubilee Housing rents 284 apartments in eight buildings to low income families at less than 40 percent of market. Jubilee Jobs is an employment agency for the poor, and Sarah’s Circle is a residential community for the elderly.

Repentance may not be the first word that comes to your mind when you see this remarkable array, but these ministries are an founded on a vision of ending the estrangement between rich and poor—an estrangement that is as full of sin as any other in our culture. The Church of the Savior is very clear that it does not do charity work. The Church of the Savior is working to break down the dividing wall between the privileged and the deprived, so that each may recognize God in the other.

Elizabeth O’Connor, who was a rock of the community until her recent death, said that when she walked the streets of Adams Morgan she often caught a glimpse of the new Jerusalem coming out of the skies. In a church brochure, she wrote:

On these streets are spoken the tongues of many lands and still we understand what people are saying. Here some of the refugees of the world have found a safe place to lay their heads, cradle their babies, and sell their wares from folding tables and tiny stores. Here the demented can still wander in and out of our shops. Here some places have been made for the young and the old. Here the broken are received and the sick healed. Here the Gospel is being preached and here, faulted as we are, with our own griefs heavily upon us, we are bold to say that God calls us his people and we know that his name is God-with-them.’

On a much more modest scale, I recently visited an Alcoholics Anonymous group that meets in the basement of a small Pres­byterian church. I was there at the invitation of a young man who was celebrating his second year of sobriety. Two years earlier, he almost died when he wrecked his car while he was driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Luckily for him, his sentence included a rehabilitation program and a long period of parole during which he became an active member of AA.

The night I was there, his parents were, too, along with his younger brother. For one hour we all sat in a room with people who were dedicated to the work of transformation. The young man spoke frankly about his self-destructiveness, his former deception of his friends and family, and the strong temptation he sometimes felt to go back to the way things were. The other people in the room nodded knowingly. A few even reminded him of some sordid things he had done that he had left out of his nar­rative. More than once, I wanted to jump up and clap my hands over his mother’s ears—not because anyone was saying anything mean about her or her son, but simply because they were speak­ing the truth in her presence.

She was fine with it. My own response taught me that for all my conscious belief in the transforming power of the truth I still have an unconscious fear of it, even when it is told in a protected setting with the full consent of all present. What am I afraid of That someone will be revealed for who he or she is. That I will be revealed for who I am, and that it will not be a pretty sight.

And yet the people in that room believe that their lives depend on doing exactly that—revealing themselves to one another—and furthermore allowing one another to say what they see when they do.

I remember a classmate of mine, a Lebanese Presbyterian, who threw a theological temper tantrum during his first semester in seminary. “All you Americans care about is justification!” he howled. “You love sinning and being forgiven, sinning and being forgiven, but no one seems to want off that hamster wheel. Have you ever heard of sanctification? Is anyone interested in learning to sin a little less?”

In most places, as you know, peace means little more than cessation of hostilities. Each side agrees to stop waging war on the other, but transforming their relationship with one another is not usually part of the agenda. In South Africa, however, a larger vision took hold. Under the leadership of Desmond Tutu, with the strong backing of the South Africa Council of Churches, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up as a way that might allow former enemies to live together in peace.

That way has involved people from both sides standing up in front of other people and confessing the horrible things they have done. White policemen have confessed to slamming draw­ers on the breasts of black women prisoners until the women said whatever the policemen wanted them to say. Black protestors have confessed to killing innocent people for the crime of having white skin. What is more, all of these sinners have confessed their sins in the presence of their victims’ families, so that they can see on those people’s faces the full impact of what they have done. The hope embedded in this process is a simple one: that truth has power to set people free.

While penance has all but disappeared from our vocabulary, it was once the church’s best tool for getting over that hump. Once a person had confessed her sins and received assurance of pardon, she voluntarily took on specific acts of penance, which were baby steps in the direction of new life. If she had stolen vegetables from a neighbor’s garden, then she might volunteer to weed the garden every other day for a month. If she had slandered someone, then she might revisit all the households where she had done that and set the record straight.

Penance was not punishment. Penance was repair. Penance was a way back into relationship, but like all other good spiri­tual practices, it was vulnerable to corruption. In some places it became routine and trivialized. In others it became a means of extortion. When the Protestant reformers rebelled against cer­tain aspects of Catholic theology and practice, penance was one of the babies that was thrown out with the bath water. It smacked of works righteousness, the reformers said. It was ripe for abuse. It undercut grace.

repentance means more than saying “I’m sorry” and that God’s grace requires more of me than singing every verse of “Just As I Am:’

Thomas Merton once wrote—I believe that the wish to please God does in fact please God.

Since I sew more than I shoot arrows, I cannot help but ex­tend the image. It is a needle I am wielding on my way through the world, with a sturdy brown thread looped through the silver eye. By the grace of God, I am being mended, and God has called me to be a mender too. Since many threads are stronger than one, God has put me on a sewing team. Day by day, our job is to hunt the places where the world is ripped and bend over the damage to do what we can. Every good deed, every kind word, every act of justice and compassion tugs the torn edges closer together. The truer our aim, the smaller our stitches and the longer the patch will hold. We made plenty of the rips ourselves, and some of the worst ones show evidence of having been mended many times before, but that does not seem to discourage anyone.

Mending is how we continue to be mended, and we would not trade the work for anything.

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