Monday, June 8, 2015


I'm afraid we have overemphasized "Go and sin no more!" at the expense of "...neither do I condemn you." Which may be, in part, why I find the story of The Woman Caught in Adultery to be so fascinating. In case you're not familiar with the story John presents us, here it goes:

"Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd. “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?” They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust. When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

What about this story is so fascinating? Perhaps we need to ask a better question. What, about this story, isn't fascinating?

For just a moment, picture this with me. You're sitting at the feet of, arguably, the most captivating speaker the world has ever heard. He's giving insight, the likes of which are so simple they are profound. Half-way through the discourse walks in a gang of men, dragging a sobbing woman through the dirt behind them. I think it's safe to assume that, at this point, they have your full attention. With all eyes on him, the leader of these men takes it upon himself to address the crowd. He rambles on about how she was caught in adultery, so it's only right they brought her in to carry out her punishment.

Wait a minute! What? She was caught in adultery? As in, she was caught in the act? By them? All of them? And they choose to air this, and carry out her punishment right here? Right now? Was it really necessary to interrupt Jesus' teaching in the temple? For this? Aren't these kind of issues taken care of a little more discreetly? And where is the man they caught her with during all of this?

To me, this whole situation seems a bit suspect. Was this some sort of trap? Obviously John thinks it is; which is why he plainly tells us "They were trying to trap him..."? Him, as in Jesus. Truth be told, these hypocritical accusers aren't really seeking Jesus' opinion on the matter; they have already made up their mind. Why else would they distance themselves from and dehumanized her by referring to her as "this woman"? The Pharisees knew full well that Levitical law requires she be put to death for her sin. However, Roman law didn't allow the Jews to carry out their own executions. As you can see, Jesus is in a lose-lose situation. If he favors on the side of the religious leaders, they will likely report Jesus to the Roman authorities. If he favors on the side of the adulterous woman, they will accuse him of breaking Levitical law (and enabling her sin).

Yet none of this seems to take Jesus by surprise. Through the whole incident, he remains calm, cool and collected. He doesn't chastise them for interrupting, as I would have done. Neither does he ask them for details to determine her guilt in order that he may suggest the proper punishment. Instead, Jesus responds in the same way he so often does. He stops what he is doing, assesses the situation and offers a challenge for her accusers--any one of them without sin may cast the first stone. All while writing in the sand. Now, there are several theories as to what he was writing--some say the sins of her accusers, others believe he just drew a line. Whatever it was isn't really important; clearly, Jesus makes his point. One by one they drop their stones and walk away. There you have it! In one simple exchange, Jesus diffuses the entire situation and sends away the judgmental sinners.

Even after they are gone, do you notice how Jesus doesn't ask her for an admission of guilt? He doesn't ask if she's sorry for what she has done. It seems Jesus, and perhaps more importantly this woman, both know she's guilty. I mean, it's pretty obvious as she was caught in the act. Therefore, there's no need to harp on her sin. It's unnecessary to make a bigger spectacle of "this woman," further humiliating and dehumanizing her. Which is why, I get the sense that Jesus doesn't really condemn her. In his vast wisdom, Jesus knows that his condemnation will only further alienate her from the saving grace she desperately needs. 

Contrary to what many in the Church would have you believe, I don't think this seems to be a case study in "loving the sinner, but hating the sin." Why not you ask? As I've already mentioned, Jesus doesn't even really address her sin. For him, it seems to be more of an afterthought. Not only is it the last thing he says--"Go and sin no more."--but the only other time it's recorded that Jesus uses this phrase is with the man at the pool of Bethesda. And if you're familiar with that story, we have no indication that his sin lead to his paralysis. And if you look closer, you see that Jesus actually asks this man to sin, by carrying his mat on the Sabbath, after he is healed. Which, to put it bluntly, pisses off some of the Jews. Could it be that Jesus' admonition to "Sin no more." is a jab directed at the religious leaders? That Jesus is telling them if they don't quit their sinning, the sin police will have them killed. And Jesus might not be there next time to save them? Either way, it's unfortunate that this is the only take away for so many in the church--as though Jesus really expects them to be perfect from here on out. It's not like he said that to all the others he healed!

