Sin much? Love much.

“You need to start praying that God will show you the depth of your sin.”

Her words hung in the air for a moment. It didn’t sting like it does when someone boldly calls you out—at least not at first. It was a conversation with a mentor, my mom, and her delivery on this kind of thing is always gentle. But gentle with conviction.

And wisdom. It is one of many conversations that I play back over and over, even years after the fact. I’ve got dozens of these little gems, life lessons, that I can trace back to coffee and a chat with my mom.

When I did feel the sting, it wasn’t because she was calling me out for being a sinner. She was telling me I was a Pharisee.

At the first of the year I began reading through the New Testament, but lately I’ve been on a quest to understand worship. Everything I read gets filtered through that lens.

Church culture has staunchly settled on 20 minutes of music selections on Sunday mornings, calling that worship. But if we even bother to attend physically, we may check out spiritually. There continues the ubiquitous dispute over what we have labeled worship style. Does those two words together sound contradictory to anyone else? No? Just me?

But, if you go looking for guidance in the bible, worship in scripture can be perplexing. Often the word appears with little detail except, “And he bowed and worshiped.” In other places the word is used when a biblical figure makes a sacrifice, as when Abraham prepares to offer Isaac and tells the company with them, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” (Genesis 22:5, ESV)

Huh. I’m not much further along than I was when I started this whole worship quest thing.

Then my morning reading brought me to this story. Jesus has dinner at the home of a Pharisee—you knew I’d get back to the Pharisee thing, right? A woman with a bad reputation found out where Jesus was, and her arrival at the feast made Simon the Pharisee indignant. She washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and her hair. She kissed His feet and poured perfume on them.

“He can’t be a prophet,” Simon thought. “If he were, he would know all about her.” I can just see Simon rolling his eyes and exchanging looks with other Pharisees at the table. In that age, in Simon’s world, the touch of such a woman—even a loving gesture on your nasty stinky feet–would be repulsive.

Never fear, folks. Jesus set the man straight. And true to form, He used a parable to illustrate His point. Rather, He used a parable so that Simon could make His point.

“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.  When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Luke 7:40-43, ESV

See what He did there? He set this up for Simon to expose his own hypocrisy. From the parable, it may sound like this woman who seemingly had morals like an alley cat owed a bigger debt because of her sin. But if you read the gospels, a lot—an inordinate amount, really–of harsh words and stern warnings are reserved for the Pharisees, the supposedly less sinful.

John the Baptist kicked off the show by calling them a “brood of vipers” and talked about the coming judgment (Matthew 3:7-12). Later Jesus would soundly castigate them with words like “blind guides” and “hypocrites” because, among other reasons, they slam heaven’s door in the face of genuine seekers. And, oh yeah, the Pharisees are not actually entering the kingdom, either (Matthew 23:13-14). Then He would call them sons of the devil because—guess why?—they don’t love Jesus so there is no way that God can be their Father (John 8:42-44). Those two things—loving Christ and being God’s child—are irrevocably connected.

Here’s what it boils down to. Judgment is the same for anyone who does not respond to the invitation of the grace and forgiveness of Christ. When He separates the sheep from the goats, there are no sub-categories. There’s not a special place for those who didn’t quite make it to heaven but aren’t so bad that they should go to hell. Either you enter the kingdom or you don’t.

Furthermore, the price for the woman’s sin and the price for the Pharisees’ sin is exactly the same—it cost the Son His life. Period. He didn’t have to give an extra sacrifice because these sins are worse than those sins. There’s no special negotiation that took place for those whose behavior serve as a cautionary tale trumpeted by the self-righteous.

What is so special about this woman is her worship. One difference between her and Simon the Pharisee is she knows the depth of her sin. Another is the depth of her love. Remember, loving Jesus and being God’s child are connected.

Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.  Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”  (Luke 7:44-48, ESV)

Worship encompasses a lot of things. There are many examples in the bible that don’t look like this one, and we won’t always engage in such an emotional display of affection for the Lord. But I still feel there is a model for worship in this story that is important. Worship should always be more than a passive deference to God. I became His child because I love Jesus. It should be evident in my worship.

If I want my worship to be a genuine act of love for Christ, I need to understand the depth of my sin. I come back to that conversation with my mom often. That sting I felt for the exposure of my hypocrisy is not at all a bad thing. It makes me thankful for a rescue I don’t deserve, and for the enormous worth of the Savior whose life paid for that rescue.

