I have never read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” Never read it. Probably never will. But I understand what it’s about. It’s a tale set in the Puritan town of Salem and the author weaves a story of sin and legalism and secrets where Hester Prynne is found guilty of adultery and is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A.” That way she is always reminded of her transgression, even as she tries to pull her broken life together and raise her daughter. And, that way, her community is constantly reminded of her transgression as well.
It’s an interesting concept really–to be caught in a sin and have that sin, in a very public way, define your whole identity. What would our lives look like if our transgressions, whether or not they are as “severe” as adultery, were known by by our family, our neighbors, our employers? While I believe there would be room for the grace of God, it would make it almost impossible to experience forgiveness and grace by a flesh and blood community where you could be known by something other than what you did. Wherever you went, whatever you did, you’d be “the one who committed (insert horrible sin here).”
While we don’t have a Scarlet Letter for Adultery, we do have a scarlet letter for sex offenders. There’s a registry you can look at online. As far as I understand, if this applies to you, you need to tell local law enforcement of your past whenever you move. It’s something your employers will know. It’s something your neighbors will know. And it’s something that could mobilize whole communities to try to keep you away.
Let me be clear. I am not trying to lessen the horror of sexual crimes. It is something I know almost nothing about and have almost no personal history with, either in or out of ministry. I know that the wounds can be very deep and the ramifications for the lives of the victims is severe.
What concerns me is how, with the scarlet letter or sexual offense, persons will forever be defined by the offense, whatever that offense was and whatever the magnitude was and however many persons were directly affected and no matter the merits of the charges against them. Part of our understanding of grace is to be defined in a new way, to be seen as forgiven and reconciled, to be reborn, to be made new. I wonder what rebirth could possibly be like for one constantly living under the shadow of the old even if they may have moved on from whatever addiction or offense was a part of their history.
When I was in a previous location, I was director of Habitat for Humanity for a while. We were working on getting a new Habitat home built. And out of all the applications for persons to partner with our organization for a home, we chose the neediest family…one with a disability on top of their financial hardships. However, when we went public with the family’s name, we immediately started getting phone calls from donors saying that they weren’t going give their usual donations for this family. These donors were tipped off that one of the family members was a convicted sex offender…a fact we didn’t know because Habitat for Humanity (at least at the time) partners with families without regard to criminal past.
I was the one who had to go and talk with the family. I said that we would still be willing to work with the them and we’d stick by them. The family, however, said they wanted to back out. They had worked so hard to get their lives together, to work on forgiveness and redemption, that they did not have the emotional strength to dredge up all of the past again. They couldn’t deal with the finger pointing. They couldn’t deal with the nasty looks when out in the community. They couldn’t deal with yet more questions from employers and neighbors with whom they had worked for 10 years to be on good terms again. They backed out.
It was probably best.
But I didn’t feel good about it.
What if my sins were public knowledge? Even with (much) more benign offenses, how could I look people in the eye? What would they think when I walked into a room? Would I want to be in the public eye or would I want to hide in my home, trying to keep as low a profile as I could? What would it be like to have everyone know of my brokenness and woundedness in such a profound way.
My memories of this event came to the fore over the last couple of days as word of some robberies broke out in a town I’m more than familiar with. Robberies have a way of making folks feel very vulnerable in a small town. I know of which I speak. Even if you aren’t the one who had things stolen, if there were several thefts of neighborhood homes, you probably are close to one or more of the victims. It can be very unsettling to the small-town vibe people love…where we all know each other and trust each other and feel safe with each other.
In the social media discussion about these thefts the conversation pointed at someone in the community who wears that “scarlet letter”–he’s a registered sex offender. The discussion went to wear he works, to calling his employer and telling them that people like him aren’t welcome in this town, his offense was pointed out, and his picture was passed around social media with warnings to stay away from him.
My hunch is that this person had absolutely nothing to do with the robberies. The conversation has moved on to others.
Concerning this person, though, I cannot say he wasn’t guilty of whatever he was tried and convicted of. And, as one who makes sure we have background checks on all of our youth workers at church, it’s clear this person wouldn’t be able to help with Sunday School or Youth Group and would not be invited to babysit at the church or for my own children. I’ll assume that he was guilty of his crime and whatever time he served was appropriate.
But where does grace come in for one who wears a proverbial scarlet letter? How does one experience grace from others when you can never escape, not only from the consequences of sin but from the constant reminder of it? When does one get to take off the scarlet letter?
I guess for the ex-con or the sex offender, at least in a small town, the answer is “never.” And I, frankly, don’t know if it can ever be otherwise on this side of the resurrection.
