Tuesday, February 28th
Go, and Sin Some More
By: Adrienne Trevathan
This year, for the first time, I experienced an Ash Wednesday service in which the word “sin” (or any of its derivatives) was not used. Since I wasn’t expecting this, it was weighing heavily on my mind. As soon as I got home – not surprisingly – I found that totally-awesome Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber had already written something about the role of sin for Ash Wednesday and Lent. (Nadia’s post about sin and Ash Wednesday can be found here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2012/02/why-i-love-ash-wednesday-and-lent-part-1-sin/). Reading Nadia’s post was helpful, but I still had/have some wrestling to do with this whole “sin” problem.
So…sin. Here are some thoughts about why I want to hear the word sin used in church:
1. Education – Like any other part of our theology, we can use it as a teaching opportunity. To couch it in terms of “separateness” is to give too much control to other denominations or traditions we’re trying to define ourselves against. This might just be my struggle, but I am sick and tired of feeling the need to apologize for using certain terms in the church just because That Church, The One With Whom I Disagree also uses it. That’s not a reason to drop something from liturgy, and says a lot more about us than it does God.
2. Identity – Language has the power to shape our understanding; it shapes the way we think and experience life. It shapes our identity. Words matter because language is so formative. In most Protestant traditions, we believe that The Holy Spirit is present with us throughout the worship service (we hope so; we at least invoke The Spirit, although what The Spirit does is The Spirit’s business) but the words that we use have the power to change us. One of my mentors always used to remind us that “prayer doesn’t change God – it changes us.” Similarly, our liturgies – small pieces that they may be – have the power to change us. The words are a gift because they help us remember who we are in that space. They become a part of us.
3. Interpretation – We often talk about the task of interpretation in the church. We were trained to think theologically – not for ourselves, but with the people entrusted to our care. What does it say to our churches if we (us folks in ministry, lay or ordained) are not willing to model this responsibility to interpret sin? While I don’t always enjoying experiencing discomfort, if it’s a discomfort that will reveal something about myself and eventually bring me closer to God, then it’s worth it. If something I do or say as a leader brings discomfort or causes people to express emotion that is necessary in their growth in faith, then I hope I have the courage to speak when I need to speak and do what I need to do. I don’t want to hurt anyone (“Do no harm”), but it does more harm to sugarcoat our realities.
4. Tradition – It’s a part of our denominational traditions and doctrine. More importantly, it’s a part of the creeds that we inherit as the church (The Nicene and Apostle’s, among others, with the exception of non-creedal churches). Those who have been baptized into a particular church have made a commitment of their time and energy for what the church believes and works for in the world. Should they not at least be able to understand why their denomination chooses to use some words and not others? The Nicene Creed was the result of numerous battles over small words. Should we not at least give 1/8 of the attention to such a difficult and meaningful word as “sin”?
5. Responsibility – Discipleship isn’t a buffet; when we’re called to the table, we accept what’s there – and in the case of Lent, we have to start with the thing that brought us there – sin. We are called to prepare our hearts because there may be something going on in us, as individuals and a community, that makes preparation for what Jesus is about to do difficult. That “thing” is called sin.
6. Experience – In pastoral care and counseling, there is a theory that the power of naming something is often a starting place for transformation. In the process of the concept receiving a name, the individual is able to encounter the emotion that arises from the experience and move forward into conversation.
In the creation stories, God told Adam to name the various creatures, and in doing so, Adam exercised power (dominion) over them.
We still have that power today, in many ways, whether we are able to realize it. Christian history, being what it is, has no shortage of reasons why we feel sick when we think seriously about the ways the church has oppressed countless people in the name of God. We can use that power to continue in the harmful heritage of abuse, or we can attempt to use it well in community. To not use the word “sin” appropriately in the context of a liturgy that calls for preparation and an examination of hearts does more harm than good.