Which brings me to what I most love about this story--what I most love about Jesus--his relentless love and compassion toward sinners. In his vast wisdom, Jesus chooses to extend grace (instead of judgment and condemnation) and spare her life. All in an effort to emphasize his great respect for this woman and her dignity, which not even her sin can take away! Pope John Paul II commented on this story that "They (the Pharisees) intend[ed] to show that his teaching on God's merciful love contradicts the Law." It seems that not much has changed since the days of Jesus.

The sad reality for many outside the church is that, so often, we are still looking to prove Jesus' teaching on God's merciful love is contradictory to the Law. What other reason do we have for drawing the arbitrary lines we do? (The ones of which we, of course, find ourselves on the right side). Why else would we wait around the corner to condemn their "ungodly" acts? Is there any other reason we readily judge those that sin differently from us? Paul, in Romans 2, tells us this is not a good practice. "You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things. Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?"

That you are a sinner whom should sin no more isn't a gospel worth sharing. I believe we already know this, just as the woman caught in adultery knew this! Why then have we forgotten that truth? Have we forgotten it was God's grace, not his judgment, that lead us to repentance? Let me say that again. We are repentant because of the compassion, love and forgiveness, not the condemnation, we have received.

Now, I'm not advocating we condone sin. Nor do I believe that is the message of Jesus. But perhaps his message is that we should be slow to judge, quick to extend compassion, and ready to offer forgiveness. Afterall, that's what he did! While this is never an easy task, this story is a clear example of how we are supposed to live as those that have received, or rather embraced, that same grace. To, again, quote Pope John Paul II "...Christian forgiveness is not synonymous with mere tolerance, but implies something more demanding." He goes on to say, "There is a need for Christian forgiveness, which instills hope and trust without weakening the struggle against evil. There is a need to give and receive mercy."

Tuesday, March 31, 2015


Have you ever heard the voice of God? Without hesitation, there are some of you that can answer this with a resounding "Yes!" And I'm happy for you. But I'm also a bit jealous. In the twenty some years I've been a Christian, I can't recall a single time I've ever heard from God. At least, not directly. And never with 100% certainty like some of you.

On second thought, there was that one time at youth camp. It wasn't an audible voice. Just a nudge of sorts. But I was certain it was God speaking. Directly to me! And that is why I got up in front of everyone and shared that God had called me to full-time ministry. Which is crazy, considering that I liked to party and smoke weed. That I really wanted to go to school to be a physical therapist. And growing up I was, without a doubt, an introvert. At the time, I was so debilitatingly (spell check tells me this isn't a word, but I'm using it anyway) shy I would have rather cut off my own arm than stand in front of hundreds of my peers and divulge that kind of information.

For years I was certain the only explanation for any of this was that I heard directly from God. And the church reassured me of this. Time and again I had pastors, Sunday School teachers and college professors remind me that, to make a decision like that, God must have spoken to me. It seemed they had a pretty valid point. 14 hours of prayer. 18 hours preparing for Sunday's sermon. 10 hours doing outreach and evangelism. Counseling for another 10 hours. Home and hospital visits for 15 hours. 8 hours of community service. Various church and denominational meetings totaling 10 hours. Another 4 hours of anything else that needs done at the church. And last, but not least, 4 hours actually leading church services each week. I mean, what kind of nut-job would actually choose a career path that requires them to put in 114 hours each and every week?

Needless to say, I continued to believe that my desire to pursue full-time ministry had to be the direct result of God speaking to me. Which is why I changed my declared college major from pre-physical therapy to pastoral ministry. After four years of study, I inevitably landed my first (last and only) pastoral position. Coincidentally, upon leaving that church, doubt hit me hard. And, even though I realize doubt always seems to follow the moment your dreams are shattered (or is that just me), it hasn't let up much these last eight years. Doubt if I was, in fact, doing what God had told me. Doubt as to whether or not I actually heard from God that night at youth camp.

If I was just following God's voice, I can't help but wonder why things didn't work out differently? Why was I met with such opposition at the church? Why, after applying at 6 different churches since then have I not had a single interview? Why does it seem that will be the only position I ever hold in a church? Should I take this as a clear sign that God didn't actually speak to me about this sixteen years ago? It seems, according to most everyone in the church today, that when God speaks it is marked by great success. Everything works out in your favor. You win. If a venture fails, it was undoubtedly not from God.

