Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Jesus Pit

Here is the great paradox for the sinful woman, and for all of us who come broken to Jesus: though He has forgiven her, she does not simply cease to be "the sinful woman." Though He has healed us, we do not simply cease to be broken.

We can't.

It's not because there is some fatal flaw in us that does not accept healing (although one might be able to make a case for this, given all evidence). It's not because Jesus does not truly heal this side of Heaven; He absolutely does. It's not because the healing is somehow metaphorical or somehow requires something more that hasn't happened yet or anything of this sort. No, to argue any of these things would be foolish in light of the incredible power of God, especially His power to heal.

But we cannot cease to be broken, we do not simply stop being "the sinful woman," because to do so would cheapen both the story of us and the story of God.

Imagine if the sinful woman leaves Simon's home and ceases to be the sinful woman. Imagine she pretends that she never was a prostitute, that she's always been a penitent. Imagine that no matter who she encounters, no matter what they say, no matter what someone claims to know about her, she says, "Oh, no. That's not me. I'm a Jesus girl, through and through."

Yawn.

A Jesus girl. What does that even mean? We do this sometimes. A lot of times. We pretend we're Jesus people, but not sinners. We're healed, but were never broken. As though Jesus Himself would be disappointed if we kept talking about our brokenness, if we kept owning our sin (even once, we must say, we have been freed from it and are no longer sinning). But how can we possibly testify to the healing, restorative, amazing power of Jesus if we've never been a people in need of it? What good can we say about God if His goodness has not stood in contrast to our own depraved hearts?

Even after we're healed from it, we still need our brokenness. God still needs our brokenness. It's what makes Him - and us - real.

See, the problem is that somewhere, we got this idea that when Jesus heals us from something, He pulls us out of the pit. He raises us up, sets us on higher ground, and lets us walk away from everything. That's not really how it works. Jesus spends less time pulling people out of pits than He spends crawling down into pits with them. He spends less time lifting up than He does digging out. What happens when you ask God to heal you is not that He brings you up out of your brokenness; it's that He comes down into it with you. 

And together, you make the space bigger.

Together, you start beating against the walls. You start clawing your way not up, but out. Making this space that once was your prison your platform. Until there's room for more broken people down here with you and Jesus. Until this is no longer a cistern, but a grand reservoir; not just for watering, but for water sports. You start changing the landscape of your pit until it's no longer a tourist trap, but a destination. Yes, you heard me - brokenness becomes a destination. For no other reason than that Jesus is there.

And if the Gospels have taught us anything, it's that people will go almost anywhere to see Jesus.

Even into the pit of your brokenness. 

In fact, something amazing happens here. When people discover Jesus in your pit, they kind of want to get to work on their own. They want to start breaking wide open their own ground. They want to create a space in their pit for Him, and then they want to blow this joint apart. All of a sudden, these pits of brokenness, these places where Jesus is so evident, start popping up all over the map like (name your favorite fast food chain). Everywhere you go, there are these wide open spaces that used to be pits, full of broken people and Jesus. 

It has to be this way. It has to. It's the only way to do justice to the amazing grace of God. It's the only way to truly tell His story. Not by being "Jesus people," people who go to church and tithe and read their Bibles but have never needed them. But by being people who live in Jesus pits, by being people who continue to inhabit the broken places of our lives even though they've been redeemed. By being people whose cisterns have become reservoirs of living water, a place where sinners and broken people drop in and wait for a tow, knowing that Jesus boat is about to circle around and pull them up on their skis. These ought to be our lives. These ought to be our testimonies. 

We ought not pretend we were never broken. For Lord, if that were the case, what would we ever do with a Savior? 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

For the Love of Sin

Why is that we're much better sinners than lovers? Why are we more drawn to the prostitute than to the penitent woman?

It's quite simple, really: nobody has ever loved us like Jesus.

