Returning to the Second Day

“The heart is deceitful above all things,” said Jeremiah, “and beyond cure.” He finishes his thought with, “Who can understand it?”

There are mountains upon mountains of literature, verses, treatises, and other such human searchings and musings on this very idea. Who can, indeed, understand the human heart? Psychologists? Sociologists? Artists? Doctors? Philosophers? Sages? Theologians?

I had a professor once who said our heart has an evil weed that keeps growing and growing. He suggested the gospel comes and mows it back. Until it is finally put to death in the end, the weed is there. Growing, producing its malicious fruit: death. Many metaphorical deaths as well as our guaranteed physical death. Sin will have its due.

It has come to my attention that some of the things I have written over the past few months seem to come from a perspective of distance or at least one of observer, rather that perpetrator. I need to remedy that.

This mess I have made is my own making, the fruit of sin that I yummily indulged in. The death of my relationship with my parishioners, the death of my job and income, the death of relationships with most all of my friends, and the most hurtful, the death of my marriage and relationship with my former wife, which also includes the sundering of any sense of stability my sons had, at least for a while. I hope that won’t be too long.

In the wake of that death, the Church where I served has stepped in to shelter and care for my former wife. It’s been a beautiful picture of how God’s people care for the broken and victimized. My former wife has not been a huge fan of church in a long time, and to see her leaning into the body gives me hope that God is indeed in the business of making life where the stench of death wreaks; in this case a death I helped facilitate.

I seem to have come across as cavalier, especially in regards to my sin, the wages of which I get to partake of until my own death comes. In the tearing asunder of my family, I have also damaged the roots that are my sons’ lives, an extremely selfish act on my part.

A couple of friends have asked me why, and the only answer I have is that sin isn’t logical. There is nothing I can say that will ever give a satisfactory answer to that question. It won’t make any logical sense, because it can’t. Sin is never logical. It is always illogical. Hence, Jeremiah’s, “Who can understand [the human heart]?”

My musings and writings have not been from a place of cavalier attitudes though. I promise (for whatever my word may be worth these days). Perhaps some of it has been, but for the most part, these are my way of preaching to myself. I have found myself with nothing, the logical consequence of all sin, death. All I have to cling to is hope that Jesus is who he says he is for sinners, of which I have horrifically realized I am.

Paul writes in Romans that every mouth will be stopped… the justifications we give to our sins, the justifications I have given to myself for my sin, cease in the presence of a Holy God. There is literally no justification for what I have done. My mouth has been stopped. I keep trying to open it, to squeeze out something to make me look a little better. And every time I do, the Accuser is back with his zealous passion for the letter of the law (Zech 3). I’m put back where I should have been all along. With nothing to say, but plead for forgiveness.

So, I find myself back here again. My cavalier, sinful, prideful, justifying heart was cut deep again by the grace of God in the mouth (or typed message in this instance) of a friend. I’m grateful the church where I served has filled the gap in its own way, in my dereliction. As we seek to figure out what life looks like on this side of the mess, my prayer has been two-fold. One, “God, make something beautiful out of this mess I’ve made. I have a book showing how you do that all the time, and I really really really desire to see you do that afresh.” And two, “Christ have mercy, come quickly.”

His promises are true. He is faithful to his Word. It’s all I have to hope in. If I can’t, where else do I go? If his promises aren’t for me, then where do I turn to?

Missing the Mark, Yet Again

My twelve year old was extremely bored during worship the other day. This is not the first time, but what he did to fill his time was a first. He had a little journal he had carried with him because he wanted to do a daily log. He wrote what we had done that morning all the way up to what was happening currently. He then started sketching what he saw around him, from the outlets to the lamps above us, to the banners and stained glass window pictures. Watching him sketch the cross, the haloed lamb with the Christian banner crooked in his arm, the bread and wine, the communion table, made me appreciate the symbols found all around. While he was zoning out to speaking and singing, the visuals were capturing his attention and imagination.

During his daily log of sketches, he drew three long lines down one page. Turning his little journal sideways, the wrote, “Heaven,” on top, “Earth” in the middle, and “Hell” on the bottom. On one side he drew a cross connecting heaven to earth and on the other side he drew a pit that led from earth to hell. There were shiny houses in heaven, along with trees and other signs of life. On earth he had comic bubbles saying, “I’m sick,” “I’m hungry,” “I’m so tired.” In hell, he had a raging inferno of flames with a dead person laying in the flames.

