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John 1:14, And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
The Scriptures tell of a woman who had a transformative encounter with Jesus. Her story is found at the beginning of John 8. We don’t even know her name. She is simply known to us as “the woman caught in adultery.”
That’s the word that jumps out at me. “This woman has been caught.” The scribes and Pharisees keep saying this: “She’s been caught. What to do with this woman who has been caught?” She had violated the law and participated in breaking at least one set of covenant vows. Was she married? Was her partner married? Did both of them commit adultery? Where is he, by the way? How did they catch her and not her lover? There are a lot of questions that remain unanswered.
But it is undeniable that this woman has been caught in an act of sin and rebellion. Even the heading in my Bible tells me that this section is all about The Woman Caught in Adultery in big, bold font.
Wyatt is a middle-school student at our church. Not long ago, I caught Wyatt playing on his phone instead of listening to the speaker at our youth retreat. When I confronted him, Wyatt said, “I wasn’t playing on my phone. I was reading my Bible app.”
“No, you weren’t,” I said.
When he insisted that he had been reading his Bible, I said, “Okay, then show me what you were just doing on your phone.” A serious expression came across his face as he handed me his phone and I saw that he had been playing Angry Birds instead of listening to the Bible lesson. Wyatt had been caught.
And I much prefer to tell you that story — the story of someone else being caught — rather than confess the times I’ve been the one who was caught. That’s why I have sympathy for our sister here. Rather than referring to her as “the woman caught in adultery,” I want to suggest that instead we refer to her as “the woman caught in the grace and truth of Jesus.” I know that I don’t want to be remembered for the times I’ve been caught. I much prefer to be remembered for the way Jesus worked in my life.
In Jesus we see a perfect balance of grace and truth. He truthfully acknowledges this woman’s sin; indeed, it is on full display here. Yet, Jesus also graciously refuses to condemn her. And thankfully, He extends this same balance of grace and truth to us whenever we’re caught.
Truth without grace quickly becomes narrow legalism. Jesus indicts the Pharisees for making the Law burdensome to the people while neglecting the weightier matters of the law. Rule-keeping and being right had taken precedent over people. In their emphasis on the “letter of the law,” the Pharisees had not maintained “the spirit of the law.” Paul goes on to talk about this in 2 Corinthians. Speaking of the law, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:6, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Alternately, grace apart from truth can easily become soft permissiveness. Anything goes when we refuse to speak prophetically against sin for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. We expend a great deal of energy to avoid saying or doing anything that could be construed as offensive or insensitive. I have been guilty of this. But when “loving others” is reduced to simply being inoffensive, we’ve lost our prophetic witness. I guess we just think that people will be so bowled over by our sweetness and our niceness that they’ll eventually decide to follow Jesus.
But that approach doesn’t seem to be working. People need to hear the truth — truth spoken in love, yes; but truth spoken nonetheless. Jesus affirms the immorality of this woman’s lifestyle but He does so in grace.
I’m struck by the detail here that has captivated commentators for centuries: the fact that Jesus stoops down to write in the dirt. What did He write? Much ink has been spilled in response to this question. The reality is nobody knows and I don’t think it’s all that important. I find it much more fascinating that Jesus focused his attention down on the ground rather than upon the woman in front of Him. I don’t know this to be true, but I think there is a good chance that this woman was barely dressed or not dressed at all. We know that she has been “caught” in the act of adultery, so I doubt she had much time to put her clothes back on. It could be that Jesus averts His eyes away from her nakedness so as not to subject her to further shame. Jesus will not do anything that further diminishes the image of God in another person. In my opinion, that is why He looks down and starts writing in the dirt.
Whether that’s true or not, when Jesus makes the conditions of her punishment contingent upon the sinlessness of the accuser, the angry mob breaks up. Then Jesus asks her, “Has no one condemned you?” And she replies, “No one, sir.” Jesus says to her, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” The truth of the matter is that she was living in sin. But Jesus offers her the grace to go forward in new life.
