Holy week

Those of us who were not raised in a liturgical tradition, or in a faith community that observed the church calendar, often don’t know what we’re missing out on when it comes to the celebration of Resurrection Sunday — or what most of us call Easter. We may have wonderful Easter sunrise services and even meaningful Good Friday services, but we usually have not had the full benefit of putting the greatest events in Christianity in their context in a way that is both meaningful and practical.

We have not observed Lent as a season of preparation, personal sacrifice, repentance, contemplation, and longing for the glory of the Resurrection to be celebrated with joy. We have not set aside Holy Week as a time of somber prayer and reflection. We have not washed one another’s feet on Maundy Thursday, partaken in the Lord’s Supper together, and grieved the betrayal of our Savior. We have not wept on Good Friday at what our sins did to Jesus Christ, and mourned the suffering it cost Him to redeem us. We have not spent Saturday night in vigil, waiting…waiting…

The truth is that we need reminders. We need to make the gospel, the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, as personal as possible. We need to remember. We need to set aside the business of our everyday lives, and allow ourselves to walk through the events of Holy Week.

At least I do.

So today I read the old familiar passages about the Passover, both its origins and its new meaning as instituted by Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed. I read of the Last Supper, and of the betrayal. I read beautiful prayers of the Church. And I asked the Holy Spirit to allow all those words to grip my heart and break it anew and afresh. I asked Him to examine my innermost being and show me where I need to repent…to reveal to me my sins of omission and commission…to make me painfully aware of how I fail to love God and my fellow human beings as I should.

I don’t want this to be just another Easter season, one in which I live Holy Week as if it were any other week, sing a few wonderful hymns on Easter Sunday, eat a nice dinner, and then go on my merry way, untouched and unchanged by my celebration. I want to remember, and I want to be transformed by the reality. I want to truly live as one of the Easter people should. As Pope John Paul II said:

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.”

It’s time we stopped throwing Jesus under the bus

If we claim to be Christians, and have any understanding of our faith at all, it should go without saying that Jesus Christ is the central figure. He is, in fact, the chief cornerstone. He is the author and perfecter of our faith. In Him we live and move and have our being. Those are all Biblical words and statements, not mine.

The apostle Paul continually pointed to Jesus, and emphasized that the entire thrust of his preaching was Christ and Christ crucified. But, then again, he also warned that the Cross is a stumbling block for many.

It is certainly true that we are to love our neighbors (meaning everyone) no matter what they do or don’t believe. I get that. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is not merely an obscure suggestion, but something Jesus said was one of the two greatest commandments, second only to loving God. I can even understand the longing to declare us all — Muslims and Christians — to be brothers and to claim we worship the same god, so we can hopefully pursue peace and understanding…perhaps while joining hands around the campfire and singing Kumbaya. “See, we’re not that different after all!” I wish it were that easy.

But love is not genuine love if it comes at the expense of truth. Love is not love if it leaves others lost without Christ just so we can feel warm, inclusive, and tolerant. Love is not love if we pretend to love God with every fiber of our being while feeling awkwardly reluctant to address the totality of His being and acknowledge fully all three of His Persons.

Jesus is either Lord or not. We are either Christians — those who have chosen to bear His name — or we’re not. If we feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about Jesus’ claims of “No one comes to the Father except through Me,” perhaps we would be more comfortable thinking of ourselves as Abrahamic monotheists.

True disciples follow their Lord and Saviour — their King — no matter the cost. In some parts of the world today, that can mean torture, rapes, and beheadings. In America, that may mean someone insisting that we’re ignorant, backwards, and too fanatical about Jesus. It may even mean losing friends who will find our view of Jesus to be outdated, offensive, narrow-minded, intolerant or unacceptable.

Jesus warned us that the way is narrow. Wishing it were broad and easy negates the words of the very One we claim to base our beliefs upon. We either follow…or not.

The director and the actress

As I posted before, I usually don’t write allegories. But then one came along and pretty much wrote itself. Every now and then, I’d re-read it, maybe tweaking a word or sentence here or there. I’d think, “I really should add a part where the actress talks with the director.” And that’s as far as it got until recently.

I hope it means something and is a blessing to someone else besides me.

Of course none of this will make any sense whatsoever unless you start reading here.

The director looked across the table at the actress and smiled. He had such high hopes for her — and for the actor, especially now that he’d begun to get through to him — and he was looking forward to finally being able to tell her of some of his plans.

