A Love Story

 

It’s February…so it’s time for a love story.

 

 

And first, it’s a love story that had gone terribly wrong. A woman is caught in the act of adultery. She wasn’t alone but the man is never mentioned and plays no part in our story. We aren’t given any background on the woman or why she was with the man. He might have been a kind man who loved her and who wooed her or he might have been a client and she a prostitute. If you’re already thinking this isn’t much of a love story, you’re right but don’t pull that trigger yet. It gets better.

 

 

Women who were widowed often found themselves unable to feed themselves or their children. If another man did not come along to marry them and if they could not return to their father’s house for some reason they would sometimes turn to prostitution to survive. No welfare system or Social Security safety net was in place. Patriarchs of the Old Testament were not above using these women and discarding them afterward. Life can be brutal and it would be harder to imagine a harder life than that of a prostitute in first century Judea.

 

 

But she might not have been one. In the end, it doesn’t matter. That isn’t important to the love story we want to tell.

 

 

It is a story we almost didn’t get. It is in John’s Gospel but he didn’t write it. Before the sixth century, it almost never shows up in manuscripts and commenters didn’t mention it. But John himself said he didn’t write down everything that Jesus said and did and the story was important enough to early Christians to repeat and cherish until it was finally absorbed into our story at the beginning of John 8. Whew. That was a close one.

 

 

The woman is dragged before Jesus. Imagine her as you will. Some see her as angry and defiant. I see her as embarrassed, shamed, and broken hearted. Still, that doesn’t matter as much as what happens next. The men who caught her and dragged her before the young rabbi demanded to know what he would have done with her. The Old Testament law, they remind him, requires them to stone her to death for her sins. The rabbi wrote something in the dirt and then agreed with them. She deserved to die. Grab some rocks, boys. But first…he adds…let’s let the one who has no sins throw the first stone. Believe it or not, throwing the first stone was a bit of an honor as was holding the coats of those who threw the stones. All the rabbi asked was that someone throw the rock who didn’t deserve rocks thrown at him, too. He then stooped back down and wrote some more.

 

 

What did he write? That has been an object of speculation for a long time. Very early Jewish and Christian sources say he wrote the sins of those men standing there – you know, something like “Last Tuesday behind the market stall…A week ago, in a house down this street, when no one else was looking…” Stuff like that. One by one, the men dropped the rocks they were holding until even the youngest remembered his own sins, dropped the rock, and walked away.

 

 

The rabbi – and you know we are speaking of Jesus here – looked at the woman and asked her “Where are those who condemn you?” She is stunned at this turn of events and you can hear it in her reply that “They are gone. No one is here.” He then says something which makes this a love story. He says “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

 

 

Whether this is a love story or not depends on which side of that rabbi’s statement you focus on. Most of the churches where I was raised would mention the forgiveness but make it dependent on that woman not sinning like that again but they got it wrong. Notice something very deep, very profound and, if I may say so, quite stunning: he forgives her and refuses to condemn her before even telling her to quit sinning. The forgiveness was automatic and came first.

 

 

It is a love story because of that. It is a love story because his hands were empty of stones and his arms were open before she changed a single thing in her life.

 

 

When a woman with uterine bleeding touched him in a crowd, Jesus had the right to pick up a rock and throw it at her. In fact, that was the law for she was breaking several Old Testament laws by being in public and daring to touch a man – a rabbi, even! But Jesus not only refused to pick up a rock, he opened his arms and called her “daughter,” the only person he called that sweet name in scripture.

 

 

Empty hands. Open arms.

 

 

When Peter denied Jesus three times in the very area where Jesus was being mistreated and brutalized he could expect nothing from a risen Lord other than pain and punishment. But he didn’t get it. Jesus asked to meet with him (Mark 16:7) and they had a private meeting. Jesus refused to punish Peter or cut him from his inner circle of close friends even after his horrible betrayal of him. Jesus met him with forgiveness and inclusion, not with stones and fists.

 

 

When we speak of these things we can make Christians nervous. “Are you weak on sin?” they ask. “Don’t you take sin seriously?” Of course I take sin seriously. I think we should be absolutely ruthless in confronting sin.

 

 

Our own sin.

 

 

Not that of others.

 

 

Others need a love story. And they get it in Jesus and in those who live like Jesus.

 

 

So when do we confront their sins? Jesus gave us the answer to that in Luke 6:41,42. You may go after their sin when you have none in your life. Period. Until then, love them and confront your own sin.

 

 

You see, if you have stones in your hands you have no way to receive the blessings he brings. It reminds me of the widow in 2 Kings 4. Told by the prophet that he will bless her, she brings in borrowed pots from her neighbors and the prophet prays. God answers by miraculously filling the pots with precious oil. He filled every pot she had brought before Him and no pot she didn’t. In other words, her blessing was limited by her openness and faith. That isn’t unusual. It is life. God will fill your hands and hearts with good things but you have to drop the rocks first or you can’t hold them.

 

 

Loving like this takes courage. Some will accuse you of winking at sin. Others will come at you as accepting the wrong kind of people or baptizing those who haven’t become perfect or nearly so.