In this exchange, you find that beautiful balance between truth and grace that we have come to know as the Good News of Jesus. Jesus never loses sight of the human being right in front of Him. There is much more at stake here than a discussion about the “issue” of adultery and the legality of punishment. A woman’s fate hangs in the balance — a woman caught in sin, yes; but at the same time, a woman created in the image of God.
Jesus extends both truth and grace to this woman. And it makes all the difference in her life.
And it makes all the difference in our lives as well.
We are already living in anxious times.
COVID-19 has taken things to an entirely different level.
A friend of mine was shopping at her wholesale club store this week when she witnessed a customer “steal” a pack of bottled water out of the cart of a shopper who had turned to look at another item. Another friend shared that someone had stolen a pack of toilet paper out of her car this week. I suspect many of us are wrestling with a scarcity mindset right now, but come on….these are not normal behaviors.
Clearly anxiety is getting the best of us. In times of uncertainty, we need a way of reminding ourselves about what we truly believe.
If the Coronavirus and the ensuing fears of scarcity have you feeling a bit more anxious these days, I want to share a few simple breath prayers with you that I’ve found to be helpful. Breath prayers have a rich history in the contemplative Christian tradition, dating back hundreds of years. These prayers are intentionally brief, typically corresponding with one’s breathing pattern (thus the name). Over the past few years, breath prayers have become an integral part of my devotional life, a powerful way of praying the Scriptures and reminding me about what I believe.
For most, a breath prayer consists of a simple phrase repeated over and over as a form of prayer. Some will immediately object that Jesus prohibits such prayer in Matthew 6:7, but not all repetitions should be considered vain. Furthermore, the Scriptures are filled with some of the same prayer phrases over and over again. (“Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever,” I’m looking at you.) My prayer life has benefitted greatly from the use of these easily repeatable words of prayer and supplication. And in particular, repeating some of these lines from Scripture gives me strength when I am fearful.
The first breath prayer comes from Psalm 94.
Psalm 94:19, When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.
I’ve started praying this when I feel anxious and fearful. I don’t think of myself as a particularly anxious person, but I think everyone experiences what the Psalmist describes, moments when anxiety is truly great “within” us. My anxiety usually manifests itself as irritability. (Just ask my friends and family.) For others, anxiety can lead to insomnia, nausea, lack of concentration, and a host of other things. We must use discretion to seek professional counsel when anxiety becomes chronic. But I’ve found this text to be a tried and true spiritual method for decreasing anxiety when I feel it becoming “great within me.”
When I’m praying this breath prayer, I shorten the line to something like: “In this anxiety, console me with your joy.” (Remember, breath prayers are short and simple, corresponding with our breathing patterns.) I’ll say it several times in a row, maybe as many as a dozen times in a minute if the situation warrants it. As I direct these words heavenward, I can feel my anxiety and fear dissipate slowly. And I feel a sense of God’s peace, which is indeed a joyful reprieve from the throes of unease.
Other times, I simply pray, “Jesus Christ is my peace.” When I feel uneasy or when things seem to be spinning out of control in my life, I come back to this bedrock truth: “Jesus Christ is my peace.” That’s taken directly from the prophet Micah and the apostle Paul. But this prayer helps to remind me that even during times of chaos, I serve the One who commands the winds and the waves. Even the chaotic power of Death could not defeat King Jesus! He is our peace — the One who can calm our fears.
We cannot control the circumstances of our lives. But we can control what we pray. In these times of anxiety, may we seek the consolation of the One who provides joy and peace.
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual gathering in Washington D.C. hosted by members of Congress. It was a wonderful experience and I was grateful to receive the invitation. I was especially encouraged by the bipartisanship the event seemed to foster, as both Democrats and Republicans took the stage to read Scripture and pray together. But the highlight of the event for me was the keynote address delivered by Arthur C. Brooks, a social scientist, author, and Harvard professor. Brooks delivered a stirring monologue about our present culture of contempt and the ways in which it permeates our political discourse. This crisis of contempt and polarization, Brooks says, is tearing our society apart.
Perhaps you’ve noticed.
