c.m. “bud” kinsey: a life remembered

the following are my reflections on my grandfather’s life–a man who shaped my life more than anyone else–offered as the eulogy at his memorial service on january 5, 2017.

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good afternoon, my name is ryan pemberton, and i’m “bud” kinsey’s grandson. on behalf of our entire family, thank you for joining us to celebrate and remember his life.

some of you here will know that i have a deep appreciation for the writing of english author c. s. lewis, perhaps most well known for his chronicles of narnia series. lewis begins one of the books in his beloved narnia series with this line: “there was a boy called eustace clarence scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

we’re gathered here today to remember a man named clell manardy kinsey, though he didn’t deserve it. which is at least partly why people called him “bud” most his life.

family members and bank tellers, waitresses and co-workers alike all called my grandfather, “bud,” and they meant it. they called him “bud” because, like eustace clarence scrubb, he deserved it.

 

i. bud’s life

clell manardy kinsey was born in st. george, south carolina on september 23rd, 1930, to weldon poozer kinsey and his wife, cornelia alice kinsey. no offense to any mothers in the room, but my grandfather would want you all to know that he grew up with the best mom in the whole world.

 

catching dinner

number 10 in a family of 12 children, my grandfather was born in the south in the dustbowl era: one of the most financially fraught periods in our nation’s modern history, which explains why I—and so many of our family members—grew up with grandpa’s well worn phrase: “i’d rather you have too much than not enough.”

my grandfather grew up learning how to catch dinner for his family: rabbits, fish. setting rabbit traps with grandpa was something my cousins and i grew up doing for fun; for my grandpa, as a young boy, it was a matter of having dinner or not.

he once told me a story about flipping a coin with his brothers at the start of the day to decide whether they’d go to school or go fishing. when the coin landed straight up and down in the sand, the choice was easy: fishing it was.

 

mechanics, engineering, and football

my grandfather earned only one “a” in school, and that in woodworking, which surprised me to learn as an adult, given that he was the one who most motivated my academic achievements.

where he excelled was working with his hands: my grandfather was a lay engineer and a skilled mechanic. he never met a pile of tarps and rope he didn’t like: creating the most intricate tarp system you ever saw over his back deck each winter.

in his last days, even when he could no longer speak, and could only barely move, i watched my grandfather slowly and patiently weave his hospital bed remote control through his bed’s metal bars, preventing the remote’s cord from getting caught when the bed was raised or lowered, and leaving the remote precisely at hand level.

he also excelled on the football field: though his mother initially refused to let my grandpa turn out for the team—worried that he’d get hurt—when she later heard just how good he was, she gave in.

 

military years

after high school, and in the wake of world war II, my grandfather enlisted in the u.s. army, trained at fort bliss in el paso, tx and fort lewis in washington state, and then served with an artillery unit for one term, before returning home.

after a couple years at home, my grandfather enlisted in the u.s. air force, attending training school for auto and engine mechanics, construction equipment repair, metallurgy, welding, and leadership. “be a leader, never a follower,” he used to say.

my grandfather served our nation for decades, domestically and abroad, working as a mechanic and later as a site superintendent in his final years of service.

 

marriage & kids

along the way, he met a striking young woman named phillis at a swimming hole near richland, washington, who he married in late september of 1952. the couple had four children: laurie, michael, karen, and barb.

as a family, they traveled the world. my grandfather was stationed in salzburg, austria just after they were married, and 10 years before “the sound of music” was filmed there. their family later spent time in florida, washington state, okinawa, kansas, and wyoming, even while my grandfather was stationed elsewhere at times.

never one to talk much about his days in vietnam, his time there haunted his dreams for years to come.

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grateful for where i stand

my grandfather once told me a story about waking up one morning when he was serving with the red horse combat civil engineering unit. he and his friend mac decided to move tents that day, for no reason beyond a gut feeling.

that night a rocket hit the tent next to where they had been sleeping.

“there were holes all over ours,” he told me. “that was just another time i could have been gone. every night I pray to our God through the Lord Jesus Christ thanking Him for where i stand.”

he retired from the military in 1970 as a master sergeant.

