The Secret Beauty of Forgiveness

Nothing quite ruins a fancy dinner like an hysterical woman. Polite conversation stops and (for a while) we all pretend not to notice. Then someone finally speaks up because her behavior is unacceptable. That’s what happened when a man named Simon, a proper and meticulous Pharisee, invited Jesus to dinner.

Before we jump to the story, imagine what must have happened before the dinner party began. Simon, a man who respected the law of God, had made plans to be the host. In the home of a Pharisee, the table had to be perfect, because the table was the like the Temple. Simon probably had a personal agenda as well: you don’t invite a celebrity to your house without thinking through the topics of conversation. You try to anticipate all the details in advance and put your best foot forward.

Then someone slipped past Security and began to make a scene:

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. (Luke 7:36-38)

Perhaps you know the story. Simon recognizes the woman as a sinner from the streets of the city. He thinks to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” But it doesn’t take a prophet to see someone’s sin and label them as such. The true prophet seated at the table saw something else: the beauty of a changed heart and the seed of loving gratitude taking deep root.

Simon saw a dinner party ruined. Jesus saw a life in repair. He saw the contrast between those who think they have it all under control and those who know for certain they do not. Jesus saw the difference between one person striving to avoid the label “Sinner,” and one who saw that same label as a path to freedom.

The irony of the whole affair is that we would never remember the dinner party if it had gone perfectly. Not even Simon, the host, would have. What makes the story worth telling again and again is how everything went wrong in the best possible way. Like that other time when four strangers tore a hole in Peter’s roof, or that time when Jesus ruined a perfectly planned funeral by stepping into the procession and raising the widow’s son. It seems interruptions followed whenever Jesus went—or is it that he himself is the Great Interruption?

That night at Simon’s place the interruption was forgiveness. Forgiveness is Jesus’s preferred scandal. It’s the rude interruption to our careful planned party. Forgiveness is the uninvited guest who makes a mockery of the fine china of our lives. We can choose between keeping the china in a fancy cabinet, using it only when we pretend everything’s at its best, or smashing the plates and making a mosaic of the shards of our messed-up lives. Forgiveness cares nothing for etiquette and everything for the gauche. The secret beauty of forgiveness is it’s only available to the sinner.

Jesus speaks forgiveness to the mess and refuse of all that’s ugly in our lives, his words become the stuff of stories told centuries later, like the time that woman broke in and ruined a dinner party.

We should be so lucky to have our plans ruined again today.

Saturday Song: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins was ee cummings before cummings ever saw the light of day. You show get to know him.

(BTW ~ Why do poets seem more likely to use three names? Who knows? But these are three names worth knowing: Gerard. Manley. Hopkins. Maybe his friends called him "Gerry".)

Actually, they would've called him "Father Gerry" because Hopkins was a Catholic priest. Born in 1844 to an Anglican family, at 18 he converted to Catholicism and by 20 be became part of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

His work as a poet took second place to his priestly calling, because (at the poem below indicates) he saw clearly the glory of God in all human endeavor. He died a few weeks short of his 45th birthday, 1889. Nearly all of his work was published postumously.

Presumably he is still at work, creating ever-cooler stuff for us to enjoy later.

Pied Beatuy



GLORY be to God for dappled things—
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;        
    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:        
                  Praise him.



Who Is Welcome At Your Table?

Surely Jesus believed that prostitutes were sinners, yet he welcomed them to his table. He ate and drink with them.

Surely Jesus understood that tax collectors betrayed their countrymen by helping the brutal Roman occupiers in his homeland, yet he welcomed tax collectors to his table as well.

Surely Jesus knew that religious hypocrites misrepresented Yahweh’s heart toward his people and laid heavy burdens on God’s people, yet he dined with them and invited them to participate in his Father’s kingdom.

Surely Jesus saw first-hand Peter’s temper, James and John’s foolish nationalism, even Judas’ tortured and divided motivations, yet he broke bread with each one of them, sharing his very blood and body.

Jesus welcomed everyone to his table. He welcomed the clueless and the cruel. He engaged the outcast and the insider. He shared his life with his enemies because he came to turn enemies into family. His method was startling: he ate and drink with them. Wherever Jesus ate, it was his table. He turned water into wine and transformed ritual into everlasting love. He turned no one away from his table.

