Tag Archives: sin

Thinking, Feeling and Doing: Three Kinds of Repentance for the Truly Human Life

[This post originally appeared last week on the Missio Alliance blog]

In the Christian liturgical year, Lent is a season especially dedicated to spiritual discipline and repentance. The purpose of this discipline is movement toward the resurrection life that is made available to us in Christ, and we repent because the path we naturally follow doesn’t lead to this life. But repentance is a hard thing to manufacture. If the prompting doesn’t come from a place of genuine conviction, discipline is likely to either be motivated by guilt or to produce self-righteousness. In either case, the outcome doesn’t sustain real change.

Three Kinds of Repentance

This is why the repentance that the Christian life calls for is more than behavioral. In Hebrew, there are two words for repentance: שוב shuv (to return) and נחם nacham (to feel sorrow). In Greek, the word metanoia is used, which basically means “to change one’s mind.” So shuv refers to doing differently, nacham to feeling differently, and metanoia to thinking differently.

Thus, repentance, and the change that follows it, touches on all three of these dimensions of human life: thinking, feeling and doing. Those who use the enneagram as a tool for spiritual growth might speak of these three dimension in terms of personality groupings or centers: head, heart, and body. Obviously, everybody engages in all three of these activities, but we are usually most dependent on one of the three – especially in stressful situations. For most people, one center is dominant, another is suppressed, and the third is idle. Much spiritual flourishing, therefore, depends on awakening our idle center in order to resurrect the one we suppress.

Our Greatest Strength and our Greatest Weakness

One big challenge for people on their faith journey then is figuring out which area needs work and how to work on it. It’s actually easier to resurrect the suppressed center than it is to discipline the dominant one. Why? Because the dependent center is not only the activity that is dominant, but it’s also the part of us that other people tend to like the most (if and when they like us). It’s the part of us that we’re known for. It’s the part that’s closely connected to our personality – our small self, as some would say (which is the same thing as the ego-centered self). Paradoxically, this self is called “small” because it tends to be strong, but only when it comes to survival and success in the world.

So the small self “strength” is actually at the same time a weakness when it comes to living a truly human life. This is one of the ways in which the gospel is “foolishness to the Greeks.” Jesus’s call is for a different and more abundant life that inevitably runs counter to the world’s expectations, but it is unexpected not only in terms of the end but also the means. As God says through Isaiah 59, which Paul later quotes in 1 Corinthians 1, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Jesus brings this prophecy to a head with the command to die to or lose ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow him.

Some people are feeling or doing-dominant. Figuring out which center you live out of is not very difficult, but it’s not always totally straightforward either. Consulting a spiritual director or counselor is a good idea. In my case, I am thinking-dominant. I deal with anxiety by gathering information and trying to gain understanding. The mind is the “control tower” of the thinking-centered person. As stress increases, I become more detached from reality by retreating into my thoughts. This leads me to stop feeling and suppress doing. So instead of doing whatever needs to be done, I fall into a mode of passively thinking about what’s happening, rather than engaging it in a relational and active way.

Fear not, Judge not, and Peace be with You

It’s interesting that the New Testament and Greek word for repentance starts with the call to change our minds. The majority of people in the world are thinking-dominant, but they are also fearful, and Jesus’s most common command comes from the “fear not” genre. Most people who depend heavily on thinking do not think productively, wisely, or contemplatively. They think anxiously. As such, fear may very well be the biggest human barrier to repentance. The Pharisees were almost certainly a very fearful group.

For others, anger or shame are the great hurdles to overcome for repentance to take place, and Jesus speaks to these as well. Jesus never shames people who are shamed by others. Instead, he takes their shame away by forgiving and healing even the most shamed people in Jewish culture (tax collectors, Samaritans, Roman Centurions, and the sexually or physically unclean). With respect to anger, Jesus only rebukes those whose anger arises from a place of judgment or resentment rather than righteous indignation. To the angry, Jesus says “peace be with you” and “blessed are those who are persecuted.”

