Somewhere Between Holiness and Hell…

We are in the season of Lent. Lent is that 40 day period (okay 46–but Sundays don’t count) between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday that began historically as a time of spiritual preparation as early converts were prepared for membership in the body of Christ. It was also a time when those who had separated themselves from the body of Christ were reconciled through confession and repentance.

I’m struggling with what it means to “observe a holy Lent,” which we Methodists are invited to do on Ash Wednesday.

I can’t say that I like Lent. I don’t like Lent because I am convicted by how un-holy I can be.  I am convicted because Lent calls me to reflect on the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, and as I consider his response to temptation, I realize my own failure in places that I’d rather not reveal here.

Confession

This time of reflection necessarily leads me to this whole idea of confessing my sins in the face of all those failures. Oh, I’ve got lots to confess, too.  I am reminded of a story I heard of four pastors who often met for a friendly gathering. During the conversation one preacher said, “Our people come to us and pour out their hearts, confess their sins and needs. Let’s do the same. Confession is good for the soul.”

In due time all agreed. One confessed he liked to go to movies and would sneak off when away from his church. The second confessed to enjoying cigars and the third confessed to enjoying card playing. When it came to the fourth one, he wouldn’t confess. The others pressed him saying, “Come on now, we confessed ours. What’s your confession?” Finally he answered, “It’s gossiping and I can hardly wait to get out of here.”  I really don’t like Lent because it causes me to reflect and confess, and that’s just awfully painful.

And then, there’s just the whole idea of self-denial.  I actually have to give something up?  Come on, now!  You can’t be serious?  I enjoy my coffee, or my diet coke, or my red meat, or my…well, you have to fill in the blank, because I have too many of my own blanks to fill in (whoops! There’s another confession!), but you get the idea.  I just don’t see the need for self-denial, after all.  God has blessed me greatly, and doesn’t God want me to enjoy these blessings?  But because I’m a company man, and I want to at least appear holy, I acquiesce and I practice the Lenten observance by reflecting and praying and confessing and giving up.

A Land Between Holiness and Hell

What I come to discover through the observance of Lent is that I live life in a land somewhere between holiness and hell. I long desperately for holiness, but hell is so much easier.  I discover that one who is truly holy cannot help but enjoy the blessings of God—blessings like love, joy, peace and contentment.  I discover God’s grace poured out in a thousand ways in the most unnoticeable places, and I learn to say, “Praise the Lord!”

The observance of Lent reveals to me that what I counted as blessings (material possessions, health, good success) are more fruits of my own labors than they are God’s blessings, and the reality that any and all of those “blessings” are transient in nature—here today and gone tomorrow.  It causes me to wonder if there were no material possessions, no good health, no great success, would it affect my trust of Him?

I realize just how hollow I can be, and somehow, by some mysterious means in this realization, I am drawn closer to Christ (isn’t grace amazing?), and I don’t seem quite as hollow as before, somehow perhaps even a little more holy.  Forget that I was drug kicking and screaming to the observance. The Spirit has done His work—somewhat akin to the terrible tasting medicine we received when we were children.  We hated it, but it worked.

So, I invite you to observe a holy Lent.  Pray more deeply, reflect more seriously, confess more faithfully, and deny the comforts that shape us. Do so kicking and screaming, if you must, but be prepared to see the Spirit work and draw you closer to Christ. That is what Lent is about, you know.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Deferred Maintenance…

The countryside is dotted with churches in disrepair. I’ve seen them. As a District Superintendent for the United Methodist Church, I saw several churches that were abandoned and left to deteriorate. I also visited lots of churches that weren’t kept very well. What brings this to my mind is the fact that we’re dealing with many issues of maintenance that need attention where I serve as pastor. But, I’ve visited others where the building was falling down around the congregation and no one noticed. The congregation is so accustomed to the peeling paint and dirty carpet that they no longer notice it. They haven’t taken the time to fix the faucet in the bathroom, and the Sunday school literature, well it’s only twelve years old, but it’s still useable, so…

We just don’t take care of our buildings the way we should. What’s that got to do with Lent? Shouldn’t we be talking about repentance and prayer and other spiritual disciplines? Yes, we should, and that’s exactly what I’m talking about. The description of those run-down buildings gives us a good idea of the state of the Temple in Jerusalem when the prophet Joel was young man. Centuries of misuse and disuse had caused Solomon’s once magnificent structure to look more like a building in the slums than in the upscale section of Jerusalem. As Joel grew, there was a turnaround. Later, this dilapidated building was cleaned up and refurbished. After the remodeling, the offerings and sacrifices were restored and Temple life returned to normal. Well, almost.