She smiled back. It had been a year since the actor had begun to have his change in heart about her, but that didn’t really explain the dramatic growth she had gone through in that time.

“This has been my best year ever!” she enthused, as if reading the director’s mind. They began reminiscing together.

“What made the biggest difference for you?” he asked, fully knowing the answer, but never growing tired of hearing her tell of it. He loved how her eyes lit up, how excitement, joy, and wonder filled her voice.

“It was…well, everything you said to me that day that I came into your office, wanting to quit,” she began.

He would never forget that day. She was discouraged, frustrated, hurt, angry, at the end of herself. He had listened patiently as she poured out all her feelings, until she dissolved into desperate tears. “I can’t do this anymore,” she had finally managed to choke out. “I’m tired of failing. It’s hopeless. I’m hopeless. I can’t go on like this.”

He had found himself telling her the most hope-filled story that he knew. “Remember, I was friends with your parents, and I was there when you were born,” he said, “I got to hold you right away. I loved you then. I held you close and whispered a secret in your ear and someday, when the time is right, I’ll tell you what it is. On that day, I also told you what your real name is, the one you were meant to have from the beginning of time, the one you will not hear again until you are ready.”

When he had said this to her, she had wiped away her tears and looked at him as if he was crazy.

So he reminded her of their history together, the parts she could remember, and even some parts she had forgotten. He reminded her, over and over again, that he had always loved her as a father and a friend.

“Your problem,” he told her, “is that you don’t believe that. You don’t believe me. You’d rather listen to the actor, even though he will never love you the way I do and, all too often, he does not even speak for me. When will you realize that? When will you seek my approval more than his?”

Those final words had stung her. She had protested and argued, and then dissolved yet again in frustrated tears. Finally she had walked out.

“That was the turning point,” she said now. “Once I sat myself down and thought about everything you told me, all the things you reminded me — it all made me realize that you knew me longer and better than the actor did — and that you love me more than anyone else ever will. Plus…well, you’re the director, and he isn’t.” She flashed a relieved grin at that last sentence. “That’s why I came back.”

Now he looked at her more seriously. “So you finally believe that I love you and want what’s best for you, right?”

She nodded. “Of course! You’ve proven that time and time again but I was too blind to notice! You’ve always been there, my one constant, my most loyal friend. I’ve lost count of how many times you rescued me…how many second chances you gave me…how many times you let me start over…how many crises you helped me through. You’ve changed my life.” She paused for emphasis. “Now I think I really do believe that you love me as much as you say you do.”

“You trust me.” He said it as a statement of fact, calmly. She nodded again, but she looked slightly apprehensive, wondering if she was about to be tested.

“I have a new script,” he announced simply.

She looked excited. “Really? Tell me about it!”

“It’s the kind of complex, demanding role that you were born to play. It’s tailor-made for you, but it will also be extremely challenging. Extremely.”

“What about the actor? Is he in it?”

“Oh, you’ll still both be playing your same basic roles, except I’m developing your character much more fully than before, and expanding your part in the script a lot. Focus on your role and let me worry about the actor. The changes in the new script will require your utmost concentration, and you and I will have to work together more closely than ever before.”

“Great!” she said.

“One more thing…the new script also requires that you dance.”

“Dance? The actor hates dancing! He will never agree to it.”

“No, not that kind of dancing. You won’t need a partner for the dances I want you to perform.”

“But…but…” Tears filled her eyes and she bit her lip. “What about my leg? I can’t dance. You know that. I’ll stumble and…and…I’ll fall down. Besides, who wants to see a cripple like me try to dance?”

“I’ve choreographed the dances, and I’ve taken your leg into consideration. I will teach you myself. Trust me: you will dance more beautifully than you can possibly imagine, even if it feels awkward to you. Are you forgetting that I’m also a doctor — the very one who attended your birth and took care of you after your accident? The dances I’ve created for you are therapeutic and healing — they will strengthen and restore your leg. Eventually your limp will disappear.”

She looked incredulous. “Seriously? You mean that?”

“Of course.”

“I never dreamed I would ever dance…” she whispered in amazement, as if afraid to speak the words aloud.

“That’s not all,” the director said. “The script I’ve been writing — it’s based on the stories you used to write as a little girl, and the stories I used to tell you. It’s based on your fondest hopes and dreams, the ones you’ve long given up, even forgotten. I remember them all, every desire of your little girl heart and, in the script I always meant for you, they all come true. Well, except for some of the silly or dangerous ones.” He smiled. “But the good ones all come true.”

