Tag Archives: forgiveness

A Little Writing in the Sand

In John’s gospel, it doesn’t take long for things to heat up. Blink an eye and Jesus is already getting into trouble. From the wedding at Cana (John 2), Jesus heads to the Temple in Jerusalem and drives out the moneychangers, snapping a whip and overturning their tables. See what I mean? From the get go, there’s tension with the religious leaders.

The tension continues and continues to intensify. Jesus heals the man at the Bethesda pool and pronounces him a forgiven man. “This was why the religious leaders were seeking all the more to kill him.” When he proclaims strange words about eating his body and drinking his blood to receive life, the leaders understandably take offense. When he goes to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkoth, the leaders are ready to arrest Jesus. And we haven’t even gotten to the end of chapter 7.

Then Jesus  shows his face again at the Temple. Ok, more than just shows his face. He sits down and holds a little bible study. Before long a crowd gathers.* The religious leaders catch wind of the impromptu meeting and with the snap of their fingers hatch an unassailable plan to catch Jesus red-handed. They will stretch him on the rack between his penchant for mercy and the requirements of the law.

So, they find a woman caught in the act of adultery, strong arm her into the midst of the outdoor lecture hall, and set their trap. Here are the facts, they say. This woman has been caught in the act. Her guilt is clear. The Law says she must be stoned. The Law of Moses. The highest authority in our tradition. Tell us what you would do.

The details of what happens next often go unnoticed. First, Jesus bends down and writes on the ground with his finger. Maybe the text of the commandment? Now he stands up and speaks. I think he was giving them conditional permission to begin the stoning. With one caveat. The one without sin can cast the first stone. I want to imagine that what he said was even juicier than that. I want to imagine that he was giving permission to begin the execution to anyone who was without THIS sin.

Because you notice what he does next? And you notice their reaction? He bends down again and starts writing in the dirt again. And “one by one” — did you notice how specific the text is about that? “One by one” the accusers walk away.

Here’s a thought. Admittedly a speculative thought. But there’s a certain logic to it. What he was writing in the sand — one by one — was the names of their girlfriends.

There’s a large lesson here about the magnanimous character of God’s grace and forgiveness. I am not deserving of the gift of grace and the forgiveness of sins, even the repeated sins I can’t seem to shake off. Yet, I am forgiven. Grace abounds!

And there’s a micro lesson for how I get around in the world.

I have a pretty strong sense of justice. Right and wrong matters to me. When I see someone gaming the system, I get angry. When I see another mistreated, my blood boils. And I often find that the faults I am so quick to notice in others are the ones I hate the most in myself. I’m irritated when others are late for meetings, rarely stopping to wonder what might have gone wrong. When I’m late, there’s always a good reason. It’s easy to notice my wife’s irritability and call her out on it. When I’m irritable, I have a good reason for it. Speeding down Roosevelt Road, cutting in and out of the traffic lanes? The other guy’s a jerk and a menace to all of us. I’m late for an appointment.

Apparently grace is not just something to be received, it’s something I’m called to practice.

*You can find the story in John 7:53-8:11. I know it’s not in the most reliable manuscripts. That doesn’t mean it’s not a great story.

Reflecting on the Flood, Part 1

rushingwater1The story of Noah and the Great Flood has got to be one of the most iconic stories in the Bible. I went into a toy store over Christmas to get a present for my young nephew in a completely secular, high-end toy store and saw a wooden ark on wheels complete with animals, Noah, and a handy fold-up ramp to get in and out of the ark. Oh, and did I mention the Noah and the Ark lamp that I spied in a Cracker Barrel gift shop a while back?

Aside from the way the world of kitsch has exploited the story, I get equally frustrated at the the tendency to get hung up on the relatively insignificant details, about whether it happened or nor, about the dimensions of the ark, where the ark might have landed and whether it will ever be found, and a hundred other littles that distract us from the heart of the story. It’s not really about Noah, the animals, the ark, or the flood. It’s a self-revelatory story about God.

The story about God reveals something about God that is usually missed in the baggage we bring to it. The conventional plot line goes something like this:  humankind was wicked; God got mad; God destroyed everything.  Except that there’s not a single indication in the entire story that God acted out of anger. Really. Go look. It wasn’t anger. It was grief. The whole thing begins with God’s grief. God had concluded that the good world that God created had betrayed God’s intent. The decision and the will of God had been treated shabbily by a recalcitrant humanity. People had become wicked, evil, corrupt, and filled with violence. In a profound passage that piles on the extent of the corruption, “Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”  (ESV, emphasis mine) Creation had refused to honor God as God.