What I mean is this - we're already pretty good at second chances. Our world is built around them. We are wounded in relationship again and again and again, and still, we live with each other. This world is full of people who lie to us, people who cheat us, people who seek to kill us or, at least, kill our spirits. It's full of prostitutes and whores and hypocrites and sinners, and far more than we have been loved in our lives, we have been sinned against, or so it seems. So we understand sin and second chances; we have both given and received an abundance of them.

What we don't understand is love.

We don't understand what possesses a woman to bust into a party and make a spectacle out of herself if it's more than merely a sin transaction. We don't understand this kind of devotion. So we tell the story from sin, making it something far less than it truly is. It's a sad commentary on the state of our world, yes, but sadder still on the state of our hearts.

So how do we change it? What do we do? Do we simply become lovers in a sinful world?

Yes and no.

Yes, we must become lovers; that is what Jesus calls us to be. (He never, for what it's worth, calls us to be sinners. He never even calls us sinners at all. We are His beloved, so you'd think we ought to act like it.) It's not easy. It takes vulnerability. It takes a willingness to enter into the ache. It takes a certain ability to stand naked in a shameful world and not care who's watching. 

But our ability to become lovers goes far beyond what it does for us. It goes far beyond whatever one party we crash. It goes beyond the living room of one Pharisee. 

You see, we are sinners because we are surrounded by sinners. Because at every turn, we are sinning against each other. We are liars because we have been lied to. We cheat because we have been cheated. We wound because we have been wounded. It's what we've come to expect of the world, so it's what we've come to expect of ourselves.

But if we become lovers, if we are willing to crash parties the way the sinful woman does, if we will fall at His feet in aching devotion, pour out our tears, let down our hair, and love without shame, then that love spreads from our Savior to His beloved. We start to love people around us, too. Not as prostitutes love them, but as prodigals love them. And then something amazing happens.

Our kids grow up in a world that loves them. Our neighbors live in a community that loves them. People become lovers more often than they are sinners, and before we know it, we've raised up a new generation that loves God wildly. Because love is the new norm. Love is the thing we do. Love is what we expect from each other, what we give each other. It's our M.O.

And all of a sudden, we're reading the Scriptures and telling the story of a sinful woman whose incredible act of love will be told around the world...instead of the story of a prostitute whose sins are forgiven.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Party Crashers

We have invested a great deal of our theological energies in figuring out more of the details of the Gospel sinners than we are given in the Gospel stories. There is no greater example of this than what we have done with the sinful woman in Luke 7, who we have concluded not only is a prostitute, but is a prostitute named Mary, who later traveled with Jesus.

Jesus Himself told us that this woman's story would be told everywhere, that everyone would know what she had done. When He said it, He wasn't talking about her sin, but that's what we can't stop talking about. When He said it, He meant it would be her story of devotion, her act of faith, her broken heart - not her broken life - that would be on display. He intended us to tell the story the way it's given, with the emphasis on repentance. There was a sinful woman, and she could not hold herself back from Jesus. To all social shame and embarrassment, she walked into a place she wasn't invited, among people who condemned her, and she collapsed into a puddle of tears and ache at the feet of Jesus himself. She wept as she anointed Him, her tears and her hair washing over His feet, and He looked tenderly at her, waiting for her to lift her eyes. Waiting for her to see His. When the two finally looked at each other, she knew....

That's not how we tell the story. See, we worked really hard to fill in the details that seem to matter most to us, and so when we tell the story, it goes something like this: There was a sinful woman in the area, a prostitute. Her name was Mary, you know...one of the Marys who we hear about in other places. Well, everyone had heard about this Mary. She was a whore. The town whore. Most of the men in the room had probably either slept with her or knew someone who had. And she was not invited to this party. She was not invited, and she was not welcome. But she came anyway. AndshedidsomethingtotallyaudciousoutofherloveforJesuswithsomeperfumeorsomething. And Jesus forgave her for her sins.

It loses something in our translation. Something beautiful. Something called...heart. It's a very pragmatic theological story, but it's no longer a human story. It's a business transaction, not a relationship of redemption.

