Worth more than the worst thing

"Each one of us is worth more than the worst thing we have done in our lives."
-Sister Helen Prejean
Sister Helen Prejean was the keynote speaker at the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis, MN. Her address covered her work as spiritual advisor to death row inmates, themes of grace and forgiveness, a call to mercy-laden justice, and, as in the quote above, a running refrain about the idea that not one of us wants to be judged or remembered permanently for the worst thing we have ever done in our lives.

I'm moved by that assessment. It's true, isn't it? Not one of us wants to be defined by our very worst moments in life, and yet it is so easy to let ourselves be defined - or worse, to define others! - by the times we have acted poorly, whether out of passion or fear, forgetfulness or anger, rage or mental illness.

I listened to her keynote on the radio back in March, and it has resurfaced in my brain and heart in these past few weeks as I've followed the the ongoing saga of megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll.

Let's be clear at the outset. I disagree with him on a visceral theological level. He holds a strong chauvinistic view of women, peddles a version of Christianity obsessed with strength, violence, and judgement, has put forth marriage and parenting advice that absolutely offends me, and views himself as the mouthpiece of a tough-love Christianity that, while garnering huge support, seems to neglect everything in the gospel message concerned with compassion, mercy, or tenderness.

Earlier this year, he pulled himself from social media and put out a seemingly heartfelt letter of apology to his congregation after allegations of plagiarism. He recently came under fire for offensive remarks posted under pseudonym to online forums a number of years ago. He has been removed from the board of directors of the church planting organization that he founded, and most recently, has stepped down (at least temporarily) from leadership of his Mars Hill church in Seattle, amid allegations of abuse and misuse of power.

The theological circles that I run in have long been suspect of his ministry, to put it lightly. And this ongoing series of developments, to many, feels like some form of vindication. I understand the feeling. Those of us who have been called to preach the gospel often live in the shadows of people like Driscoll, who rise to fame on theology that seems antithetical to the gospel that we know and understand.

But at the same time, for those of us who really do try to preach the wideness of the gospel, the wideness of grace, the wideness and openness of God's love and forgiveness, I think that we sometimes let our anger get in the way of letting that openness extend to people like Driscoll.

Which is where Sister Helen comes in.

It's not just tax collectors and sinners whom Jesus has called us to embrace. It's the Mark Driscolls of the world. It is those who have different theologies, different politics, different worldviews. Just because I disagree with someone doesn't mean that I am justified in writing them off because of the worst things they've done in their lives. It is hard to resist the temptation to think in terms of "just desserts." Admitting that Driscoll is a broken, hurting man right now does not mean that I condone his actions or that I accept his theology. It simply means that he, too, is worth more in God's eyes than the worst thing he has ever done.

This is what grace is all about.

"Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us," we pray in the Lord's Prayer.

And it is about the hardest thing that Christ calls us to do.

Because we want to compare our "worst thing" with everybody else's "worst thing," and we want to draw the line somewhere. We want to say "if your 'worst thing' is worse than my worst thing, then I don't have to extend grace to you."

But that isn't how it works. If I believe that God can forgive my worst-of-the-worst, then I also believe that God can forgive everyone else's worst-of-the-worst. And that the proper Christ-like response to people whose lives have been shattered by the worst thing they've done is to show love and mercy and healing. Which isn't condoning. And isn't weak-minded. It's being Christ-like.

It's darn hard. It takes divine strength. It takes faith that God's best is even better than our best selves.

So my challenge today, for myself and for you, is to exercise a bit of holy imagination when it comes to offering grace to those whom we encounter in our daily lives, remembering that in God's eyes, we are all worth more than the very worst thing than we've ever done, and that our calling as people of faith is to offer divine grace where the human knee-jerk response might otherwise be to offer ridicule.

May we each remember daily the grace that has been shown to us, and strive to show forth that grace in our lives.

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