But why wouldn't that be the case when Scripture indicates that "If God is for us, who can ever be against us?" (Romans 8:31) The only logical conclusion to draw from this is that following God will never lead to set-backs or failure, right? Well, I'm not certain this is such a great theology. And I wonder if those people that tell us "God told me..." and proceed to tell some story of great success have ever read the Bible? If they had, they might see that those that have done the bidding of God encountered more than their fair of pain, suffering, set-backs, rejection and failure. I guess what I'm trying to say is that when God speaks, it doesn't always seem to be rainbows and unicorns. At least, not according to the Bible.

To be quite honest, all of this has brought me to another important question. Does God still speak to us today? Not that I doubt he can. Nor do I doubt that he has. Clearly, God has spoken in the past. The Bible leads me to believe that he spoke directly to Abraham, Noah, Moses, David and Job (to name a few). But then God seems to stop speaking. Between the end of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) and the beginning of the Christian New Testament writings there is a 400 year silence (unless you're Catholic). God doesn't speak. So, nothing is written. And this drought of Gods' voice continues throughout the New Testament. From my recollection, he doesn't speak directly to anyone, with the exception of "the voice from Heaven" at Jesus' baptism. Any time a message needs to be relayed, God sends an angel to do the talking or he uses Jesus.

It could very well be that is what people mean when they utter "God told me..." Maybe they don't literally mean God spoke to them. Perhaps it's just their way of conveying that the Bible shed light on the situation for them. Like the time Martin Luther King, Jr. said he heard Jesus telling him "I will be with you." As this is something Jesus promised, it wouldn't be too far a stretch to hear a voice making that declaration. I, too, have "heard" the promises of Scripture and found assurance, encouragement and conviction within it's pages. But to equate that with "God told me..." needs to be tread lightly. If my understanding is correct, Jesus is the Word of God, of which the Bible is an account. Unless you believe God literally dictated every single word of the Bible to the authors, "God told me..." is not an entirely accurate statement. (I happen to believe that the Bible contains the personality and words of the authors who were inspired by God.)

Or could it have been the message was from the Holy Spirit. I know, upon Jesus' departure he bestowed us the gift of the Holy Spirit. To guide us. To counsel us. To convict us. And to comfort us. And this is yet another way God speaks into each of our lives. But even this is a bit murky for me. Is that knot in my stomach the Holy Spirit doing its work? Maybe the goosebumps I get in certain situations? Or when the hair on the back of my neck stands up? I'm just not sure.

Which is why, anytime someone shares "God told me..." I cringe. Those three words bring out the skeptic in me. Maybe it's due to what I've just laid out. Perhaps it's because, as I said before, I'm not 100% certain I've heard directly from God. Then again, it might be that I've heard those words uttered as a sort of permission for all sorts of things. Things God shouldn't be put on the hook for. To quit a job. End a marriage. Make a financial investment. Take a huge risk. To exclude. To Discriminate. And to oppress. Did God actually speak? Who's to say it wasn't your conscience? Your own deep seeded desire? Individual bias? Prejudice? Indigestion from that microwave burrito? All to shirk responsibility?

Monday, March 2, 2015


A friend recently found out that his girlfriend had been cheating on him. Angered by her admission, they broke up. The next day, while she was at work, he packed up her belongings and left them in the hallway, outside the door to their one bedroom apartment. Surprisingly, when she got home that evening he was met not with rage about her things being piled in the hall, but repentance. Teary eyed, she pleaded with him to take her back. She apologized for her lapse in judgment and made the case it would never happen again. They embraced, moved her stuff back into the apartment, and picked up where they left off. I wish I could tell you they went on to get married and live happily-ever-after, but I can't! Just a few weeks later it was splits-ville for this young couple. The trust issues were too much for him to overcome and too much for her to bear. The good news is that apparently it didn't take long for the emotional healing to set in. I know this, because he started dating a new girl just a few days later.

What makes this story more interesting is how I was apprised of this information. He didn't tell me in person. I didn't receive a phone call. It wasn't even typed out in a text. All of this information was divulged via social media. I, along with everyone else who knew the couple, was given front row seats to this Jerry Springer-ish episode that terminated their relationship.

This leads me to the blaring reality that, as a society, we have definitely blurred some lines. And not just the lines of what constitutes consent (I'm talking to you Robin Thicke). But the lines we have blurred between what becomes public and what remains private--all due to the abundance of information at our fingertips.

