I am always impressed when speaking with one of my many septuagenarian or octogenarian congregants and they share something about “working out” or “going to the gym.” I don’t mean to be ageist here but that is not something I automatically think of my friends in their seventies and eighties doing. Frankly, as an almost quadragenarian, it is something I hardly do. I do not go to the gym. Probably should…strength training, a little yoga, some cardio, it would all do me some good, as it does my older parishioners. If I do ever “work out” it’s usually running; but even that is generally done in fits and starts with a few months going well and then something happens and nada for a while. I suppose I’m currently in the “starts” phase. We’ll see how long that lasts.
The reason I have working out on my mind and relate it here—since you doubtless have little interest in my personal exercise habits—has to do with some reflections of late on sin. What could be more reformed that that! Specifically an exchange near the end of our recent Reformed Church General Synod made me wonder why we take sin so personally, while at the same time, not personally at all. Incidentally, while this involves the inner issues of my own denomination, I think the wonderment travels well beyond these particular familial and institutional parameters.
So, there I was in a closing meeting of a specific committee—precise details are really unimportant here—and a Christian brother shared a personal experience that he had had relating to his Lenten journey and sin. During Lent, he had chosen to “give up sin.” Sounds good to me! But some weeks into it, he found himself in an occasion where anger was his immediate response, and low and behold, he sinned. Again, the specific details are not relevant here. Suffice it to say, my Christian brother had chosen to give up sin, but then eventually something happened and he sinned.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over this last month and a half because in so many ways it emulates my own desire in running. I choose to start running. I run. Then something happens and I don’t run anymore.
Obviously, I simply need more discipline. With running, that is. Which I do. Which is also where this metaphor falls so incredibly short, at least as it relates to sin.
It seems, somehow, the notion of sinning, of discipline, of discipleship has all been warped into a paradigm that is similar to a New Year’s resolution—or more spiritually—a Lenten practice of fasting, of giving something up. Which is all well and good but lets be honest, how many people do you know who have given up something for Lent by the third week have made substitution a necessity, elated in Sundays not being officially Lent, or simply broken the fast before its time? Like those New Year’s resolutions that are just about forgotten by February, choosing to give up sin is well and good, but face it, if St. Paul had trouble with it, I doubt you and I will be so stellar.
Which is not to say we ought to keep on sinning. That’s hardly the point! But it is to point out we live in a country where everybody is dieting but nobody’s getting healthier. An exaggeration? Perhaps. The church too, though…
But some of us in the church have an approach to sin that seems to see it entirely as personal choices one makes. Stop sinning. Stop choosing to sin. Great! Ok! But sometimes sin isn’t just personal. Sometimes (all the time?) it’s built into the very structures, systems, and institutions that we are a part of, the powers and principalities, and a How To Manual our faith is not. It’s more complex and complicated than that.
I get why some of my Christian brothers and sisters spend a goodly amount of time worried about particular choices as it relates to sin and behavior. And while I may not agree with you all the time on what the specific sin is, I get where you’re coming from and generally am with you. But often I want to push back and share that we who speak of corporate, structural, institutional, and communal sins such as racism, sexism, and homophobia are not dismissing the personal. Rather, we see the personal as much implicated into the wider body of brokenness. And maybe even more.
And that oftentimes, breaking the power of sin is not simply about giving certain behaviors up and changing one’s habits. It also means engaging in the process of structural changes that include but go far beyond oneself.
Well, these have been my wonderments. Now, I’m off to run.