For those who are in Christ, our sins, which are many are forgiven. We should “love much.”

And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

Revelation 5:9-10, ESV








Bought With a Price

Years ago at a bible study, I learned something about Jesus’ last moments on the cross that I had never heard before. Jesus’ declaration moments before death, the Greek word tetelestai or “it is finished”, was a business term. It appeared at the conclusion of documents showing that a transaction had been completed—like a receipt or invoice showing that no more payments are required.

Think on that for a moment. In the agony of His last few moments, how did Jesus choose to proclaim that the work was done?

All accounts are settled.

The cost is covered.

The debt is paid in full.

I’ve always loved that little nugget. Every time I hear the cross preached, I hope to hear it included but never have. It makes that term redemption sink in a little deeper for me. I’ve always associated the word redeem with coupons. Present a coupon, get a dollar off or something of that ilk. But our redemption didn’t come with a discount. The price was not slashed to 50% or offered as a ‘buy one get one free’ bargain. We cannot fail to miss this important point about our rescue. It was costly—enormously so. God paid for me with His Son’s life, and His suffering and blood are the currency.

But I ran across something else today that provided even more insight. I began reading through the gospels at the first of the year. You know how bible reading plans can be—miss a couple days (or a week, maybe two), get a little behind and give up. This reading plan is self-imposed, though, which helps curb the power of the nagging perfectionism that makes me want to quit if I fail to keep up. I’m not following a prescribed plan; I just read until I’m done—and how far I get each day boils down to time constraints and my ability to concentrate. Some days I get very interested and do a lot of flipping to different chapters, other gospels, chasing down some of the scriptures that are cross-referenced. Lately I’ve been in Luke, and, in deference to that pesky perfectionism, I started doubling up so that I could land on the events of the crucifixion for Good Friday.

The verse that got my attention this morning was this—

“When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” John 22:53 (ESV)

This isn’t the first time that verse has held my attention. It’s always impressed me that Jesus tells them straight up that they are on the side of evil. But this morning I did my flippity-flip routine, looking to the other accounts of Jesus’ arrest. It benefits me to layer this scripture with others.

We have this from the Last Supper in John’s gospel, hours before Jesus is arrested–

After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke.  One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side, so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” John 13:21-27 (ESV)

And this account, also from John, which includes other details of Jesus’ arrest–

Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. So he asked them again, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.” John 18:4-8 (ESV)

It is Jesus’ authority, and how He wields that authority, that gets my attention. First it is absolute, and second, it is accompanied with absolute power.

Jesus tells Judas, and Satan who had just entered him, to make arrangements for His arrest. Does that even sound reasonable? Jesus tells Satan, the enemy, what to do, and the enemy complies. Not only does He tell Satan to handle a few details, He is sending evil off to make arrangements for His own murder and, if that’s not enough, to be quick about it.

Later in the garden, though Judas had a plan to identify the Lord for the party of soldiers, Jesus willingly identifies Himself. And not just with a casual, “OK, guys. You got me.” He uses God’s name, the divine declaration I AM. And just look at the power of those words when spoken by the One who has authority to use them. The mob’s reaction is to fall on their faces. Each time I read it, I find it even more surprising. It’s like Jesus has to tell them, “So if that’s why you’re here, then arrest me already.”

John’s account makes Luke sound a little understated. “This is your hour, and the power of darkness.” But in all three scriptures, I see the tension between His authority and power, and humble obedience to the Father and the task He’s been given. In fact, I wonder if Jesus’ statement in Luke isn’t meant to imply something like this, “Didn’t you notice that you weren’t able to lay a hand on me in the temple? Remember all the times I simply passed through your midst? But this is why I’m here. OK, now you can do your thing.”

I’m sure these soldiers, the priests, Judas, every one involved, believed that they were exacting some sort of payment. This payment could only be collected by demands and threats and violence. They wanted revenge, and the cost of revenge was Jesus’ life. They were sure that His death would settle some account, one where they have to force payment in blood, one in which they believed they were justified.

But the payment isn’t forced at all. He willingly gave Himself for us. In power and authority and obedience, Jesus steps aside and lets darkness have its day.