Her tears flowed freely. “But…why?”

“Because it’s the role you were meant to play all your life.” He paused to let the words sink in. “You just weren’t ready before now. I think that now, finally, you truly want those things again — all those long ago hopes and dreams — more than you want anything else.”

She sat there in stunned silence, trying to process it all. Finally she spoke, “So, despite everything, all my failings, all the ways I’ve messed up and disappointed you, I get to play my dream role? That doesn’t make sense.”

“Yes, it does,” he countered gently, “if you remember how much I love you.”

“But what about the actor? Does he get his dream role too?”

“Leave him to me. After all, I love him too, far more than you ever will. But your role — this new script — is far less about him than it is about you. Promise me one thing: always look in my eyes instead of his, and never forget that I am the director, not him. He’s just another actor, like you, and he has his own script.”

He paused and grew almost stern. “I have to caution you about something. You finally stopped believing his criticisms and stopped veering off the script in reaction to him — right about the time he was becoming less negative and critical. But now he could pose an even greater danger to you, if you become used to and dependent on his kindness and praise. You’ve longed for him to approve of your performance so much that I’m afraid his positive words might have more power over you than his negative ones did, and you might become willing to do almost anything for them to continue. You must never forget that he is not the director. My approval must matter far more than his. Look to me only.”

She nodded.

“Always, always act as if I’m your only audience.”

She nodded again, and he thought she had never looked more beautiful and more strong. He thought her face could have lit up the darkest room. “This is amazing…too good to be true…I must be the luckiest actress alive!” she burst out.

“I think it’s time.” he said abruptly, standing up.

“Time? Time for what?”

“This.” He beckoned her to stand and, leaning down towards her, spoke softly in her ear. “It’s time you finally heard what I whispered to you so long ago, on the day you were born. And, after you hear it, you won’t just dance. You’ll fly!”

“Fly?”

He didn’t answer, didn’t explain. Instead, he whispered a sentence, the secret he had told her the day she was born…words she hadn’t realized that she had longed to hear all her life, words that explained everything, words that set her free, words that frightened and exhilarated her, words that were both healing and challenging, soothing and provocative. It was as if she was hearing his voice, his real voice, for the very first time.

She gasped. Tears flowed. And she threw back her head and laughed. That’s how powerful his few, seemingly simple words were. What he spoke wasn’t just a statement — the truest words she had ever heard — but a glorious invitation.

He was calling her forth into her destiny.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, yes, yes — ” the words tumbled out in enthusiastic agreement to the new script, to the director being her audience of one, to everything he wanted her to be, and to everything he would help her become.

In return, he held her closer, in a fatherly embrace…and spoke her name: her name he had whispered to her at birth, her real name, her beautiful, beautiful name that no one else but them had ever heard.

This time she shouted — shouted loud — with joy, throwing back her head as if she wanted the heavens above to hear her. She lifted her hands high in the air and shouted with triumphant eagerness, “YES!!”

And then she danced.

Fake repentance and fake apologies 

It is far easier to hide behind humble-sounding admissions that I am a vile sinner deserving of God’s wrath than it is for me to admit to specific sin — and especially to admit to sin without any attempts to minimize or excuse.

It is also easier to make vague reference to unspecified sins or mistakes in a situation that I handled badly rather than to admit to doing whatever it is that has caused the actual offense. (“Perhaps I could have handled things better.”)

This struggle of mine, this reluctance to confess and come clean, is human nature, but that doesn’t make me any less guilty of refusing to be totally honest and completely repentant.

Years ago, there was a big interpersonal mess at a place where I worked, some of it as a result of misunderstandings, but some of it as a result of gossip and back-stabbing. There were lots of hurt feelings all around, and trust had been shattered. Our brave office manager sat us down to get to the bottom of things and to restore the harmony we had previously enjoyed. As we were airing our grievances and forgiving one another, I was accused of gossiping about something. I was able to deny it truthfully and come out looking like an innocent victim.

The problem was that while I had not, as accused, blabbed Juicy Gossip Item A about the person, I had blabbed closely related Juicy Gossip Item B. Someone less cowardly and more honest would have confessed and asked forgiveness. To my shame, I was not that person.