The prophet Joel wrote the words of his prophecy because there was still a problem. The turnaround in the nation wasn’t complete. Everything looked good on the outside, but there really hadn’t been much of an internal change with these people. God wasn’t looking for an outer change as much as he was looking for an inner one.

It’s the same for us as we seek to observe a holy Lent. God is looking for repentance from us. He doesn’t just want us to say all the right words, and he doesn’t want to simply give us a list of duties to work on, or as we walk this 40 day journey. Outward actions are nice, but if there is no inward change, it’s really all for naught. Jesus says as much in Matthew’s Gospel.

That neglected building, that church that no one is taking much care of, is me. If I take an honest look at my life, here’s what I see?  I can’t say there’s been more good than bad. I can’t say that during this past year, I have been more interested in the things of God vs. the things of this world. In just this past week, I can’t honestly say that the Lord has always taken first place in my heart, but he has slipped through the cracks as other priorities crowded him out? Work, spending time with friends, the television and the computer, even simply “me” time have all taken priority. I am good at scheduling things that bring me happiness…and making sure that I keep those appointments.

But, have I been so busy taking care of the other matters of life that I neglected the church inside of me? Is that building strong, well-kept, and beautiful? Or, is there deferred maintenance that needs attending too? Sometimes, we lock the doors of our hearts, and just expect that our faith will remain intact, and so we can take a little vacation from working hard on our Christian lives, and when we come back, everything will be fine. If we don’t keep up the maintenance, the spiritual building will begin to fall down around us–metaphorically speaking…

Lent is a perfect time to begin that deferred maintenance in our heart. Joel’s prophecy has one word that serves as the beginning of the work–“Return!” If we’ve been away from the Lord for a while, or if we haven’t followed him as vigorously as we know we should, God is holding out an invitation to us: “Return! I want you back!”

God tells us how he wants us to return to him. The Lord says, “Rend your heart and not your garments.” In Biblical times, if a person were really upset over something, they would tear their clothes as a sign of sadness. But many people played a little game with God. When they were confronted with their sin by God’s priests and prophets, they would tear their clothes, they would put ashes on their heads. They’d do everything that made them look sad, and then they would go back to those same sins. The problem was they were trying to cure cancer with a band-aid.

The outward signs of Lent—putting ashes on our forehead, confessing our sins, singing sad songs—are all nice things to do, but they mean absolutely nothing if we are playing the crying game with God, telling him how sorry we are, but returning home to the same life we have been leading when Lent is over.

Joel helps us get into the proper mindset when he prophesies, “return to me with all your heart.” Returning is repenting, but repenting is not simply being sorry for what we’ve done. Repenting is turning from what we’ve done. Repentance includes not doing it again, and repentance starts in the heart. Missionary Gypsy Smith shares the story of the time he spent in South Africa. On one occasion, a handsome Dutchman came into his revival service, and God laid His hand on the Dutchman and convicted him of his sin. The next morning he went to the home of another Dutchman and said to the homeowner, “Do you recognize this old watch?”

“Why, yes,” answered the homeowner. “Those are my initials; that is my watch. I lost it eight years ago. How did you get it, and how long have you had it?”

“I stole it,” was the Dutchman’s reply.

“What made you bring it back now?”

“I was converted last night,” was the answer, “and I have brought it back first thing this morning. If you had been up, I would have brought it last night.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever read through the 95 Theses that Martin Luther nailed to the church door in Wittenberg, but the first of those theses reads, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance is a process that is repeated over and over throughout our life.

During Lent, as we stress our desperate need for repentance, there is a silver lining. There is time for us to come back to God. The prophet says “even now,” with our rebellious past, the Lord still wants us. We talk about doing deferred maintenance, having genuine from-the-heart repentance, and God does something awesome when we come to him on his terms. The sinner repents, and the Lord relents.

Here’s Joel 2: 13: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” We are hopelessly guilty, and we know it. We look around and see the peeling paint of our hearts. We smell the old, dirty carpet. We see the burned-out light bulbs. It’s all around us. That’s exactly why we need Lent. We come to repent because we know He is a God who relents.