A Path to Repentance

We all have strengths and gifts based on our personalities. The trouble comes when we equate our strengths with our identities or use them to chart our path to truly human life. In the market place, good employers hire people based on their strengths — as they should. By contrast, good spiritual leaders, for instance, identify over-dependence on those same strengths, and put forward an alternative program for repentance that disciplines our center of strength.

One of the practices for the thinking person’s repentance is daily silence, meditation or contemplation for about twenty minutes. Over time, this discipline enables the suspension of critical thinking and movement into a more peaceful, trusting state. Another helpful practice for the thinking-centered is reading or listening to stories of others who have done meaningful, courageous work for those who are in need. Stories awaken feelings and move us to new action. They empower us to feel differently and act differently, ultimately causing us to think differently. This is why teachers like Richard Rohr are fond of saying, “We don’t think ourselves into new ways of living; we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”

The Role of the Church

Because there are at least three different ways that people need to repent, and many more than three different kinds of people, one of the church’s mistakes when helping people along in their Lenten journeys has been to preach only one kind of repentance (usually behavioral) to one kind of person (usually the person who struggles with shame). It’s common, for example, for churches to prescribe one model of mission or growth, or to draw primarily on one theological stream or tradition (the liturgical, evangelical, charismatic, etc.). Is it any wonder, then, that churches are some of the most homogenous communities in our culture today?

The truly human life is about a transformed way of thinking, feeling and doing in the world, freed from fear, shame and anger, and supported by a community who takes courage, trusts and forgives together in the way of Jesus. The whole sweep of Scripture testifies to how God’s grace redeems the full range of human experience, and the gospels bear witness to Jesus’s call for repentance in all dimensions of human activity. Let us as the church, then, be bold and creative enough to make room in our theology and in our practices for the gospel to reach every aspect of people’s lives.

Exodus, Exile and Resurrection: Living Beyond Tribalism and Individualism

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance Blog.]

The beauty of the Bible has as much to do with what it tells us about human nature as it does to do with what it tells us about God. Indeed, the story of salvation only makes sense when we see the various dimensions of the human person and experience with all of its flaws and struggles that Christ has come to redeem. It starts with the most simple and obvious needs and moves to the deepest and most mysterious longings.

Exodus: The Cry of the Poor and the Oppressed

As human beings, we simply cannot flourish apart from certain basic material provisions. Food, clothing, shelter, a balanced life of work, recreation and sleep are essential. Beyond this, we also crave relational connectivity with others to feel secure and known. These material needs cannot be separated from our spiritual lives, but they are distinct and usually prerequisite for most people to live with a higher sense of identity and purpose.

Thus, it seems fitting in retrospect that the most formative narrative for the Jewish faith and memory was that of the Exodus. If not a liberator for slaves and the oppressed, then what is God? This is an absolutely central aspect of who God is, and Jesus confirms this with his first public words in Luke 4, reading from the Isaiah scroll. So we see that freedom from material bondage is the most foundational and urgent dimension of salvation.

The problem is that one can be liberated, politically and economically speaking, and still have a prideful, tribal consciousness. The Exodus story paints a picture of an enemy in the Egyptian people, and for good reasons. And God seems to have given Pharaoh plenty of chances, but was killing the first born of every Egyptian really necessary? It shouldn’t surprise us then that long after the Exodus, well into the period of conquest, judges and kings, Israel continues to have enemies whose blood stains the hands of their God more often than we would like to admit. We learn that if material liberation is not accompanied by spiritual liberation, even God’s people can start to look like Egyptians. Maybe imperial ambition and violence are a human phenomenon, and not just an Egyptian one? This is what brings downfall upon the Jewish monarchy and ultimately leads to the period of Exile. God’s response to the cry of the poor and oppressed came around full circle through the prophets to judge even the chosen people themselves.

The sobering lesson is that victims can all too easily become victimizers, and the oppressed become the oppressors. This doesn’t lessen the force of the cry of the poor and the marginalized in the face of injustice. We should always be people of Exodus. What it does, however, is reveal to us that human beings need something more to live for than political empowerment and economic well-being.

