It can be hard, in a house with three small children, to have any kind of adult conversation. That’s why when my husband I do manage to talk, these conversations often take place in pieces. A few minutes here, a few minutes there, a handful of texts exchanged during the day.
Often we’ll start a conversation on the way home from church that spans into the week, and this week we’ve been talking about judgment. It started because of something Andrew said in our adult Sunday School class. I might be paraphrasing here, but he said “Jesus started with love. Until I can love someone like Jesus does, I can’t judge them.”
Because judgment is one of those topics in faith. We say “well, we can’t judge” as we’re judging someone. We can judge someone for being too judgmental. We can spin it into a slippery slope argument (well, if you can’t judge, how are you supposed to know right from wrong?). It’s very easy for conversations about judgment to get tangled up and go nowhere.
This is the famous “judge not” verse in the gospel of Matthew (7:1-2, Contemporary English Version):
Don’t condemn others, and God won’t condemn you. God will be as hard on you as you are on others! He will treat you exactly as you treat them.
It’s the second part that always chills me. The NIV version talks about being judged by the same measure, which always makes me picture a scale where all the judgments I’ve made are piled up on one side, dragging the ground.
So here’s a straightforward, unambiguous commandment. Don’t judge. Great. Conversation over.
Except that it’s not, because everyone will invariably respond with, “But what about pedophiles? What about murderers? What about people who throw their trash out of car windows? It’s okay for us to judge them, right?”
I think part of this is a language issue. “Judgment” in our context, is not always a bad thing. I try to exercise good judgment with my money. I weigh a lot of factors before making a large purchase, and I try to make sound decisions that will benefit our household. We call that judgment.
But that’s not what Jesus is referring to in Matthew, which is why I like the CEV better than the NIV. Jesus is talking about condemnation. He’s talking about the human reflex that allows us to rationalize our own flaws while looking down the weaknesses of others.
So can we condemn pedophiles? Murders? Litterbugs?
Andrew and I continued talking about this through the week and this is the answer that he came up with. He said we absolutely can condemn the actions. We can and should condemn the sexual exploitation of children. We can condemn murder. We can condemn littering.
But we can’t condemn the person.
And this is where it really gets tricky, because what does that look like in practice?
Jesus condemned the actions of the money lenders and the people who were economically exploiting others, but when he saw Zacchaeus, a dishonest tax collector, he called out to him and invited him into his presence.
And yes, Zacchaeus repented, but Jesus reached out in love first. It wasn’t conditional. Jesus didn’t say “repent and then I’ll eat with you.”
Of course, Jesus, being Jesus, knew Zacchaeus’ heart. We might reach out in love and never see it followed by repentance. The only repentance schedule we really have any control over is our own.
I came across this passage in Romans this week (13:8-10, CEV again):
Let love be your only debt! If you love others, you have done all the Law demands. In the Law there are many commands, such as, “Be faithful in marriage. Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not want what belongs to others.”
But all of these are summed up in the command that says, “Love others as much as you love yourself.” No one who loves others will harm them. So love is all that the Law demands.
It’s a shame that “love,” much like “judgment,” is also a word that we can’t seem to agree on the meaning or the application of. I’ve heard many people argue that judgment IS love, and they would want someone to point out their sin if they were the one sinning.
That is, of course, a steaming load of horse manure.
Because there is no “if.” We all have plenty of sin in our lives. And most of us go to the church on Sunday safe in the knowledge that no one will call us out on it.
And that’s what we want, isn’t it? That’s how we want to be treated. We want to be given the benefit of the doubt. We want time and space to work through our issues. We want to be accepted as a flawed, complicated human being.
We want to be loved.
It’s so much easier to accept that grace than it is to give it.
Frank Peretti is generally defined as an author of christian fiction, but in terms of a broader genre, most of what he writes is supernatural horror.
The prologue of the The Visitation is all supernatural horror. An unidentified person suffers through an agonizing crucifixion, and his cries to God go unanswered.
He cried out, but in the cauldron of his sun-boiled mind he heard only the voices of his accusers and the ringing, ringing, ringing of the hammer – sounds that would forever haunt his memory and echo through his nightmares.
“You’re a child of the devil,” they said. A child of the devil who needed to be contained.
A child of the devil?
He cried out once again, and this time, a voice, a mind, answered and a power coursed through him. Suddenly, he could bear the pain and make it fuel for his will. With burning will, he determined he would live.
And living, he knew what he would do.
The first chapter brings us back to reality, back to a soothing rural scene somewhere in Washington state and a young woman with real life troubles.
While on a walk, she sees someone. A young man who knows her name and offers a cryptic message: “Your answer is on his way. Be looking for him.”
In the next scene, an elderly parishioner of the local Catholic church is cleaning the sanctuary and sees the tears running down the face of a wooden crucifix. When he touches the damp wood, his arthritis is miraculously healed.