Lent is a  journey toward the cross of Jesus. The cross is where we learn how God can afford to relent. Our deferred maintenance begins on Ash Wednesday, but it finds its full restoration at the foot of the cross.

It’s popular thing to give up something for Lent. Considering ourselves to be more spiritual than someone who isn’t giving up something for Lent is not an appropriate start to the journey, nor is supposing that giving up something puts us in better standing with God. The proper way of beginning is to remember that Jesus gave up everything for us, so out of gratitude we give up something we love for him. It’s an offering of sorts. But, avoiding chocolate or not watching our favorite TV show for 40 days isn’t going to make us more spiritual unless we fill the time with the Word of God and prayer.

God doesn’t command that we give up something for Lent, but if we choose to do so, here is a way that will be a spiritual benefit to us—think of something you really enjoy doing: maybe it’s eating a particular food or drinking a certain beverage. Maybe it’s an activity like shopping or exercising. Maybe it’s staring at the television or computer screen for hours on end. If you chose to give something up for Jesus, then be sure to replace it with prayer, and Bible study. Maybe instead of spending 2 hours watching a basketball game, you go into your room, and read through the Bible, slowly digesting every word, considering how God is talking to you, praying that the Lord speaks to you and makes you a better disciple. Joel ends verse 14 with these words, “I am sending you grain, new wine and oil, enough to satisfy you fully.”

We repent, God relents. And when we go into his Word, God opens his storehouse of spiritual treasures to us and gives us gift after gift. The Lord wants to replace the trivial things in our life with real gifts. Gifts like peace in our hearts that can deal with any problem. Gifts like a greater willingness and ability to serve Jesus in our life.

So, let’s start those maintenance projects. Our lives resemble a building that needs some upkeep, and Lent is the time to get to work. Jesus won the ultimate struggle for us. He has fixed us up, and He is fixing us up to make us a glistening, beautiful building in which we will dwell forever. God has made us into a building like that, and now with the Spirit’s help, strive to keep that building up! Let’s not be satisfied with mere cosmetic improvements, but let us plead with the Lord to use His Word to change our hearts to make us a more repentant, more useful servant in God’s kingdom.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Once the Dust Settles…

Now that the dust has settled on #gc2019, I thought I’d make one last post as a means of processing my reflections on the whole debacle in St. Louis. Honestly, the dust hasn’t settled on #gc2019. If you follow any social media at all, or anything remotely connected to the United Methodist Church, you are well aware that emotions are still high–I’m wondering if the dust will ever settle. Additionally, the Judicial Council will review the “Traditional Plan” in April and I suspect many of these same emotions will show up again…assuming, of course, that the dust has settled.

Here are my ruminations on #gc2019:

I can’t imagine the people who gathered in 1968 could ever envision a General Conference like the one in St. Louis. Surely they could never forsee a denomination birthed in the unifying of two parts of the body of Christ which produced a “big tent theology” could devolve into what the world witnessed in St. Louis. It was not a show of unity in the body of Christ. If anything, the gathering showed just how broken is this denomination called United Methodist.

Notice that I did not say “congregations.” I intentionally wrote “denomination.” Our denomination is broken. I’m grateful to David F. Watson for admitting that here. In spite of the denomination’s brokenness, there are many, many local congregations that are healthy and even growing. For that I am also grateful. It just proves the point that all church is local church. The local congregation is where disciples are made. The local congregation must be the focus of energy for the people called United Methodist now that the dust has settled.

The Traditionalist Plan prevailed at #gc2019. Notice I did not say it won. Nobody won. The Traditionalist Plan received the most votes by roughly a 6% margin. It didn’t matter which plan prevailed in voting there would be an emotional response by the other side. It wasn’t a matter of “if” someone was going to be upset, it was only a question of “who” was going to be upset. We should have seen that fact before we ever got to St. Louis. Our first clue should have been when the Commission on “a” Way Forward finished its work with “three” ways forward. If a group of 32 couldn’t agree on a single proposal, it was fairly certain a group of 864 wouldn’t find one either.

The results of #gc2019 sets up the denomination for more of the same once the dust settles. Some of our leaders have said as much–you can view that here. Some of our bishops will continue to enforce the Discipline. Others will not. Some of our clergy will continue to uphold the Discipline. Others will not. Some of our congregations will continue to welcome and celebrate same-sex marriages. Others will not. And, everyone will feel justified in the actions they take. Perhaps this fact indicates the obsolete nature of our polity in the United Methodist Church. Perhaps it is an indication that restructuring our polity needs to be the topic of conversation when the General Conference next meets in May of 2020 in Minneapolis, MN. It won’t be, but perhaps it should.