The indictment is followed by God’s uncompromising resolve to destroy the creation that had refused to be faithful and obedient. God did, does, and always will take seriously God’s own purposes for creation.

Still, the overwhelming emotion the narrative attributes to God is not anger, but grief. It won’t do to picture  an angry tyrant who has a cosmic temper tantrum and sweeps all the dishes off the table, breaking everything to pieces. Instead, there’s the image of a troubled parent who is heartsick over the alienation of the her rebellious child. God is not enraged, but saddened.

That’s an extraordinarily important distinction to be made. The stereotypical, one-dimensional view of God seems to be embedded in our cultural DNA:  God as the angry judge whose sole vocation is to sniff out the sinners and punish them.

The God I see in this story (and not coincidentally throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures) is of a much different character; the image is much more nuanced and much more relational.  God’s heart is full of love for what God has created. In fact, God is persistent and determined to draw humanity, indeed, all of creation back into the reach of God’s purpose and will.  God does that through a determined, persistent, dogged pursuit of us in love.

I’m thinking about that view of God in light of the all too present and all too palpable evil in the world. There are too many examples to name, but the one that sticks in my mind is the image of the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians taken to the beach in Libya and beheaded. Surely God must be grieved, and surely we are grieved.

In my Ash Wednesday sermon, a sermon in which I introduced the theme of forgiveness that is the ground of our parish-wide reflection during these days of Lent, I raised the question of forgiveness for great and horrible communal evil like the beheading. Is it possible to forgive? Is it required to forgive? A parishioner made the comment after the service that our response ought to be to “bomb them back to the stone-age.”

I get that. It seems right. Tit for tat, eye for eye. It’s the human formula balancing the equation that begins with guilt and typically ends with punishment.

But what happens when we see a God whose heart is grieved at evil, rather than angry at evil. It means that the whole guilt and retribution formula gets turned upside down. And that’s good news. In fact, it’s gospel truth.

That’s where I’ll go in part 2. Come back next week and check it out.


home.jpgWeary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home.

Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Home, returns to Gilead, the fictional Iowa town that served as the setting for the novel of the same title. The return brings mostly the same characters, though the setting for most of the story shifts from the home and life of John Ames to his best friend and fellow minister, Robert Boughton. The story revisits and expands on the final episode of Gilead when Boughton’s troubled son, Jack returns home seeking forgiveness and the peace that has eluded him for his entire life. One of Boughton’s other children, Glory, has also returned home, ostensibly to care for her deteriorating father, but also because her own relational life has crashed and she needs a place to recover and restore.

Jack isn’t forthcoming with details of what has happened since he left, nor what has brought him back home. Bit by bit, piece by piece, the reader learns of Jack’s troubled life and of finally finding love and family, though home still eludes him. Glory, still sorting through her own shattered dreams of home, does her best to smooth the way for the repair of the breach between Jack and Papa Boughton.

At the heart of the wanderings and homecomings in Home is the difficult and gnarly question of forgiveness. Early on, when Glory is still trying to navigate her brother’s sudden return home and not fall through the thin ice of civility that covers the hard issues that still lie unresolved between Jack and his father, she says this, “There is a saying that to understand is to forgive, but that is an error, so Papa used to say. You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding.”

Papa Boughton genuinely tries to understand, a task made much more difficult by his son’s unwillingness to tell all. Still festering is a wrong from Jack’s earlier life that is still unresolved and for which Jack, ultimately is unwilling to acknowledge or for which is willing to take responsibility.

Forgiveness is not easy. It’s is not a one-dimensional. Forgiveness given can be retracted in a quick word of judgment. Intentions to forgive can be blocked by the difficulty of letting go of the transgression that cause the rift in the first place. And one can be offered forgiveness without the ability to receive it. Is reconciliation possible if the burden of transgression is so great that one cannot ever let go of it?

If home is the place where full acceptance and pure love is to be found, then I suppose none of us really ever find home. Probably, that’s simply too much to ask. Maybe home is, instead, the place where we work at it, a place where our best selves try to lay aside judgments and resentments, a paradoxical place of both warmth and struggle. Home is a place populated with skeletons of hopes and dreams unfulfilled and it is also a place were we occasionally find deep love and acceptance. It’s also the place where fathers and mothers recognize their own brokenness and failings, looking with hope not just to their sons and daughters, but to their sons’ and daughters’ sons and daughters.

What Jack came home looking for ultimately eluded him. As his sister caught a glimpse of what had almost been in his grasp, she comes to a moment of clarity and peace, realizing that at least for now, for all her wanderings, weary, bitter, and bewildered, she is home.