Exile: Losing and Finding our Identity and Purpose

Exile is scary not just because of the loss of power and privilege, but because with these losses also comes the threat of a much greater loss: the loss of identity and purpose. This again reveals the inadequacy of meeting merely material and even relational needs. For humanity, there is also a deeper sense of yearning for identity and purpose that can only originate from something beyond the concern for self, tribe or in-group. Many people and many Christians, however, fail to see that the identity and purpose to which they are called is bigger than this. Naturally, then, the loss of privileged identity and power of purpose produces special cause for human lament.

For the last few decades, Christians in the modern Western world have begun to experience what I think could be called a time of Exile. The Enlightenment did not deliver on its promises. Rather, it has had a dark side all along that in the 20th Century finally started to plainly show itself, and Christendom itself has collapsed with it on all sides.

One of the effects of this exile is the rise of individualism. The cohesiveness of group belonging is undermined, the purpose of the collective is muddled, and individuals are left to seek out meaning and identity for themselves instead of being told who they are by their tribe. In our context, these are outcomes of both globalization and postmodernism. What might it look like then for Christians to flourish in exile or come out of it living as a resurrection people?

The Resurrection Life

There are at least three ways that Jesus calls us beyond both a tribal and individualistic identity, and to a greater purpose in God’s Kingdom:

  1. First, against tribalism, God called for the inclusion of Gentiles in Christian communion. As non-Jews, it’s easy for us let this one slide assuming it doesn’t apply. Much like the Jews who were afraid that their religious identity was already under too much attack, however, we too as Christians have a tendency to circle the wagons and put up barriers so that outsiders do not interfere with our ways of doing things. So who are today’s Gentiles that our churches are excluding? For whom are we making the life of faith and discipleship such an undue burden?
  2. Secondly, for the individualist, the cross bears witness to the social and corporate cost of even seemingly insignificant, individual sin. It was not just the sins of the brutal and dominating Roman Empire that put Jesus on the cross, or the hypocrisy of the ruling, religious elite. It was the betrayal of his friends and the fear of otherwise good people falling into complacency (disciples sleeping in the garden), the fickle movement from fight to flight (Peter), and the love of money or comfort (Judas?) that delivered Jesus over to his killers. It’s not that any of Jesus’s friends could likely have prevented the crucifixion, and Jesus himself knew what was coming and even offered himself up willingly. But the point about the root of apparently harmless, individual sin still stands. It’s all caught up in the web of forces that ultimately lead to the worst of suffering and injustice. From the silence of churches in Germany during the Holocaust and the apathy of moderate, white Christians during the Civil Rights movement, to evangelicals uncritically supporting a “War on Terror” in the name of national security, which led to the killing of thousands upon thousands of Iraqis who had nothing to do with 9-11, individual sins once added up prove to be much more egregious than we normally realize.
  3. And third, Jesus tells us all, in our in-groups and as individuals, to love our enemies. This is not something that the Israelites had heard before. They had been told to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, and they had certainly been given very specific instructions about caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow and the immigrant, but loving enemies raised the Jewish law to an unprecedented level, and it revealed for the first time the heart of God in a final and unanticipated way.

So powerful is God’s love for us that it didn’t stop even when we became his enemies. God is not giving us a commandment that God himself hasn’t kept. God didn’t send someone else to die for us. In Christ, God in person came on a rescue mission, bearing the weight of the world’s sin that was directed at him by his own. It is only this kind of love that is stronger than death, and only this kind of life that leads to the resurrection. Maybe, then, this kind of love, and this kind of life, is what it means to be truly human.

How to Fear Not and Love Your Neighbors: Church Barriers to the Gospel and the Great Commandments

This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog yesterday.

I heard it said once that the heart of Jesus’ teaching is pretty well summed up in these two commandments: Don’t be afraid, and love your neighbor as yourself. Of course, simple as this sounds, we soon figure out that nothing could be more difficult. This is all the more true given the way that Jesus defines neighbor (i.e., even your enemy), and given that fear is often more deeply rooted than we care to admit.