 

value of a hard day’s work

my grandfather was one of the hardest working men i’ve ever met.

after serving in the military for more than two decades, he moved his family back to washington state, where he would work at arco’s cherry point refinery in ferndale as a welder, before finally retiring from there, too.

he taught me, and so many of my cousins, the value of putting in a good, long day’s worth of hard work, even though he was retired for as long as I can remember. he always stayed busy, always had projects going on around his house: repairing his pool, the deck, working in the yard, or tending to his garden.

one of my most lasting pictures I have of my grandfather is of him in a pair of sun-bleached swim trunks, smelling of coppertone sunscreen, working barefoot in his backyard.

 

serving others

Like a good writer, my grandfather showed, rather than told me, the importance of serving others. in his retirement years, i watched and even at times joined alongside him as he volunteered for a number of organizations: the local children’s museum, meals on wheels, and elsewhere.

 

a series of boxers

when his youngest was in high school, my grandfather and grandmother divorced. he later remarried, sharon, a mail deliverer with the u.s. postal service, who had several children of her own—debbi, katrina, and george—expanding his already large family, and giving even more people the opportunity to benefit from knowing him intimately.

my grandfather and sharon took in and loved a series of dogs—all boxers. clell, bucket, and fancy were a few of those fortunate enough to have my grandfather as their owner: waking when he awoke, staying up late listening to old country music together, singing and playing the harmonica, and napping when he laid down on the couch to “think,” as he used to call it.

 

II. to know bud

2439 moore st.

for several decades, my grandfather lived in the home at the southwest corner of moore and alabama street in bellingham: “2439 moore street,” as he taught me to recite as a young boy, in case I ever needed it.

with a lawn that was always immaculately kept and where for many years a tall, leafy willow tree stood to greet guests, my grandfather’s house was home to countless family barbeques, pool parties with friends, watching the fireworks over bellingham bay on the fourth of july, crab feeds, low country boils, and more.

my grandfather regularly could be found cooking in his den for family and whomever they wanted to bring along. when the food was ready, he’d get one of the children to ring the dinner bell and shout, “beans are ready!”, regardless of whether beans were actually being served.

 

loved a cigar

some of us remember the rich smell of pipe tobacco grandpa used to smoke from his recliner in the corner of his living room at the end of the day. but mostly it was cigars for grandpa.

that man loved a cigar.

in fact, it’s not easy to find a photo of him without one. and he loved to share, as you’ll likely notice in the slideshow later.

 

looked sharp

though he was never showy, my grandfather always took care with his appearance. he (not so secretly) dyed his hair on occasion in old age, and he made sure it was brushed before bed each night to the very end.

my grandfather was one of those rare types who was well dressed without being materialistic.

“let’s go to kmart and check out the latest fashions,” he’d say to me as a young boy. or fred meyer. or sears, while picking up a new bandsaw blade.

i never realized the humor in that until I wrote that line.

 

masterful storyteller

my grandfather was hands down one of the most creative people i have ever met. and he was a masterful storyteller.

if you never heard the one about finding his boxer, clell, cleverly disguised as a gambler at the nooksack casino, you’d better ask somebody.

 

a humor beyond quirky

but perhaps one of his greatest traits was his sense of humor. “quirky” doesn’t quite do it justice.

when the magic eye pictures were at the height of their popularity—those images you had to focus your eyes on just so in order to see a three-dimensional ship, eagle, or some other discovery—my grandfather installed a series of framed, fake magic eye images in his living room: tall, narrow pieces of felt with a bronze title underneath.

in the late 1990s, my grandfather, my cousin alvin and I took over sole ownership of the alphabet. let that sink in for a minute. there’s a faded, framed certificate, which we had made up at kinko’s, on his refrigerator to this day to prove the fact.

always one for a practical joke: memories of the fast cat, hitting a ping pong ball over the house, and more still bring a laugh to our family and friends.

but of all the jokes he made and played, so far as I can remember, my grandfather never made others feel bad, which is the best kind of humor.

 

nicknames 

he used to love to give nicknames: rip, mo, spider, doc whistler, broken ukulele, little hammer, and countless others that he created from scratch for those he loved.

like many things with my grandfather’s sense of humor, if you have to explain, don’t bother.

