Sunday, August 27, 2017

Making Monuments out of our Sins

You might think these boots are what is left of a Robert E. Lee monument, but they are not. They are the boots of Stalin and are a replica of part of a statue of him once erected in a place of honor in Hungary. The boots now stand quietly in Memento Park along with other no-longer-sung heroes of the communist era. The boots honor those who fell in the 1956 uprising, without the need to honor the evils of the communist regime. 

Memento Park, like others across the world hold many statues that no longer honor leaders, but now simply serve as reminders of what  we should  not forget. Perhaps in the US we can learn this lesson. We can move these monuments, or perhaps repurpose them.

The problem with civil war monuments is that they are not simply statutes of sinners, but that they were erected to honor those who fought to maintain the sin of slavery. They are not monuments to bravery, loss, patriotism, or sacrifice. They are, simply and  truthfully, monuments to sin.

Last year my husband and I traveled with good friends to Europe.  We spent time in Berlin and within a two-day period we saw Checkpoint Charlie, remnants of the wall, and memorials to the millions who were killed in concentration camps. These are monuments that remind us of grief, but do not honor sin. They seemed to be a type of repentance. They do not atone for the horrors perpetrated. Instead, they honor the victims and remind us of the pain that sin caused.

One reason for the controversy with our civil war monuments is that we, as a country, have never repented of our sin. We have barely even acknowledged the evil of slavery, much less atone for it. We want to move on. We want to forget. 

But forgetting cannot come before repentance and forgiveness. When we change the order we end up creating monuments to our sins. Trying to forget an unadmitted sin only perpetuates the sin. I would think that surely segregation, lynching, and redlining show us that. To this day we merely treat the consequences of this sin without addressing the real problems. 

I know I find this true in my own life. When I do not admit to a sin the sin does not become less memorable. Instead I dig in my heels and erect a monument to it. I comfort myself that the sin wasn’t really so bad. When that doesn’t work I convince myself that the victim deserved my actions. Sometimes I even rewrite the story so that I am the victim. When sin is not addressed with repentance and forgiveness I might as well erect a monument to it. And then you can bet I will fight to keep that monument as it will become sacred to me. It has become the only way for me to accept the pain and  grief of my sin.

As David reminds us in Psalm 32, when we do not admit to our sins they are heavy upon us, sapping us of our strength. Our sins not only continue to impact our victims, they impact our own life and faith. It is as if the monument to our sin stands on top of us, crushing our spirit.

We are blessed to be forgiven. We are blessed to have our sins covered and no longer held against us. 

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
Therefore let everyone who is godly
    offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found;
surely in the rush of great waters,
    they shall not reach him.
You are a hiding place for me;
    you preserve me from trouble;
    you surround me with shouts of deliverance.
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
    which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
    or it will not stay near you.
Many are the sorrows of the wicked,
    but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord.
Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous,
    and shout for joy, all you upright in heart! Psalm 32

In this Psalm God reminds us that finding refuge in Him is as much about finding refuge from our own sin as it is finding refuge from a storm.  Do you see in the last verse how sorrow is separated by steadfast love, trust, gladness, and rejoicing? When our sins are covered and we find our joyful hiding place in God we can then, through the power of the Spirit, move on to instruction. In this way the grief of repentance turns into the relief of forgiveness which then becomes the joy of a restored relationship, with God and with each other.

Thank you, Jesus.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

It's All About Perspective

Francine Anderson's Father and Francine and  her siblings around the time of the story

Story Corps is my little Friday morning treat. It plays on my local NPR station around 7:30am and is a good excuse to snuggle under the covers for a bit longer. Story Corps records and archives people’s stories and some of them are broadcast on the radio. The picture is from a story that takes place when Francine Anderson was five years old and living in a segregated area. It is a world of which I know very little and a story I needed to hear.

Francine tells of riding in a car with her father and siblings and finding they were out of gas. The only gas station in the area refused to sell her father even a couple of gallons because he was black. A white man stepped in and purchased gas for them so they could drive on to safety.

The story is sad and embarrassing and demoralizing. I do not want to be reminded of what my country once represented, and what it still represents, today.  It is a story that forces me to admit I am a sinner and even though I try to avoid sin – I cannot stop it. 