It starts with subtle worries about every day things from bills to pay, job security, and health to retirement, but then grows deeper into anxieties about rejection, loss, pain, loneliness, failure and the absence of purpose. The root of this fear is that as both finite and free, human beings have natural limitations, but infinite expectations and pretensions. This leads us to become self-conscious about our insecurity, which in turns produces the anxieties just mentioned. Anxiety inclines us to seek control of our own lack of certainty and security, of which there is never enough, and so we are driven to chase after these things to the detriment of others. Generally we either 1) abuse our freedom by grabbing for power, or 2) flee into our finitude via sensual indulgence (these are the sins of the older and younger brother in the Prodigal Son parable, respectively). In other words, fear and anxiety are what stand in the way of us actually loving our neighbors.

But this still leaves the question of “what is the remedy?”

This is one of the reasons that Jesus went to the cross. In order to set us free, Jesus had to demonstrate that the fear that comes from all the suffering and death that the world can cause is ultimately misplaced. Jesus faced these fears. His will was one with God’s, and thus the faithfulness and love of God were fully incarnated and lived out in him.

So great was this love that it overcame sin, death and suffering, and without conditions. God’s grace was made manifest and available in such a powerful a way that not only humanity’s future, but that of the whole cosmos, changed course. This is the incredible good news that Christians claim. And let’s not pretend that it isn’t a bit outlandish. It can’t be rationalized. For many, it’s an offense and a scandal.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that some people are only interested in Jesus for his teachings rather than who we as Christians believe he was and what he did. But the truth is, the teachings of Jesus are simply not enough to set us free. They are indispensible, but not sufficient. “Fear not” and “love neighbor” are beautiful sentiments and ideals for which to strive. Even non-Christians seem to know this, which can only be attributed to the image of God that remains somewhere latent in the nature of every human being. But as mere intentions, fearlessness and love will never be realized apart from a hope and transformation that comes only from God.

For this reason, the church that fears not and loves neighbor has to also be the church that believes in and trusts the good news. You can’t have one without the other. Jesus’ life is not just a moral example, even if it is also that. The problem though is that so many Christians are left to choose between either

  1. a church whose gospel is only good news to a few, and whose version of love only manages to suppress fear rather than overcome it — either because it’s too exclusive, or because the kind of love it portrays is little more than a courtroom deal with sin;
  2. or a church that equates the gospel with Jesus’ teachings and hence tries to care about the things Jesus cared about and obey his teachings, but fails to do this because of sin, and therefore doesn’t really have good news at all.

Because of this, the door is wide open in these times for a church that believes in the kind of love that actually casts out fear and, set free by the real good news, enables the love of the world and everyone in it. There are barriers to this though, as I’ve suggested, and I will mention two of them.

First, for churches, there is always the barrier of idolizing church growth. The temptation to pander to the consumer is as prevalent in churches as it is in the marketplace. In Protestant churches in North America, we’ve seen this played out in two major ways. In an effort to reach a generations burned out on denominational church, initially there was the rise of the seeker-sensitive church. This was a deep, deep cultural shift in evangelicalism — so deep, that even when many emerging church leaders broke away in disillusionment with it to do something different, many of them ended up making the same mistakes, only this time they did so by catering to millennials rather than Gen-Xers. In both cases, discipleship was in many cases too quickly sacrificed on the altar of reaching culture.

Some Christians interpreted this phenomenon by deeming it a yet another instance of theological liberalism. I do not think this is the real issue. Theologically speaking, conservative and liberal Christians are, as best I can tell, equally prone to neglect discipleship and real spiritual discipline — the former by holding on to personal morality in the area of sexual purity and finances, and the latter by directing efforts outward toward social justice and identity politics (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc). Neither of these emphases necessarily lead to a mature Christian life.

So in addition to the idol of church growth, churches have erected the barrier of theological ideology. This does not mean, however, that Christians should stop caring about all the things I just mentioned (sexual purity, social justice, etc.). What it means is that we have to change the way we care about those things, and, to become more sensitive to the things we should care about in addition, and that we’ve neglected.