 

finding a keeper

the first time my now-wife jen stopped by my grandpa’s house without me, some fifteen years ago, she had my brother and sister with her.

as he often did when people dropped in, my grandpa asked if they’d like something to eat. when they said sure, he made them grilled cheese sandwiches with peanut butter.

jen finished hers and complimented the chef on his culinary creativity. later that day he phoned to tell me that i had found myself a keeper.

 

electric grin

my grandfather loved a good joke, and he had an electric grin that lit up his entire face and made you want to share any good joke you knew with him just to get a peek at it.

ask any waitress at denny’s in town or any teller at us bank; his was the smile against which all other smiles will be forever measured.

 

inventive euphemisms

bud kinsey never met a euphemism he didn’t like. and when one wasn’t readily available that suited his purposes, he’d invent one.

stamp, thinking, billy jar, and so many others served as code words for spotting an attractive woman, taking a nap, and the makeshift urinal he kept in his car for emergencies.

 

proudest achievement

but of all his efforts, it was bud kinsey’s family that he was most proud. you couldn’t make it far inside his home without coming face-to-face with framed certificates and newspaper clippings of his family’s accomplishments decorating his walls.

with four children of his own, and countless grandchildren and great grandchildren, someone was always stopping into 2439 moore street, just to say hello—and they would always be greeted the same way: with an open door, a smile, and, if they were young enough, an invitation to check out the “goody drawer.”

like my cousin bj recently wrote for my grandfather’s obituary, bud kinsey was a magical man who pulled candy from his twinkling ceiling.

it’s just what he did.

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not sensational; quietly exceptional

My grandfather was not a sensational man: he was not gregarious, he preferred not to be the center of attention.

but he was a quietly exceptional man, leaving an immeasurable impact on so many of our lives with his consistent, diligent, intentional, creative love.

not sensational, but quietly exceptional. that’s my grandfather.

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III. remember your stories

and he was always teaching me, he was always teaching all of us. he still is.

remember your stories, that’s what so much of grandpa’s life taught me. remember your stories, and tell them to one another.

write down your stories, grandpa says. It doesn’t have to be anything special, just tell me about your day. tell me about waking up. tell me about going to sleep.

tell me about seeing your children for the first time. tell me about seeing your children after a long day.

tell me about your life.

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remembering a moment for a lifetime

tell me about coring a watermelon and filling it with chocolate pudding. tell me about helping a bunch of young cousins remember a moment for a lifetime.

tell me about sitting in a circle on the kitchen’s linoleum floor, using a toothpick to punch a pin-sized hole in an egg, and taking turns sucking the yoke out.

“put some salt on it,” grandpa says.

tell me about smelling the salty bay air before the sun has risen, about sliding your fingers between a crab’s claws and shell and yanking until it’s insides become its outsides, and then staring in shock as its big pincher grabs the skin between your thumb and pointer finger.

“it’s making friends with you,” grandpa says.

tell me about your friends. tell me about the time you had your friends over for a pool party and your grandpa served everyone blue-dyed corn on the cob.

“why’s the corn blue,” your friends ask.

“because that’s just my grandpa,” you say with a shrug.

as I said, if you have to explain, don’t bother.

because he was trying his best to help you remember your life.

 

remember me

like our experiences and stories about grandpa—some of them are shared, and some of them are unique to each one of us—there’s a story about Jesus found only in luke’s gospel; it’s a story about remembering.

it comes from the very end of Jesus’ life.

luke tells us that when Jesus was executed as an enemy of the state, he was hung up on a cross between two convicted criminals, one on his left, the other on his right (luke 23).

we’re told that one of the criminals, in his pain and anger, began to ridicule Jesus.

“are you not the Messiah?” he asked, sarcastically. “save yourself, and us!” (23:39).

but the other criminal, in just as much pain, surprisingly sticks up for Jesus.

“do you not fear God?” he asks his fellow convict. “we have been condemned justly, but this man has done nothing wrong” (v.40-41).

and then he turns to Jesus with what is, perhaps, the most human request: “remember me,” he says.

“jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” (23:42).

“Remember me,” the thief on the cross with a whole lifetime behind him says, a lifetime he cannot change. cannot correct. cannot redeem.

and yet, he has the gall to say, “remember me.” my God, remember me.

it is, of course, the same thing grandpa was always telling us: remember. remember me. remember who you are.

