*Note: You might need two cups of coffee for today’s devotional. It sort of got away from me. Also be sure to look out for a new devotional series starting next week.
If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness [of sin], we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we [really] walk in the Light [that is, live each and every day in conformity with the precepts of God], as He Himself is in the Light, we have [true, unbroken] fellowship with one another [He with us, and we with Him], and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin [by erasing the stain of sin, keeping us cleansed from sin in all its forms and manifestations]. If we say we have no sin [refusing to admit that we are sinners], we delude ourselves and the truth is not in us. [His word does not live in our hearts.] If we [freely] admit that we have sinned and confess our sins, He is faithful and just [true to His own nature and promises], and will forgive our sins and cleanse us continually from all unrighteousness [our wrongdoing, everything not in conformity with His will and purpose]. If we say that we have not sinned [refusing to admit acts of sin], we make Him [out to be] a liar [by contradicting Him] and His word is not in us.
1 John 1:6-10 AMP
Lately I’ve been
binge watching watching Showtime’s Dexter in a calm, non-obsessive way. I’m in the middle of the sixth season, which features an interesting juxtaposition I want to examine: Brother Sam vs the Doomsday Killer (mild spoilers ahead).
If you’re not familiar with the show, Dexter follows the life of Dexter Morgan, a forensic blood splatter analyst at Miami Metro PD. As a young child Dexter witnessed his mother’s vicious murder by chainsaw and subsequently grew up with an urge to kill (he calls this desire his “Dark Passenger”). His foster father, a police detective, recognised this tendency and taught boy Dexter how to funnel this urge by teaching him a kind of “code”. So Dexter more or less consistently only kills provably “bad” people, often sabotaging police investigations so he can get his hands on the perps himself.
In the sixth season we’re introduced to a reformed thief and murderer, a man who calls himself “Brother Sam”. He had escaped Dexter’s “table” before when he was caught and sent to prison. However he was let off on a technicality. When we meet him he runs an autoshop where he helps rehabilitate criminals. Dexter investigates Brother Sam to see if he still “qualifies” for Dexter’s table. Dexter expects that he will, but he’s surprised to find a repentant, grieving man.
Brother Sam is by no means “church perfect”. He’s presented as a very wounded healer. He cusses, he drinks. But he’s nearly always Bible-in-hand, practicing tough love on his crew. He doesn’t judge Dexter, even though Dexter is very clear about the fact that he doesn’t believe in anything. He and Dexter become friends, and it’s under his influence that Dexter utters what I suspect will be his first and last prayer for the run of the show – pleading for his son’s life (Harrison’s appendix burst, necessitating surgery).
Brother Sam is presented as an interesting contrast to the season’s serial killer, the Doomsday Killer, who tries to usher in the end of the world by performing a series of bizarre and macabre rituals based on Revelation imagery. He, too, is a religious man, and believes himself “chosen” to put an end to the obscene, fallen world.
Brother Sam is shot by Nick, a man he’d tried to help. On his death bed he asks Dexter to tell Nick that he, Sam, forgives him. Which Dexter does, only for Nick to snicker about how he was getting off scot-free. At this point Dexter drowns him; it happens at the same spot where Nick was baptised only days earlier, which is gut-punchingly provocative.
So what’s the difference between these religious men – Brother Sam on one hand, and the Doomsday Killer on the other?
1. Repentance. Brother Sam knew and mourned the sin he saw in himself. The DDK saw only sin in others.
2. Empathy. Brother Sam’s own brokenness and subsequent healing by Christ convicted him to help others. The DDK looked down on sinful people and sought only to destroy them.
3. Forgiveness. Brother Sam was able to forgive Nick for taking his life. The DDK forgave no one.
4. Love. Brother Sam’s whole life revolved around learning to accept Christ’s love for himself and showing others that they, too, could be touched by this light. The DDK, on the other hand, wanted to hoard Christ’s love for himself – he made his love dependent on meeting certain criteria. He only wanted to dole out judgment.
Ultimately the biggest difference between Brother Sam and the DDK was grace. Brother Sam lived grace. His character was humble, broken, persistent, troubled, fierce, grounded, loyal, caring, free. By contrast the DDK was selfish, arrogant, self-righteous, cruel and frightened. Now here’s the scary part: by most Christian standards, the DDK with his legalism would be more acceptable in a lot of churches than Brother Sam and his cussing and his dark past. That’s what makes this contrast between Brother Sam and the DDK so wonderfully provocative: the irony. Brother Sam’s “bad” man is the best of men; the DDK’s “righteousness” has the worst consequences.
Dexter is not the most religious of shows. There’s a lot of profanity and a fair amount of blasphemy. But in a few episodes they managed to cut to the quick of an issue I think is weighing down a lot of churches: legalism. For a lot of us, Christianity is as much a belief thing as it is a cultural thing, with the result that the appearance of Christianity is emphasised at the cost of real faith, which often colours outside the lines society has set. Legalism is very neat and tidy; grace is turbulent, fierce, and generally splashes all over the place. There’s no getting away from grace without getting it all over your life. By contrast, legalism stays safely in the box it is assigned to, thus its appeal; it isn’t a threat to our own wills and egos. That’s why grace is so messy, of course (to use a Dexter metaphor: this is why it needs a kill room): it kills off everything that needs to go for us to be Christ-like, hope-filled, alive, free.
In our faith we have a choice: Brother Sam, or Doomsday Killer? Will we choose to walk the path God leads us on, accepting that there are no guarantees but his grace, no matter where and to whom that road may lead? Or will we stubbornly try to cling to something we think is inside our control, but which really controls us?
Come, O life-giving Spirit, transform us.Stir up in us the flame of love which is your gift.Give us wisdom to see as you see.Give us understanding to hear as you hear.Give us courage and strength to walk the way of justice and integrity.Kindle in us wonder and awe, that we may have grateful spirits.You who dwell within us, praying unceasingly, fill us with love and devotion.Holy Wisdom, guide us in the choices we must make.Give us discerning hearts that we may choosewhat is good, in accord with your desire.Loving God of mercy, finish in us the work you have begun. Amen.