Now, some churches might think that they’re immune to these issues because they’re more “moderate” or “diverse.” Except in churches that are skilled at good listening and mutuality through real dialogue though, much evidence of moderation and diversity tends to be superficial. Deep moderation and diversity means really dealing with and talking about these issues. It means growing in self-awareness and epistemic humility. Many churches that think they’re moderate or diverse remain that way only because they tend to avoid hard conversations.

As one might expect, both of these barriers, idolizing church growth and avoiding hard conversations, have their origin in fear, which keeps us from truly loving people. It is indeed very good news, then, that the gospel gives us the power to break down both of these barriers by fearing not and loving our neighbors.

Understanding the Darkness, Receiving the Light

The audio of this sermon is available here for December 14, 2014:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of [their] own heart? -Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The line between good and evil does not lie between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ between the West and the rest, between Left and Right, between rich and poor. That fateful line runs down the middle of each of us, every human society, every individual. This is not to say that all humans, and all societies, are equally good or bad; far from it. Merely that we are all infected and that all easy attempts to see the problem in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are fatally flawed. -N. T. Wright

Today marks the third Sunday of Advent, and our theme has been that we’re on a journey from darkness to light. We’re saying that when we have the light and life of Christ in us, we bear witness to the light of God that came into the world. And as we approach the day when we finally celebrate God’s full advent on Christmas, God’s full coming, as John the Baptist said we are striving to make straight the way for the Lord, to testify to the one who is come to take away the sins of the world. We do this in hopes that our light will grow and shine in this community, and in this city and beyond.

But we have to understand the darkness in order to reflect light. Two weeks ago, Patrick talked about that — about what sin is, and why things have gone array in this world. He mentioned that God hates sin because of what it does to us! Because of its effects and the harm it does to others. And so there’s something about our nature and this world, that is dark, that is evil. And then last week TJ stressed that this darkness and evil is actually waging war against us. So there is a spiritual struggle that is real, and that manifests itself in our lives — individually, collectively, culturally, and politically! And when we’re unaware of it, or when we deny it, we’re far more susceptible to be overcome by it.

Some of you who were on the Alpha Retreat with me last month heard me talk about resisting evil, and that’s basically what today’s passage in 1 Thessalonians 5 is all about, beginning in v. 4-8:

4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.

Paul continues:

vv. 21b-22: “Hold on to what is good, and reject every kind of evil.”


vv. 16-18: “Rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

These were the practices we were left with last week — worship and prayer serve to arm and guard us against the assaults and opposition of sin, death and destruction. And why do we do this? To be sanctified, made holy:

v. 23: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.”

We do all of this — we arm ourselves — so that we might be transformed and begin to look more and more like Jesus.

It was also mentioned last week that we must be diligent in the study of Scripture to understand and discern how and in what ways darkness sneaks up on us, so that we might resist it. This is part of what Paul means in verses 19-21 when he says “Don’t quench the Spirit . . . but test everything.”

And that’s where we’re going this morning. I want to look a little more at some of the ways evil tends to manifest itself — in society, yes, as Patrick talked about two weeks ago, but more specifically for today, how it gets a foothold in communities like the church, and then see what we can do to resist it.

Talking about resisting evil is viewed with condescension and suspicion in our culture. If we talk about it at all, we tend to reserve the word evil for the really overtly atrocious stuff, like the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, ISIS, and so on — and rightly so, but this conveniently this distances us from evil, and as a result can tend to make us blind to not only our indirect responsibility for evil but to the evil that resides in our own hearts.

I’m part of a theology reading group with a few other folks in the church right now, and we’ve just recently finished reading Saint Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine was probably the most important early Church theologian for the Western church since the time he lived in the 4th Century, and he defined evil as simply the absence of God, or absence of good. In other words, evil is the absence of the abundant life that Jesus promises. That may sound like a pretty tame definition at first, but it rightly emphasizes that good and evil are not equal, opposite forces. Evil only has the power that we give to it. It’s like a parasite. It doesn’t stand by itself. It has to attach to something.