Brooks defined contempt with a quote from German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “the conviction of the utter worthlessness of another human being.” For decades, psychologist and marriage researcher John Gottman has been touting contempt as the kiss of death for married couples. Contempt can be measured both verbally and non-verbally: interruptions, biting sarcasm, constant criticism, and eye-rolling are some of the usual suspects. When interrupting, sarcasm, criticism, and eye-rolling become common at home, you probably want to call a marriage counselor. But when they take place in the political arena, we televise the whole thing and call it a presidential debate.
Brooks noted that contempt has reached a toxic level in our culture. We seem to have lost the ability to disagree well, content to simply retreat into our our respective ideological camps which function quite effectively as echo chambers of like-mindedness. And because we don’t spend very much time among people with whom we disagree, it becomes all too easy to label those individuals as “evil” or “stupid.” Or worse.
I was fully tracking with Brooks as he delivered his address. Like most Americans, I bear a few scars resulting from fractious political conversations with friends over the years. And like most Americans, I can point to several relationship casualties, friendships that ultimately could not stand the freight of our political differences. And like most Americans, this grieves me.
I found myself thinking, “What does the way forward look like?” And as Brooks delivered his speech, I expected him to advocate for greater tolerance for one another. We basically live in the golden age of tolerance; it is hailed as one of our highest cultural ideals. But shockingly, Brooks said tolerance is not the answer. The problem of contempt can only be solved one way: through love. Brooks said, “Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew didn’t say tolerate your enemies, he said love your enemies.”
The way forward isn’t greater tolerance or civility.
The way forward is love.
The way forward isn’t disagreeing less.
The way forward is disagreeing better.
The antidote to contempt — according to Brooks but, more importantly, according to Jesus — is to love one’s enemies. What I loved about Brooks’ speech was his desire to maintain the relevancy of the words of Jesus, even amid a political climate such as ours. All too often, we rush to easy reductionism when it comes to the teachings of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. “You can’t act that way in the real world,” we’ll say when Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek or go the second mile. We reduce the clear teaching of Jesus to the level of religious aphorism, as if whatever “spiritual” meaning we find there has no translation into tangible action. “Loving your enemies doesn’t work in the real world.”
Father, forgive us for presuming that we understand reality in a way that Jesus does not.
I appreciated Brooks reminding us that if Jesus is truly Lord as we claim, then His words are resonant with relevance today. If Jesus is truly the Lord that we believe Him to be, then He is the one with the proper view of reality, not me. His call to love my enemies comes to bear precisely in the midst of fractious, contemptuous contexts such as our current moment. To paraphrase the old adage: If He isn’t Lord of this moment, then He isn’t Lord at all.
In the weeks since the National Prayer Breakfast, I have tried to be more aware of the dangers of contempt, especially among followers of Jesus. It would be a misnomer to identify political contempt in this country without also naming the spiritual analogue. I’ve been forced to examine my own heart for any traces of contempt, any temptation to treat another as if they were worthless. I have to fight the urge to retreat into my own ideological bunker, even among my sisters and brothers in Christ. And I’ve been reminded of something Jesus said a long time ago: that the way forward isn’t tolerance or civility, but love.
This week, we experienced some conflict in the church I serve. As a career churchman, I can say this conflict was of the standard issue, low level variety, but it was conflict nonetheless. And for the sake of full disclosure, I was simply an ancillary figure in the whole episode. But even from my vantage point in this conflict, I witnessed the power of disagreeing better in real time, and it was beautiful. Those who were offended voiced their concerns without accusation. The offender went directly to the individuals who were hurt and asked their forgiveness. Reconciliation flourished. Feelings were hurt, yes, but reactions were godly. The entire episode was handled with grace and truth, a reminder of the One who perfectly embodies both of these qualities.
As always, love is the way forward, the antidote to contempt.