We need only turn on the television to see what everyday life of the rich and famous entails. Standing in the checkout lane at the grocery store we can read any number of magazines dedicated to spilling the details of celebrities 'extra-curricular' activities. Google gives us the ability to uncover the most up to date gossip on just about anyone. And, thanks to social media, we get to know (and see) far more about our friends and acquaintances than we probably care to.

It seems, according to the world, that nothing is private anymore. In what some may see as a terrible downturn in society, I find a glimmer of hope. This, in part, is paving the way for deep and relevant discussions on faith to take place in the public forum. Yet, when it comes to matters of faith, it seems a majority of us remain silent. Why is it that we will readily invite the entire world on our date, via instagram, yet we are so hesitant to open up about our beliefs?

I have a few answers to that question. First, there have been, and always will be, those that consider matters of faith to be irrelevant to the practical outworking of life. But, considering about 88% of Americans say "their religious faith is important in their life," I'd venture a guess that those who feel this way are in the minority. Of course, some people keep their mouths shut because the topic of faith tends to be so polarizing and divisive; and they'd rather not offend anyone. For the rest of us, the answer seems to be much more simple. For whatever reason, we still feel uncomfortable with these types of conversations. They single us out. They threaten our innate sense of comfort. So, we keep our faith private.

I can't help but think that we, Christians, only have ourselves to blame for this. We have advocated that following Jesus "isn't a religion, but a relationship." We claim that he is our personal savior. And we rebuttal that "only God can judge me." While there may be some validity to each of these, let's make a few things clear. If it's not worked out in our daily life, while interacting with other human beings, it's not a relationship Jesus would want any part of. He certainly may be our personal savior, but that doesn't negate the fact that he is also the savior of many others on this planet. Did he not come to seek and save all who are lost? Perhaps judgment is meant to be reserved for God, but we can't follow him all on our own. It's much more of a communal event. This type of language makes me wonder if we've lost sight of the bigger reality. That following Jesus isn't some monogamous, one-on-one, kind of thing we do in private.

Before you get down on yourself, the blame for our faith being privatized isn't solely on us. The church has had their hand in this as well. In some instances, the church has inadvertently made faith into a one-hour-a-week ritual. They have kept the topic of faith from leaving the confines of the four walls of their sanctuaries. Many of us walk through the doors, sing some catchy tunes, listen to some Biblical teaching, pass around an offering plate, and when all that is said and done, are informed we are free to leave because church is over.

I'm sorry to say, this approach is all wrong! Church isn't over once we leave. On the contrary, it's just beginning. Which is why it is crucial that churches offer us opportunities to engage with fellow believers outside the Sunday morning service. That they encourage us to wrestle with and question the teaching we just heard. That they challenge us to be bold enough to make a commitment, even with everyone's head up and eyes open. If these sorts of changes aren't made, can the church really expect us to be comfortable living out our faith Monday through Saturday? Do we really need to ask why Christians fear going public with their faith? When this is the approach some churches take with faith, it's quite obvious why we feel that honestly opening up about our beliefs will bring ridicule, rejection, or even persecution. If we can't be open an honest about our beliefs within the confines of church, how then, can we be expected to make our faith relevant outside those four walls? With those who have varying beliefs?

While I am advocating that we take our faith public, I need to take a moment to clarify some things. I'm not encouraging you stand on the street corner, notifying every passerby that they are "going to hell in a hand basket." To begin with, because I'm not entirely sure what a hand basket is. I also don't believe that's the type of public attention our faith needs. While I may be willing to have these conversations (with total strangers that show up at my door unannounced, handing out the Watchtower) I'm certain that I find myself in the minority. Most people find this approach too impersonal. Too pushy. And too judgmental. It's pretty arrogant of us to think we know where everyone stands with God.

What I would like to see is quite simple. That, in moving our faith from the private to the public forum, we simple share what we believe--when the opportunity presents itself. That we would be open and honest in our dialogue. That we would be wise enough to realize our words and actions will only go so far--they likely won't convert anyone. But the good thing is that we're not called to. The Bible makes it pretty clear that our responsibility is only to express "our hope" and the reason for it. And last, but certainly not least, we would be mature (and humble) enough to agree to disagree. To realize that we don't have the market on what it looks like to walk with Jesus. Especially when failing to do so causes unnecessary division. Because following Jesus isn't about uniformity but conformity to the life of the one who walked this Earth and laid down his life for even those who stood in opposition to him.