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Sin Management 101
One day last week I went to eat lunch at this Greek place in Dayton, Ohio called The Gyro Palace, and when I walked in, I was greeted by a warm and friendly Egyptian owner, who told a cook born in Kuwait (but who is from Minnesota) to get me a salad with my gyro, after which a girl from Ohio sliced up some lamb meat for me and piled it up on some Greek pita bread. “You’ll need some cucumber sauce with that,” she said with a warm smile while she handed me a bottle of sauce. Oh, yes...I forgot to mention I am Romanian.After I sat down, I looked around the restaurant and saw a group of four Chinese men enjoying their lunch. A black couple was sitting a few tables over, and as the lunch crowd started to pour in, a group of Mexicans also walked in to wait in line. And the complexity of my lunch environment really started to seep into my head: all these people, from so many places, with so many feelings, fears, and needs coming to have lunch in a small Greek place owned by an Egyptian where a Kuwaiti cooks the food served by an all-American girl.
For the past week, I have been continuously thinking about all these people and about how well that seemingly innocuous lunch experience parallels the Christian faith. Yesterday I spoke at the Miami Valley Church about the cultural facets of our faith, and about how we often tend to put and American spin on Christianity. I pointed out how we are sometimes willing to “compromise” or justify ourselves regarding certain cultural aspects of the Scripture, such as women covering their heads in church, the drinking of grape juice rather than wine during the communion, and some men covering their heads while attending a church service.
Ironically we are often being lectured by professors of self-righteousness on what the Bible says. I know I am getting to the point of being sick and tired of hearing certain people say “the Bible says…” in their attempts to justify their self-righteousness, behavior and judgmental attitude. The bottom line is that the Bible “says” a lot of things; the problem is not with what the letters and words printed on the paper spell out; rather the problem is with what is being projected into the minds of those reading and interpreting those black markings we find on the white paper. The Bible says that it is O.K. to own slaves, that women should cover their heads in church, that first-century Christians drank wine for communion and that men shouldn’t cover their heads when praying.
Obviously, we are now starting to realize that there is a lot more to reading letters and words from the Bible. There are social and cultural aspects that need to be well thought-out. One example is the obvious anti-alcohol attitude that permeates American churches. Growing up in Europe gave me a totally different perspective on alcohol, especially regarding wine. I clearly remember being four or five years old and drinking a good-size glass of wine before going to bed. This was a cure for all things, be it colds, stomach aches and even a mild flu. It was even better after a good fried chicken leg soaked in a garlic sauce; and no, I did not grow up into some sort of alcoholic or abusive individual. Of course my ideas regarding alcohol were all challenged when I moved to the United States. I knew something was terribly wrong when I was told that the Baptist College I was attending strictly forbade any consumption of alcohol; not to mention the strange looks I got when I inquired where one could find a good red wine here in Ohio.
In this circumstance, sin seems to be culturally relative. More than once I have met a person who was more than ready and willing to damn to hell anyone who has even tasted wine. This brings to mind the comment made by someone during the conversation we had at the Miami Valley Church: “When I started going to church, I asked for a list of things that were denied so I knew what I had to give up in order to be a Christian.”
So what we observe is that when Christianity is presented as a counter-cultural religion, it becomes nothing more than an exercise in “sin management” or a religion where one has to always maintain a list of things that he can or cannot do in order to be in. But if that is the case, how then is our “religion” different than Islam or other religions where sin is also put under a microscope in order to be managed better?
May I suggest that perhaps our picture of Christianity is completely upside down? What if rather than perceiving Christianity as a religion, we look at it as a story? In eastern cultures, especially the Jewish culture, symbols are heavily being used to tell stories and communicate important messages. Is it possible that we are over-westernizing what was meant to be a simple and beautiful story? My story, your story, the beautiful story of God redeeming humanity from its mistakes; not robots, but real people with real needs, Romanians, Americans, Greeks, Egyptians, Kuwaitis, etc.
In Greek, the literal translation of the word sin (hamartia) is “miss” or “misses.” God seems to consider a sin one’s attempt to hit the target but missing. Interestingly enough, the natural use of the word in Greek varies from Homer’s use of hamartia, where he is using the example of a spear which misses its target, to Aristotle’s use of the word, indicating a “mistake.” That in itself tells me that because of the word used in the New Testament to describe sin, all people are trying to hit the target; unfortunately some miss it, and some hit closer to the target than others. So the point of our faith is not to become really good at sin management or at hitting the target, but to become more like God. And becoming more like God is not synonymous with exporting American Christianity to the rest of the world.
Thus being a Christian does in fact mean that we are each on a journey, living in the middle of the story of God changing us and transforming us into someone more like Him; being Christians is not something we do, but is something we are becoming more every day. Some of us think that is it a requirement to agree on all things before we can even speak with each other. But not long ago Alex said something here on Planet Preterist which I could hardly say better: “God allows perfectly honest and truth-seeking individuals to have differing opinions, in order to provide an environment in which it takes a true effort (self-sacrifice) to show love and mercy between them.”