I believe that #gc2019 lost the one chance it had to provide a legitimate way forward. The Connectional Conference Plan was perhaps that vehicle. It would have provided space for all of us to stand firm in our convictions while maintaining some sense of missional unity. It is abundantly clear that we United Methodists are not functioning practically as one denomination. Very few (including myself) gave it much consideration. On legislative day, only 12.44% of the delegates voting gave it “high priority” status. The potential of passing all the constitutional amendments necessary to enact the plan was just too daunting for many to give it serious consideration. We may wish we would have reconsidered once the dust settles.

After witnessing #gc2019, I wonder who in their right mind would offer themselves to serve as a delegate in 2020? I know some Annual Conferences sent newly elected delegations to St. Louis, but most will return to their Annual Conference gatherings this spring and summer to elect new delegates for GC 2020.  Will there be any who offer themselves? Sure there will be. Will I be one of them? Probably.

Perhaps desiring to return to GC 2020 is like watching a train wreck. You want to look away, but you just can’t. My prayer is that those delegation elections don’t become a reflection of what happened at #gc2019. Hopefully, the relationships we’ve built with one another through years of ministry together will prevail once the dust settles, and we’ll elect strong, faithful leaders who will listen to one another, pray with one another and trust one another enough to move the United Methodist ship forward.

These ruminations notwithstanding, it’s time for me to refocus my energy on the local congregation I serve. There is enough mission and ministry right here to occupy my time. This is where we’ll make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I’m going to engage my passion for seeing the world connect to Jesus Christ. I’m going to engage my passion for growing with one another in Jesus Christ, and I’m going to engage my passion for being a local congregation positioned to serve the world for Jesus Christ. Once the dust settles, isn’t that what life in the church is all about?

I’m moving on now from #gc2019. I’ll not write anymore blogs about it (which only means there won’t be as many people reading it). I’ve committed to one more conversation in our congregation concerning it, but that won’t happen until after Easter. Otherwise, I’m moving on.

It’s time to observe a holy Lent. It’s time for me to repent of my own sin, not only as it regards the brokenness of our church, but also as it regards the brokenness of my own life. It’s time to ask God to forgive me, and it’s probably time to ask a few others to forgive me, too. It’s time to focus on the sacrifice of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and it’s time to focus on how I can be more like him and less like myself.

So, I’m moving on now. General Conference has spoken (for better or worse). Who’ll join me?

Until next time, keep looking up…

For All the “Saints”…

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a New Orleans Saints fan. Seriously, my earliest memories of football…any football…are of the New Orleans Saints on Sunday afternoon, usually at my Grandmother’s house. I love me some Saints football.

That’s one reason I’m heartbroken this week. The Saints played in the NFC Conference Championship game on Sunday afternoon and were robbed (yes, robbed) of the chance to play in the Super Bowl on February 3rd. There was a horrible no-call pass interference penalty late in the fourth quarter that most likely would have ended the game with a New Orleans walk-off field goal. Anyone but the most avid Los Angeles Rams fan would agree the non-call was egregious (check here and here), but that fact doesn’t change the result of the game: LA Rams 26, NO Saints 23!

Here’s my confession: I take the New Orleans Saints too seriously. After all, it’s just a game, and in the grand scheme of eternity, no one will care 100 years from now about a non-call in a football game in 2019. I should probably repent of the overzealous, in-the-moment Facebook posts that are usually scathing rebukes of Sean Payton‘s (the Saints head coach) play-calling, Drew Brees’ (the Saints quarterback) decision-making, or the officials questionable officiating. So, there is my mea culpa. I don’t suspect there will be one coming from the NFL Corporate Office in New York City, though.

Now that I’ve had a little time to reflect on the events of this past Sunday, there are a few lessons I’ve learned that I feel like I should share. First, it’s just a game. When did 22 men running around on a field tossing a ball earning millions of dollars for doing so become so important to me? When did it become so important to our culture?