Curiously enough, on the center beam of the cross connecting heaven and earth, there were rungs. I asked him what that was. He said, the cross gave us a way to climb to heaven. I was jolted anew by our obsession as human beings to cling with a death grip to some sort of ladder scheme. We desire with all of our hearts for some way to make ourselves better, to fix ourselves, to climb the ladder to heaven and to make it to God on our own. Sure, he provides the ladder, but I have to do the climbing, the main work. After all, God did his part by providing the cross. Now I have to use it.

There’s a song I love from Coldplay called, Fix You. Chris Martin sings,

“When you try your best, but you don’t succeed
When you get what you want, but not what you need
When you feel so tired, but you can’t sleep
Stuck in reverse

And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can’t replace
When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?”

He delves right into the brokenness of the human experience. We all resonate with his hauntingly beautiful voice singing what we have all experienced.

Then in the chorus,

“Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you”

It’s what we all want. Something isn’t right with this world. There is loss. More often than not, due to something I have said or done, or left unsaid or undone, or something I have botched or miscalculated on. Like from the old Keanu Reeves movie The Replacements, we find we are stuck in quicksand. The harder we struggle to get out of the mess we are making, the worse it seems to get. There is something deep within us that screams, or quietly whispers, the steady stream of ‘something is wrong with me and the world around me, and I wish and long for it to be fixed.’

The thunderous Christian answer to this seems to be the ladder theology. The cross is God’s way of fixing us. He provides it, and you have to use it to get the cure. Alternatively, the Holy Spirit will fix you. You have to do this and that (often times good things to practice, but they become the medium of how we are fixed by God like more prayer, spending time in God’s word, being at church, giving alms, etc), then the Holy Spirit will do x in your life and you’ll know you’re getting better. Again, the “lights will guide you home,” and he’ll fix you.

What I have found, here at what my best friend and I call “rock bottom,” is that I had severely misunderstood sin, and in misunderstanding sin, I had misunderstood what the brutal death of Jesus is about and, more importantly, what it DOES.

You see, I didn’t take sin seriously enough. I labeled it as ‘bad stuff I do.’ Even from a Reformed camp where we say we believe in Total Inability, or Total Depravity, which means that everything we do is coupled to sin, this side of eternity. When sin is merely just the bad stuff I do, I can make a list of things that are pretty bad, or things that look bad, and juxtapose it with stuff that isn’t quite so bad, or the bad things that people don’t notice. Thus, the internal sins like lust, envy, covetousness, malice, etc, become ‘not so bad’ compared to, let’s say, adultery, murder, theft, etc. Not in word. We know the rules. But in praxis, we all know what’s up.

We are really good at giving ourselves loopholes too. As CS Lewis said, we know our own motives so we are easier on ourselves and let little sins slide. Martin Luther argued we are like a lens that is curved in on itself. And our ability to endlessly justify our little sins away in light of how we compare to others is proof of something gone terribly wrong in our hearts.

Thus, Jesus says to us, “Listen, I have to do the surgeon’s work. It’s going to be painful, but I have to show you the cancer that is killing you so you can see what I am doing for you. If you get angry at your brother (internal sin), you have murdered them also (external sin). If you look at a woman with lust (internal sin), then you have committed adultery (external sin). You think what people see and what you act upon is more evil than the thoughts themselves, but the thoughts are the problem. Why? Because they came from you: your mind, your heart, your…

The problem isn’t your actions or my actions. The problem is us: you and me. You see, sin isn’t merely your actions. Sin is also what has enslaved you and claimed rights over you. Paul says its wages are death. Your task master has claim on your life. And there is only one way out. Your life.

This is where the cross comes in. You see, you’re not perfectible. You’re not fixable. Our heart is an endless stream of calculations regarding how we can get the most for ourselves, out of our lives, before God and neighbor. Our lives are a living work of justifying to God (whether we “believe” in him or not) and our neighbor, our right to be and to be autonomous. The only way to “fix” this is death. The old has to die. That’s the only way sin can ever lose its hold. It’s one of the “reasons” for suicide. The justifying drum beat is just not worth it and it would be a relief to end it’s clamor and demand.

Jesus died on the cross. He took the yoke of sin upon himself and died under its dominion and power. He silenced its cry for payment. Then, miracle of miracles, he resurrected. Having made the payment, he turned around and offered his payment for you and for me in this: “I am alive. I will resurrect you also. I am the firstborn from the dead and I am going to create you anew. Not fixed, but completely made new. I am alive. You can trust me. Oh, and I give this to you freely. Why? Because I love you! You’re mine and were stolen by my enemy.”