And our theme is very helpful illustration of this. Like good and evil, light and darkness don’t work the same way. If we turned out the lights in this room, and it got really dark, we wouldn’t say, that we turned on the darkness. If we turn on a little bit of light, it can illuminate a big area. In other words, the light is stronger. And God’s light shines everywhere, but I can still cast a shadow by turning my back on the light — by blocking it. And this darkness that we create is the breeding ground for evil.

The gospel reading for this morning speaks to this reality of darkness and light, from John chapter 1, beginning in vv. 4-5:

“In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”

And then on to vv. 10-11:

“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”

There are two things going on here. We have to recognize the light, and understand the light. But this also requires recognizing and understanding the darkness. And I would say this is the hardest thing to do. A lot of people can see some semblance of the light in their life, but because they don’t fully recognize and understand the darkness, they can’t receive the light — they can’t experience it!

Again, the word of warning in the sermon last week was that life is a battle, and ignorance about or complacency toward the forces of evil and darkness isn’t going to suffice. The word of warning this week is that, once we’ve acknowledged the presence evil in the world as a real and powerful force — we’re neither denying nor obsessing over it — then we have to learn how to begin to recognize it and understand how it gets a foothold in our communities, so we can then do something about it.

As you all probably know, there was a great shift in history that became especially apparent in Europe during the 18th Century. Authority had already begun to move from being derived from the Church and traditional institutions to being located more and more in the mind of the individual. So you had the rise of what some would just call free thinking. Of course this is generally a good thing, bringing about industrial, medical and technological advances just to mention a few. But modernity also has a dark side!

This dark side was that a kind of arrogance developed in which we thought that, simply through education, technological advancement, or political reform, we could free ourselves from the hindrances of yesterday and basically establish peace on earth. Maybe no society believed this more than Europe in the 20th Century, and Germany in particular, and we know the rest of that story turned out. It led to the bloodiest century in human history. The two world wars alone left 80 million dead.

How could this happen? How could a civilization that seemed so enlightened, so cultured, and so developed, turn to such unspeakable darkness? This is one of the most tragic and ironic periods in all of history. I think part of the answer lies in what I’ve already been talking about: the subtlety and sophistication of evil.

The problem for the Nazis, and for any corrupt political group, wasn’t a lack of education, but a lack of awareness and conviction about the darkness and evil in their own hearts. When groups circle the wagons, close in on itself, this prevents any outside light, God’s light, from coming in, and then it starts to see itself as the one, true, good, righteous group, and to see all other groups and people, or especially one other group of people – in this case, the Jews – as the enemy, as evil, and as the problem. By locating evil outside of themselves, they, and we, become blind to the evil within. It’s an extreme example, but in can happens in individual and families lives, or the church too.

Do any of you watch the British show Downton Abbey? Well, you can watch the fifth season online even though it doesn’t air in the US until 2015, so Whitney and I have been enjoying that. If you don’t watch the show, Downtown Abbey is about an aristocratic family living in the English countryside during and after WWI. This was a time of immense cultural, technological and political upheaval, and change is a major theme throughout the series. There’s a character named Tom who is a Irish, blue collar worker, but he marries into the Grantham family — he marries the daughter of Lord Grantham, who is the head of the household.

tom and lord grantham2

Needless to say, they don’t see eye-to-eye on much of anything — especially politics. There’s a great deal of animosity and tension between them, especially at the dinner table. Tom’s a socialist, and he thinks his people have been victimized by British Elites for many years. Lord Grantham thinks the ruling class knows best and is most suited to govern the country. So both individuals see themselves morally superior and innocent of their groups alleged crimes.

But since Tom marries their daughter, he has to move into their estate, their mansion, and get to know them on a personal level, rather than just judging them on the basis of their social privilege and traditional, aristocratic politics. And they have to learn to do the same thing with him. The show isn’t over yet, but eventually, tragedy brings them together, and they realize that they’ve both grossly misjudged each other, and both parties grow to have deep affection for one another even though they disagree fervently about the best way to govern the country. They stop demonizing each other, and they learn to listen. The “Us vs. Them” mentality, is all but dissolved. There’s a moment when this becomes especially clear. Tom meets a woman with a similar background to his. She learns his story and asks him, “Tom, I’m surprised you associate with these types of people.” Tom replies, “Yeah, well I guess I don’t believe in types anymore.”