He gave no one a pass on their rebellion or self destructive ways. The sinless perfect representative of God’s heart never lowered his standards or winked at injustice. Still, around his table everyone was welcome. He was no lightweight: if a moment called for brutal honestly, he fulfilled that need as well. He did not negotiate, he fellowshipped.

He set an example for us to follow. On his way to the cross he stopped to eat and drink each day, and each day he welcomed his enemies to his table. At the cross, he did what only he could do. At the table, he demonstrated what we can do.

He refused to let disagreement separate him from others. Jesus possessed the proper opinions, the right positions, and perfect perspective, but never--not once--did he use his correct standing as a reason to alienate other people.

Who is welcome at your table?

The young are visionaries; the old are the dreamers. The difference between the two:

In our family we love to talk about dreams. Morning conversations often begin with, “Listen to this: last night I dreamed . . . “ We share how the Spirit visited us in the night and whispered to our hearts.

Dreams are part of the grand sweep of the Bible’s story: Jacob saw in a dream how the heavens and earth were connected by a great ladder; the prophet Daniel explained to the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar how the God of heaven spoke through dreams; Matthew’s gospel reveals how Joseph, Mary’s husband, time and again took direction through dreams, and in so doing Joseph protected the redemptive future of God embodied in the Christ child. Dreams are part of God’s great lexicon.

That God uses dreams should come as no surprise to any student of Jesus. What may be surprising is how the Spirit of God apportions dreams to older folk in greater numbers and depth than to the young. Peering far into the future, the prophet Joel saw the day of Pentecost coming. Joel also saw an important distinction:

And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.

In that great day of fulfillment, Pentecost, the apostle Peter repeated these verses, calling our attention to the different ways God speaks to the young and the old.

Young men are visionaries; old men are dreamers. The Spirit is behind them both.

We sometimes use “dreams” and “vision” as synonyms, but this is a mistake. I believe there’s a difference. Dreams reveal mysteries; visions show the future. Vision is a call to action; a dream draws us into conversation with God. Every work of God needs both. The Spirit is the wise scribe who writes upon the hearts of both young and old—but in different manner.

A great change is upon the church—in North America, at least. One generation is passing away; another is taking the lead. This change can bring danger if the old try to keep their position and power, and if the young try to wrestle control away from those who have built the house of God. Both attitudes can tear the body of Christ apart. Or we can treat each perspective as a treasure, and enrich both generations in the process.

The young and vigorous are see God’s future and run toward it. Vision (given by the Spirit) inspires and ignites them. Their lives will be lived in the decades ahead. It’s their responsibility to receive one world, and shape another. The future belongs to them. It is theirs to build.

The grey-hairs can give a great gift to this new generation: a divinely inspired perspective on the past, capable of furthering the future. Dreams are not simply hopes for a new day. Most dreams draw upon our past experiences and interpret them in new ways. Our personal history is the soil capable of new life. This is not only true personally, it’s true for the church.

Will the older generation let the young run and stride toward God’s grand vision? We should. Will the younger generation treasure the deep things of the Spirit already given? We should. The church is one family under one heaven, a family young and old. Together we carry God’s grand mission forward.

Saturday Song: (Steven Lawrence Hamilton)

Last week I launched a new Saturday feature: poetry. (If you're not a poetry fan, then I'll see you for the regular Tuesday/Thursday posts.) You're invited to read, muse, comment, or share your favorites as well.

I've never met Steven Lawrence Hamilton, but we've corresponded a few times, and share a background as (former) Vineyard pastors. His website, Verve & Verse is a delight and respite from the nervous chattering so common on the blogosphere.


The Bear Cub

i fear the bear-cub

not the bear-cub itself

who flops about, here and there

exploring the ways of


uninhibited in learning

acquiring through experience

the taste of the wild

no, it is the she-bear i fear

whose massive mother strength

adorned by cerberian teeth

ringing with the experience

of a love-struck guardian

it is she who thunders at any threat

to her precious, frolicking

inquisitive likeness

i don’t quite understand God

but God is a she-bear

thus i fear men

not for men themselves

but whose image they bear