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stay afloat

i was reading with the window open one spring afternoon when a cottonwood tree seedling, what grandpa used to call “cottonballs,” came floating through my window and landed on my book.

seated there, i heard my grandpa’s words: “when the cotton balls stop falling, that’s when you know we can open the pool.”

smells of coppertone sunscreen, working on projects around the house, napping on the couch (or “thinking,” as he put it), and so many other memories suddenly flood my thoughts.

“i’m going to teach you how to float on your back,” grandpa says to me from the deep end of the pool in his backyard one hot august day as a young boy. “so that way if you’re ever stranded or in trouble, you can keep yourself afloat until help comes.”

“you can keep afloat this way as long as you need to,” he told me.

but you’ve got to remember.

 

“when you remember me,” frederick buechner writes, “it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that i have left some mark of who i am on who you are.

“it means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us.”

“it means that if we meet again, you will know me.”

“it means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.”

 

“remember,” grandpa told us, so long and so often that we nearly tired of hearing it, each year when our stories would be due for the annual chili cook-off memory books.

“remember,” grandpa used to say, and keeps saying still in our minds and hearts.

remember your stories, he’d say.

“remember me,” i hear him saying now.

remember me until the tears fall like rain, rain that falls so hard on a tin roof that it sounds like bacon crackling and spitting on a skillet, as my grandpa used to imagine as a young boy just hoping there’d be breakfast to eat when he awoke.

remember me until the tears fall like a storm you think might never pass, remember me until you can barely breathe because your throat is so tight.

and then keep remembering.

and then, well then you’re free to do with your memories as you like, to keep them to yourself or to share them.

i must share mine. i am called to remember and to point. but you can keep yours if you like.

tell me about your day, or maybe tell yourself, if you’re likely to let it pass you by otherwise. but you must remember.

 

“i have thought sometimes that the Lord must hold the whole of our lives in memory, so to speak,” marilynne robinson writes. “of course He does.”

“remember me,” the strung up thief says at the end of his days. and Jesus says, “don’t worry, I will. today you will join me in paradise.” (luke 27:43).

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Lord Jesus, i thank you that you remember us and our loved ones when we are tempted to forget. i thank you that you remember us into eternity, into peace, that you remember us home.

thank you, Lord, for the gift of bud kinsey, a legendary man who we were gifted to know all these years, and who remains with us through our memories in his absence. be the comfort for our tears, I pray; be good to our father, grandfather, great grandfather, and friend; and help us to always remember.

in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.

how to speak of God’s love?

the following is the final message given to a gathering of university students in berkeley, california in a semester-long study of Jesus’ response to the question: what’s the most important commandment? (mark 12:28-31)

so to wrap up our series on love, i want to shift our focus from our love of God, love of others, and love of ourself to God’s love for us. after all that we have been talking about this semester, we can be left thinking the most important thing is our love, but i want to flip that tonight.

the yale theologian miroslav volf puts it this way:

“in the minds of most people, christianity is supposed to be about love of God and neighbor, even though…at the heart of christianity does not lie human love at all, but God’s love for humanity.”

the most important love is not ours, according to Christian tradition, but God’s love for us.

but here’s the thing: it’s tough to talk about God’s love.

how do we speak about God’s love that’s not met with an immediate eye roll? how do we speak about God’s love in a way that’s not reduced to sentimentality?

or, perhaps even more importantly, how do we speak about God’s love in a way that doesn’t ignore the incredible suffering in the world? how do we speak about God’s love in a way that doesn’t give the impression that we live in complete ignorance of the world happening all around us?

as the peruvian priest and theologian gustavo gutierrez has asked, how do we say to the poor, to those with no rights, “God loves you”?

the first thing i did when i woke up this morning, even before getting out of bed, was check a facebook alert on my phone—which is never a good idea. and i noticed a news story a friend of mine shared that made me want to stay in bed all day.

the story was about a massive international child pornography sting involving the arrest of 348 adults and the rescue of nearly 400 children. those involved in stopping the multi-million dollar international operation said that they had never seen anything like it before, in terms of the sheer quantity of video confiscated and the horrific nature of the acts carried out against these children.

perhaps most tragic among the findings was that among those arrested were 40 school teachers, nine doctors and nurses, six police officers, three foster parents, and nine pastors and priests.

this was the first thing i read this morning, knowing i would be speaking on this topic tonight.

how do you possibly speak about God’s love in light of this news?

i want to try to speak to that point tonight by putting a finger on three characteristics of God’s love: God’s pursuing love, God’s freeing love, and God’s costly love.

but before I get into those, let’s pause and pray.

gracious God, i thank you for this time and this space where you bring us together each wednesday, away from the busyness of our day and week, so that we might meet with you and with one another and maybe even with ourself for the first time.