I know it says something about my priorities when I bend over backwards to insure that I’m home sitting in front of the television whenever the Saints are playing. I can’t imagine why I let professional football have such control over my life, my temperament and my emotions. Some of those guys do a lot of good with the money they earn for playing a game (and I appreciate those who do), but they don’t know me (and never will), and yet I choose to surrender control of my life to their escapades for three hours every week. That’s a reflection on me, not on them. It’s just a game, with no eternal significance.

Second, I learned that there are some things in life we just can’t control. Drew Brees said it best in his post-game conversation: “I prefer to look at the things that are in my control.” There is a little “control freak” in all of us (I like to think I’m not the only one) that tries to control every situation and person in life. Life doesn’t always turn out the way we hope or imagine. Instead of spending time worrying about the things we can’t control, it’s best to utilize our time controlling those things we can control. What could I do to make this situation better or different? What decisions could I have made differently? What did I do wrong that led to this outcome? What opportunities did I miss because I was otherwise distracted? It’s wasted energy to spend time contemplating the “what-if’s” of life.

Third, I am reminded that life is simply not fair. Yes, the Saints were robbed. No, it’s not fair. Now, get over it. Life is not fair. Deal with it. The Apostle Paul had first hand experience with the injustice of life. While in the city of Philippi on his second missionary journey, Paul and his traveling companion, Silas, were beaten and arrested for casting an evil spirit out of a young slave girl. There was nothing just about their treatment at the hands of the Philippians. What did Paul and Silas choose to do? They dealt with it. They went to prison. They sang praises at midnight. They refused to let their circumstances dictate their attitude.

Certainly don’t read that to mean that we shouldn’t fight injustice as long as we’re able. Even in our fighting, though, we’ll discover that life will not always deal fairly with us. Life being unfair with us does not mean that we do not seek justice on behalf of others.

Finally, I learn that everyone makes mistakes. The two officials who could have (should have) made that call failed to do so. Some think it was a conspiracy (part of me wants to believe it), but it was probably just one of those moments when a choice was made and it turned out to be the wrong choice. That’s NEVER happened to me!

Actually, it happens to me more times than I care to admit. Because it happens to me more times than I care to admit, I am reminded of my desperate need for grace and forgiveness. I am grateful for a Savior who loves me and offers himself for my forgiveness in those times I fall short. None of us are above making mistakes, and none of us are out of the reach of God’s grace. I’ll extend that same grace to those officials who made a mistake (a doozy, for sure). I’m certain those officials feared for their safety as they left the Superdome Sunday evening. No one deserves to live in fear because of their mistakes. Not you. Not me. Not them. I’m very grateful for the gift of grace.

I’m sure there are more lessons I could learn if I contemplated the situation some more, but then I’d just get upset by thinking about it. I think it’s time to move on, and so I shall. Hope you do, too. Move on from whatever mistake is dominating your life…move on from whatever circumstance is controlling your attitude, temperament and emotions…just, move on. Don’t be bound by chains of unforgiveness. Live in God’s gracious embrace.

Oh, and I almost forgot, Geaux Saints!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Story Matters Here…

amc-logoThe cable network AMC has a wonderful tag line that says “Story Matters Here.” Shows on the network include Mad MenThe Walking Dead, and one I’ve recently begun to watch, Breaking Bad.

Here’s the premise of Breaking Bad:

Walter White’s story begins with Walter standing in the middle of the New Mexico desert without his pants on. It’s quite dramatic, and the viewer is wondering how in the world he got there. The next scene flashes back to three weeks earlier to tell us how Walter made it to that desert. We learn in the first episode of the first season that Walter is a high school chemistry teacher with a wife, a special needs son, and a baby on the way. He’s lived a rather average life. Living on a teacher’s salary is not always easy, so Walter takes a second job at the local car wash to make ends meet. One day, he begins to struggle with a nagging cough, passes out at his car wash job and ends up at the hospital where a battery of tests are run. The discovery is made that he has terminal cancer. Fearing that he’s made no provision for his family, he turns to making drugs to make fast money. I know, not a great story line for a somewhat Christian blog, but AMC does a masterful job telling Walter’s story. Each episode of the series begins at the end of the story, and then goes back to tell the story.BreakingBad

I can’t think of the tag line “Story Matters Here” without thinking about the Bible. The Bible is God’s story, and there is no greater story in the world, nor is there a story that matters more. The Bible tells some amazing stories, too. The bible tells stories of incredibly normal people who do some pretty incredible things.  Makes me think there’s hope for me yet.