And we like it that way. That's how we like to see our sin. Not as some human thing, but as some business thing. Not as a heart thing, but as just a common thing. We love the idea that we're sinners and God forgives us, forget that mess in the middle about us being a mess. Forget that part about our pleading.

The truth is it's easier for us to be party crashers than puddles of tears. It's easier for us to break down the door than to fall at His feet. It's easier for us to consider ourselves mild sinners than passionate lovers.

So we tell the story of the sinful woman, and we tell the story of forgiveness, but we skip right past the part in the middle, the part where her heart aches in the tension between forsaken and forgiven, between too many lovers (if, in fact, she is the prostitute) and being the beloved. We skip right over the part where she actually cares about what's happening here, where she actually loves Jesus.

That's just too messy for most of us.

But that's the story. That's what makes this scene so beautiful. That's what calls us out of our complacency and demands more from us. It is what calls us to the same kind of wild, shameless, spectacle of a love affair with our Savior.

Maybe we're confused because all the voices at the party said this was not okay. Maybe we're confused because all the voices at our parties say the same thing. This is not appropriate behavior. It's social taboo. The overwhelming consensus is that the woman should never have done this - she should not have come to the party, she should not have pushed her way through the crowd, she should not have fallen at His feet, she should not have cried (Lord, what is with women crying?), she should not have poured out such an expensive perfume, she should not have let her hair down, she should not have dared look up, she should not.... They are the same voices we hear, all the time. We should not....

Yet none of those voices matter. There is only one voice in this story that matters, and it is the voice of the anointed one, the one whose feet now reek of expensive perfume and whose toes are tickled by the fallen hair of the fallen woman, the sinner. Not once does Jesus say she shouldn't have.

He says this is beautiful.

And He's right.

(Of course.) 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Infamous Sinners

There are a few stories in the Gospels which feature rather prominently...sinners. Not average, run-of-the-mill sinners like most of us consider ourselves to be, not sinners that we label ourselves, as readers, when we discover their hidden motives or secret stories, but sinners as declared by their own reputation - usually women of some kind of ill repute. 

There's the woman at the well, who has had a handful of husbands and is not married to the man she is sleeping with now. There is the woman caught in the act of adultery. There is the woman who comes into the home of Simon the Pharisee and makes a spectacle of herself by falling at the feet of Jesus. (Off-hand, the only male "sinner" I can think of in the Gospels is the one who stands in contrast to the Pharisee in prayer.)

The woman at the well is no mystery; her encounter with Jesus tells us plenty about her. It tells us almost as much about her as everyone else seemed to know. The same is true of the woman caught in adultery; it's pretty clear from the Gospel stories what she's guilty of, and many a sermon has been preached about the woman dragged naked before Jesus while He just doodles in the sand. 

But much theological energy has, for some reason, been expended on uncovering more about the sinful woman in Luke 7, the one who comes uninvited to the party at Simon's house. We've spent a lot of time trying to figure out what her sin was.

And what her name was.

The general consensus is that this woman was a prostitute, although you might not get that from just a plain reading of the Scriptures. It might be easy to assume that "a woman who lived a sinful life in that city" is code for "the town whore," but does that mean it's necessarily right to do so? And what do we really care?

It doesn't change the story much if the woman is a thief instead of a prostitute, does it? Maybe it does. If she's a prostitute, when she pours out her perfume, she is pouring out the tools of her trade. If she's a thief, she's pouring out her bounty. It's a subtle difference, but important maybe. Or maybe not. What if she's the town liar? I think we have all come across one or two of these individuals in our lives, who can't seem to let truth touch their lips at all. You can't trust anything they say. All of a sudden, she does this one powerful, very true thing...and people don't know what to do with themselves. Maybe that changes the story. Or maybe not at all.

Then we took it one step further and someone, somewhere, determined that this sinful woman in Simon's house is probably Mary. Not Mary of Martha fame, but Mary of Magdalene. It's weird, right? At one point, we're given the names of several women who traveled with Jesus, and to my knowledge, we haven't invested much time in trying to figure out where the others might pop up in His story. Was Salome also the bleeding woman? Who was the one caught in adultery? Nobody knows, nobody cares. But we're pretty sure Mary was the whore. 

