Skipping over our sin

“I’m a sinner, but I’m forgiven.”

If you have been around church or been a pastor, you’ve heard these words. You may have even said them.

One of the things I find myself struggling to communicate to people is the importance of not skipping over the first part of the sentence too quickly.

We like to get to the forgiven part quickly. We don’t like to dwell on the sinner part. That, of course, makes perfect sense. Dwelling on our sinfulness is rather unpleasant.

But here is the thing I often encounter in my ministry.

Many Christians struggle because they have not really experienced the good news of the gospel. Oh, they have heard it. They have sung about it. They’ve sat through countless sermons about it, but there is something that has not yet grabbed hold of them.

They are like the pre-Aldersgate John Wesley, who spent his life in admirable Christian service, but had himself not come to know the joy of the gospel. For him, the key moment was when he came to a deep realization that his sin had been forgiven.

In the Bible, Jesus puts the contrast this way. Those who have been forgiven much rejoice much. Those who have been forgiven little, rejoice little.

And our problem so often is that we want to convince ourselves and others that we have little to be forgiven for. We do not really dwell on the ways that we reject God. We do not think on our sins. We do not experience the cold hard truth that we are in dire need of forgiveness. Instead, we rush ahead and grab the warm comfortable mantle of forgiveness and so fail to really know what it means to come out of the cold and into the warmth of the Father’s love.

We skip past our sinfulness like someone running on hot coals. We move so quickly, that we barely need the healing that awaits on the other side.

And so, this is work I continue to seek the wisdom to do better. For I do know this to be true. The tepid relief of “I’m a sinner but forgiven” often provides little comfort when a person is lying in a hospital bed with their heart failing or cancer assailing their body. At the hour of their death, they need the full assurance that only comes from the full gospel.

Lord, help me to learn better how to help the people in my care die a good death.

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The divorced pastor

I’m a pastor, and I’m divorced.

As I’ve learned in the last year of separation and finally divorce, there are a lot of pastors who know what this feels like or are struggling to avoid joining the ranks of the divorced clergy. What there is not as much of is open talk about it. No one likes to talk about their marriage and family falling apart. Pastors, I’ve been learning, have to deal not only with the shame and pain that are common to everyone in such situations, but also a special kind of fear — fear that they will lose their vocation, fear that they will be seen as frauds, fear that they will lose the ability to preach or teach without being accused of hypocrisy. And so there is silence.

I’ve not learned all there is to learn about these things, and I’m not anywhere near perfect, but I wanted to share some of my perspective on this and perhaps a few words for my brothers and sisters in the clergy who have walked or are walking this road.

First, I want to say that I believe that God’s intention for marriage is that it last until death. In other words, I don’t think God intends us to divorce or desires that we divorce. This is the point of those words in Genesis 2 that are part of most Christian wedding services: the two become one flesh. But Genesis 3 happened and happens. We are fallen, sinful, and damaged creatures. When we get married, we do not plan on divorcing. God does wish for marriages to end in divorce. But we hurt and betray each other. Marriages fail, bonds break, and people divorce. We separate what God has brought together. Sometimes for the safety and health of one or both of the people in the marriage, divorce is necessary, but it is never a cause for celebration. It is a failure.

With that in mind, here are a few words for my brothers and sisters.

Jesus still loves you. I find as a pastor that I am no less prone to bad thinking than others. I fall easily into thinking that Jesus only loves me when I am living up to the right standard and carrying out my vocation with excellence. I confuse praise from people with the approval of God. And so, in the midst of a public and personal failure, it is easy to feel like we are beyond the pale. Jesus Christ came for the sick not the healthy. He loves you even when it your feel like you’ve betrayed him and failed. He loves you especially at those times.

It is okay to struggle to hold on. You made a vow to remain married until parted by death. You did not know when you made that vow what it would require. None of us do. It is okay that you want to hang on and hope for a way forward. You may have people around you encouraging you give up and get out. It is okay to look for those who help you and challenge you to hope and struggle for reconciliation.

It is sometimes necessary to let go. There may come a moment when you have to come face-to-face with a hard truth. Your marriage has failed beyond repair. It is dead. Legal fiction makes it appear to still live, the same way machines can keep a dead body alive in a hospital. The only thing keeping it breathing is the plug that no one has the courage to pull. Yes, with God all things are possible, but sometimes resurrection only comes after death. We want to hold on so hard to hope — and fear so much what will happen if we let go — that we become trapped in a never-ending limbo or deepening cycle of destruction. Unless a thing dies, new life cannot come. Grieve it. Mourn it. Let go what you cannot save.

Fear is normal. Divorce shatters us. It breaks apart our families. It makes us question our own judgment and choices. It strips away a central part of our very identity. It exposes our flaws and sins. And if we are clergy, it raises the possibility that we might lose our calling. When the pain and dysfunction and sin that has remained hidden in our family and in ourselves becomes known by others, there is always the chance someone will look at us and decide we do not meet the standards for pastoral ministry. The prospect that might end up with no spouse, no family, no calling, no job, and no place to live scares us. What you are feeling is normal.

You need someone to talk to. Find a therapist. Go. Keep going.

You need God. Spend time in prayer, with Scripture, and alone with God. There may be some yelling involved. There will be some crying. You’ll have to confess some things. You will discover how much you are willing to trust God’s promises.

This should change you. If you repair your marriage, it will be because you both have changed. If you divorce, you will be different. In either case, don’t go through this without learning and growing. God can use all things to bring about good. The good for you may be discovering some hard truths about yourself and growing from that knowledge.

There is grace even here. The most curious thing about my last year has been the number of people who have shared with me their stories of divorce. These are people who never would have talked to me about this topic before I was one going through this. I won’t lie. Those moments do not help much in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep and your heart feels like it has fed through a trash compactor. But God is with you, working to bring healing and life out of our sin and death. Be open and on the watch for signs of God’s grace.

I don’t pretend this is everything there is to say about divorce. I have much more to learn, and I pray God will give me the time I need to learn it all. But I hope some of these words are helpful to some. We have become travelling companions on a road none of us originally intended to walk. Perhaps we can help each along the way.

Stealing the bishop’s silver

From the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren, one of the doctrinal standards for the United Methodist Church:

We believe man is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil. Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.

I’m not sure why this has come home so strongly in the last week. Maybe it has to do with some things in my personal life. Maybe it has to do with this book I’ve been reading about spirituality of the unchurched.

The thought that has lodged in my brain is how poorly suited Christianity is for America. At the very heart of Christianity is the belief that we — all of us — have gone wrong. We are slaves to sin and death. And we will never be free but for the grace of God.

This does not sound like an American story to me.

In our version of the story, Jean Valjean not only steals the bishop’s silver, but he goes on to success and glory based on his own determination and will to win. He writes a series of best-selling books on seizing the moment and cheers for the New England Patriots.

What we fail to understand is that our lives are not ours. They are a gift from God. Not a single one of us has any right to be alive or expect to draw another breath. That we live at all is because God is good and generous to us. Only if we understand that, can we see our own arrogance when we speak about what we deserve and what we have earned. We’ve grabbed the silver off the bishop’s table and convinced ourselves that it was ours all along. We gobble down the apples of Eden and throw the cores at Yahweh’s feet.

But despite our arrogance and greed, there is grace. God loves us. God forgives us. God gives us life. Praise be to God.

I’m not sure how to write these things or preach these things in ways that will be heard, really heard. I know that what I’ve written here is so much gobbledy-gook to those who have no ears to hear it. I’m not sure how to make it otherwise, but the question has been with me this week.