 

Lord, I recognize the incredibly fragile nature of speaking on your love in a world that is so full of deep suffering, pain, and anger. and yet, your word is clear that you are not simply a loving God, but that you are Love—even when we struggle to see it.

 

i ask that you would work through these, my words to reveal how your love has been at work in the world, and is still at work in the world, even now. it is with hope in your Son that we pray, amen.

God’s pursuing love

you may have noticed in tonight’s scripture readings that we’re jumping all over the bible. the first reading was from a prophet in ancient israel, found in the old testament book hosea. the second passage was a powerful story from Jesus’ life, found in john’s Gospel. and the third and last passage was from a letter to the early church in a city called ephesus, reflecting on Jesus’ life.

and my hope for tonight is to show how God’s love is a thread running throughout the entire biblical narrative, connecting the old and new testaments.

so to start, as quickly as possible i want to speak on how ancient israel understood God’s love. and in order to do so, i need to speak on a few key ideas: creation, fall, and covenant.

according to ancient israel’s traditionall those stories that would have been passed down from generation to generationGod created humanity to live in a right, loving relationship with God and all of creation. but humanity used its freedom to turn away from that relationship, and that led to all of the broken, challenging life that humanity has known ever since.

israel understood its distance from God as the source of its deepest longings, pains, and struggles. this broken relationship with God feels like endless struggle, rather than ease of life. it feels like craving something that nothing will ever satisfy. it feels like loneliness.

a writer i’ve shared with you here before by the name of david foster wallace, who was not a christian but who was deeply in touch with the human condition, described our struggle this way:

“We’re all lonely for something we don’t we’re lonely for. How else to explain the curious feeling that goes around feeling like missing somebody we’ve never even met?”

 

this is a contemporary, north american, well educated white man explaining our modern experience, but it fits with how israel explained their struggles, too. this is what it feels like to live at a distance from our Creator, they’d say. that’s our condition. that’s the creation and fall story, and it accounts for pretty much everything that’s happened since.

not to spoil it for those of you who haven’t read it, but pretty much the rest of the old testament books tell the story of God trying to repair this relationship with humanity. God does that by pursuing a particular people, called israel, and entering into a relationship with them, a relationship that had stipulations attached to it.

God’s relationship with israel was called a covenantal relationship because God had certain expectations of what it looks like for israel to be in right relationship with their Creator. God committing Godself to israel placed certain obligations on israel.

and the truth is, this is how committed relationships work, or else they break down.

most of you know that i’m in a committed relationship with jen, my wife of 10 years, and you would not be surprised if i tell you that this relationship places certain obligations on me. my being in a married relationship with my wife means i don’t get to be intimate with anyone i want. because she has committed to being physically intimate with me, and only me, and she rightly expects the same from me in return.

the same is true when it comes to God’s commitment to israel. when God said, I’m going to love you uniquely, God asked israel to do the same in return.

no longer will you look to other nations’ kings for security, or other nations’ gods to fulfill that loneliness, that void that you feel, God told israel. only I can do that.

so when God and israel have a d.t.r. moment, God gave israel certain rules for their relationship. and here’s the interesting thing about those rules: God told israel that if they lived into those relationship commitments well, things would go well for them. their entire life would be restored, they would flourish.

they called this restoration shalom. you’ve probably heard the word shalom, often translated as “peace.” but it’s more than that. the word shalom paints a portrait of complete restoration. its peace in the fullest, most holistic sense.

and, interestingly, israel is told that God would use their relationship not just to restore this particular people, but to reconcile all of creation to Godself again.

but if you’ve read any of the old testament, you will likely know that basically most of the stories are of israel failing to live into this relationship well. they’re constantly distracted by other desires, other relationships. constantly turning away from the God who reached out to them in love, and turning instead to foreign political rulers in their fears and insecurities, or turning to other foreign gods.

