I continue looking at prayers that have both pulled me and others through personal trials and struggles. In the last several posts I have looked at the Lord’s Prayer itself.
Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
I am continuing this morning to reflect on the part of the Lord’s Prayer in which we pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. Last time, I talked about the alternate rendering of the word “sin” as “transgression”. Today I want to reflect on another rendering of this line – “forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us”.
This particular form of the Lord’s Prayer holds a special place in my heart for, though the version in the UCC Book of Worship quote above is the one I regularly use with my hospice patients, the prayer used at the United Church of Chapel Hill, the community that carried me through the heart-wrenching loss of my wife of a dozen years, is “forgive us our debts”.
This language of sin as debt is highly evocative and challenging to me.
Previously we discussed the concept of sin as not some innate brokenness or nature contrary to and in opposition to God, but instead a missing the mark of the best we can do in relationships with God, self, and others; and also a failure to live into the life-giving boundaries we, others, and nature need to thrive. The language of “debt” draws on a rich metaphor found not only in Christian and Jewish Scriptures but also many world faiths without roots in the experience of God foundational to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
For instance, the concept of karma we find in Easter faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism seems to be connected originally with a system of sacrifice to make atonement for our actions similar to what we see in the early Judaism of the books of Leviticus and Numbers in the Hebrew Scriptures many of us know as the Christian Old Testament. The concept appeared to be that originally our choices produced a kind of cost on us and the universe. Ones that are life-giving help further our life and the lives of other creatures. But other choices tear at the fabric of life, of nature, of human community, and our very souls. They will necessarily produce in all those areas costs which must be paid. It appears from the limited reading I’ve done on the history of the idea of karma that just as in Judaism, in Hinduism originally sacrifice and offerings at temples at altars as well as visits to holy sites were intended to allow one to do some to put that karma back in balance. Eventually, as in Judaism, the focus moved from literal sacrifice to an amending of one’s life and an attempt to set right what one has wronged. Ultimately such amending of your life cannot completely undo what is done. The fabric of life remains worn and your life incomplete, not fully formed. It seems to be this context in which the Eastern concept of reincarnation appears – as a way of envisioning how one can amend the unamendable, evolve beyond the limits one life has produced. Ultimately we can have many lives in the Eastern religious mindset to do our part to mend the fabric of life which our choices have torn asunder. We will pay that debt, and life graces us every opportunity to mend, make whole, and mature.
This sense that our choices produce a debt to others, to the universe, and ultimately to God is present too in the Hebrew Scriptures which are the basis of Judaism and much of the inspiration for Christianity and Islam. The sacrificial system which most adherents of all three faiths no longer see as binding was a way of addressing this issue. Symbolically by being called to offer a life at the altar each time one acts in a way that tears at the fabric of community, the web of life itself, and one’s soul is a way of acknowledging the cost our choices have – and the debt they can occur. Ultimately though the Hebrew Scriptures suggest the point is not to sacrifice animals as if that truly amends what we have done, but to seek to change the pattern of our lives.
This is the point of the oft-repeated maxim of Micah chapter 6:
““With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
Here the prophet Micah makes it clear the point is acknowledging that, though we cannot fully undo what we have done, we can work to change our actions in the future. We can work to act today with more justice, with more compassion, with more humility, with a mindfulness of the spiritual reality all about and within us, every person, and all of life – the spiritual reality called by many names but known in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity as God the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all of life.
Such a call to amend our lives seems to continue on for Christians into the New Testament. We see it in the teaching of John the Baptist. When asked how people should respond to the presence of judgment for our choices falling upon us all, John suggests a making amends from where we have bought into systems and patterns of injustice in the past and making a change in actions in the future: “10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3).
Similarly, later in Luke, when Zaccheaus the tax collector repents, his repentance involves paying back those he has defrauded and putting to the needs of the most taken advantage of in his society that wealth he had gained through trampling underfoot the needs of others. It is a change akin to what occurs in 12-step spirituality: he makes an honest accounting of his life choices, acknowledges where he has harmed others, and seeks to make amends whenever possible.
Often the need to amend and make amends of our lives is overlooked in contemporary Christianity in a way it may not be in other spiritualities because I think of the Protestant emphasis on grace alone and total forgiveness past, present, and future of all our sins. It is important, I think, based on this prayer to recognize our need to take an accounting of our lives, to acknowledge our failings, how we have harmed others and even harmed our earth. There is something missing in our spirituality when we fail to take ownership for our contributions to the harming of the earth.
My late friend rabbi Jernigan when partnering together with me on social justice work when I was pastor in Eastern North Carolina, would often bring up the Jewish concept tikkun olam as the spiritual concept which informed his justice work. Tikkun olam means literally to mend or perfect the world. The idea is when Creator God made our world, it was good but not fully mature, fully grown. We have the role of helping perfect the good world God made. And a part of the process of it becoming full grown is actions and events which tear at the fabric of life itself, because of our own freedom to do wrong by each other. This leaves brokenness in our world, and in ourselves. To be holy people is to be people engaged in mending that brokenness, helping re-weave the torn fabric of our communities, the earth, the web of life in which we emerge, our relationships, and our souls. To do so involves both positively doing healing things in our world. But it also cannot happen without making amends in certain ways.
Next time I want to continue looking at this concept by examining the limits of our ability to make amends and how this connects with our prayer both for forgiveness and promise to strive to be forgiving people. Until then I invite you to join me in becoming more mindful of your own life and how we can engage ourselves in mending our own lives and our world so that we can be whole and our world made more whole.
Your progressive redneck preacher,