One of the great stories is the story of Joseph.  Let me review it briefly. Joseph story begins in Genesis 37, and is the 11th son of Jacob, the great patriarch of the Hebrew nation, but he’s the first son of Jacob’s treasured wife Rachel, and that makes Joseph very special in his father’s eyes. Not so in the eyes of his 10 older brothers. They see him as the spoiled, tattle tale younger brother. Of course, their father hasn’t helped matters much. He did give Joseph a “coat of many colors” to signify their special relationship with each other. It wasn’t necessarily the coat that sealed the deal for his brothers, but the fact that Joseph had a couple of dreams, and he thought it necessary to share the content of the dreams with his brothers. Long story short—both dreams showed his ten brothers and his father bowing down to him.

The rest of the story goes something like this:

  • Older brothers get mad at Joseph and sell him into slavery.
  • Joseph is taken to Egypt and sold again to Potiphar, a captain in Pharaoh’s palace guard.
  • Joseph excels in Potiphar’s house and becomes chief steward.
  • Potiphar’s wife takes a shine (if you know what I mean?) to Joseph.
  • Joseph resists, and is eventually charged with rape.
  • Joseph is thrown in prison. Languishes in prison for two years.
  • Pharaoh has a dream. Only Joseph is able to interpret the dream. Wins his release from prison.
  • Pharaoh elevates Joseph to Prime Minister in Egypt.
  • Famine hits the region.
  • Joseph’s brothers show up hunting food. They don’t recognize Joseph, but he recognizes them.

So, Joseph decides to have a little fun at their expense.

“You’re a bunch of spies!” he exclaims.

“No, way, my Lord. We’re brothers and honest men (ha! Ha! Ha! Joseph thinks). We just came to buy food.

“No, you’re spies!” he persists.

“No,” his brothers respond. “There are twelve of us. Our youngest brother remains at home with our father, and one brother is no more among us.”

Joseph says, “Prove it to me. One of you go get your younger brother and bring him here. I’ll keep nine of you in prison here (probably the same prison he was imprisoned in—oh, the irony!), while one of you goes back to Canaan to fetch the youngest.”

Joseph has them all put in prison for three days to let them think it over. They lament this is all happening because of what they did to Joseph about 17 years earlier.  A guilty conscience hangs around for a long time. The brothers hadn’t dealt with the guilt of what they had done to Joseph. That’s what guilt does to us. It eats at us until we deal with it in a healthy way. Edgar Allan Poe’s epic short story The Tell-tale Heart reflects the depths to which unresolved guilt can lead us. Poe’s narrator has murdered an old man and hidden his body under the floor boards of his home. The police come, and all the narrator can hear is the beating of the old man’s heart. Louder and louder it grows, ringing only in his ears, until he breaks down and confesses to the police. That’s where Joseph’s brothers find themselves.

The brothers eventually bring not only their younger brother, but their father and all their families to settle in the Egyptian area of Goshen. Joseph reveals himself to them all. They have a grand family reunion, and Jacob and all his progeny flourish under Joseph’s watchful care. Then, Jacob dies.

Returning from the funeral, the brothers fear that Joseph will now take his revenge. Though they’ve been living in Egypt for 17 years, and Joseph has cared for them, the brothers believe the bad blood still exists. Joseph had forgiven them. Seventeen years earlier, the brothers stood before him and he revealed who he was and said, “Don’t worry. God sent me here to save you and many others. Don’t be mad at yourselves for selling me into slavery. It’s all good. It’s a God thing” (Genesis 45 paraphrase). The problem was they couldn’t forgive themselves. Their guilt kept them from receiving the very thing that would reconcile them to Joseph. Guilt kept them from accepting their own forgiveness. Guilt kept them from experiencing grace, and grace is the only thing that can break bad blood.

Forgiveness is a gift that must be both extended and received. Joseph’s story foreshadows the story of Jesus Christ, who came to extend God’s forgiveness to us. Forgiveness is grace, and as such, can never be earned. It is a gift from the heart of God, and it must be a gift from us to others. The situation doesn’t demand it, the world doesn’t expect it, and the guilty don’t deserve it, but we do it anyway. Because that’s what Christ has done for us. But, there is also the matter of receiving the gift of forgiveness. We have to believe we’re really forgiven. Until we come to the point that we accept forgiveness, we’ll run away from that which will give us peace—and that’s our reconciliation to Christ. Rick McCarley tells the story of an attorney, who after studying on several scriptures, decided to cancel the debts of all his clients that owed him money for more than six months. He drafted a letter explaining his decision and its biblical basis and sent 17 debt-canceling letters by certified mail. Sixteen of the seventeen letters were returned, unsigned and undelivered. Why? Because the clients refused to sign for them and open the envelopes. They were afraid the attorney was suing them for their debts. In their fear, they ended up running away from his forgiveness.