and time and time again, what we read is the story of God: getting angry at israel’s infidelity, and then getting jealous. which is just as it should be, by the way. anger and jealousy is the normal response for infidelity, in any committed relationship.

if i was unfaithful to my wife, if i turned to someone other than her for my most intimate needs and fulfillment, she would rightly be angry and jealous. if she wasn’t, that would reveal that something was wrong with our relationship. you would have reason to question not only my love for herbut whether she really loved me, too.

the same is true for God’s relationship with israel. God genuinely loved this people, genuinely wants to be reconciled to all of God’s creation, which explains the anger and jealousy we find throughout the old testament.

but then something interesting happens…

after God’s anger and jealousy subsides, God returns to israel, and recommits to their relationship. what we find in the old testament is a God who pursues His unfaithful lover with reckless abandon, over and over again.

it’s as though God cannot help Himself.

which brings us to the passage read for us from hosea. after israel has once again turned away from God for other lovers, the prophet hosea gives us a picture of God turning back to his unfaithful lover.

after washing and cleansing israel from her relationship with these other lovers, hosea gives his people a picture of God and israel returning to the honeymoon stage of their relationship, and his bride singing to God as she used to.

and then I’ll marry you for good—forever,” God tells israel. “I’ll marry you true and proper, in love and tenderness. yes, I’ll marry you and neither leave you nor let you go.”

God’s love, as we see it in the old testament, is that of a God who pursues His unfaithful bride over and over and over again, with reckless abandon.

this is also an image that appears throughout the new testament—think of the parable of the shepherd with 100 sheep who loses one and leaves the 99 behind to go after that one.

and this God who pursues His creation in love is a story that shows up in so many people’s lives.

last week i shared a song from a favorite singer of mine, andrew belle. i mentioned the fact that he became a christian after he already had success in his music and the affect that had on his work, especially lyrically.

he said this in a recent interview:

“i can’t really pinpoint when i became a christian, but all i know is that in 2010 i had one of those existential crises. life blowing up times… stuff was going badly. i just realized that i was living on a trajectory of life… and i didn’t want to be going in that direction anymore.”

 

“really for the first time, i actually felt like I realized, ‘wow, i’m really a despicable person at the core of me. there’s something wrong, and I can’t do it on my own.”

the track i played for you last week comes from his album, “black bear.” the title refers to belle’s experience of being pursued by God.

“flannery o’conner describe Jesus as this ragged figure, lurking in between the trees and motioning and calling. in my head, I pictured a ragged bear—a black bear—just kind of disheveled and not attractive.”

 

“[black bear] is the whole idea of being pursued or hunted, tracked down, ultimately by God, and the person of Jesus Christ is the black bear.”

many others have described their own conversions similarly, as being pursued by God, including c. s. lewis. as a 30-something oxford university lecturer and ardent atheist, lewis refers to himself as “the most reluctant convert in all of england,” wanting to be left alone, who was pursued by God, and who finally gave in.

so many others describe their own experience with God in this same way. God’s love is not one we must find; it is a love that pursues and finds us.

which brings us to the new testament and our second point.

God’s freeing love

when God’s love finds us, it doesn’t leave us as we are. God’s love affects us.

over and over again in Scripture, God’s relationship with humanity is that of a freeing love. in the new testament, God shows up in the flesh and bone Person of Jesus, constantly freeing people…

…from the guilt and shame and the voices that tell them they cannot go out in public.

…from skin diseases that put them at a distance from others.

…from being a slave to the law, rather than understanding the law as a gift and means to peace, restoration, and life in a full sense.

…from self destructive behavior, and from so many other chains.

and the scene that was read for us from john’s gospel is an instance of God’s freeing love, but not how we initially expect.

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woman caught in adultery, by sebastiano conca (1741).

to get a good picture of what’s going on here, listen closely to this story. picture it. we’re told that this woman was “caught in the act of adultery,” caught “red handed,” we might say. which means she’s not likely well dressed or covered up.

and then she’s brought to where Jesus is teaching in the temple by religious leaders. she is completely shamed, with no opportunity to hide herself or take shelter from these men.

and she’s brought to Jesus, we’re told, in order to tempt Jesus.