So, my hand still goes to the first rung, then the second, then the third, before I realize by God’s grace that I am meant to be human, not ascending, but condescended to. It’s in his body broken for me, in the common element of bread, here and now. It’s in his blood poured out for me, in the common element of wine, here and now that faith is born and fed. I can’t climb there. He came here. And he’s returning. And he’s going to make me new.

Oh! And guess what? He did this for you, too.

Permission to Sin? Grace and License?

“It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission,” was a common phrase heard while I was working in youth ministry. I’ve also heard the youth minister where I previously served say it on more than several occasions. I find this fascinating, in a comic sort of way, especially in light of the rebellious, cavalier, and bureaucracy-hating, ‘cool’ youth minister I was. Why ask, when I can just do!

Sitting outside in the warmth of late Alabama spring, the steady breeze is the only thing keeping it from being unbearable out here, that, and the shade, of course. My mind is free to ponder curious thoughts afresh. Steve Brown was the first to open my mind to the idea of “permission” in the Christian life. He told a story in a sermon he was preaching that I’m going to attempt to regale you with.

Steve had a radio show, and the offer of the day was for people to be the fifth caller. If you were the fifth caller, you were granted three free sins for the day. He shared about a woman who called in and was very upset with him for being so flippant about sin. After arguing with him heatedly for a few moments, he finally said, “Fine lady, you can have four!” She was livid! The producer got on with her and tried to talk her down, reminding her that Steve couldn’t forgive sin.

There was a lot of laughter from the larger than normal crowd during this story. And while I chuckled myself, the profundity of what he was saying struck me deeply. I have often thought about that story in light of how we, as Christians, treat sin, grace, the gospel, our faith, and just about everything else in our religion.

During the long decade of the summer of 2020, the Mockingcast put out a series of mini-sodes. One of the episodes was on the free will. I believe they were quoting someone else, but one of the speakers said, “If you preach to wills that are free, you will preach and bind them. If you preach to souls that are in bondage, you will preach to free them.” This also, has struck me as deeply profound.

Again, sitting outside today, my mind sees a direct connection between these two ideas, also in relation to to sin, repentance, and forgiveness-the major themes that are the positive obsessions that have dominated my life the past couple of months (the negative obsessions being shame, guilt, unworthiness, identity crisis, loneliness, and bewilderment…but that’s a blog for another day).

I think that we have bought in to the false idea that human beings are “free.” I suspect that we have been prone to that type of thinking since the fall, and it has escalated exponentially since the Enlightenment. Even one of my mentors in the faith, CS Lewis and another of my favorite authors in that vein, GK Chesterton (maybe I should refer to myself as JD Hollis!), both argue profusely for a freedom of the will as THE gift that God had given his image bearers.

I grew into, and now come from, a strongly Reformed understanding of theology. While touting total depravity as one of the five pillars of Calvinism in word, our understanding of sanctification, repentance, and grace seems to resemble something else altogether, if not even more semi-pelagian than Luther, their Reformation Brother.

Coming back around, people don’t need permission to sin. That may sound like a “no duh” statement, but allow me reiterate that again. People don’t need permission to sin. They don’t need permission, I don’t need your permission. We don’t need God’s permission. We don’t need the church’s permission. You see, we just do. You just do. I just do. Like Robert Robertson’s classic, “Prone to wonder, Lord, feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” We are prone to leave God…to wander off…to sin.

I think we are afraid of forgiving like Jesus commanded the disciples at the end of John to do, because we are afraid of giving license, or “permission,” for others to sin. And I want to beg us not to see it that way. As Martin Luther argued against the humanist, Erasmus, our wills are in bondage to sin. It is our natural bent this side of the fall. We are truly totally unable and unwilling to come to Christ. We, you and I, will unfortunately usually pick ourselves over other things. From little actions and choices that are sinfully centered on me alone, to the big grievous sins, like what I have committed, we are bent in a way that makes us love us first and foremost. Why do you think the two greatest commandments are the commandments that accuse us so severely and will leave us under the executioner’s axe?

Love God with all you heart, mind, and spirit. And love your neighbor as yourself. Always. Forever. In everything you do.

My friend, you can’t. You won’t. And you don’t need anyone’s permission to not do it. It is neither more rules that restrict, nor licenses to do as you wish (because you will do as you wish regardless), that will ever absolve us. What we need isn’t permission…it’s forgiveness.