So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.Romans 14:19
Last month, I had about 12 hours of “windshield time” on New Year’s Eve as we drove from Florida to our home in Alabama. Those long stretches of highway gave me plenty of time to think. Somewhere south of Atlanta, I found myself thinking about New Year’s resolutions and whether or not I even believe in them anymore. Here in my mid-40s, I’ve lived long enough to make (and break) more than a few. And after thinking it over, I’ve decided that I don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions anymore, mainly because I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m fairly distrusting of my ability to bring about lasting transformation through resolve and effort. Sure, I could eat better, hit up the gym, and drop twenty pounds, but that’s not real transformation anyway. So somewhere south of Atlanta, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be making any resolutions for 2020.
But somewhere south of Atlanta, even as I was deciding that I don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions anymore, I found myself doubling down on my belief in the possibility of transformation — true, gospel-centered transformation. I’m talking about the “I-once-was-lost-in-sin-but-Jesus-took-me-in” kind of transformation. Simon Peter leaving his fishing nets on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Zacchaeus repaying each person he’d ripped off. Saul seeing the light on the road to Damascus. Somewhere south of Atlanta, as the biblical narratives continued to wash over me, I was reminded of just how much I believe in that kind of transformation.
If I were trying to convince you that such transformation were possible, I would submit my own life as Exhibit A. Of course, only I would know the true degree of transformation I have experienced over the decades I’ve spent in apprenticeship to Jesus. But believe me, even though I am far from a finished product, I continue to receive a new nature from King Jesus. Whereas my natural tendencies veer toward selfishness and anger and isolation, King Jesus perpetually offers me a new, better identity grounded in His mercies. I believe in this kind of transformation with all of my heart — so much so that I believe it to be the only hope for any of us.
So somewhere south of Atlanta, as I renounced the whole business of resolutions but affirmed the power of God unto salvation, I found myself asking, “What do I hope God does in my life in the upcoming year?” It’s a broad, open-ended question and I spent a lot of time mulling over my answer.
And somewhere south of Atlanta, a verse came to me, which I attribute to the work of the Holy Spirit. Romans 14:19, So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. This is what I’m praying for in 2020: that God will help me pursue what makes for peace.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called His followers to the work of peacemaking (Matt. 5:9), which I understand to be active participation in God’s work of creating shalom (flourishing) in the world once again. As New Testament scholar Jonathan Pennington notes in The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, God’s entire redemptive work can be understood as His effort to bring His own shalom to the earth. Jesus calls us to take up this redemptive work in our own way, to create wholeness and rightness wherever and however we can. That’s what it means to “make peace.”
And somewhere south of Atlanta, as I reflected on the call to make peace, I had an immediate opportunity to test this out. In the midst of these thoughts, my wife engaged me in a discussion that could’ve easily turned into an argument. Honestly, she had some advice for me to consider with regard to my preaching. For all the ways I’ve received a new nature in Christ, this kind of critique is still difficult for me. But even though I defaulted into a bit of defensiveness — at least at first — the call to make peace helped our conversation to flourish rather than stall out. The trajectory of the entire conversation changed when making peace was the goal.
So this is my prayerful hope for 2020: in the words of the Psalmist, to “seek peace and pursue it,” (Ps. 34:14). The ancient rabbis used this text to speak of the “paths of peace” and it seems as if Paul is echoing this in Romans 14. To walk in love is to journey the path of peace. In these divisive times — and with another election looming in a few months — I can’t think of a better hope for 2020.
Would you join me on the path of peace? In the name of King Jesus, let us pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding.
Recently, my reading of the Old Testament has been greatly enhanced by John Goldingay’s excellent new translation, The First Testament. Goldingay, a well-respected Old Testament scholar, uses his Hebrew fluency to defamiliarize the ancient text for modern readers. For many readers of the Bible, terms like “salvation” and “righteousness” have become so familiar as to be devoid of much currency today. Thus, Goldingay uses words like “deliverance” and “faithfulness” as substitutes to jar us into a deeper understanding of well known texts.
One such passage that has resonated with me in my reading is Jeremiah 31, particularly Goldingay’s rendering of verse 3:
Yahweh said this: The people found grace in the wilderness, those who survived the sword. As Yisra’el went to find its rest, ‘From afar Yahweh appeared to me.’ With permanent love I loved you; therefore I’ve drawn you out with commitment.Jeremiah 31:2-3, The First Testament
In the wake of judgment and exile, this word comes from on high: God’s love is permanent love. It is grace in the wilderness. It is rest. What follows is a vibrant promise of restoration, the ostensible outworking of this permanent love.