“moses, in the law, gives orders to stone such persons,” they say to Jesus. “What do you say?”

their question isn’t actually about this woman; this is about Jesus.

what’s he going to do? they wonder. how will he respond?

this woman is used as an instrument for Jesus’ capture. surely Jesus sees that. but this woman, most likely, doesn’t realize it.

she only sees her shame, guilt, and her fear for her life. because she knows that these men, if they choose, have precedent to pick up stones and heave them at her until her life is taken from her.

with her heart racing, her mind racing, her fear through the roof, she, too, is wondering: what’s he going to say? what’s he going to do?

and then, in a turn of events that no one sees coming, Jesus bends down and uses His finger to write in the dirt. and we’re told not what He writes, but that when He straightens up, He asks whoever is present and who is without sin to go ahead and throw the first stone. and then he bends down again and keeps writing.

and all of the men there, with their stones in hand, begin to turn and walk away, starting with the oldest.

“woman, where are they?” Jesus asks when he stands. “is there no one here left to condemn you?”

“no one,” she says. and you can just imagine her relief.

this woman had pictured herself as the target of so many heavy stones heaved until she could no longer stand. but now, now she’s free.

and notice: Jesus doesn’t tell her to enjoy her freedom by doing whatever makes her happy so long as it doesn’t intrude on someone else’s happiness—which is largely what we’re told today, right?

instead, Jesus says: “neither do I [condemn you]. go on your way. but from now on, don’t sin.”

which is to say, don’t keep living into those ways of life that threatened to take your life.

Jesus looks at this woman and says, in so many words:

“I know you. I know all about you…

 

I know you don’t like what you do, don’t like the fear and hiding that come from it—even though you keep doing it, even at risk of your own life.

 

don’t keep doing that.

 

know that I love you more than you dislike what you do. you are more than the worst thing you’ve done.”

and what i hope you see is that this woman is israel in all of the old testament stories of an unfaithful lover. we are this woman. i am this woman.

in search of love and fulfillment, but looking in all the wrong places. turning away from my true love to lesser loves. condemned by so many voices telling me i don’t deserve to be loved.

and Jesus’ says, accept the gift of true life and love I’ve come to give you.

Jesus’ love doesn’t let us remain as we are. He frees us to live life in the fullest sense. He changes us, from the inside out, and then sends us out to share that life with others.

but here’s the brilliance of what Jesus does here. He doesn’t just set this woman free from her accusers. do you see that? He also frees her accusers. from their self righteousness. and from the torment of stoning this woman to death, an act that would have likely stuck with them for the rest of their lives.

Jesus frees not just the accused, but the accusers, too. God’s love means freedom for all.

Costly love

God’s love is not just a love that pursues and frees humanity, it is also costly love. and it’s costly because it’s always costly to be in relationship with others.

the russian novelist fyodor dostoyevsky put it this way:

“to love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise.”

similarly, the author susan sonntag writes:

“it hurts to love. it’s like giving yourself to be flayed and knowing that at any moment the other person may just walk off with your skin.”

it hurts to love, to be in intimate relationship with others, because doing so requires vulnerability. and once you’re vulnerable, it’s only a matter of time until you’re hurt.

it’s true for humans in relationship, and once God entered into human relationships, it was true for God, too.

God’s love is costly because it required God’s vulnerability with us.

the german theologian dietrich bonhoeffer said that once God became human, either humanity had to die to itself, or God had to die. and of course we didn’t want to die, so God had to.

there’s a film from the early 1990s called the fisher king that’s set in modern day manhattan. in it, robin williams plays a mysterious, homeless, holy fool figure by the name of perry. it is unclear whether perry is brilliant or crazy.

in one scene, perry is walking with a woman named lydia after their dinner date. walking side-by-side down a quiet sidewalk, lydia insists that he doesn’t have to bother with all the compliments.