Paul Zahl in his book Grace in Practice, quotes a song from “My Fair Lady.” The character is griping about women not being like men. It’s a real struggle. Men and women are super different. People are super different. We have different skills, dreams, histories, likes, dislikes, quirks, and sins. What we need is not for others to be like us. What we need is not “permission” to be different. We already have that, because we already are. What we need, is forgiveness and pardon for being who we are.

I have already heard someone say to this, “Jesus DOES meet us where we are, but he DOESN’T leave us there.” That’s true. But I am going to say something that literally makes me angry, so if it sounds harsh, I intend it to be. You don’t know what the Holy Spirit is doing in someone else’s life. God did not give you secret glasses to read in-between the lines and magically see what’s he’s up to in the hearts of people. Like Aslan and Edmund having a conversation, then Lucy asking about it, please hear Aslan’s response to you who would shape someone else’s story, based on your own assumptions and perspectives, “His story is not for you to know.” I’m pretty sure I remember Jesus telling Nicodemus that the Holy Spirit moves like the wind. You can see its effects, but you can’t control it and you don’t know where it’s going or where it has been.

Stop trying to control other people. You don’t have to give permission or license to people to sin, it’s a stupid and moot idea. People, you and I both, are going to sin anyways. Jesus is not dense. He know’s his own. Remember, He didn’t ask you or me to sort the goats and sheep, or the wheat and tares. He’s got that when He comes back. He’s not fooled by fake anything.

Including your fake ___________________. I left a blank you can use.

What you and I need is forgiveness for being sinners. This is why Jesus says, “This is my body, broken for you. This is the blood of the covenant in my blood.” Because He came to forgive us, we hated Him for it and killed Him. But…on the third day, His resurrection happened. And He says He’s going to resurrect you too. Into new life. He’s forgiven you for who you are and He’s going to recreate you into something you won’t have to be ashamed of. And in the meantime…He’s not ashamed to be your shepherd, your adopted father, and your redeemer.

Remember. He did this for you. Without your permission.

Institutions, Law, and the Good Samaritan (No, this is not a budding joke…)

Why do we defend institutions over and above people? This curious question has intrigued me as I have been rereading Robert Capon’s book A Second Day. Near the end of chapter 7 he says, “Strangely, and dangerously, we defend marriage more readily than the people in it, in spite of the fact that they alone share flesh and blood with us.”

In my own experience, marriage has been vigorously defended to the neglect of the two people involved. From my friends, and from the Session at the church I was ministering as an Assistant pastor, I got hit with the institution strongly. “What the hell is wrong with you?” “Why are you not willing to do whatever it takes to make this work?” That “if you divorce your wife, you are continuing to commit grievous sin and are not showing “true” repentance?” ” Where do you get off getting people to go to counseling to help their marriages, while letting your own go to shit?”

Because I was not willing to make the marriage work, I have become some sort of shithead asshole. Some godless sinner, unrepentant and in danger of hell. Granted, I do know I am a shithead and an asshole. I am not denying those charges. My pride flares and swells and, when I come to my senses about it, the shame and fear that grip me quickly subdue me and help me to pursue humility again. But, this is not the time to digress into the winsome beauty of humility. I am also in no way defending my choice as the right one. Everyone in the world has an opinion on what the “right” choice would have been, and unless one has the whole story, each of those opinions are tilted to fit whatever narrative and stereotype they are comfortable with. The choice was mine, and I made it. I have to live my life.

It is curious to me that it wasn’t about my wife and me, but rather, about the institution being transgressed. It didn’t matter that we had become miserable. It didn’t matter that, in confessing my adultery, there would be a lifelong wall between my wife and I. There were grudges that had been held against church people who had hurt us over a decade ago that were still influencing our decisions and thoughts on the church. Now, I would be on that list of “betraying church people.” It wasn’t about the lack of intimacy our marriage had had for a very long time. It wasn’t about our lack of communication. It wasn’t about us at all. But rather, it was about the institution being betrayed, failed, transgressed, or whatever. And now, I was, and am, considered “unrepentant” because I did not bow to the institution in the way it saw fit. I think I would say this in light of two institutions: the church and marriage.

Please don’t read any anger or bitterness in these paragraphs. That’s not at all in my heart as I type (it has been, very heatedly and with lots of fury, but that stage of grief is not slapping me right now). My tone is simply one of sadness and grief.