May I offer two challenges to consider: First, we need to check our list. What list, you ask? The list we keep with the names of those we have yet to forgive. We all keep one, right? There’s bad blood, and the only thing that will break the bad blood is forgiveness. Joseph didn’t keep a list. He let it go because he saw God working even in the bad parts of life, and that takes grace. What list needs offering to the Lord? Who do we need to go to and offer our forgiveness?

Second, we need to accept forgiveness. Some of us need to accept the fact that God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ, and others need to accept the forgiveness that someone else has attempted to extend, but for whatever reason, whether we can’t forgive ourselves, or we can’t get past the pain, we’ve not accepted the gift that’s been offered. So, the bad blood festers, and it will eventually destroy us. Is it so hard to believe that God loves us unconditionally? For 17 years, Joseph’s brothers couldn’t believe they’d been forgiven. How long have you been holding out accepting your own acceptance?

Joseph’s is a compelling story…and…story matters here. Mine matters…and…your’s matters. May both our stories be a story of forgiveness…both receiving and extending.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Closet Space…

I love old homes. They have character, charm and history, and they have high ceilings. Most old homes have front porches, too. I love front porches. For all the warmth, charm and character old homes have, they often leave a lot to be desired. For one thing, the floors creak when you walk. For another, the wind whistles through the windows, and of course, in the winter the heat gets trapped up in those high ceilings, and that makes the home cold. When we lived in Kentucky, the church there had a fantastic, old parsonage (100 years old). Five bedrooms—the largest parsonage we ever lived in. With four children, it was great! There was one thing about that old parsonage, though, that we never quite got used to—no closets. Well, there were closets. They were just small. The upstairs closets particularly weren’t really closets at all. They were really just the crawl space between the wall and the slanted roof on the house. You had to duck to walk in the “closet.”old place

That’s the thing about old houses. Most were built in a time when life was less crowded with stuff. People didn’t need big closets. Now, one of the primary selling points of a home is its closet space. We want lots of closets so we can store our stuff. There’s stuff we put in those closets that we forget about. Sometimes we put stuff in the closet because we don’t know what else to do with it. So, we just keep needing bigger and bigger closets.

Every one of us has a closet we’d as soon forget, though. Like all our other closets, it too, has gotten bigger and fuller. It’s the closet where we keep all our skeletons. We all have skeletons in our closets. They are not pretty, and we’re afraid someone will find out, and finding out, will judge or condemn us. We all have those skeletons, and they’re there just waiting to destroy us. Actually, it’s the fear of being found out that is destroying us.

The Psalmist David had one of those closets, too. David writes a sad, sad song  with Psalm 51 as a result of a prophet named Nathan showing up to remind him of a few skeletons David was hiding. This song was a reminder to David of a very sad time in his life, but it’s also a song of hope in the grace and forgiveness of God.

Let me offer a little reminder of David’s life to set the context of the song. David was a young shepherd boy tapped from the pastures of his father’s flock to be anointed king over all Israel. David was described in scripture as “a man after God’s own heart.” David had battled and defeated the giant Goliath, and won many other victories over his enemies. There was a time in his life when he was at the pinnacle of his success. He had reunited the divided nation of Israel. He returned the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, and he was making plans for building a glorious Temple for God. Things were going very well for David. So well, in fact, that David no longer felt it necessary to go out to do battle with his army. Samuel tells us in 2nd Samuel 11 it “was the time of year when kings went to war, David sent Joab and the Israelite army to destroy the Ammonites.” It was during that time that David, arising from an afternoon nap, strolled out onto the palace roof outside his bedroom and beheld a beautiful woman. His passion rose within him, and blinded by his own pride, success and position, David believed he could have anything he wanted—including another man’s wife.

Let me make a long story short—David slept with this beautiful woman named Bathsheba. She became pregnant. David tried to cover the affair up, but failed. David even had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah (one of his best soldiers) killed. Adultery (which this day and age, seems to be the only sexual sin frowned upon), lying, conspiracy, murder—yes, David was filling that closet full of skeletons, and here comes Nathan throwing open the door.

