Holiness Is a Moving Target (Reflection)

makeyourmarkwhiteIf you are a Christian what you believe about sin affects what you believe about other aspects of the Christian faith, especially human nature, salvation, and what I will talk about here today: sanctification. Sanctification is the progression of a Christian towards a holy state of sinlessness, what some call perfection. The verse that powerfully describes this potential progression comes from 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” If you are not growing “from one degree of glory to another” as a Christian, if you are not progressively becoming holy, then you are not being “sanctified.”

Our English word for sin is a translation from the Greek word transliterated hamartia, which literally means to “miss the mark.” Conventionally, sin is normally understood as violating God’s Divine Law, whether natural or ecclesiastical, whether by commission or by omission.

Nevertheless, the course of sanctification, that one is progressing towards holiness, is not the achieving of perfection in a static reality. As much as we want things not to change, that life would consist of a set of easy, reductionistic, black and white set of choices, life, in reality, is not static. Knowledge is cumulative. Our universe is expanding, as well as our evolutionary minds and spirits. Adherence to many of God’s Divine Laws has changed over the centuries because our understanding and interpretations have evolved. Even Jesus often used the phrase “You have heard it said, but I say…” (Matthew 5) to emphasize an evolving understanding of the Law and pointing out the misunderstanding or misconstruing of the Law even (especially?) by the religious experts.

For those Christians who believed that slavery was permissible under the Law, that races were not allowed to intermarry under the Law, that women be obligated to wear head coverings in public under the Law, these beliefs are now understood today to be not only wrong but moral evils. The Law was wrong; not just our interpretation of it. In a contemporary example, the internment and separation of immigrant children from their parents (also done to African slaves in the U.S.) was a recent case where a law (that is, an Executive Order or policy, akin to a Divine Law?) was deemed to be so immoral that it had to be rescinded immediately. (Nevertheless, millions of U.S. citizens, many of them self-described Christians, including the scripture misquoting Attorney General, still believe that the internment/separation law was justifiable and even good, simply because it was the law).

So, when we say that sin is “missing the mark,” the assumption often is that this mark is fixed as in an unchangeable law. The etymology of the word comes from the sport of archery:  sinning is like missing the bullseye on a fixed target. For Catholics, the levels of guilt of missing this mark might be understood as the outer circles on the target. Nonetheless, the target metaphor is deficient because it also implies one hundred percent intentionality, that there was a conscious moral decision made without circumstantial factors or considerations. But it is also deficient, primarily, because the mark is not static—because man-made laws or man-made declarations of or interpretations of God’s laws are not static, nor are they perfect.

Additionally, since the goal of sanctification is to be holy, many Christians believe the work of sanctification is to not sin, to abstain from wrongdoing, from breaking the law, or to stop missing this imaginary static mark. But again, this limited understanding of sanctification does not take into account that God is not Holy because God does not sin. God cannot sin, because God is incapable of sin. God is Holy because God is perfectly good in all God’s thoughts and actions. Therefore, it is not the abstention from evil or sin that is the goal of sanctification, but the positive becoming of the good.

The negative “missing the mark” word picture thus infers a human nature that is inherently evil, as opposed to what I want to propose as “making the mark,” which infers neither an inherently good nor evil human nature. If sin is the breaking of Divine law, and that Divine law is not fixed because it cannot be fully understood in its evolving perfection, then it is not the missing of the mark that constitutes sin, but the failure to make the mark by following the moving target which is sin. Sin as a moving target allows us to grow spiritually so we can begin to see things that we once, perhaps, were convinced were sinful (e.g., homosexual marriage) and conclude that they are not because we now understand the goodness (e.g. loving, committed homosexual marriage) of the once perceived sinful behavior. Sin as a moving target gives us flexibility so that we don’t see human thinking or interpretation of Law as static, but evolving and full of grace. This, then, is sanctification: not missing the mark, but being open to and moving with a loving God as God makes the mark and we participate with God in this evolving, growing spiritual life, we call human being.

© Paul Dordal, 2018

 

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A.C.T. For Activists

ACT+Hexaflex(This article originally appeared in the June 2018 edition of The New People newspaper.)

Depression. Anxiety. Despair. These are just some of the emotional distresses that I have observed in friends, comrades, and in myself, as we engage seriously in the work of social justice. Unfortunately, I have also observed a high occurrence of burnout among activists. It seems that many activists just do not have effective strategies for coping with the emotional rollercoaster that is part and parcel of confronting the myriad injustices in our world. And it isn’t just our justice work that is responsible for our emotional distresses. Poverty, war, racism, sexism, and other systemic injustices can be correlated with the mental illnesses suffered by millions of Americans.

So, what can we who fight the good fight do to take care of ourselves in the midst of all of these challenges? What practices can we engage in to keep ourselves emotionally fit for the long haul? In my work as a board-certified clinical chaplain, I am privileged to have been trained in several evidence-based therapeutic modalities, principles of which I use in my care of patients in the hospital setting. One of those modalities is called “Acceptance Commitment Therapy” or ACT. ACT’s overall goal is to increase “psychological flexibility” in response to the inevitable difficulties of life. Kershner and Farnsworth, ACT practitioners, define psychological flexibility “as the ability to adapt behavior to varying contexts and situations in the pursuit of one’s core values.” I have found that ACT’s core processes are effective in my chaplaincy work, but also for self-care as I engage in my volunteer work as a peace and justice activist.

There are six core processes of ACT which can be used for self-care. First, Acceptance is the willingness to accept our feelings in the face of suffering. Acceptance allows us to feel our feelings without judgment or defense. If you are extremely saddened by the racism in our society or anxious about all the work that needs to be done to end the senseless wars in our world, then accept your feelings as normative to the situation.

Another process of ACT is living in the Present Moment. For this, the practice of mindfulness is especially important. Mindfulness practice keeps us focused in the here and now and helps us to not ruminate on the unchangeable past or over-think an uncontrollable future. Defusion, a third process in ACT, is the method of responding differently to our negative thoughts about ourselves. When those negative thoughts enter your mind, you might say, “I am not my thoughts” or “I am having a negative thought, but I am not that thought.” Defusion is especially important in dealing with the often hurtful responses activists might get from reactionaries.

Related to Defusion, another ACT process is viewing one’s Self as Context. We, as “whole” humans, are not the content of what we do or what we have. As Henri Nouwen once said, “I am not what I do, what I have, or what others think of me. I am the beloved.”

Maybe what I appreciate most about ACT in relation to activism and self-care is its focus on living a Values-driven life. This is a fifth process of ACT where we remind ourselves what our core values are and recommit to living by them. This is a key piece to my own self-care. I refuse to see my emotional challenges as impediments to the valuable work I do for justice in the world. And finally, the sixth process of ACT is when we bring our values to life by moving into Committed Action. This means we can engage in activism based on an open, present moment understanding of who we are and in accordance with our values, in the midst of the anxiety, depression, or other strong emotions we may be experiencing.

To summarize, the ACT processes for self-care might be remembered simply as Accepting our thoughts and feelings, Choosing a valued direction, and Taking action.

Finally, I want to say that self-care strategies may not be enough if your emotional distress is severely interfering with your work, in your home, or relationships. I recommend seeing a mental health professional if your symptoms become acute or are too difficult to manage.

If you would like more information about ACT or to find an ACT counselor, go to http://www.contextualscience.org.

(c) Paul Dordal, 2018