 

 

But Jesus forgave first. Then he admonished. And he admonished us, too, to love each other, be known as his followers by the way we love each other, and to refuse to pick at each other’s sins until we are clear of sins ourselves.

 

 

Empty hands.

 

 

Open arms.

 

 

Open hearts.

 

 

And that makes this a love story.

 

Shaped in Fire, Wind, and Rain

My wife and I recently flew from Denver to Seattle on a clear day where the Rocky Mountains were revealed in all their High Definition glory. We’ve made that flight many times before but never with the air this clear, the scenery so sharply detailed below us. As we followed along with the flight tracker on our iPads, we named rivers, towns, and mountains from 38,000 ft. above sea level, 24,000ft above the higher peaks. I pointed out mountains that had blown out, leaving a bowl shaped caldera now filled with snow and debris. We saw the tracks of great ice flows, ancient rivers, debris fields and primeval earthquakes that broke the land and twisted the surface, redirecting water and wind, both of which, in their turn, shaped the land even more.

It was a scene of indescribable beauty but that beauty could be deceptive; much of it had been created through violence, calamity, and force. A great deal of the shaping had been done more gently, one gust of wind at a time, one drop of rain at a time but it would be foolish to ignore the rifts in great rock seams and the displacement of millions of metric tons of earth. I was reminded that much of the land that once made up modern Arizona can be found in Nevada and California where it was carried along by an ancient sea that became a mighty river that has since disappeared, leaving only its tracks and a debris field the size of some European countries. Whether one believes this was all accomplished during the Flood of Noah or through a countless number of floods through the millennia – it was dramatic and violent and it left tracks.

Our youth sing “Lord, change my life” and I have heard the plea of the Psalmist to “Search me and know me” uttered as if it were a platitude instead of an invitation to reinvention. Let me be plain: I am not one of those who laugh and say “If you ask God for something, watch out! He might give it to you!” I don’t think God plays games with us like Thor or Loki or Zeus. He is God, righteous and holy and true, self-defined as the personification of love. Still, God has the right to shape us and form us into someone He can and will work with, bending us on His potter’s wheel. Sometimes, that shaping will be gentle; allowing us to turn as He barely touches us. At other times, He will have to grab us; squash us, slap us down on the wheel, and start again. Perhaps you’ve experienced that.

A divorce that came out of nowhere and left you staggering, lost, a metaphysical “D” on your forehead that you believed would mark you forever as a failure.  A job loss, a betrayal by a friend, the death of a child, the death of a dream…most of us have been there. Most of us have had the top of our lives suddenly explode leaving us with a caldera in our heart. I would submit that most of those events were sourced, not in God, but in our decisions of the decisions of others around us but others came out of nowhere – a virus, cancer, a stroke. God was there to literally pick up the pieces, but we were changed. As another popular song says “[We] will never be the same again.”

But most of the shaping in our lives has not been violent. Most of it has been through the gentle action of God in our lives and in the world around us. We’ve been shaped by the gifts of God, by our family, by the community of faith and by the day to day pull of the Spirit. Like a drop of rain that displaces a grain of sand and moves it just a millimeter further down the mountain, we are being changed from who and what we are into…something else, something that has not yet been made clear. We are being translated. We are being transformed, not in a “Ta-dah!” moment but a single idea at a time, a single cell, a single action. And so I pray daily, “Lord, help me to be a little better today. Help me to be a little bit less like me and a little bit more like you.” And sometimes I add “But move slowly. Be gentle. I bruise easily and fear that I could break.”

As we flew over the mountains, I told my wife “It is beautiful, but if those were people and not mountains, we would treat it as a crime scene; we would say there were signs of violence below us.” It is through faith that we believe that all of those pressures and events that blew us up, displaced us, broke us into pieces, threw upheaval into the middle of our placid lives, and shifted us further down a road whose end we cannot see are safe in the hands of a God who loves us. Whether He sent the volcanoes in our lives or whether they were placed there by the world, the flesh, and the devil is beside the point right now. What IS the point is that even these signs of violence in our lives can become things of beauty when we invite the Master to put His hands into our lives and shape us to His purpose. “Lord, change my life…”

Yesterday, I drove my truck up to an elevation of 10,000 feet in the mountains behind Pikes Peak to the towns of Winter Park and Florrisant. Geologists from all over the world come here to dig up fossils in the incredibly rich beds found in this high country. The animals that left their bones here long ago lived in a swampy, fetid, humid climate when the top of this mountain was down below sea level. They are all gone now. Fact is, from the bones we’ve found worldwide it is estimated that more than 90% of all species that ever lived are now extinct. Their habitats are gone and so are they. It seems that if you crave safety and security, you were born into the wrong universe.

But if you believe in a God who is greater than our lives, greater than this planet, and greater than anything you can imagine you will also believe that His imagination can and will shape you – through or in spite of tragedies, suddenly or a molecule at a time – into who you should be if you invite His hands into your life. Just as He did to the Rockies, He can take whatever happens and turn it into something that is so beautiful it will take your breath away.

Some people see the face of Jesus in a piece of burned toast. I pray that God – and the world – will be able to look at my scars and see, not tragedy, but beauty – the hand of God.