There was an old movie I remember watching several times when I was a kid called Ferngully. In it, there was this tree chopping, lumber making, smoke belching machine that went through the rain forest devouring everything in its path, leaving utter destruction in its wake. That’s how I feel about what has happened to me. The institution was transgressed, and I was mauled, chewed, and left in the wake. (I would like to add my affair partner into this also, for she went through the same thing as well.)

I have to admit that it’s quiet here now. The machine has moved on. There’s a lot of brokenness I have found here. Others who have been found wanting, and left in the carnage, are here as well. Some are very hateful and full of bitterness. As my best friend says, “Anger is easier than hurt.” Some are forlorn. Some are apathetic. Some are happy. But it IS quiet here. The doing has been done (or undone). The work and effort to keep the machine greased and happy has passed as it has gone. As my pastor used to say, I am finally getting to be a human being instead of a human doing.

I have found something else here. Or I should say someone. And I should say I have been found by that someone. There was this parable told by this guy that was also chewed up and spit out by an institution, or one might even say, THE Institution, capital I. He tells a story about a Good Samaritan. The interesting point about this story, is that the parable teller is the Good Samaritan in his own story. Samaritans were rejected by the religious institution of their day and considered grievous and unredeemable sinners. In the story, this ethnic, religious outcast came upon a broken person that had been robbed, beaten, and left in ruin, left to die. The Good Samaritan bound the broken man’s wounds. At cost to himself, he cared for and had the man nursed back to health.

In the carnage of my own sin, guilt, and shame, the Good Samaritan has found me. He can’t help it. It’s what he does. He came and comes to seek and save the lost. He comes near to the brokenhearted. He saves the contrite in spirit. He loves his creation. Even the pulp left after the machine’s beating, I mean, institution’s beating.

Please hear this too. I’m not railing against church, marriage, or institutions. I’m sure they have a usefulness. One of the biggest uses I can see right now is that the church, as institution, expresses what the gathered and collected people will one day look like when the Lamb comes to reign with us. And the institution of (monogamous) marriage expresses how the best possible way to live in relationship with your spouse is to be had. Both are to give us a glimpse of what God is doing in, for, and to his people. Both of these are “law” in a sense because they show what is best, and what it will one day look like, when sin is finally dead, our tears are wiped away, and the new heavens and new earth let us breathe and live in the harmony we all earnestly wish were here now. The emphasis being on WILL look like. It’s a guaranteed thing.

While we struggle to attain the best, unfortunately the PEOPLE involved in these institutions find their membership in the fraternity of Sisyphus. You keep trying to please the machine. The institution. At some point, you displease it, and your work goes out the window. You have to start over again, hoping this time whatever you do may lead to permanent fixture on top and ceasing of efforts to please. “God wants your holiness, not your happiness,” as the Sisyphisians say. We may, like me, even fake it for a while so as not to upset the institution.

Capon uses the metaphor of institutions as angels. They are perfect. They are pure. They are righteous. They are unrelenting. And they are not human. We are tempted by them, but in trying to please them, we will always lose our humanity. The institution of marriage teaches us what it looks like and what works best in living in relationship with your spouse. The institution of the church teaches us what it looks like and what works best when sinners who have been healed by the Good Samaritan offer that same forgiveness unconditionally to other sinners.

So please, lay down your boulder. Stop rolling it up. Here is something from the mouth of the Son for you and for me, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” What we are looking for is not going to be found in the institution. What you are looking for is in the person of Jesus the Messiah.

How do I know? Because he says, “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood, to seal the promise that sinners are forgiven in my death and can rest assured in my resurrection that death has no hold of you anymore (or New Covenant, to be exact, but I wanted to flesh that out for a moment).”

Yes the Institution, the Law, is holy, just, and good. But it can’t and was never meant to save or even produce the behavior it shows as best; it is merely to point us to the Good Samaritan who will carry us there, using his very own King James’s ass (donkey).

Yes. It’s quiet here. But there is something I haven’t experienced in a long time. Life. Freedom. Humanity. Living out of truth and not in the entanglement that years of lies had spun. And you know what? I fit better in my skin as a human, instead of as a frustrated and futile pseudo-god.

And this life is given to you in Jesus. Hear his word and have faith. You can trust him.

(After publishing, something came to mind that would help illustrate the “institutions” language. It’s the same as the Sabbath in the New Testament time. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Marriage was made for man, not man for marriage.)