What a beautiful redemption–

The power of darkness did not steal the payment in an act of revenge.

It wasn’t given up because of demands or threats.

It wasn’t on sale, nor was it at all cheap.

Jesus did not bargain shop for the reduced price of buying us back from evil. When He knew that He had fulfilled all that was required, He rightly declared, “It is finished.”

When those who are in Christ stand before God, they bear the seal of the Holy Spirit. We carry the receipt. Paid in full.

You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. I Corinthians 6:19-20 (ESV)


It’s Not Another Paula Deen Post…or A Classroom Tale of Hate and Healing

I’m not trying to weigh in on the Paula Deen thing. Really, I’m not. Especially because every time I read something about it, my feelings toward her do adjust slightly to the right or left of the issue. We are easily swayed, aren’t we? Shouldn’t we be as easily swayed by truth? Because, in reality, there’s this side of the story and that side…and then there’s the unadulterated truth.

The story I’m about to relate is true—as best I can recall, and I have to change the names. I honestly don’t remember all the names, exactly, and the whereabouts of any yearbook that could jog my memory is a bit of a mystery.

It is one of the best days of my teaching career for a variety of reasons. First of all, I think the kids learned something far more useful than how to score a 4 on the state mandated writing test. More than that, they were vulnerable with each other. And a couple of them were downright gutsy.

It actually started some months before I facilitated this particular lesson. See, there was this African-American student in my class. She was outgoing, smart, and cute, had plenty of friends, took care of her work mostly, and–with the exception of having a bit of a chip on her shoulder and being perhaps a bit mouthy from time to time– was what we teachers call “a good kid.” Let’s call her Vanessa. It’s a pretty name, and yes, I borrowed it from Cosby.

A second key player in the drama that would unfold was a Caucasian student. She was smart, took care of her work mostly, and we all called her a good kid. She was polite, got along with her teachers, and generally stayed upbeat even though she had few friends.  As much as I hate to use an increasingly overused word, I am sure she was bullied. She was overweight, lingering uncomfortably through an awkward stage. As if appearances aren’t enough to condemn a child to thirteen years of hellish and hurtful taunting, she was also what we educators politely refer to as “economically disadvantaged.” If memory serves, she lived in the trailer park that was located right next to the middle school where all of this took place. I’m naming her Mary Ann. In case you’re wondering, I borrowed that one from Gilligan’s Island.

I don’t know (or remember) the details. But it involved name calling. In the interest of fairness let’s note that Mary Ann endured a lot of abuses which never reached the teacher’s ear. You can call a girl a lot of names and still stay out of trouble. One specific insult almost never results in a punishment of any kind. Call a fat girl fat and if the teacher even hears about it, she’s forgotten it by the end of the class period. In the interest of fairness, let’s note that Vanessa felt, in ways that no white educator can ever comprehend, the weight of persecution at many times and in many ways which likewise are not reported and go unnoticed.

Vanessa and Mary Ann did not get along. For some time, they had been locked in a verbal tit for tat. Who knows where it started? Third grade, maybe? Back me up, teachers. It’s impossible to sort things out when two kids just don’t like each other, am I right? One day it escalated. And escalated. And escalated some more. Insults are traded. The insults take on that deeply personal tone until it’s all just ugly and hateful. Black girl calls the white girl the b-word. White girl’s had enough. She goes for the jugular. She’s only got one bullet left, the n-word, and she uses it.

Though Vanessa and Mary Ann were both enrolled in my fourth period language arts class, I was largely unaware of this ongoing conflict. By the time I learned of this incident, Mary Ann had been suspended for using a racial slur. I don’t recall Vanessa’s punishment, but likely she spent a few class periods in ISS, or in-school suspension, for using profanity. In school speak, that means that Mary Ann’s punishment was more severe.

Months later, I gave little thought to what had happened between these two girls. If it came to mind, it was only to remember that they didn’t get along, would probably never get along, and I could run my classroom more smoothly if I just kept them away from each other. But every once in a while, and I mean once in a big fat great while, something drastic occurs and it almost feels like the earth tipped on its axis one more degree and you might just fall over.

