Do you know anyone who feels beyond hope?
What leads people to feel that way?
What I have done can’t be forgiven.
What I’ve done can’t be undone.
I’ve messed up so many times I’ll never get it right.
My family is so messed up that I don’t have a chance to rise above it all.
Does any of that sound familiar? Perhaps you have heard people say these things. Perhaps you have said them yourself.
The New Testament is filled with stories like this. Think of all the deaf, mute, blind and lame people we meet – all of whom were ostracized by their community who assumed that their suffering was punishment for their sins.
On one occasion the disciples even ask Jesus, “Master, why was this man born blind – his parents’ sins or his own?” And Jesus rightly responds, “No, that’s not how it works. This has happened so that God might be glorified.”
Or think of the parable of the prodigal son, who knows that he doesn’t deserve to be called son, but hopes that he might at least be a servant in his father’s house. Or Matthew or Zacchaeus the tax collectors, who figured they were beyond God’s grace, yet received it in abundance before they had even repented.
Or what about Paul, who by his own account was first among sinners as the persecutor of the church?
All of these received God’s grace and turned their lives around. None of them were beyond hope.
When we left Gladewater to move here to the metroplex, I had determined that my call to pastoral ministry was beyond hope. Things had gone so badly in my last two ministries that I figured that I had misunderstood the calling to begin with. So I started knocking on other doors – chaplaincy, teaching, returning to architecture – some other way to serve God’s children other than in the local congregation.
In the process of all that, I entered into a process of repentance. Not because of some hidden sin. I hadn’t strayed morally in any significant way. But I had failed to be the pastor I had been called to be. And the church had failed to be who we were called to be. I couldn’t repent for them, but I could repent for myself, my own failures, and the troubles that had resulted. Some of you may be familiar with a common prayer of confession used in many Christian traditions. There are many variations, but here is a sample:
Prayer of Confession (Episcopal church, rite two) – Daily Office Morning Prayer
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.
Now this doesn’t mean that we have broken some rule, or crossed some moral line in the sand. In its essence, this common prayer of confession says, “I know that I have not been all that you created and called me to be. I know that by grace I am saved through faith, and yet I do not fully live as I could in the power and love of the Holy Spirit. I am squandering your gift. I am sorry.”
I prayed that prayer on Tuesday, January 8th. On Wednesday the 9th I wrote the following: How to Fail as a Pastor
And I didn’t really think much more about it. Nothing dramatic happened. No great weight was lifted. No great gift bestowed. The next Sunday I stood in the pulpit in that little church in Gladewater to preach. I read the morning’s scripture, and began to exegete the text. I was about five minutes in when I had a singularly remarkable experience – one I have never had before or since. I have language for it only because my charismatic prayer partners, fellow pastors who were Assemblies of God and Nazarene, had described this experience to me numerous times before. Imagine, if you will, that it were possible for someone to cleanly and painlessly open the top of your skull and pour warm honey all down your insides. It would flow through your face and down the back of your neck. It would spread across your shoulders, back and chest. As it made its way through your heart, lungs and other organs, it also moved down your arms, biceps and triceps, elbows, forearms, wrists and hands. Then through your midsection and into your glutes, thighs and quads. Your knees which were sore begin to loosen, along with your calves and ankles and finally your feet – heel, arch, instep, ball, and toes – all five, on each foot. You are warmed and soothed as though you had never been warm before, and would never be cold again. You sense that light and love have filled you from the inside out. You know in that moment what John describes in Revelation –
See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. (Rev 21:3-4)
Yet I was crying, or more truly sobbing, and smiling, yet I could not speak. I realized that a prayer was going forth from my heart that was deeper than words. By God’s grace, one our elders recognized immediately what was happening to me, having experienced it himself. We made eye contact, and I simply nodded. He came forward and finished the sermon – what he said I have no idea. I simply sat behind him and wept for the remainder of the service.
I did not in that moment become Pentecostal in the modern sense of the word – I do not speak in tongues or experience any of the other charismatic gifts. And yet, from all I can comprehend, I did receive a particular blessing, a visit from the Holy Spirit in a new and special way. And I believe that this gift of grace was an affirmation of God’s love, a way for God to tell me, and the community, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.” I also believe that I could not have experienced this had I not previously gone through that process of repentance.
Repentance is not just about whether we are bad. It’s about whether we are as good as we could be. Is my live as devoted to Christ today as I can understand it to be? Have I spent my time and energy and resources in ways that please God? Have I always been gracious, merciful, forgiving and loving toward those around me? If not, then there is room for repentance.
One more story, this one much more recent. Recently I’ve been reflecting more critically on my preaching – wanting to be more effective in communicating my message. This, combined with my reflections on repentance, prompted me to realize that some folks have been trying to help me in this area for several years, and I have been resistant to hearing what they are trying to say. In Family Systems Theory, one of the maxims is that we want to locate the places of greatest anxiety in our relationship system and, rather than run from them, move toward them. I realized that one conversation in particular needed to happen, so I called my friend K and said, “I would like to get together and talk. I have realized that I have not been hearing you as you have been trying to talk to me about preaching and teaching in the church. I would like another chance to hear what you want to say.” And so we talked over coffee. We did not resolve everything, but I think the tension is greatly reduced, thus opening up the way for further dialogue and mutual understanding. [Writer’s side note – You might also see www.crucialconversations.org for help in having these kinds of conversations. And, working with a coach can help you think through the relationship and how you want to proceed.]
I suspect that many people think their lives are all that they can be – and they think that isn’t much. Many people in the church think, “Well, I know I’m not a saint. I don’t do as much as those people over there. My relationships are not great. My life is pretty flat, and I don’t really have true peace or joy. But what can I do? It is too late for me to make any big changes. It is too late for God to do much with me. And why would God bother trying anyway?
In Revelation 2-3 Jesus speaks to the churches. Listen to what he says to one: 14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation: 15 “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19 I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. 20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. 21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
Perhaps we have to repent of being lukewarm. Not bad, but not passionately good either. Just so so. It’s the sin of “good enough.” As in, “Well, I’m not a saint, but I’m good enough.” There is no such thing as good enough. We are to yearn for God, to hunger and thirst for God’s kingdom and righteousness. We prayed for it, but do we long for it? “As a deer longs for a cool stream in the August heat, that’s how I long for you, O God.” That’s what Psalm 42 says. Do we long for God in that way? Do we long to love God and ourselves and others as God love us? Do we long for them to know that God loves us in this way? If not, then we need to repent. Not because we are bad, but because neither are we good.
I think we live this way because we become complacent, we give up trying, because we decide that our lives, our faith, our church, cannot be exceptional. Cannot be great. Cannot be amazing.
But God says, “No one is beyond hope!”
(Sermon notes for Sunday, 3/4/2012)