by Andrea DeWard
Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool
Isaiah 1:18 ( NRSV)
The corner of my Christian school classroom cradled a small portable bulletin board, painstakingly crafted by my beloved second grade teacher. Our first names lined up in perfect formation above corresponding rows of tiny shiny hooks, and a scalloped border ran stapled around its perimeter. It was where our bubbly teacher kept track of bad behavior. Those who bent or broke the elementary rules were given a big red dot, hole-punched and hung with warning under their designated spots.
In an attempt to be discreet, the board was partially tucked behind the expanse of the teacher’s wooden desk. In an attempt to deter, it was visible enough that the laminated circles served as dangling stop signs to those misbehaving (or tempted to try). Three strikes in a day would elicit some terrible unknown consequence. Such threats stalked my imagination with dreaded fright during my timid people-pleasing girlhood.
Each day I paid close attention to this bad behavior board, worried that shame might point its red laser beam at me. To distract myself from this already-ingrained fear, I watched and tallied the accumulation of dots. I started comparing, measuring, judging the actions of others, nearly glad at their scoldings, because it assured me I was good, I was better, I was safe from scorn.
One day after the room had emptied for afternoon recess, I quietly remained and took out a miniature spiral notebook and freshly sharpened No. 2 pencil. Mostly out of sight, I kneeled down where the rows of names and gold hooks leaned against the wall. It was an off-limits space, and the shadow of the desk was intimidating in its authority, even without the teacher’s physical presence. Taking advantage of the unhindered access, my emboldened superiority assumed the role of being in charge. In carefully practiced letters I started to write the names of “troublemaker” classmates and, like a detective doing field research, recorded how many dots each had been given that particular day.
I was part way through creating my “naughty list” when my sweet beautiful teacher returned to the room and discovered my hunched form trespassing. Though I hastily closed the pages and hid my fumbling fingers, the little notebook did not escape unnoticed. The teacher’s cheery singsong voice became stern and I was devastated to be the recipient of her scolding. I adored my teacher, wanted to impress her, wanted to be like her. But she was not pleased with my attempts to play room monitor, not impressed with my teacher-assistant charades.
Then the really awful thing happened: she hung a big red dot on my hook, putting a scarlet stain under my name, right at the beginning of the alphabetized list. The glaring globe would tell the world that I had done something wrong. I was humiliated, ashamed, and mad—but not because I felt sorry for my actions; rather, because I had gotten in trouble and that big red dot would label me the same as the other “bad” kids for the rest of the agonizing day.
Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?
A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified
will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye,
but do not notice the log in your own eye?
Luke 6:39-41 (NRSV)
I cringe now, recalling the vivid memory of my seven-year-old self, not yet knowing the transforming gift of grace. Sunday school songs taught me to “trust and obey” and I was told to “be like Jesus,” but I also picked up the underlying message that I needed to impress Jesus, prove myself to Jesus. Religion was often presented as all or nothing categories with supposedly simple distinctions—the light and the darkness, the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world, heaven and hell, good and evil, us and them. Of course I wanted to be on the right side, the good side, the saved side. I strived to be good enough because I felt compelled to please and hoped for reward, but I also desperately wanted to avoid the alternative because I was afraid of punishment and shame. I was so in need of the gospel of grace.
It’s surprisingly common to see this worldview transfer from elementary school to institutional church. Adherents insist on using a spiritual version of the bad behavior board for “crowd control” with enormous time and energy spent creating and enforcing their tribe’s list of rules and expectations, always on the lookout for
Why do we do this? Why do we continue to think and reason like the children we once were? Every day we decide who’s naughty or nice on our mental spreadsheet. We open up our Notebook/MacBook/Chromebook to see all the pictures/videos/articles of today’s big red dots. Then we share the name of the troublemaker du jour and their entire history of big red dots on Facebook, as if we ourselves hold God’s book of life.
What is it that draws us to zoom in on the sins of another? Perhaps we hope to compare pictures side by side and find the surface of our life to have fewer blemishes. Can you Photoshop sin? I admit, when I watch an occasional episode of Hoarders I do feel momentarily better about my own chaos and clutter. But when I turn off the screen, nothing has changed in my home. I might even binge on Netflix just to avoid my mess a few more hours. But digging in someone else’s dirt just makes one dirtier; eventually I’ll trip over my toppling stacks of books and hope for a soft landing on the piles of outgrown clothes. If, like me, your planks are blocking your view of the present and the future, it’s time to recycle the dusty pages of childhood narratives and let go of anything too small for God’s grace.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us
from Psalm 103
as found in the RCA’s worship liturgy, Response to God – Thanksgiving after Communion)
Andrea DeWard is a pastor married to a pastor parenting tweens. With ADD. Now say that really fast 4 times. Exceptionally present in the moment, running late for the next, shining in a crisis, overshadowed by the daily grind. Naturally, the mantra “We have to work at this daily” hangs prominently in our family’s home. I’m an introverted Enneagram 4 who loves being up front speaking to new audiences (one of these things is not like the other?) I write consistently on my iPhone and sporadically on my blog at andreadeward.com with the simple guiding principle GoShowLove. Grace abounds.