We all know those infuriating types who, when confronted, will argue like the worst of lawyers. (“No, I did not go to bed with that woman, and I’ve never slept with anyone but you!” — only much later, if pressed, might the truth come out, but even then the adulterous husband will trumpet his truthfulness — after all, he’d never fallen asleep with his mistress — and he will blame his wife for not asking whether he’d had sex in the car or on the couch. But, if she had asked that, he would have denied it because he “thought” she meant another car or another couch. And on it goes.) We may not stoop so low, but we can be weasely in our own way.

The generic apology is just another way of not getting caught, and not admitting to the truth. “I’m a terrible husband and you would be better off without me!” is far easier and far less costly than admitting exactly what one has done. As an apology, it’s meaningless, and it’s a ridiculous show of fake humility. It’s designed to get people off our backs, to shut them up.

When people are upset at me for doing something — or not doing something I should have — I need to listen. If I care about people at all, I shouldn’t turn everything into a court case, demanding impeccable evidence and that the charges against me be parsed precisely in the correct jargon. My concern should be far less about defending myself and far more about healing and reconciliation.

I have a hard time with that.

Recently I was in a conflict with someone. I’d observed them treating someone else in a way that I think is sinful and disrespectful , but I didn’t speak up. (I could come up with a myriad of reasons why, but it probably all boils down to the fact that I’m a wimp.) I was already irritated at this person when they launched into me for something out of my control. Venting is one thing — accusing me of believing and thinking things I don’t is another. I did not react well. I still don’t know how I should have reacted, but I do know that my response was fueled far more by irritation and anger than by love.

I’ve been sorting this out in my mind, and it’s really hard not to excuse my reaction. I want to defend myself! In fact, if I took a poll of people I know, quite a few would say that I showed great restraint. After all, I could have told them off…they had no right to act the way they did…and the stuff they said to me??!!!

But that’s not the way of Jesus.

It is also not the way of Jesus, when someone tells me that I handled a situation abysmally, for me to get all snarky and self-righteous…or for me to beat my chest about what a despicable sinner I am — while admitting to nothing. That’s just the religious version of saying, “Hey, we’re all human. Get off my back!”

It is so much easier to see this in the other person than in myself.

Repentance 


How do we know if someone is truly repentant? How do we know if we are? In light of some of my recent posts, I’ve been asking myself those questions, and doing some careful thinking and self-examination.

These are a few of my thoughts.

While researching the topic of repentance, I found this helpful quote from Church Discipline by Jonathan Leeman:

“A few verses before Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 18 about church discipline, he provides us with help for determining whether an individual is characteristically repentant: Would the person be willing to cut off a hand or tear out an eye rather than repeat the sin (Matt. 18:8-9)? That is to say, is he or she willing to do whatever it takes to fight against the sin? Repenting people, typically, are zealous about casting off their sin. That’s what God’s Spirit does inside of them. When this happens, one can expect to see a willingness to accept outside counsel. A willingness to inconvenience their schedules. A willingness to confess embarrassing things. A willingness to make financial sacrifices or lose friends or end relationships.” (p. 72)

I like the phrase describing repentant people as “zealous about casting off their sin”. Many of us already know this, whether through study, personal experience, or instinct. For example, something just doesn’t sit right with us about a supposedly repentant adulterer who still wants to keep his mistress on as his secretary and travel with her on business. We wonder how repentant someone is if they refuse to adjust their lives in any meaningful sort of way, who refuse to avoid further opportunity for sin, but expect us to take them at their word. (“I couldn’t resist my secretary before, but now I can. Trust me.”)

Some time back, I read the testimony of a marriage that healed after the wife’s affair. Her repentance came in stages; it was fully a year before she was willing to break off all contact with her affair partner. Needless to say, that year was agony for her husband, and painful evidence that she had not yet fully repented of her selfishness and lack of love. Her husband said he finally knew she was committed to faithfulness when she not only refused any further contact with the affair partner, but decided — unasked — to give up her professional career. She said she had destroyed her husband’s ability to trust her and didn’t want him to worry whenever she spent extended time with clients. That was her equivalent of cutting off her hand or gouging out her eye.

