On sin and repentance

outofsortsbookSarah Bessey’s wonderful book, Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith released this week. Do you have your copy yet? To go along with the book launch, Sarah is running a good old-fashioned synchro-blog, with the prompt, “I used to think___, but now I think___.” It was a project for her launch team, but Sarah just opened it up to everyone, so if you have something you’d like to write about, check it out!

I have been thinking about what I wanted to write about for weeks. I have things I want to say about spoken and unspoken gender roles in Christian community, and about spoken and unspoken roles for singles vs married people. I haven’t much changed my mind on those things — I’ve been a feminist and egalitarian since before I knew what those words meant — but I’ve been willing to work with complimentarians in the past, and even put myself in positions where they had authority over me, and I didn’t realize until much later how damaging those experiences had been. But I don’t think I’m quite ready to write about that yet.

Then of course there’s the obvious issue of LGBTQ inclusion. That is probably the shiniest thing that I’ve changed my perspective on. But I don’t think that’s what I want to share for the synchroblog. (If you’re interested, you can read this post about how I changed my mind.)

Here, though, I think I’d like to share a little about how my perspective on sin has shifted. So I’ve adapted an essay I wrote this summer:

Savasana: On finding the uncluttered space

The first time I went to a yoga class I struggled through, watching the clock the whole time. I knew the class was an hour and fifteen minutes, so it was with a sense of surprised blessing that I realized, with twenty minutes still to go, that we were winding down. The poses became slower and easier, and then the teacher told us to lie on our backs and make ourselves comfortable. She suggested putting our socks back on and pulling blankets over ourselves. She dimmed the lights, put on soft, meditative music, and I suddenly realized that it was nap time! Just like in kindergarten, we all lay together on our mats and rested. It felt funny lying in such an intimate, vulnerable pose in a roomful of people, eyes closed as the teacher led us through a relaxation exercise. But I soon forgot about the others and reveled in the peace and quiet as my sore muscles came to rest and my mind settled, my body becoming chilly as the sweat cooled.

Savasana is the word both for the pose — on your back with your arms out at a slight angle — and the process of lying in that pose and going through the relaxation exercise. It happens at the end of every yoga class, and is a way of allowing the poses you have just done to settle into your mind and muscles. It is also a body meditation, similar to centering prayer and bio-feedback, two things I stumbled upon a few years ago in my quest for spiritual and physical health. Like centering prayer and bio-feedback, you are encouraged to take a passive attitude to your thoughts, to allow them without trying to change them, but without latching on to them, or identifying with them.

One analogy used in centering prayer is to see your thoughts as clouds going overhead: You notice them but they don’t affect you down where you are, and they blow past with the wind. For someone who has struggled with anxiety, this is incredibly powerful: I don’t have to try to STOP thinking the anxious thoughts, or to change them or replace them with positive thoughts — exercises which left me exhausted and twice as stressed out — but I don’t have to define myself by them, either. I can nod at them, even greet them with friendly acknowledgement, but then not concern myself with them. I sometimes picture them as clouds, and sometimes as an object beside me: there, but not a part of me. Observe your thoughts, my teacher says, acknowledge them without trying to change them. So I notice: I am angry at my housemate for something stupid, I am worried about money, my back hurts. It’s okay. I don’t have to try to stop being angry right now, or stop worrying, or get my back to stop hurting. That’s just how I feel. It’s not me. My true self is deeper than those thoughts and feelings, is at peace.

I think that growing up and coming of age as a Christian, there were a lot of things I thought were sins that were just feelings, just me struggling to figure myself out, and figure others out, and find my place in the world. Repenting and trying to change those thoughts and feelings was a difficult, and unproductive process. I believe in sin, and in repentance, the Hebrew word shuv that means turning away from bad choices and back towards good, turning away from the wrong path and back to the right one, turning back to God. But I wish that I had known about savasana, too. I wish I could have given myself that space and gentleness, to not immediately identify my feelings as sins, and identify myself with them. Repenting of anger never helped me let go of that anger so much as gently acknowledging it, setting it next to me, and quieting my body and my mind. I can let it go. It isn’t me. I think if I had known how to do that it would have helped me to understand what the real sins were, what things were really pointing me away from God, which direction I needed to turn to go back towards God.