Eighth grade literature often includes The Diary of Anne Frank, a play based on the journal. Here is the perfect opportunity for a teacher to tackle the atrocity of racism. And the perfect way to teach it? A Socratic seminar. For you non-teacher types out there, Socratic seminars are discussions (yes, the name comes from Socrates), but the idea is for the teacher to get out of the way as much as possible so that the students determine the conversation’s direction. Normally, I generate a list of questions related to the text and a theme, such as racism. For each question, the students discuss their opinions until they wear it out or are completely off the subject. Then, I step in with a new question.

I wish I’d kept the questions I’d used that day. It would be nice to have it recorded so that I would know how we got to that place—where kids were willing to tell the truth and risk the consequences. But really, I don’t think it was the question or the careful planning of the teacher. Mary Ann just went for it.

“You all know what happened with me and Vanessa,” she began. And I held my breath. “I said something horrible. The truth is, that’s how my family talks. That’s what they think. But I know it’s wrong. I even tell them it’s wrong. And I try. I really try to think differently.”

Y’all. I thought she was done. The earth had already rocked under my feet, but I’ll be dad gummed if that kid didn’t just plow on through.  She might have sliced a jugular vein before, but here’s the blood transfusion. True repentance. A sincere heart-felt apology.

“I just want to tell Vanessa in front of everyone. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

Right here my heart soared…and then sank a little bit because I knew there was no hope of Vanessa accepting that apology. She was a good kid, but she did have that chip on her shoulder. The social outcast stepped out on a limb, and I was pretty sure Vanessa would sit back and watch it snap. I started running through every trick in my teacher hat—how do I applaud Mary Ann’s actions without making Vanessa feel like I’ve taken sides. Because, let’s be honest, we’ve all listened to an apology before we were ready to respond appropriately. Mary Ann had put her on the spot.

And, predictably, Vanessa narrowed her eyes, set her jaw, and said nothing. There was too much hurt and too much pride to make so convenient an end to the whole awful business.

It got real quiet. It was a little like all the oxygen spontaneously departed the atmosphere. Wide eyes darted from Vanessa, to Mary Ann, to me, and back to Vanessa. Ummm…next question? I didn’t know how to proceed.

Never in my wildest teacher dreams could I have expected this. The student who broke the silence was an African-American boy, a good kid—we’ll call him Michael. I choose that name because he’s an angel, and if you’re wondering, I borrowed that one from Good Times. He made the connection that every teacher hopes for when they run a discussion like this one. He identified with the theme in the play. He identified with the student across the room who is completely different from himself. He then acted on his convictions and said to his peers something that he was in no way obligated to say.

“I actually have the same problem that Mary Ann has,” he said.

I’m pretty sure my knees buckled.

“My family is racist, too. They hate white people. And I know what she’s talking about. It’s hard to resist that. I go to school with white kids. I don’t want to make enemies. But my family expects me to act like they do.”

Something in that room had broken loose, and suddenly it was okay to admit that we all have prejudices we’re not proud of. The discussion continued, and more walls fell, and I was one very proud teacher.

I have high hopes that Vanessa came around eventually. But realistically, forgiveness is a tricky thing. I won’t be the hypocrite trying to remove the speck from her eye. Incidents like this occur—some of them very public—and every one rushes to judgment. If we listen to all the clamor, we might forget that there are two sides of the story. And then there’s the truth. Take a look at Matthew 5:21-22:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Interesting that Jesus speaks to both sides, isn’t it? We are accountable for our careless words and for our anger. Guess what? I’m guilty of both. I was thoughtless and heartless and said things I shouldn’t have. I’ve used words to distinguish between myself and someone else, ruthlessly implying that I’m somehow better. I’ve been the victim of those words as well, and carried the sting in my heart for a lot of years. You know what I found out? Forgiveness is a tricky thing, but not impossible. Jesus forgave me and paid my debt. What I’ve been given, I must give.

Here’s another lesson to be gleaned from this. Indeed, words are frequently a weapon of hate, and in our earnest desire to put an end to hate, we attempt to blot out the use of the word. And rightfully so. It’s hotly debated and everyone claims that their take on the issue is more right than the others. But here’s the thing—the unadulterated truth. All the debate—all that noise—is just a fallen, broken world trying to heal itself of the evil of which it refuses to repent. The only way to be completely free of our prejudices is to focus completely on the Lord Jesus. And if you are in Christ, racism is not your cause. Bullying is not your cause. Those things are secondary to your true calling. Your cause is Christ. Pure and simple.