Racism is a sin. I am a sinner. I cannot claim I do not have a racist bone in my body any more than I can claim I am not steeped in sin. This is my condition.

Yet, this is not all that this story has to teach. I am intrigued by an observation that Francine has made regarding different reactions people have to her childhood story.

White people react by focusing on the kindness of the man who purchased gas for them.

And he certainly was kind.

Black people, however, focus on the fact that what the gas station owner did was legal.

That perspective brings a whole new understanding. The story is no longer about one racist white man with a mean streak. It is about a government that legalizes discrimination and refuses to acknowledge the racism that both causes, and results from, discrimination. And it is about the people who do not stand up and denounce this situation.

Is legalizing discrimination really that much different than honoring the fight for the right to own slaves? 

The perspective, in this instance, is so very important. What do I focus on? 





Or the kindness or bravery of individuals?

My perspective tells my story.  It indicates my viewpoint. It shows my values, and how I might live them. Yet, perspective is only a small piece of the picture. It is not possible to see the entire story from my angle. Furthermore, the more “me” there is, the less room there is for truth, because truth comes from God.

A good friend, who meets me each week for a Bible study, brought an interesting picture to mind. She talked about our lives being a gigantic mural, but we see only a part of it – like a landscape hanging in a beautiful frame on the wall of an art gallery. God is the only one who can see the art of our lives from all angles. We want to find a pretty part of it, clean it up, dress it up, and focus on that. We not only do not understand the whole picture, we tend to crop out the bad stuff and Photoshop the rest. And then we take a selfie.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child; I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. I Corinthians 13: 9-12

In terms of my faith and my perspective on life, I am still a child. I speak, think, and reason like a child because I cannot see the whole picture. I miss the suffering of my fellow man because I am focused on my story, my fears, my idea of what is right, good, and kind. I look at myself in a mirror and I see dimly. While my brain tries to make out the details of my features in that dim mirror it conveniently fills in the blanks with good material. The truth is I could not handle the truth.

So we continue on. We work, we struggle, we study God’s word, and ask Him to help us to grow and learn. We ask Him to help us turn from the sin in which we are steeped. 

And God answers us with love, mercy, and forgiveness. He answers us with grace.
This grace comes with the power of the Spirit that allows us to see the perspective of love.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.     I Corinthians 13: 13

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Repentance Puzzle

 I have been ruminating on repentance for the last few weeks. The seed of this rumination was planted several months ago when I was stunned by an answer to a question  I posed to my audience while speaking for a conference. My question was:

"What happens when you work with someone who cannot apologize?"

The response to this question is usually head nodding and knowing looks cast at colleagues. I almost always get a real, sometimes harsh, examples. On occasion the question has evoked tears. It is also one of the most frequent topics of discussion after my presentation is finished. People come to me in pain because of broken relationships.

It's not pretty, folks.

But, this time I got an answer I did not expect. This teacher told a story of a supervisor who had hurt her and how she felt the relationship was crumbling. This did not surprise me, because I have seen it, experienced it, and caused it, before. When a sin does not result in an apology, then the relationship is hurt. Deep down, both people know the behavior will repeat itself.

But then this teacher continued. 

She told how a friend counseled her that the relationship will not be mended until someone apologizes and it looked like this teacher was going to have to do it. So, she did. The unnecessary apology was accepted and the work relationship continued - but it was not fixed. No, not by any means. You could still see the hurt and distrust on this dear teacher's face.

I have experienced this a handful of times in my life - and I'll bet you have too. I remember instances of being deeply hurt by the words or actions of a friend or colleague, and then finding that I needed to find a reason to apologize just to restore the relationship. It is as if the need for repentance hangs between two people until someone gives - even if it is the person on the other side of repentance. 

I believe that this is part of our conscience. We have a conscience because we have God's law written in our hearts. When sin happens, we feel it deep inside. But, if we cannot admit to our mistake, if we cannot admit to our sin, if we cannot admit to hurting another, then we turn from repentance rather than submit to it. We convince ourselves that we were justified in the anguish we caused and that we somehow deserve the apology from the person we hurt

This creates quite the puzzle. The relationship needs repair - but the person who was hurt ends up apologizing. This might temporarily repair a relationship - but it likely does more harm than good. Now, the injured party begins to lose trust. If a friend or coworker sins, but cannot admit to the sin - that same sin will be repeated. Now we have a relationship wherein one person can expect abuse and the other feels justified in abusive action. 