Because it's oh, so important to know who the whores are.

I don't know what our obsession is with the details, with figuring out the nitty-gritty of the non-essential elements of the Gospel, especially when we aren't getting the big stuff right. Nobody's asking about the prostitute because they want to love her better. We aren't asking about the naked woman because we intend to clothe her. We aren't planning on befriending the wife of many husbands, even though she could probably use a stable relationship in her life. We just want something to talk about besides Jesus, I guess. So we talk about the women, the sinners, and the sin.

Maybe they shame us. I don't know. I think they probably should. Jesus said this sinful woman's story would be told everywhere, that everyone would know what she did. And He was talking about the scene in Simon's house. He was talking about her act of devotion. He was talking about her grand gesture of love. He was talking about the scandal of a woman who, living in shame, was unashamed to be at His feet. 

And we're talking about a prostitute. As though that's her story. 

We took Jesus at His word. Her story is being told. It's being told everywhere, used in sermons all the time. Oh, we know her story. But we tell it our way. We tell it through our eyes. We aren't looking at a woman in tears at the feet of her savior. No, that puts us to shame. We're looking at a prostitute who crashed the party. We're talking about a woman of ill repute, gossiping about her 2000 years later. Jesus gave us her story, but we've given her one of our own, and that's the one we're telling. 

Why? Because it's easier. 

Stay tuned. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Dens of Thieves

In the same breath that God tells His people that the Temple (church) cannot save them, He scolds them that this type of behavior has turned His house into a "den of thieves." (Jeremiah 7, see yesterday's post.) It's not the only time in Scripture that He has used these words (Jesus, anyone?).

And we, in all our mock piety and pretentious righteousness, think this has something to do with the mere presence of thieves. So we decide that sinners aren't welcome in God's house. That is what He's so mad about, isn't it? Sinners in the house of God?

No.

No, that's not at all what God is mad about. And that's good news for us because it's so incredibly difficult for us to reconcile this condemnation with our profession that God loves sinners, which is quite well-documented throughout the pages of His story. 

God does not condemn that there are thieves in the church; the Cross made perfectly clear that sinners, even thieves, are welcome. (Isn't it interesting that one of God's favorite curses against the people of the church is that they have become a 'den of thieves,' and then He is crucified between two of the very criminals?) What God condemns is what the thieves are doing in His church - they have made it a den.

A den, a place where they come to conspire. A place where they come to count up the loot. A place where they come to hide out. When you think about thieves gathering in a den, you can almost imagine them sitting around a dimly lit table, planning their next heist. Planning their next theft. Emptying their bags to go back out and get more. Counting the haul. All kinds of conspire-y things that bands of thieves do. 

This is what God is so against taking place in His house. It's what He condemns here in Jeremiah, as the people attempt to use the Temple as a home base, as a free space, all the while letting their minds cook up their next grand scheme. All the while thinking about lying, cheating, stealing. All the while waiting on the chance to burn incense at another altar. They're in this Temple for only one reason - to try to reap the benefits of this God, as though He is but one stop on the smorgasbord of human experience that they are sampling from. They don't care about Him, His laws, His promises, His ways.

It's what Jesus condemns in the Gospels. The moneychangers and merchants have set up shop in the Temple. They're there not to offer sacrifices, but to sell them. It's a transaction for them and nothing more. They don't care about Him, His laws, His promises, His ways. 

So the trouble is less that the Temple is full of thieves and more that it has become their den. This just ought not to be.

We ought to come to our churches not to conspire in sin, but to conspire toward grace. We ought to come, sinners all, and figure out together a better way. We ought to come humbling ourselves, not counting our haul. We need to worship in wide-open, brightly-lit place, not dim, smoke-filled dens of debauchery. We ought to come to our churches in search of the God who lives there, not to take Him for all He's worth but to offer Him our own. We ought to come offering sacrifices, not selling them.

Thieves included.