And this has bearing for me now. I now live in a town with a prison. It’s maximum security. And many of the men there won’t be getting out for a very long time. What grace awaits them if and when they do get out? And how much grace will come from me?
I don’t watch much baseball anymore. I used to watch a lot of it. Growing up in New York I’d sit up on the bed in my mother and father’s room, watching Yankee games on their very tiny television. Thurman Munson. Reggie Jackson. These were the names I grew up with.
All the while, though, I was a Philadelphia Phillie fan. That’s where my grandparents were and my great aunt and uncle. It’s from them that I got my love of Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton and, yes, Pete Rose (he may have broken the rules by betting but there’s no evidence he ever bet against his team!). I remember staying up late at night in the fall of 1980 to see the Phillies win the World Series. I remember Pete Rose’s record hit. And, somewhere, I still have a Mike Schmidt rookie card, and bats signed by both him and Pete Rose. To this day I still check online to see what the latest Phillies score is.
And I played baseball as well. I did the “Little League” thing, starting off as a catcher for several years before switching to first base after feeling like my body was taking too much of a beating behind the plate. And later on I had the joy only a baseball-loving father can experience when I had a daughter playing little league about 30 years after I did.
All this is to say that I’m a baseball fan. And, as a fan, I recognize that cheating has always been part of the game. I don’t mean the throwing of games or the intentionally hurting of other players. I’m talking about spitballs. I’m talking about acting like that pop fly you trapped (caught on a bounce) was caught in the air. I’m talking about pretending to have tagged someone that you didn’t. Players have always tried to bend the rules to their advantage. Sometimes they got caught. Sometimes they didn’t.
Well, a whole lot of baseball players have just been caught…this time with Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). I think this whole PED thing that has been plaguing the sport for the last ten years or so is something different. This is something that doesn’t affect the outcomes of individual games so much but the outcome of whole seasons and of historical records. Those great home run battles between Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds will forever be tarnished. This form of cheating, too, is really not available for everyone. And, this form of cheating is dangerous to the person taking the drugs. There’s a reason why so much of this is illegal and not just a banned substance. To say this is just baseball being baseball is naive and just plain wrong.
Easter is coming. It’s just around the corner. Yesterday I picked up new candles and new fabric for the altar in Seward. We’ve talked about how we’re working Easter Sunday at Moose Pass. Later today I need to get the worship services put together so our musicians can practice and we can figure out logistics. But there is a lot to do before that time.
And, let’s face it, Jesus has a lot to do before Sunday as well when it comes to the great story of salvation. So, between here and Easter Sunday we need to recount his Passover Meal and the washing of the disciples’ feet. We need to talk about his betrayal, his arrest, and his trial. We’ll need to point to the long march to the cross and the actual crucifixion…when he was mocked and the disciples fled and the women cried and Jesus died.
We know the end of the story. While we know about Easter Sunday morning and the empty tomb we need to put Jesus up on the cross and look, and cry, and remember. It’s part of the Easter story. And it’s only through the death that the resurrection is a resurrection at all.
Today on Facebook I’ve been engaged in a discussion about grace. Someone privately has asked me to describe or define grace as they have some honest questions about Christianity. And the conversation has been good. Grace is unmerited favor. It is the action of God in the world. It is that which justifies us and makes us right with God but also sanctifies us and enables us to live holy lives; living right with God and others.
Grace is shown in the stories of the parables. There is the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) where a lost son is welcomed back by a loving Father — not unlike how our loving God welcomes us. There is the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) where we see that God’s very economy is one of grace and mercy as the workers who are late are graced with a full day’s wage. We have the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14) where we see God’s grace is like a king who wants to have a party with all who would join him. It’s not about the worthiness of the attendees as much as the generosity of the king in inviting. There is the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-35) where, in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness, it is illustrated that we are to forgive or offer grace as God has done for us…without limits.
Keep reading for more grace!
Those are the wonderful words of Eugene Peterson, translating the wonderful words of John 1:14. For me, they describe the beauty of the incarnation where our God gives of himself by coming to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. There is a scandal here that, in the incarnation, we have Jesus…who is like God. But, perhaps the bigger scandal is that this shows that we have God…who is like Jesus. So, if we want to know what our God is like and, by default, what we should be like, we only need to look at the person of Jesus. God became one of us so that we can be like God.
Throughout history we have made clear that Jesus Christ didn’t partly “move into the neighborhood.” He wasn’t merely passing through. It wasn’t a “vacation.” He wasn’t “renting property” until a spot opened up in a better section of town. He moved in fully…he abided with us, he resided with us, he lived with us, he became FULLY human. And yet, we know, all along he remained fully God. It is the theology of the hypostatic union that holds together Jesus’ God-ness and Human-ness.