When we repent over sin, it’s rarely just the glaringly obvious sin that requires our repentance. If I lose my temper and yell harshly at my husband, the yelling may be just the tip of the iceberg. When it comes to complex sins like adultery, there are a myriad of sinful actions, thoughts, and attitudes that lead up to the final deeds — and that’s why we should not be so quick to restore someone who is only repentant over acts of intercourse, rather than over the whole stinking rotten web of selfishness, deceit, and unholiness that brought him or her to that point. A wise Biblical counselor will work with the Holy Spirit, rather than abort the process. Covering up sin is never grace.

I’ve noticed, in myself, that I’m not truly repentant until I see the ugliness of my sin and am willing to take full responsibility for it. As long as I am attempting to minimize (“Well, at least I didn’t…”) or excuse (“Yeah, but…”) or explain (“You see, the reason…”) or garner sympathy (“I was in a bad place, and now I feel terrible!”) or demand anything (“You need to trust/forgive me!”) I am not truly repentant. As long as I am lacking in empathy for those I have offended and hurt (“What’s the big deal? Why can’t they get over it already?”) I am only repentant up to a point.

Again, a wise Biblical counselor will know these things, and — when necessary — will call the sinner out, restoring him gently in love or with a firm rebuke, whichever is most appropriate. That will, of course, require the counselor to possess compassion and tenderness along with wisdom and discernment. Unfortunately, at the risk of sounding sexist, I have to point out that male leaders often have a difficult time identifying with women in general, as well as with anyone they consider “weak”. I think that is the reason for the phenomena that distresses and confounds so many of us — that pastors far more readily sympathize with predators, pedophiles, and sex offenders than with those who have been wounded and violated.

Behind a lot of sin, but sexual sin in particular, is a sense of entitlement. The sinner thinks: I am entitled to sexual gratification…I am entitled to more than I am getting from my spouse…I am entitled to happiness…I am entitled to do whatever I want with that child…I am entitled to control others…she owes me…he has no right to refuse me…I am entitled to use others…I am entitled to take what I want…That sense of entitlement outweighs everything else until selfishness runs rampant. We don’t want to admit that when we sin. We don’t want to tell the horrible truth: “I did it because I wanted to and, at that moment, I cared more myself than anyone else. I am without excuse.”

Even as I write those words, I am searching for loopholes in my mind: Come on, that doesn’t apply to every sin...when I was being a prodigal in my 20’s, I was reacting to trauma and pain…which is an explanation, but not an excuse. I chose how to react, sometimes in healthy ways and sometimes in unhealthy ways. No one dragged me kicking and screaming out of the church and forced me to be a prodigal.

We all sin out of our brokenness. What that means is that we need healing as well as forgiveness.

And now for a hypothetical situation…

Let’s say that there is a young man who sexually abused multiple children in two different churches (at least that we know of). He has repented, been convicted, and served time. He has also sought professional help, because he realizes that pedophilia, contrary to what some would claim, is not merely a sexual quirk or preference that can be replaced with another. (“Hey, I like blondes but I supposed I could learn to like brunettes.” “I prefer dudes but maybe I can try real hard to like girls.” “Well, I’m into two-year-olds but that’s probably only because I’ve never met an adult woman I liked!”) However, let’s assume that our hypothetical sex offender has gone through deep inner healing, and that the very thought of sexually abusing a child is now abhorrent to him.

A nice elder from his church decides to set him up with a young woman. “That’s very nice of you,” says the repentant young ex-pedophile, “but there is no way that I could ever marry. You see, because of the very serious nature of the crimes I committed, I am not allowed to be around children except under the supervision of a court-appointed, trained chaperone. I could never be alone with my own children. There is a very real possibility I wouldn’t be allowed to live in my own home with my own family. At best, my wife would have to become my trained chaperone, and would have to supervise me around the children, keeping us in her sight at all times. She could never leave them alone with me. She could never even go to the bathroom or take a shower by herself when I’m in the home. We could never have a normal family life. How could I possibly be so selfish as to inflict that on any wife or child?”

That would be true repentance.

A wise, compassionate pastor, noticing its absence, would say, “I cannot in good conscience stand by and allow you to sentence anyone to grow up in such dysfunction, or to place any woman in the awkward, stressful position of having to chaperone her own husband. What sort of husband or father could you possibly be, even if you could guarantee that you no longer pose a danger to children? No one is entitled to a wife and family, especially if they cannot properly fulfill the roles of husband and father. You lost the privilege of marriage when you committed your heinous crimes against innocent children. I’m disappointed that you would, once again, be willing to place others at risk because of your own selfishness and sense of entitlement.”

That would be common sense…and compassion.