In the final set-up scene, we’re introduced to the congregation of the Antioch Pentecostal Mission. Some of the women gathered in the parking lot see Jesus in the clouds, holding a dove (but not everyone sees it. At least one person sees a rooster).
Then the book jumps to first person narrative, and I had forgotten that Peretti switches back and forth between first and third person in this book. The first person character is Travis Jordan, the former pastor of the Antioch Pentecostal Mission church. The new pastor, Kyle Sherman, is filling him in on the vision in the clouds.
And here’s another thing I had forgotten about this book. It’s a lot of inside baseball. Two pastors discuss various personalities within the congregation with the kind of brutal honesty that’s seldom seen in christian fiction.
“Dee is a follower with followers. Meg Fordyce has a little prayer and praise meeting at her house once a week, and Dee gets over there pretty often. Just put it together from there.”
I could see a lightbulb coming on, but Kyle apparently wasn’t comfortable with my drift. “I’m not sure I follow you.”
“Kyle, it’s simple. Meg told Dee about Sally seeing an angel. That means someone else is getting a special visitation from God that Dee isn’t getting. You don’t get something from God without Dee getting it too. She won’t allow it.”
Their meeting ends when Travis’ sister Rene arrives. This is where the reader learns that Rene has been cooking and doing laundry for Travis since the death of his wife ten months ago. She’s no longer happy with that arrangement. It’s time for Travis to pull himself together.
After Rene leaves, Travis glances out his window and sees a man, with long hair and a beard, dressed in a white robe. He runs outside, but the man is gone.
In Chapter 2, we get a little more insight into Travis’ life since his wife’s passing. He goes to a local tavern (a place he never would have gone while he was a pastor, because they serve alcohol) and talks with the locals while he eats.
They’re all talking about the strange occurrences that have been happening all over town, but Travis keeps his to himself. Peretti goes to great lengths here to show the division between Travis’ life within the Pentecostal Mission bubble and outside of it. Here, he’s eating with people who are not “church people.” They wouldn’t feel welcome in a Pentecostal Mission church. But Travis feels welcome among them, because he no longer sees himself as “church people” either.
There’s also a flashback to his first meeting with Kyle Sherman.
Imagine a tired old dog, lying in the road, suddenly finding itself wrapped around the axle of a speeding truck. That’s how I felt my first five minutes with Kyle Sherman.
Kyle is young, idealistic and on-fire-for-the-Lord. He reaches out to Travis with the best of intentions, ready to “take this city for Christ!”
Travis doesn’t respond well to this.
“Now you listen to me.” I said it slowly, and I know I sounded downright vicious. “Have you even asked this town if it wants to be taken for Christ?”
He goes on to pour out his frustrations. The fruitless attempts to evangelize and revive. The day-to-day grind of just trying to keep his church running and whole. Kyle is nonplussed by this. He chalks Travis’ tirade up to bitterness and continues on his way.
Coming up in Chapter 3: Things get real at the local minister’s meeting and stereotypes of mainline clergy are vigorously applied.
One of the things I really enjoy on other blogs is when the author re-reads a book they remember from their childhood or adolescence and writes about the things that stand out to them now. For example, Samantha Fields has taken a critical look at Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye, former homeschooler Libby Anne has been working her way through Michael Farris’ Anonymous Tip, and Fred Clark wrote a scathing and hilarious commentary on the popular Left Behind series.
I’ve decided to give it a shot, and so for my retrospective review I decided to dust off (literally, we need to clean off the bookshelf more often) Frank Peretti’s The Visitation. I was an avid reader of Peretti when I was growing up. His tension-filled supernatural horror stories were by far the most exciting thing you could find on the shelves of the local Christian bookstore.
My copy of The Visitation actually belongs to my dad. He got it as a “thank you” gift from the Bible club at the high school where he taught (I know this because it’s written on the inside of the cover). The book was released in 1999, which was the year before I went to college. I must have packed it up and taken it with me, and my poor father never got it back.
It’s one of those books that I kept, all of these years, through multiple moves and bookshelf purges because it was very meaningful to me at the time that I read it. As I was considering doing this, I was trying to remember what exactly it was about the book that spoke to me at that place in my life and the only thing I could directly remember was a quote from one of the minor characters of the book.
I’m probably paraphrasing here, but she says, “I never gave up on God. I just needed a break from all the church stuff.”
And that’s where I was in 1999. At the ripe old age of 17, I was totally and completely burned out on church. I didn’t talk about it much, because I assumed that endless optimism was the ideal, and that cynicism reflected some moral failing on my part.
I didn’t go to church much while I was in college. I tried a few things, a few places, a few campus groups, but they all had the same feel to me. They all had the same resounding message that I just needed to go back and do it better. Love Jesus more. Read my Bible more. Pray more. Aquire the fire. Be a crusader for Christ.
None of it spoke to me. But The Visitation did.
Coming soon, Chapter 1-2: supernatural horror, real people, and tired old dogs.