Throughout the last several years I’ve really been focusing on the beauty of the incarnation of Christ, that our God would become fully one of us. There is a sense in Scripture that, God needed to be fully human so that he could fully identify with our suffering and our lives and save us from “the inside.” Hebrews 2:17-18 puts it this way:
For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters[n] in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. (NRSV)
In the incarnation, our God went “All-In.” He didn’t go part-way. There is a sense that, if Christ were half-God or half-human or went into the incarnation half-way, then our salvation would be in question.
Using the incarnation as a model, I have viewed ministry as being fully incarnated into a community of faith and into a larger community. But wait, there’s more!
I have been in Seward and Moose Pass almost two months now. When I head back to Girdwood to be husband and father for a day or two at a time, and people see me out and about, I get asked, invariably, how I’m doing. I usually reply, “Good” and “It’s different and new” and “I’m still trying to find my way.” All of these are honest. It is good. It is different and new. I am still trying to find my way.
It’s hard finding your way in a new place. It’s not only that I’m literally “trying to find my way around.” It is, literally true that I still find myself misplaced at times as I try to find peoples homes or, even, the nursing home where I led worship just Sunday afternoon. We had about a foot of snow and everything was white and things just looked different and I couldn’t remember which road to turn on. It’s not familiar to me yet. It’s getting there.
But more, I’m still trying to find my way as I navigate what it means to be part of this community and what it means to be pastoring these two churches of wonderful people. Being in a new place…and more, being in a new place for five (now three) months without the grounding that the rest of my family provides…is disorienting. After more than twelve years in Girdwood I knew where it was that I “fit in.” I was exceptionally comfortable there and “my place” was pretty clear. I knew how to get to where I was going…in both a literal and figurative sense. I had my friends. I had my acquaintances. I had my community clubs and service opportunities. Yes, I was pastor of a church, but I also had an understanding of what my role in the community was.
And now, here, it’s different. One of the ways I’ve always seen myself is as “the prodigal”–perhaps as “the prodigal son” but also as one who is called to live “prodigiously.” It is Henri Nouwen who taught me that the story of the prodigal son is less about a son being prodigious (wasteful/extravagant) with his father’s wealth but a story of a Father who is prodigious (wasteful/extravagant) in loving and welcoming and offering grace. And so, like in that story, I now seem to have traveled to my own “distant country” even if it’s just 90 miles down the road. And I’m just trying to figure out who am am in this new setting.
But wait, there’s more!
Here I sit in my new favorite coffee shop, The Sea Bean Cafe here in Seward. It’s my new favorite place because the General Manager knows my name and the barista knows me from my former life in Girdwood. It’s my “new favorite” because I’ve just been here four weeks. Outside of the church walls this is the place where I recognize the faces around me…if not the name. Over on his computer in his usual spot is the husband of one our church folks. He could be a philosopher. He’s a great conversationalist. Sitting at the table next to me is the young student, busily taking notes as she works on some project, working on her latte and bagel. In walks the older gentleman off the street. I think he likes to sit here each day, read some of the news, and stay out of the weather. It’s a place for persons to come in and use the free WiFi and the computer in the back. It’s a place where some of the old-timers gather in the morning and swap stories.
I don’t know the names of pretty much anyone at this point. But it’s still my new favorite coffee shop.
I’ve even talked with the GM about the potential of using this place to meet a community need I’ve been made aware of…a local, teen-run coffee house to try to provide a safe, non-drinking, non-drug using, place for our younger population. I’m not sure if it’s a need as much as a desire but instead of investing infrastructure into one of our churches or another building I wondered, with him, what it might look like using his space. I thought he could bring an important voice to the conversation. Whether or not either of us are part of the problem, we can be part of the solution.
As I walk the streets (or drive them because everything has been so darned icy out there) I occasionally see faces I know. I occasionally run into people who know me at the post office or the grocery store. Some of the businesses know me from stopping in. I’m making my way. I’m learning what it means to be in the town. I’m “exegeting the community” as we might say…studying the context, finding out how I fit into it. After 12 years in Girdwood, I fit into that community wonderfully. It’s going to take time around here.
This is my mission field. These are the people I’m called to be with and to love.
But wait, there’s more!
Live as close to Jesus as you can. Constantly preach the gospel to yourself. Walk closely with a “gospel posse”. Risk or rust for the rest of your life. Love one spouse well the rest of your life. Never be surprised to discover how broken the bride of Jesus is; how immature and selfish you can be; or how much God loves you in Jesus. Ache for heaven and serve in this moment. (VIA)
I love this simple image from David Hayward over at NakedPastor.com. It says all that needs to be said.