Either side of this issue can happen to any of us. Sin begets sin; it can do no other.

God has had to work long and hard to even begin to teach me how to forgive someone who is not apologetic. I still struggle with this and will until my dying day. But, I had not thought before about the consequences to others when the correct apology does not happen. Even if I forgive, the damage is still there.

God tells us to repent in order to turn away from our sin and toward Him. This is an important part of our faith life. Repentance results in forgiveness reminding us of the blessing of grace. Repentance also works to teach us what needs to be changed in our behavior. Furthermore, repentance needs to happen for our understanding of our need for salvation.

The heartfelt response of the teacher at the conference reminded me that the need for repentance is also important to our ability to maintain group fellowship. A missed, or misplaced repentance will result in a ripple effect spreading to other relationships. Think of a supervisor who cannot apologize - that broken relationship will spread and infect nearly everything that administrator does. Think about two colleagues who can no longer work together. That will spread to others on staff. Think of a parent who cannot apologize and what that teaches the child. Sin begets sin; it can do no other.

My prayer, today, is that God will show me when I need to repent.  In fact, I need to ask Him to relentlessly hound me. When God brings me to repentance, when I do not turn from that repentance and instead admit my sin, apologize, and receive forgiveness, then that particular sin can stop with me.

Even in our sin-caused pain, God finds opportunity to bless us.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Tattoo Grace

In this clip Dr. Phil and a TV client get some good advice from tattoo artist Kat Von D

Sometimes Dr. Phil has a great turn of phrase. One of my favorites is

I used that one with kindergartners and university students, alike. I am not sure I made any kind of a difference, but it was fun to say.

Another one that works well for me to mentally recite before opening my mouth:


While Dr. Phil’s famous quips gain him high viewer ratings, and for all I know might be excellent therapy advice, they are most certainly lopsided theologically.

Dr. Phil is all about the law. It’s often smart law, but it is law, all the same.

The therapy we get from God includes both law and grace and that is infinitely more effective.

I really noticed this truth about grace in the clip. Dr. Phil is working with a teen, apparently engaged in some unsafe tattoo practices. He talks with her about being safe instead of being stupid. He does not seem to be getting anywhere with that line of reasoning so he asks Kat Von D to chime in.

Kat's response is completely different. She draws on her experiences as a teen and reminds the young girl that even though her mother sounds like a “mother” it’s is simply because she loves her. In a few sentences she has the young girl seeing her mother in a new light. I don’t know if the determination to get tattoos changed but she sure seemed more open to waiting until she was 18 and proceeding safely. It did not surprise me to find out Kat's parents are missionaries because she countered law with grace. And grace made all the difference.

It is a challenge to know when to apply law and when to apply grace. It is easy to assert that a confident sinner needs law and a contrite sinner needs grace, but we can’t see into the heart of an individual. This young girl seemed like a confident sinner rebelling by disobeying her mother. But, perhaps she was secretly condemning herself.

When I teach future teachers about classroom discipline I like to make the point that if a discipline technique is not working do not follow up with more of the same. If a punishment is not working it is not likely that a more severe punishment will work. Likewise, if a reward does not work, a larger one is not likely to be more effective.

Although, if United Airlines is willing  to pay thousands of dollars to get me off the plane that WILL work.

The bottom line is if rewards and punishments (both law, by the way) are not working you have to try something else. In the classroom that usually involves finding out what motivates the student. For example, if a student is motivated to avoid a behavior because of fear, than no amount of punishment or reward will change that. The fear needs to be addressed. For that, grace will make all the difference.

Romans chapter eight has much to say about what law can and cannot do:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. Romans 8: 1-6

Law has its purpose in our lives. It brings us to our knees so we realize our need for forgiveness. It keeps us in check, and it gives the forgiven Christian a rightful path. But it does not have the power to change us. Only God’s grace can do that. Grace changes us from a condemned sinner to a Spirit filled child of God. Jesus conquered our rebellious disobedience when He gave His life on the cross. We still need the law, but we no longer walk under its condemnation. We walk in the peace of grace and forgiveness.

Not even Dr. Phil can top that.

Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.  How’s that workin' out for ya?