Neighbors in suburbia

I was having one of my “Why here?” mornings, when I am fed up with suburbia and longing to be in ministry elsewhere—a small town, inner city, overseas…

Without examination, this built, and I saw everything around me with a snarky eye. It came to a head at a four-way stop not far from our house. “Get a move on,” I inwardly muttered at the man across the intersection who had clearly arrived before me and yet still hadn’t moved. FINALLY he turned, and I saw through the car’s side window that the driver was a neighbor who lives across the street and a couple doors down from my family. His wife died only a few months ago.

My anger dropped and I received a moment of empathy, a tiny bit of his sorrow knocking off my cynicism and settling in my heart. I followed his car up the hill and then watched as he turned into our local cemetery.

That broke me, and I cried out, “I’m so sorry, Lord. So sorry.”

Why here?

I don’t know completely.

But we ARE here.

And rather than ask Christ, like the Pharisee in Luke 10 did, “And who is my neighbor?”, I need to ask instead to be a neighbor, not only to those in the sex trade, to refugees and immigrants, to those without Christ in foreign countries, to the widow and orphan and oppressed BUT ALSO to the well-dressed, well-fed, well-educated suburbanites all around me.

I often pray Matthew 22:37-39 over my children:“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” And when I do, I don’t specify which neighbors they’re supposed to love. I leave that up to God. 

I’m still learning to do the same for myself.

“Which…proved himself a neighbor?” (Jesus asked).

“The one who showed pity and mercy to him,” (he answered)

And Jesus said… “Go and do likewise.”

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Living Confessionally, Part 3: Stretching my view of God

NOTE: The italicized phrases in this blog post are drawn from the prayer of confession, which follows the post.

In the last blog post in this series, I wrote about how confession has expanded my view of sin: it is not limited to thoughts, words, or actions, for these spring from a self-focus that keeps me from loving God and others. This understanding of sin has also stretched my view of God, for I see that He, unlike me, has NO sin in Him. His Spirit is not bent in self-focus; His every intent and action are for good.

As a child I equated God’s sinlessness (holiness) with a lot of “not” statements. God does not lie, does not steal (kind of impossible for Him to do that!), does not

But the holiness of God is so much greater than that. I turn to my definition of “not-sin” from the last blog post to help me with this idea. “Not sin” (holiness) is loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving my neighbor as myself.

Does God do that?

Yes!

First, He loves Himself with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength.

That’s a strange statement, and one my mind falls far short of comprehending, but when I consider the Trinity (another idea that blows my mind), I see that in the Three-in-One, God keeps this first-and-greatest commandment perfectly. The Father loves and honors the Son and the Spirit; the Son loves and honors the Father and the Spirit; the Spirit loves and exalts the Father and the Son. (For a GREAT and readable article on this, read “The Good News of the Trinity” by Tim Chester. By the way, he uses the term “perichoresis” in that article; click on the word to find the definition–which I had to look up!)

In the Trinity we catch a glimpse of how relationships are supposed to be. No self-centeredness taints the fellowship of the Trinity. Its members are for each other, loving each other with purity and kindness. The members of the Trinity completely act out the love described in I Corinthians 13 and the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5.

Second, God loves His neighbors (all His creation) as Himself. This doesn’t negate justice. God wouldn’t allow sin within Himself; He cannot accept it in us. And this is exactly where God’s love for us, His “neighbors” shines brightest. Rather than leave us in a state of separation from all that is purely good (Himself), He loved us as Himself and GAVE Himself. There is no greater example of the second commandment. For the sake of the Son, Christ, He forgives us and has mercy on us.

And so the prayer of confession takes my eyes UP—away from my self, away even from my sin—and I am amazed at the Goodness of God. In all His thoughts, words, and deeds toward us, in what He does and does not do

He is Good.

Here is the Prayer of confession in its entirety:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;

That we may delight in your will,

And walk in your ways,

To the glory of your Name.

Amen

 

Almighty God, have mercy on us,

Forgive us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ,

Strengthen us in all goodness,

And by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life.

Amen.

Living Confessionally, Part 2: Expanding our view of sin

Not long ago I listened as a group of women talked about Bible studies they’d recently been involved in. One spoke of studying First John. “What surprised me most was the emphasis on confession,” she said. “We don’t do this in my church service, and I find I don’t do it very often personally either. I mean, I do when I see I’ve lied or been unkind, but most of the time I have a hard time recognizing my sin.”

It was an honest acknowledgement, and I understood her. We can easily fall into the trap of seeing sin as a list of things to avoid. The rich young ruler did this; he checked off the Ten Commandments as complete. And even though I understand this is impossible, I sometimes fool myself into thinking that if I attack the sins listed in the Scriptures, one by one, I can be free from them. This is not sanctification; this is self-improvement, the belief that I am really okay at the core, it’s just that I have these sins stuck to my surface.

The prayer of confession deepens my view of sin far, far beyond this.

“… we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart;

We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

In this blog entry I want to look at the last two statements, for these define sin: not loving God with the whole heart; not loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

The “whole heart” includes all of our being: mind, soul, and strength (physical self), and the term “neighbor,” as explained by Christ in His parable of the Good Samaritan, does not exclude ANYONE, no matter how unlike me they happen to be.

So for me to NOT sin would mean I would need to wholly/completely love God AND every person I encounter each and every minute of my life

What would that be like?

I have no idea! I don’t even know what it would be like for a single moment because I can’t do it. I am unable to look completely away from myself, unable to focus upward and outward without one eye—at least—always gazing in. Even my “good” works are tainted with this “looking in.” I may do them with partially pure motives, but at some level I am hoping they will make me feel better about myself or exalt me in God’s or others’ sight.

I am incapable of pure love, even when the object is the pure and wonderful God, even when it is a newborn infant, as innocent and beautiful as a human can be.

The prayer of confessions helps me understand that I am not a sinner because I sin. No, I sin because I am broken at my very core.

The prayer of confession leads me to the huge depth of my need.

Note: As I was thinking about this, I listened to a Tim Keller podcast in which he said the phrase “homo curvatus in se,” and explained it was Martin Luther’s definition of sin. In researching this phrase, I discovered an article on theotherjournal.com by Matt Jenson (Associate Professor of Theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University) titled “The Shape of Our Sin.” Here’s a summary of part of his article, which is drawn from his book The Gravity of Sin: Augustine, Luther and Barth on ‘homo incurvatus in se’:

Augustine and Martin Luther wrote about sin as “humanity curved in on itself” (homo curvatus in se). Augustine said that because of this “curvatus,” we use everything, even God, for the enjoyment or comfort of ourselves, and Luther said this sin extends throughout our entire person—there is not a single part of us that is not centered on self. Karl Barth builds upon Augustine’s and Luther’s views and says that curvatus is also seen when we believe ourselves rather than God. We exalt our own statements as “truth” and reject God’s truths as lies. And he further makes the point that while we often see our “curvatus” as pride, the opposite is also true: when we debase ourselves and are constantly focused on our shortcomings, this is but another form of the curvatus. We are still focused on ourselves.