Ash Wednesday: Lent, Sin, and Liberation

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17

Joel 2 12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
   return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 
13   rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God
   for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
   and relents from punishing.  

The season of Lent is upon us again. It is the season of introspection, reflection, repentance, and ultimately forgiveness. Of course what tradition calls us to reflect upon in this season is our sin.

Sin, we all know what it is. Theologically, much could be written about what sin is, and who is responsible for it at which times. Its seems I read several books explaining this in seminary. Practically speaking, however, we know that sin is it is the difference between “right” and “wrong”. Despite all the clamor of theologians, “sin” is a basic concept we apply to explain the breaks in our relationships with other people and with God. It should be a simple thing, right, I mean we teach children to get along so they don’t have fractured relationships, right?

Perhaps sin should be a simple concept. Alas sin has never been a simple concept–whether we are talking about the notions of sin and purity in the Hebrew Bible or what sometimes seem to be convoluted discussions of sins of ancestors and forgiveness of sin in the New Testament.

Discussing the nature of sin, however, is important. Particularly when we want to welcome and include people with disabilities and persons with mental health concerns in the lives of our congregations. For centuries, and still in some regions of the world today, disability and mental health concerns were attributed to the result of unreconciled sin. For centuries humanity confused theology for science. There are scriptures that do equate disease with sin, we should not ignore those scripture but wrestle with them. There are also scriptures that assure that disease is not the result of sin (read Job).

In this scripture from Joel, the prophet is calling for repentance. However, the prophet is also teaching and reassuring us that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing”. As a woman with disabilities there is great liberation in hearing from the prophets that God does not punish, much less inflict disability, and that indeed God waits for all of us “rend” our hearts and turn to God. There is a time to wrestle with the hard scriptures to search out the meaning and nature of suffering, this is not something I shy away from. However, as I start my Lenten journey of searching myself for what I can do to bring forgiveness and healing into the world, the God who is “gracious and merciful, …abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” seems like a far more welcoming travel partner  to me then a God who may break my leg in retribution if I trip along the way.

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Stop Stoning Yourselves

John 7:53-8:11

Now, there’s a cheery passage for reflection on the Eve of New Year’s Eve!

This story has seemed barbaric to me since I first read the passage in my teens.

The Pharisees, in their never-ending parade of attempts to challenge Jesus with “What-ifs?” and “What-abouts?” involving their interpretation of law, bring some poor woman before Jesus as Exhibit A. “What about this one?” they seem to ask. “Surely you won’t tell us she doesn’t deserve stoning.”

No surprise, of course, that Jesus tells them exactly that. Yet, in a metaphoric way, isn’t this what we sometimes do to ourselves around this time each year?

As we look back on the past year, as we set resolutions for the next, don’t we sometimes stone ourselves with self-criticism and self-judgment?

And in response, don’t we sometimes set resolutions based on unrealistic expectations? And within a few weeks (or even days) when we cannot meet them, we begin the cycle of self-doubt and self-criticism again.

What resolutions can we make and realistically keep that will help us feel better about ourselves?

Can we be nicer to ourselves?

The best New Year’s resolution I ever made–and perhaps the only one I ever kept–was the year I resolved to spend more time in Balboa Park.

Can we show ourselves grace and forgiveness when we fall short of our own expectations?

As for the gym, after more than two decades, I have conceded that I am not going to keep a gym habit. This year, I’m turning in my gym membership, ending my charitable contribution to the proprietors and resolving not to beat myself up about it. I’ll find other ways to exercise and stay healthy, but I’m freeing myself of this perpetual guilt.

Can we see ourselves through Divine eyes?

As for my other shortcomings, the ones too private for a public blog, I choose to see myself as beautifully human in my imperfections, always working to be better and celebrating my life as it is now and my life as it will be. I choose to see myself through the Divine eyes of unconditional love.

This year, if we resolve nothing else, can we resolve to stop stoning ourselves?

***

Rev. Karen Clark Ristine is a minister at Mission Hills United Methodist Church. After more than 20 years as a journalist, she entered seminary in 2006 and has been working in ministry ever since. After a lifelong tradition of sending out scores of Christmas cards each year, she was surprised to discover the irony that, as a minister, she no longer seemed to have time to continue that tradition.