This well-sung Advent hymn, text written by Charles Wesley, is a favorite during this season. With many choirs over the years, I have had them sing it to “Divinum Mysterium” a 16th century hymn derived from early medieval plainsong. I then like to bump up the mystery quotient by having the choir sing it accompanied by a set of tuned wind chimes that I bought in the late 80’s for just this purpose. It really is a lovely way to begin worship during Advent.
Yesterday during our vocal warm-up, one of the tenors helpfully noticed that some of us (namely the conductor) was singing “fears and sins” and others (the whole choir) “sins and fears”. I wondered allowed to the choir: does fear come before sin? I have a lot to say about fear and will no doubt do so in subsequent posts. But this morning, I want to write a few words about sin.
In seminary, a more conservative and evangelical colleague and I wrote a paper together about sin. I can’t say he was “for it” and I was “against it” because neither of us think that “sin” is a particularly good thing. He was willing, however, to defend the Christian tradition’s understanding of sin and I tried to answer him from the point of view of a contemporary believer who is very uneasy with that word and all its baggage.
As I have gotten older, after too much experience of humans as pretty lousy to the core, it has become easier to imagine that we might all be hopelessly fallen and irredeemable. Just a flip through the channels to watch “reality” television sends me into despair about whether humanity can ever get its act together to address the planetary emergency of climate change, the ongoing devastation of our environment, war, hunger, and all the rank inequality all over the world. Sinful indeed! And mostly sins of the seven deadly variety – especially greed and gluttony.
But my point then and now is that such thinking isn’t very helpful because it does not inspire positive change. If we are “bad to the bone”, what’s the point of trying to change our behavior at all? In past eras, and even now amongst more fundamentalist Christians, the threat of hell is used as the stick to make behavioral changes.
Now I know don’t know about you, but I’m not all that interested in spending time worrying about the afterlife. It is certainly an interesting theological question, but an excessive focus on the future – especially the far, far away future – is a sure-fire way to avoid what is important right now. More importantly, the question of who goes to heaven and who goes to hell is definitely above my pay grade. God only knows and I haven’t a clue. I am also quite sure that no other human being on earth is qualified to determine my status as “saved” or “reprobate”.
Herein lies the rub about sin. When we spend a lot of time talking about sin, inevitably someone will decide that my sin is greater than yours. Then, since that person is already on the highway to hell, let’s just throw him or her in “prison” (be it of physical or social construction) until God finally acts. How does that help us work together to “seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God”? How do we as humans avoid the sin of idolatry in the midst of trying to punish sinners? Do we really want to play God?
Still, I can sing with great conviction and pray with abandon for release from my “fears and sins”, both personal and corporate and invite you to sing with me. Then let’s stop worrying about the hell to come and get busy addressing hell on earth.