One of the reasons I like Downtown Abbey, is because I see part of myself in both of these characters, but especially Tom — even though my background is very different from his. That’s what makes it such a good story. We see ourselves in the characters, much like we do in Scripture. Tom’s a young, idealistic guy, passionate, critical of people who seem complacent, ignorant or who oppose his ideas, but he was harboring cynicism and judgment in his heart. And then there’s Lord Grantham, who’s an upstanding gentleman and leader in the community, a kind man, but he’s a bit stubborn and very resistant to change. Now I know I’m not free of these things, and neither is Tom yet in the story, but Tom’s circumstances of having live with people who are so different, change him for the better, and it leads to reconciliation with the Grantham family, as they too are changed by him! And I’ve prayed that God would do the same for me, and I’ve seen it happen — slowly and painfully! — but it’s happening.

I want to call your attention to the quote in your bulletin:

“Denial, usually in some form of rationalization, is the primary device that humans use to deal with their wrongness. It was the first thing out of the mouths of Adam and Eve after they sinned, and it continues up to the latest edition of the newspaper. The prophetic witness from God through the church must throw itself against this massive weight of group and individual denial, often institutionalized and subtly built into our customary ways of speaking and interacting.” – Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart

Evil doesn’t approach on its own. It wears these masks — of self-righteousness and moral superiority, or playing the victim, and claiming innocence. Both blind us to the darkness in our hearts. And again, once we know how evil an darkness tends to show itself and confront us, we’re far more likely to be able to resist it.

The good news is that, while education can only take us so far, God’s grace actually does give us the power to resist the power of sin, evil and darkness. In Colossians 1:12-13, Paul says God has qualified to share in the inheritance of the Kingdom of Light, and has rescued us from the dominion of darkness. The Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Light, is breaking into our midst with Jesus’ advent! And we can live in this Kingdom. And We prayed that passage in Ephesians 6 about putting on the armor of God. So to close, I want to mention two things we can do as a church to arm ourselves.

Because the truth is, although there’s a lot of talk in church about transformation and changed lives, it’s still pretty rare. Because even when we get the right vision and intentions, we nevertheless very often still lack the right means — the right structure and plan to carry out this right vision and intention.

So first, to establish this right means, we need a close group of preferably two, no more than four other people around us — Jesus had three — with whom we can feel safe, but also with whom we can be brutally honest and expect the very difficult question of “How are you really doing?” Which is why we have Compass Groups. We’re going to be talking about Compass Groups more in the spring, and giving you more tools in that area for growth, but this is what they’re designed to do — to provide a place where judgment is suspended, honesty is embraced, truth and spiritual maturity is enabled. People who’s gone through 12-step programs know this better than most. The first thing they learn is to stop trusting in themselves, and to acknowledge their own guilt and powerlessness to enact change apart from God.

Secondly, just like Tom, the blue-collar socialist from Downton Abbey, and Lord Grantham, the aristocrat, we need to spend time with and get to know people who are different from us. If we surround ourselves with those who agree with us, who think the way do, talk the way do, share our same culture, customs and convictions, we’re very unlikely to see our own blind spots and to see into the corners where darkness and prejudice lurks.

Because remember, darkness just lets us persist in our own ways of how we want to see things. But the light can chase that out of us. This advent season is about preparation, self-arming, so that we can expose the darkness, and receive the Light of Christ. So let’s the way for Christ by opening ourselves up to the Light. Please pray with me:

God, we pray that you’d enable us to truly recognize and understand both the darkness and the light, so that we might live in the day, in sober judgment. Convict us of our prejudices. Reveal to us our blind spots. Set us from the lies that our sinful nature tells us about  our self-righteousness, innocence, victimhood, or moral superiority. Help us to see others on the same footing as ourselves, and to learn from them. Shine your light Lord, in, on and through Saint Peter’s Church this Advent Season. It’s in Christ’s name that we pray these things. Amen.