“it’s old fashioned,” she tells him. “given what we’re about to do.”

innocently, perry asks what they’re about to do.

lydia explains that they’ll both likely go up to her apartment for coffee, when perry interrupts her to mention that he doesn’t drink coffee. lost in her own thoughts, lydia doesn’t seem to hear him. she goes on to say that, once in her apartment, they’ll talk and get comfortable, have a drink, and then he will most likely sleep over.

and when they wake up the next morning, she insists that he will be distant. he won’t be able to stay for breakfast, except maybe coffee (he points out again that he doesn’t drink coffee, but she doesn’t hear it). then they’ll exchange numbers and he’ll leave and never call.

with a sigh, lydia explains that she will go to work and that, for the first hour or so, she will feel great. but then, she tells him, ever so slowly she will turn into a piece of dirt.

and when she has finished saying all of this, she pauses. reflecting on this scene that she’s just painted, lydia is silent. when she finally speaks up, lydia thanks perry for the great night and she runs off down the sidewalk.

perry is left standing by himself on the sidewalk wondering what has just happened. a second later, he chases after her.

and when he finally reaches her, lydia picks up right where she left off: going on about needing to end things before they go any further, until he finally has to interrupt her.

“please, would you just shut up for a minute?!”

“no, please stop… i’m not coming up to your apartment. that was never my intention… i don’t want just one night. i’m in love with you.”

lydia stares at perry like he’s lost it. unfazed, he continues.

“and not just from tonight. i’ve known you for a long time. i know you come out from work at noon every day and you fight your way out that door and then you get pushed back in and three seconds later you come back out again.

 

i walk with you to lunch and i know if it’s a good day, if you stop and get that romance novel at that bookstore. i know what you order, and i know that on wednesdays you go to that dim sum parlor and i know that you get a jawbreaker before you go back in to work.

 

and i know you hate your job and you don’t have many friends and i know sometimes you feel a little uncoordinated and you don’t feel as wonderful as everybody else and feeling as alone and as separate as you feel you are…

 

i love you… …i love you… and i think you’re the greatest thing since spice racks and i would be knocked out several times if i could just have that first kiss.

 

and i won’t, i won’t be distant. i’ll come back in the morning and i’ll call ya if you let me… but i still don’t drink coffee.”

“you’re real,” lydia asks, “aren’t you?”

Jesus’ love is like this holy fool’s love, who knows this woman in all of her odd idiosyncrasies, in all of her self doubt and shame, and who says he would be knocked out several times just to show her his love.

i mentioned before that those who brought the woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus weren’t really there to condemn the woman; they were there to condemn Jesus.

the stones they brought were really for Jesus, and the thing about those who throw stones is that it’s only a matter of time before they return. in the end, they came with more powerful stones: the force of Rome and the threat of crucifixion, if Jesus didn’t back down.

and of course He didn’t back down. nor did He overpower them.

He continued to pursue us in love and the Father in obedience, and it cost Jesus His life.

“I would be knocked out several times to show you my love…”

but, surprisingly, from the darkest of days following Jesus’ death, christians came to find that His death wasn’t the end of the story, but the beginning.

to their amazement, the earliest disciples found that the Father honored Jesus’ love and obedience by bringing Him back to life—and the promise they received from Jesus was that they and we, too, might find life in His life.

Jesus’ love is a costly love, but it means life from death. and not just after we die, but life from the kind of life that’s more properly described as death.

so that brings us back to where we started: how can we speak of God’s love in the midst of so much senseless suffering?

God’s love means that we in no way minimize or try to explain away the suffering in our world, the suffering in our life.

God doesn’t ignore our suffering, nor does God seem primarily concerned with explaining it. instead, God enters into our suffering, shares it, and redeems it—all of it, somehow.

to quote dostoyevsky again:

“i believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for…in the world’s finale, [that] at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.”

for christians, we believe the suffering in this world is not the result of evil in an abstract sense, out there, but that it is inside of us, right here.

and in love, God pursues us and frees us from that evil and from certain death—death we feel, and from which we think there is no way out. and God does so at great cost to Himself.

and then, when we are freed from death to life, God calls us to go out and live in this new way of life so that others, too, might catch this life, like a good infection.

focus-christmas-caroling-dec-2016

“be kind to on another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you,” paul writes to the early church in the city of ephesus, read for us earlier.

“be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

rather than destroy the darkness inside us—the darkness that threatens to destroy us from the inside out, like cancer—Jesus touches and heals this darkness. and then He calls us to go out and be a light in the dark that remains, so that one day there will be no more dark, only the full light of His life, radiating throughout all of God’s creation.