LENTEN REFLECTION SERIES
The ancient Christian season of Lent is a 40-day journey leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Traditionally, Christians have observed this 40-day season through intentional self-examination and repentance, demonstrated by self-denial and fasting. I would like to spend this Lent by a series of reflections on the theme of sin and repentance, including excerpts from a chapter in an unpublished book “Everyday Faith” on the topic of “Waste Management.” I invite you to join me on this 40-day journey!
I often avoid the “S” word. And I’m a pastor. The “S” word has always bothered me — not nearly as much as the “S” abiding in me and constantly ensnaring me. Before you pick up stones or label me a heretic or a liberal, let me tell you why I often avoid using the “S” word.
Have you ever heard someone outside the Christian subculture mention “sin” in their everyday vernacular? I didn’t think so. The only place you’ll hear the “S” word is within the church walls, a pastor’s sermon, a hymn, Christian book or in conversation with a fellow believer. Now, some will immediately conclude that people just don’t want to face up to the reality of “S” in their life and in the world, and that’s why there is no talk of “S”. But not so fast. While many do indeed hide behind masks of self righteousness and live in constant denial “S” and the existence of God, does this therefore mean most unbelievers have no concept of the reality of “S”?
I believe the unbelieving world is all too familiar with the reality of “S” but they choose to use other words to describe it. They might say the world is filled with brokenness and disharmony. Things are messed up, shattered, skewed, marred, whacked and badly bent out of shape. People hurt other people. The world is a breeding ground for inequality, oppression and all kinds of injustice. As a human race we are deeply sick and dysfunctional at the core of our being. The “S” word carries a lot of religious baggage – both good and bad – and many simply don’t want to be associated with all of it. I happen to be one of them.
As a communicator of the gospel and a teacher of God’s Word I believe I have a responsibility to carefully choose words that will most effectively teach the core truths of the Christian faith to my audience. This means constantly translating the meaning of Scripture into the everyday language of the culture we are part of. Are we being wise stewards of God’s Word if we continue to use lightning-rod, religiously loaded and culturally offensive words to speak about something so common to us all? Should we not find more contemporary expressions of this timeless reality to more effectively get our message across to culture suspicious of religious judgmentalism?
“But ‘Sin’ is timeless, and people need to face their sin,” you may interject. Others will retort, “Sin is supposed to be an offensive topic; it is our offense against God that we should be worried about!” True enough. But we’re not preaching to the choir here. We’re talking to people who deny God’s existence and who, therefore, don’t believe the most offensive thing is offending God but rather having the gaul to impose one’s religion on another.
The reason why this matters to me is that I still believe that the best place to find initial common ground with a anti-religious skeptic is to start by observing our common human condition. We both can agree that the human race is capable of high levels of greatness, love, compassion, creativity and goodness. Yet, we can also both clearly see that something seems to have gone seriously wrong in the world. Abuse, injustice, oppression, genocide, slavery, etc. all bear vivid witness to the truthfulness of the Bible’s description of reality. In short, we both believe “S” is part of the problem — even if they call it by another name. Now I’m one step closer to sharing the Bible’s solution.
So, I rarely use the “S” word in my preaching and conversations. But make no mistake. I’m not a closet liberal going soft on sin. Neither am I trying to dance cleverly around the serious reality of “S.” I believe in sin. I am the chief of sinners myself. “We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). I believe that my sin separates me from God. I believe that “He who had no sin became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor). I believe that Jesus paid my penalty of sin, dying on the cross to take away the sins of the world. And, each morning I take God at his gracious promise that “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John). Robed in the righteousness of Christ I now stand, and “as far as the east is from the west, that’s how far God has removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 102).
Now how can we BEST communicate this good news to others?