Finding Old Words to Heal Fresh Wounds

Our long national nightmare is almost over. Well, maybe. We can hope.

Election 2016 has been rough on us all. It has been hard and painful to watch the worst within us on full display, the decay we like to keep below the surface exploding out for all to see.

If there’s anything this year has taught is that we don’t agree on much, maybe the only the thing being that we haven’t enjoyed the view.

This year has been hard on a lot of people. It’s definitely been hard on the church, and no election in my lifetime has made me more seriously consider the wisdom of a holy separation – not so much for the nation’s benefit as for the church’s.

There are plenty of reasons, of course, and much of the damage we’ve received this year comes from being forced to deal with questions about the essentials on terms and in a context that are both unfamiliar and unhealthy.

We’ve been asked to define evangelical – one of our most important words – in the 24-hour news cycle and, even worse, on Twitter. We’ve watched so-called Christian leaders on both sides speak for us in ways and take positions that we would never defend. We know we are being judged for it even if there’s not a whole lot we can do about it.

Church and politics: it’s an age-old question that has always seemed to confound the faithful. What to render to Caesar and what to give to God, what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem, where and how do the two kingdoms meet, and just what is the right dance for fidelity and policy?

But now, with Election Day finally drawing near, we’re beginning to ask what feels like an even more important question. How do we come together when we’ve spent so much time ripping each other apart?

The bitterness and the destruction seemingly all around us has turned us into overwhelmed voyeurs instead of the engaged citizens a democratic republic requires.

And so, we’re searching for the right phrases to help us find unity after a year that has felt like we’ve never been more divided. We’re looking for words to bring healing for communities and a culture that has advertised its brokenness.  We need both a vocabulary and a path to chart a better way.

We are tempted to search for new words and flashy turns of phrases. But the words we need aren’t new at all.

The words that will help us, the words that will lead us, the words with the power to show us that better way, or return to it, we’ve been saying them in some form or another for as long as there has been a church, as long as there have been people willing to show up for a holy meal.

And so our work begins on Sunday as we celebrate the mystery of God’s incredible grace that comes in ordinary ways and especially in bread and wine (or Welch’s).

Before we can celebrate, we’ll begin with confession.  We’ll confess that we don’t have it all right, no matter what we’ve said on social media. We’ll admit that we haven’t lived up to our commitment to fully open the church to people of all ages, nations and races the way we promised we would in our baptisms.

We’re going to ask forgiveness for the ways we have not always represented God well in the world and how we haven’t always resisted the spiritual forces of wickedness around us.  After all, we’ll remember our belief that our battle isn’t so much against flesh and blood but evil powers and dark principalities.

We’re going to seek grace for the ways, regardless of how we vote, that we have allowed other people and parties to set our agenda instead of listening to God’s priorities and lived into a more holy agenda.

When we don’t what to do, repentance is always a good first step – turning from our own ways towards the ways of God. And so that’s where we’ll start.

As we tell this story, the story of God’s love and faithfulness that has become our story, most fully realized in an Upper Room and on a Cross, we’ll commit ourselves to that turning.

We’ll say things like we who are many – in zip code, in racial identity, in tax bracket, in ideology – are one body.

We’ll rededicate ourselves of being the body of Christ – hands and feet for a broken and weary world.

We’ll promise to be what the Church is supposed to be – agents of grace for a world desperate for it.

We’ll march out of one holy space into another with the charge to be people of hope in a culture overwhelmed by despair.

Those are big words and audacious promises. We know, both by our theology and our history, that we can’t keep them by ourselves. And so we’ll ask God for help, that some how and some way, in these ordinary grocery-store bought gifts we’ll experience the presence and power we need to find and share a better way.

Old words get a bad rap. We convince ourselves that if the words we need are to be found we’ll have to make them up or find them somewhere we’ve never looked before.

The good news, evangel, that word that we can’t get away from this year, is the words we need are the ones that were given to us a long time ago.

Those old words still have the power to heal fresh wounds. And that oft-told story still points us back to the right path.


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An Uneasy Hope: Finding Forgiveness and Receiving Change

For the last several months I have been largely successful in avoiding the craziness of the Presidential Campaign.

But a couple of weeks ago I finally gave in and started paying attention. Just in time, it turns out, to discover an article on Donald Trump’s uneasiness with asking God for forgiveness.

“I like to be good,” Trump said. “I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad.”

(Important note: You can find the full article here. I hope this will be the first and last reference to Trump or any of the other candidates on this page.)

I don’t know many people who enjoy asking for forgiveness and admitting that they messed up, committed sin, or made a mistake.  But what I kept thinking as I finished the article was that I just don’t have that much faith in myself.  There are few moments in the day when I am not painfully aware of my need for forgiveness and the necessity of asking God to restore me back into right relationship.

I’ve never been able to experience God’s grace apart from forgiveness. The Gospel’s very premise is that our lives are so broken, our wills are so distorted and our relationship with God so fundamentally damaged by sin and disobedience that it is impossible to be faithful to God apart from the forgiving love and grace of Jesus.

We’re reminded of that even more strongly as Wednesday looms, with the imposition of the ashes that mark the beginning of Lent. As we make the slow march to receive the mark of the Cross, we are made painfully aware of our deep brokenness  and desperate need of forgiveness.

The pattern that leads to life we read about in Scripture and can experience in our lives is that we become convicted our sin, ask and receive God’s forgiveness, and pray for the power to turn away from the sin and towards the life God wants for us.

The truth is that we need to seek and receive forgiveness because our lives are heartbreakingly limited without it.

We need forgiveness because without it our identity is defined by our ability to achieve perfection in every part of our lives.

We need forgiveness because without it our self-worth is capped by the limits of our ability to make or achieve success on our own –  to get promoted at work, to attract a sufficient number of friends or to feel good about what we see staring back at us in the mirror.

We need forgiveness because without it our only chance at maintaining healthy relationships is to never hurt another person through our sin, the inevitable missteps that happen in any relationships or failing at the dance of growing in step as people inevitably change over time.

We are destined to be disappointed with the lives we live if the only power we have is within us, if the only resources we have to draw upon are our strength, our own capacity to deal with adversity, and our own wisdom and skill.
The true power in forgiveness is that by seeking it we can receive a power is that is outside of ourselves and greater than ourselves.

Bright Light CrossWe have all experienced, again and again, what it is like to realize that you don’t have it all together, that there are problems that you can’t solve,  that there are some parts of your life that you can’t heal, that there are some mistakes you can’t undo and that there are some relationships that you are powerless to redeem.

Yet when we understand the Gospel, and come to live in the life-giving and life-healing pattern of confession, repentance and forgiveness, we understand that God has the power to change things that leave us stuck and that God can redeem and restore situations where all seemed lost.

Real change, the kind we all hope for, requires forgiveness. Repentance and turning towards God can only happen after we have first asked for and received forgiveness.

It’s no coincidence, I imagine, that when Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the Church door, the first one was centered on repentance.

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

No one enjoys confessing our sins and seeking forgiveness. Yet the path to true change demands it.

And so on Wednesday, I’ll make my way to the front, and when the preacher says Repent and Believe the Gospel, I’ll do it  gladly.


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