Sin

I think the word “sin” is one of those words that has become so misused, misdirected, and misunderstood that it’s almost taken on a new colloquial meaning, quite different from it’s original conception. Most often, I have heard this word used like a weapon with which to wage a character-attack on oneself, someone else, or whole groups of people.  99 times out of 100, when I hear this word used by Christians, I cringe almost involuntarily. There’s just something I don’t like about how it sounds in most peoples’ mouths.

The most recent example of this occurred during a meeting with a minister on the eve of my daughter’s baptism ceremony. This man – a wonderful man, and a kind, generous, gracious host to our family during this event – wanted to make sure we understood what a baptism ceremony was, and what it was not. We had a lovely conversation about spiritual rituals in general, and I was very moved by the humility with which he approached his role in his church.

At one point in the conversation, he wanted to make sure that we understood that a baptism ceremony wasn’t some kind of “magic” transformation event, and that we would be leaving church that day with the same little baby we had brought with us. He said this warmly but seriously: “she will still cry, she will still be a sinner” –

I bristled.

He paused.

“It’s my understanding, sir, that the Hebrew word for ‘sin’ means to ‘miss the mark’. I don’t believe that my 7 month-old daughter can yet be aware that there is ‘mark’ for which to aim, and it doesn’t feel quite right to speak of her this way”, I said.

I knew this wasn’t a completely rational feeling, but I felt like he had insulted my tiny daughter’s reputation. Some fiercely protective instinct rose up from my belly, into my chest, and out of my throat a bit faster than my brain could mediate it. He was gracious, and while he offered a defense of the word use, I believe he also saw that I intended be unmoved about it, and gently backed away. If this had been a contest of character, he would have outperformed me in patience, gentleness, and self-control without the tiniest hint of pride or exasperation.

My point, however, remains a solid one. The Hebrew word most often translated as “sin” in English is the word chata’ah, which means to “miss the mark”, the way an archer might miss a target with his arrow. Chata’ah, or “sin”, is a mistake, an error, a big ole OOPS! To be committ a sin, you must be aiming for something and miss it.

I think that this word, and it’s associated imagery, is such a lovely, inviting, and compassionate way to understand the limits of our own humanity. We all know what it’s like to want to be – or behave – better than we are, and yet still keep making all kinds of little (or big) missteps along the way.

Perhaps that’s what this minister intended to suggest to us as he explained how the baptism ritual wouldn’t rid our daughter of her human limits. And frankly, I’m not sure I was listening well enough to have ascertained his precise meaning (well, would you look at that? That’s actually a perfect example of ‘sin’).  Nonetheless, if someone wants to call my daughter a ‘sinner’ – or one day explain to her precisely how she is one – I just want to be sure they understand exactly what they’re saying.

How to Pray

A group of people once asked Jesus how to pray, and he answered with poetry.

Poetry, which presumably got translated many times over since then, and may or may not be accurately represented by the current versions we have available to us today. You can find many rendering’s of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ through a simple google search, ranging in tone from the feudalistic language of King James’ Version:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever.

Amen.

To a more mystical, middle-eastern Aramaic translation:

O cosmic Birther of all radiance and vibration.

Soften the ground of our being and carve out a space within us where your Presence can abide.

Fill us with your creativity so that we may be empowered to bear the fruit of your mission.

Let each of our actions bear fruit in accordance with our desire.

Endow us with the wisdom to produce and share what each being needs to grow and flourish.

Untie the tangled threads of destiny that bind us, as we release others from the entanglement of past mistakes.

Do not let us be seduced by that which would divert us from our true purpose, but illuminate the opportunities of the present moment.

For you are the ground and the fruitful vision, the birth, power and fulfillment, as all is gathered and made whole once again.

Amen.

But my question is this: how do you train yourself to sit in the ground of your own heart-swell, and let yourself be swept up into union with the divine source of life and love Itself?

Holy Spirit

Jesus said,

But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper (Comforter, Advocate, Intercessor—Counselor, Strengthener, Standby) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send the Holy Spirit to you.  — John 16:7

After nearly a decade of psychological study, I read this and hear a man saying, “Let me leave this earthy realm so that I might give back to you your own projections of divinity.”

Being God, I believe that Jesus came all this way, entering into the experience of being fully human – loving and grieving and rejoicing and suffering alongside us, that we might be able to see ‘how it’s done’. In other words, how it’s possible to be fully entrenched in this human form, and yet experience the presence of God within us.

Indeed, I am quite convinced that believing in a God who is also alive inside us will ‘help’ each of us much more surely than a belief that God is still exclusively ‘out there'”.

Church

“Jesus never asked anyone to form a church, ordain priests, develop elaborate rituals and institutional cultures, and splinter into denominations. His two great requests were that we “love one another as I have loved you” and that we share bread and wine together as an open channel of that interabiding love.”

― Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind

Good & Evil

The voice that first introduced me to the Aramaic language is a man named Neil Douglas-Klotz. I heard him interviewed a couple years ago by Tami Simon of Sounds True, and they discussed some things in that 57 minute conversation that would serve to completely change my relationship with the Judeo-Christian sacred texts, and ultimately send me on a deeply rewarding journey of re-discovering the teachings of Jesus.

Douglas-Klotz gave me a lens through which to begin to understand that the English language version of the Bible did not have to be the end of the conversation I could have with these ancient texts. Nor did I need to stop with the Greek language from which Western biblical scholars have chosen to translate our current English texts.

Apparently, the main conflict about translation is connected to which written text is the oldest – Greek, or Aramaic – even though it’s agreed upon that Jesus spoke Aramaic. The problem, somewhat unfortunately, is that there isn’t a Galilean (the geographic area in which Jesus lived and taught) Aramaic version of the gospels out there in “circulation”. There is a Syrian one, but this was written down at nearly the same time as the Greek translation, and thus the ambiguity.

Truthfully, however, nothing about this language conflict bothers me that much. In fact, I find it relieving in many ways. Without an indisputable original word-for-word account of Jesus’ teachings, you can make a strong case for suggesting that we remain open to the possibility that none of us can claim to know what he said or did ABSOLUTELY. And well… this just seems like a much more humble vantage point from which to approach something so mysterious.

Anyway, this distinction between Greek and Aramaic is what I want to talk about right now. This is so compelling to me because there is such a marvelous difference in the translations between one language and the other.

For example, Douglas-Klotz explains…

…the meaning of the word “good” in Aramaic really means “ripe.” That is, r-i-p-e, meaning “at the right time, at the right place.” It’s essentially a planting image and one that is drawn from nature.

Alternatively, the word for “evil” or sometimes “bad” that we see in the Greek-to-English version of Gospels, in Aramaic means “unripe”.

Of course, as Douglas-Klotz goes onto explain, this can make a huge amount of difference in how we understand certain phrases Jesus is accredited with saying, such as “every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17-18). If what he really said was “every ripe tree bears ripe fruit, but an unripe tree bears unripe fruit”. The spiritual implication in that statement is something a bit more abstract. It’s more like a zen koan; you walk away having the sense that what has been said is powerful, but still scratching your head about exactly how to live in accordance with this wisdom.

**More about Jesus and his multitude of zen koans to come soon…

 

Psalm 100:1

One of the most striking things I’ve encountered during my attempt re-join the church, is how I feel about the music reverberating from inside it’s walls.

The first church service I attended after I decided I wanted to start going again was remarkably awkward for me (in part) because of the music. I was sincerely disappointed about this too, as some of my fondest memories from the church-going days of my youth involved singing to God with my whole heart: eyes closed, body swaying, hands raised, and my frequently tear-streaked face shining upwards at the God whom I was 100% positive could see and hear me.

It was beautiful, truly. I miss that feeling something fierce.

Yet, now that I’m attending church in my 32-year old skin, reading the lyrics of each song from the video monitor often gives me considerable pause. My body swayed along easily to the sweetness of the melody, and I probably could have danced about wildly to a wordless song of praise. Yet, singing along with the words I was reading felt pretty incongruous with my new way of relating to God.

So, what has changed?

For one thing, I forgot how militant the feudal symbolism in some Christian music can be, and I’ve spent too long working in trauma-informed social services not to bristle at the use of some words and phrases. Furthermore, I also failed to remember how unrelenting the use of masculine pronouns for God can be in church culture, not excluding it’s music.

During an earlier time in my life, I related to God with a kind of inexhaustible thirst for Him. I understood “Him” as a him then, and it didn’t bother me to speak or sing of him this way. Now it does. I think that it’s very likely that most reasonable biblical scholars, theologians, and God-fearing persons agree that God is beyond gender — however, I am almost never given an enthusiastic response when I suggest we update our language to something more gender inclusive when talking about God.

I’m not sure if that’s just because it’s an awkward linguistic transition for people, or if the human mind is so resolute in it’s need to beat back ambiguities that people just can’t go there, but here’s the thing: I have a DAUGHTER. And I need to make sure that she does not learn this particular implicit lesson about gender from her faith community: “if God is male, then male is God” (thank you Sue Monk Kidd for that one).

This is a non-negotiable for me as a parent. I need to find a faith community that will help me honor this evolution of language that is so desperately needed in our religious dialogue.

… Otherwise, my sweet girl is going to be singing a bunch of ‘at-home-revised’ lyrics to old, familiar songs. And I imagine that might set her up to run into some old, familiar walls that I’d really rather tear down for her before she even gets there.