Sunday, July 5, 2020

Can't seem to get it right

Devotion for Being Apart -
July 5

This summer, I will share new devotions from time to time,
and invite you to browse through devotions that have been posted on this blog.

Paul's letter just got awkward.  The renowned teacher has been talking about God, and the church, and big ideas about faith, and now he’s suddenly talking about himself. But he’s not saying things he's proud of, he’s talking about what he’s not proud of – where he feels helpless or lost.
It’s a little too personal, like he’s had one too many, and the deep down feelings are coming up and, we want to say, Paul, dude, it’s ok, and try to get him back on track to with the big ideas. Or tell him to save it for his therapist’s office.  Besides, instead of good news, this kind of feels like bad news.  Or like he’s telling us this bad news to set us up for some good news, but we’re clearly not there yet.  It’s uncomfortable to stop here. Let’s get to the gospel!

But one thing we Presbyterians believe about scripture is that it’s all gospel - It’s all good news, even the “bad news.” Each time we open the bible, God can speak truth to us.
So we’re sticking here today with Paul’s personal lament about knowing the difference between good and evil, and even wanting to choose good, but watching himself choose evil anyway.  An inner battle between sin and the law.

Just before this part, Paul explains that the law of God is good – it shows us how God designed human life to work best, connected to God and each other, so it’s a gift to us. But once we know, we are also suddenly aware of how often we choose not to live that way.

It was easier not to know right from wrong, just to be selfish or ignorant of the ways we contribute to disconnection and brokenness.  Doing harm to ourselves and others because we didn’t know better, feels better than realizing all the harm we’ve done.  And worst of all is knowing, and continuing to do it anyway.

And once we start to have this awareness, we often look back at our previous self, or at those who are where we were, and feel disgust or contempt.  How could we have believed what we did, done what we did, said what we did?

I think about this when it comes to language.  Imagine we’ve just learned that a word or phrase we’ve used a lot is racist, which is to say, it contributes to brokenness and disconnection.  First of all, with that new awareness comes shame and regret, for having used the word.  Now we have the law, in other words, we know this phrase is bad and we add it to the list of words we should not use.  This is a helpful list, it guides us toward respect for others, so we are on board with the law.  We can see how life would be better if everyone followed the law and avoided the words on the list.

Now having been given the law, we are awake, and aware in a way we were not before. So when we hear other people use the word or phrase we know should not be used we get upset, angry.  We tell them they should not use that word or phrase.  They, perhaps, are not under the law yet, have not been converted to see how that word or phrase causes harm, so they tell us to back off and mind our own business, they can talk however they want.  Well, that makes us even madder. So mad, in fact, that we call them some words and phrases off that list.  But that’s ok, because they don’t deserve respect because they are refusing to show it.
Now we are trapped right back in sin  - only this time, we are contributing to brokenness and division knowing better.

Or to bring it closer to home, I know how I want to treat my children, I have read all the books and articles that give me clear guidance for the parenting I believe in and choose to practice. But in the moment of flared tempers, or exhaustion, or frustration, all that goes out the window.  And I can see myself behaving in ways I absolutely do not believe in.  O wretched mom that I am!

Knowing what is wrong isn’t enough to keep us from doing wrong. The law itself can’t set us free. In fact, it first makes us more miserable.  Now, having this second, awakened self within me, I can turn and look at the yelling self and say, What are you doing? This is not how you should be acting! And that feels awful.

We are not slaves to sin anymore – we are not helpless to those urges that are self-serving or divisive, we are not ignorant of our behavior and its impact.  We agree the law is good! We delight in the ideals we stand for – that everyone would be upheld and respected, and we could work together and listen to each other. Of course this is how we want to live, we say.  But that doesn’t mean we do it.

The law can’t save us, Paul says. In other words, awareness, being woke, knowing what’s right, recognizing the difference between good and evil, this doesn’t keep us from doing evil. It can’t ultimately fix what’s broken.
The law is good and necessary, but it also creates one more thing we can become a slave to.  We go around policing each other, and living in harsh judgment of ourselves, thinking change can come from just more knowledge and insight.  Of course knowledge and insight are important – they move us forward. But the place we’re moved to first is a greater awareness of our sin, of the ways we are trapped. The law illuminates our need for something beyond us to save us, because, wow, it’s all so much worse than we realized.

The big good news is coming in the next part of this letter, but the little good news of this part is that if you feel hopeless because you’ve done so much work and learning, and tried to change, and keep feeling stuck, that’s normal. It’s actually good. You are actually on the way of transformation.  We, as a nation, in a new reckoning with our history and systemic racism, are on the way of transformation.  People starting AA, facing their addiction, are on the way of transformation.
Awareness of how bad it is, and how trapped we are in repeating the cycles of destruction or dehumanization again and again, even generation after generation, is part of how we are set free.

And here Paul models for us what we can do with that: We can confess it. We can repent of it.  We no longer say, “I didn’t know!” Instead, we say, “I knew, and I did it anyway.”  We can speak boldly of our sorrow and shame; we can claim our guilt as part of our story.  We don’t pretend we are perfect, or even enslave ourselves to the quest to be perfect. We confess our brokenness. We draw closer to the pain instead of trying to flee or fix it. We let ourselves say the deep down feelings that are coming up; we tell the uncomfortable truth.

This Christian life is a life of deep honesty.  And the hardest things to be honest about are not the things we did by accident. They’re the times we hurt others on purpose, or went against what we believe, or lied to protect our reputation, or turned away from someone instead of acting for them.

So instead of pretending we don’t need saving, and covering up or making excuses for the brokenness and division we contribute to, we can face it and tell the truth about it.
And instead of thinking the law can save us, we can admit how hard it is to realize how very far away we are from the goal, and how trapped we feel by the ever-increasing list of rules for doing it right, and how it can even can make more judgmental of others and ourselves.

In other words, instead of avoiding doing what’s right, or obsessing about doing it right, we confess. We repent.  We tell the truth about it and grieve it. We join Paul in the discomfort, and let ourselves feel how hard all this is.  And we boldly acknowledge that we need someone from outside this mess to save us.  Wretched person that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death?  Paul says. Then his outrageous and hopeful whiplash declaration, Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Hear the good news: We can't get it right.


Perhaps tonight before we go to bed, whatever time that is in each of our homes, we can pray in this way, and so join our souls with each other and the people of the whole earth:

A good way to end the day might be with an adaptation of the prayer of confession from worship:

God, I pause at the end of this day
to let my awareness catch up with me.
I can see the sin and brokenness within me.
I don't turn away, but welcome that awareness now,
and name now those places in us me, where I long for your healing and wholeness...

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy. 

And God, as I think about my relationships, with those close to me, and those I don’t know so well, I welcome awareness of the sin and brokenness between us.
Into all the ways I act as though we do not belong to each other, bring your healing and wholeness, especially....

Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.

God, I welcome awareness of the sin and brokenness around me. I lift up those places in my community, my country and your world, where I long for your healing and wholeness, especially....

Lord have mercy.
Christ have mercy.

Hold me in your forgiveness.
Speak to me your peace.
Rest me in your grace. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This post sounds strangely Lutheran! Even the bad news is good news. It's all gospel. But the best line is, "O, wretched mom that I am!"

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