I shall build you up again so that you are built up, Miss Yisra’el. You will again deck yourself with your tambourine and go out in the dance of people having fun. You will again plant vineyards on Shomron’s mountains; planters will have planted and will begin to have the use of them. Because there will be a day when lookouts call out on Ephrayim’s highland, ‘Set off so we may go up to Tsiyyon, to Yahweh our God.’Jeremiah 31:4-6, The First Testament
The realm of Yahweh’s permanent love is characterized by music and movement; by the sounds of joy; by the freedom to cultivate and enjoy the land once more and to safely journey into the presence of God. The realm of Yahweh’s permanent love is even described as a place where people are “having fun.”
Mission accomplished, Goldingay. Can you remember the last time you heard someone use the word “fun” to describe the realm of God’s love?
“With permanent love, I love you.”
I went to our local deli the other day and I noticed that the guy behind the counter had a lady’s name tattooed on the inside of his arm, right at the bicep. I caught myself thinking, “Boy, I sure hope it works out for them.” Maybe it says something about me, but I wondered what he would do about the tattoo if they split up.
But this is Yahweh. After all the times she has violated the terms of the covenant, he still speaks graciously to “Miss Yisra’el,” offering her grace in the wilderness with permanent love tattooed on his bicep.
Last weekend I spoke at a mental health conference spearheaded by several Christian counselors in our community and hosted by a local church. I am not a mental health professional but based on my 20-year ministry career, I was asked to speak on ways the church can respond to mental health stigma. I arrived a few hours before the opening session to work through some of the technical details for my presentation. The church lobby was filled with frantic “pre-game” energy as volunteers were busy setting up vendor booths and registration tables. But amid the clamor, I noticed a huge sign, unavoidable with massive block letters at the main entrance:
YOU ARE LOVED
The conference organizers were making a bold declaration along the lines of Jeremiah 31. They were announcing the realm of Yahweh’s permanent love. Entrants were to be met with this immediate proclamation: “This is a place of grace in the wilderness. As Israel went to find its rest, you can find rest here. God loves you with permanent love.”
As I made my way through the lobby into the hallway, I noticed these same words were plastered everywhere, on posters and signs taped up on the walls: YOU ARE LOVED. While I can’t be certain that Jeremiah 31 was at the forefront of anyone’s mind when those signs were being displayed throughout the church building, I also can’t help but think that these ancient words found some level of fulfillment in our midst.
“With permanent love, I love you.”
Over the course of the conference, I was reminded of the essential nature of this message. One attendee described the bitterness she still harbored toward members of her former church who literally demonized her depression, seeking to “exorcise” her condition which they erroneously believed to be the product of demon possession. Another family shared with me the fresh pain of losing a loved one to suicide just a few weeks earlier. Yet another attendee talked to me about her dissociative disorder and the anxiety and identity issues that accompany it. I lost track of the number of times people acknowledged the ways they had been abused.
As someone who is unqualified to speak deeply into issues related to mental illness, I knew I was out of my depth and I was grateful that so many trained mental health professionals were on hand to lend their expertise to the conference attendees. But I also choose to believe that the very articulation of these various circumstances are evidence that the Jeremiah declaration at the front door had been taken seriously. I choose to believe that these honest and unfiltered conversations occurred because these words were “tattooed” everywhere, announcing the realm of Yahweh’s permanent love. And I prayed that our dialogue represented a portion of Yahweh’s work of building up Miss Yisra’el once again.
This is the greatest knowledge of all: to know that you are loved. Maybe this knowledge will help my new friends find joy once again. I believe this knowledge leads us into a new realm. I believe it helps us survive the sword, to hear the sounds of tambourine and dancing again. I believe it delivers us into seasons of bounty and harvest and security once more.
There is grace in the wilderness.
You are loved.