I remember as a child going to church and coming to the confession, week after week, the moment in the service where we read the prayer confessing that we had sinned, “In what I have done, and in what I have left undone.” I thought the second part was so profound — It’s not just our bad actions that are sins, but also our failure to act when we could have done something good. But I remember wondering, and asking my parents: Why do we have to pray that every week? If we’re asking God to help us not to sin next week, shouldn’t he help us? But we pray it automatically — no one stops to ask, “Did anyone succeed in not sinning this week? Great!” Everyone just assumes that we all messed up again. And if failure is built into the system, what’s the point of trying so hard every week?

My poor parents. Those were the kind of questions they had to field on a Sunday morning. But even as a kid the logic confused me.

Then I remember in college, struggling with the same things week after week. I wanted to be patient and kind, to love other people without judging them, and to care about others and take care of them. Those are still my goals, now that I think about it. But every week I found myself frustrated and impatient, judging others and thinking mean thoughts towards them, and frankly caring more about myself than them. That was mixed in with a lot of genuine caring and loving and even good works. But it was so frustrating to me that those thoughts were there. And the harder I tried, the more I repented and asked God for help, the more it seemed the bad thoughts loomed in and took control. And then there were the things that I now think weren’t even sins at all: Anxiety, depression, insecurity, jealousy, loneliness. Some of it was probably clinical and I could’ve used more help than I was getting. But some of it, I think, was just a normal part of being human, of being 19 and trying to figure out who I was, of being someone who thought deeply and took everything in and tried to figure everything out. I tried so hard, and I was so hard on myself for not figuring it out faster and better.

I sometimes think of that strange passage in Matthew 12:45-47, where Jesus speaks of an impure spirit that is driven out of a person, and then comes back to find the place swept clean, and takes up residence again, this time with “seven other spirits more wicked than itself.” And it reminds me of a lyric from a Ray LaMontagne song, Empty, which is about his struggle with depression:

Well I looked my demons in the eye
Bared my chest said do your best to try to destroy me
You know I’ve been through hell and back so many times
I must admit you kind of bore me

I heard that song during a very dark time in my life and I could so relate to the weariness of driving out demons only to have them return and return. Maybe I could just let them be, let them float overhead like clouds while I met with God down below. Maybe if I stopped casting them out they’d grow bored, too, and not want to play anymore.

One evening this August, after a long day at work, I came home and made my way to my yoga mat. During the savasana I opened my eyes and looked up at the ceiling. And I noticed something I never had before. Above, the white textured ceiling was bordered by dark wood paneling that matched the wood on the walls, and it created a framed rectangle the exact size of my living room. My living room is the place I spend more time than any other room (if you don’t count time asleep); it’s where I work on my computer, play on my computer, read, entertain guests, and do yoga. I sit on the front porch sometimes, and hang out in my bed at night, but the living room is the space most full of me, my activities and my presence. And tonight I noticed that there is a space the exact same size and shape above it, with soft, white, textured paint and a dark wood border. It is my living room, but it is emptied of furniture, rugs, house plants, computers, tissues, candles — all the things that clutter the floor below. It is a framed, empty canvas, in the shape of my life, my living, my room.

I realized that this space perfectly represents the place I go to when I do centering prayer, or savasana. In this case the clutter is down below, and that beautiful, white, uncluttered space is above — exactly the shape of me, but empty of all of the thoughts and anxieties, habits and coping mechanisms, that make up my daily life. It is a blank canvas, where I can meet God and we can create something together. God is the paint, and I am the brush, or I am the brush and God is the artist, or I am the canvas only and God is all the rest: the blended colors of the full spectrum, the rocky pigment sparkling in the paint, the sharp edge of the palette knife, the rough horse-hair of the brush, and the Artist Himself, waiting for his materials to settle down, to move all that clutter off of the canvas so He can finally begin.



8 comments on “On sin and repentance

  1. Will Moriarty says:

    I was hurt by authority too, but I can’t figure out what this “equality” is that everybody is talking about.


  2. brianbalke says:

    Being a parent helped me. Rather than hoping that they’d drift away, I began telling those thoughts “Now, now. Play nice!” Just as I enjoyed watching my children learn how to manage conflict, it was fun watching “my” “sinful” thoughts grow up.


  3. Linda Stoll says:

    May God continue to reveal His loving presence to you …


  4. wilderoe says:

    So love this!! Luminous writing and telling! I so can relate to all of this, “Anxiety, depression, insecurity, jealousy, loneliness.” You know having access to the words like these Hebrews 10:14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. That place of transcendence and peace and rest, leaves me with the HOW?? part and the angst and frustration. Which I think your piece addresses!! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lovely and strong. Thank you for this!

    Liked by 1 person

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