Nathan learned what David had done, and at the Lord’s urging, confronted David. I want you think about the courage it took for Nathan to confront David. David was king, for heaven’s sake! Nathan was risking his life. Accountability always involves risk. The right thing to do is always costly.

Nathan confronted David by telling him a story about a rich man and a poor man. The rich man had many sheep and other livestock, but the poor man only had one little sheep that he held in his arms, and became the family pet. The rich man had a visitor from out of town, and rather than taking a sheep from his own flock, went and took the poor man’s sheep. David became enraged and demanded that the person who did this must die after repaying the poor man four times over what he had taken. Nathan looked intently at David and said, “You da’ man!” The title of this sad song tells us Nathan’s confrontation led David to write what has become perhaps the world’s most famous confession. What David discovered was that rather than being destroyed by all those skeletons, he found cleansing and renewal when the closet got cleaned out.

Confession is hardly ever practiced by Protestant Christians anymore, but I believe there is redemptive power in hearing someone say to us, “Your sins are forgiven.” I suspect we don’t practice confession because we believe someone would be shocked to hear us confess to some sin or shortcoming. We probably see it as no one’s business, and perhaps that’s how David saw it, too. Could it also be that we’ve come to see the church as a fellowship of “saints” rather than what it really is—a fellowship of sinners, and we see ourselves as the only one who has not taken what Richard Foster called “the high road to heaven?” As David discovers, confession is redemptive, and redemption is good for the soul.

Guilt, especially unresolved guilt, will destroy us. Listen to David’s plea in verse 3—“my shameful deeds haunt me day and night.” To overcome sin in our lives, we have to move from guilt to grace. Grace heals and transforms us. Confession is the bridge that gets us from guilt to grace. There are basically four types of guilt. First, civil guilt is that guilt that comes because we have driven over the speed limit, or run a red light. It is objective. We’re guilty whether we ever get caught or not. Secondly, theological guilt comes from breaking one of God’s commandments, and it, too is objective. We may or may not feel remorse, but if we have broken one of the commandments, we’re guilty. The Apostle Paul speaks of our theological guilt in Romans 3:23—“for we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard.”

Thirdly, psychological guilt is the guilt we feel, and it is the guilt that can be most damaging to our emotions. It’s the guilt from which we find the most difficulty healing, and it may or may not be linked to either civil or theological guilt. It may not even be linked to anything real. Psychological guilt is perceived guilt. Some people carry it from childhood, never realizing they carry a burden on their shoulders that doesn’t belong to them. Adults who grew up in broken homes often carry this type of guilt. Victims of spousal abuse carry this guilt. People who have lost loved ones go through this type of guilt. Psychological guilt is so destructive precisely because it is often not attached to anything tangible. That makes it almost impossible to deal with, and often times requires professional therapy.

Finally, there is true guilt. True guilt gave rise to David’s song. True guilt can lead to constructive sorrow. Constructive sorrow is healthy because it prompts us that we’ve done something wrong. It moves us to confession so we can begin to resolve the effects the brokenness causes. True guilt is like warning lights on our car. We had an old Plymouth mini-van when we were in seminary, and the “check engine” light used to come on all the time. The owner’s manual said take it to the nearest dealer and have it checked. It may signal a minor problem, or it may indicate a major breakdown. Either way, the light indicates something is wrong. True guilt acts the same way, and constructive sorrow moves us to repentance and confession, and ultimately to grace. Grace is what we’re all searching for. So you see, confession is the bridge that can carry us from guilt to grace, and it is in God’s grace that we find forgiveness. The Apostle John tells us, “But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrong” (1 John 1:9). When we experience God’s forgiveness, we find the joy missing in our lives restored. That was David’s plea in this song. Look again at verse 12—“Restore to me again the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.” That plea was answered when Nathan, upon hearing David’s confession, uttered the words, “Yes, but the Lord has forgiven you.” What awesome words to hear!

My friend, God in Jesus Christ has taken away all our sin. David sang, “Purify me from my sin, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” That’s exactly what Christ has done through the power of his cross. He’s washed our sins away. We don’t have to be slaves to sin, or to guilt anymore. Go over to that closet, throw open that door and start throwing out those skeletons, and you might discover confession is not such a sad song after all.

Until next time, keep looking up…