Mixed Messages

When I was a little boy, we went to this little Baptist church. I have several memories of that church. Most of them were not terribly fond memories with the exception of the pot luck. Baptist churches have the best pot luck dinners. I suppose that is why you never hear Baptists preach against gluttony…but I digress… The memory that stands out to me the most happened one particular Sunday when I was about 4 years old. I had successfully destroyed all of the offering envelopes in the pew in front of me as I endeavored to create “art.” I looked over at my mother and I remember her grabbing my arm and giving me “the look.” Those of you that had mother’s like mine know the “the look.” The message conveyed is this: “If you don’t stop what you are doing right now and sit still for the rest of this church service, I am going to take you to the bathroom and dust your butt with my shoe.” I got the hint. I sat up and for a few minutes, I actually listened to the preacher. He was wearing a gray suit with pin stripes and he had the quintessential “Baptist preacher hair.” It was big and brushed up with every silver hair in place. I had the fleeting thought in my mind that his job must be great because he only works one day a week. (Little did I know.) I remember him working himself up into a lather. He was sweating a bit and we must have been getting close to the alter call because he started using words like “sin” and “repent.” I didn’t know what those meant at the time, but the way he said them made them sound scary and important. I left that service with some confusion that followed me into my adult life. After my mother died, we didn’t go to church much and it wasn’t until I was about 20 years old that I actually started going back to church. Once again, I was hearing these scary words. They were presented with such passion and intended to invoke an emotional response. Flashing forward and going to a Baptist seminary for graduate school, I learned how to use these words in my own preaching, but I never really explored their meaning. Every time I would preach, I would be wielding these two words that I didn’t fully understand. I was never comfortable giving altar calls or using fear as a tactic to convince people. It wasn’t until years later that I actually developed the curiosity to explore the Greek meaning of these words. What I found surprised me. The Greek word for “sin” is hamartia. It is an archery term which literally means to “miss the mark.” The Greek word for “repent” is metanoia which simply means to change directions. With this new knowledge, words that before had caused me discomfort and confusion suddenly offered me a sense of clarity. We all miss the mark from time to time and need to change directions and do something different. Somehow, stating it this way took the fear out of it. Recognizing that we missed the mark does not require us to grovel or sink into a pit of shame. It simply requires us to acknowledge fault and say to ourselves: “Hmmm….I think I am going in the wrong direction…maybe I need to do something different.” This is an idea that most people would find useful and agreeable. However, the way that the church presents it adds the fear element and turns people off. I realize now that fear does not encourage people to participate for the right reasons, but love does. When the words sin and repent are thrown around with the underlying fear of Hell, the message of love disappears. The purpose of healthy religion and spirituality is for one to grow, not simply avoid some imagined place of eternal torment leading to fear driven decisions. Love differs from fear in that it encourages us to help people make adjustments to their lives simply for the purpose of wanting to see them be happier and healthier. So that being said, when you miss the mark, simply change directions. This is how we learn and grow. The real sin is when we fail to grow from the times when we miss the mark. For if we do learn from our mistakes we can truly changed directions and do something different and in doing so, we can avoid that proverbial trip to the bathroom in the middle of the church service and the close encounter of the shoe of life on our behinds.-

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