The honest part of the worship service

I’ve heard that including a time for the corporate confession of sins is becoming increasingly rare in worship services across denominational lines. I suspect for some, it’s difficult to integrate into a service filled mostly with praise. Perhaps others fear that dwelling on our sins will frighten away seekers who were not expecting to be reminded of their mistakes.

The fact is that any relationship will not flourish without honesty, and that’s true for our relationship with God. Things go best when we can freely express our hopes as well as our fears, our praise as well as our lament, our gratitude as well as our guilt. Confessing our sins both privately and corporately allows us to bring out into the open what everyone already knows: The God we worship is holy but we are not.

Even though he wrote it in Calvin Seminary’s Kerux student newspaper over a decade ago, my colleague Craig Hoekema made an analogy that sticks with me to this day:

When we don’t confess, I think we are ignoring who God really is and the seriousness of our offense. It is a bit like going to a Presidential Ball in jeans and t-shirt. And even though the President himself has a suit/dress waiting for us, we just proceed with the evening and never take time to change. I think that if we’re gathered as a sinful people in the presence of a holy God, then we are lying to ourselves and each other if we don’t explicitly and intentionally address our sin every single time.  (Kerux, 21 Oct 2004, pp. 1-2)

Recognizing something is wrong is the first step the Holy Spirit uses to move us to do something about it. How can we want something to be fixed if we don’t even acknowledge that it’s broken?

Confession graphic found via Google

Our time of corporate confession in a worship service enables us to honestly assess who we are and where we fall short. But even better, it sets us up for hearing the best news of all: that God is eager to clothe us with His mercy. (More on that next time…)

Slower to anger

Anatomy of anger graphic found via GoogleAnger is a complex emotion. Things would be easy if we could just say that being angry is always sinful. But that cannot be as the Bible records instances of God becoming angry (such as when the Israelites rebelled and made a golden calf). And when Paul urges us not to sin when we’re angry, the assumption is that it’s possible to indeed be angry without sinning.

I learned a lot about anger while reading Glittering Vices by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. She points out how anger is actually connected to love as it can reveal what I really care about. Glittering Vices by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoungAnger can also provide the motivation I need to make right something that is wrong. As Prof. DeYoung writes:

Anger, when it is a holy emotion, has justice as its object and love as its root. Both love and justice are focused on the good of others… Motivated by good anger, we hunger and thirst for righteousness, an appetite that depends on justice for its object, but on love for its right expression. Anger in these cases adds energy and passion to the execution of justice. The love that underlies it, however, keeps it in check, for love does not seek to destroy the other, but to set things right. (p. 130)

Vicious, sinful anger, on the other hand, Prof. DeYoung continues, is rooted in selfishness and harms others. Here’s my favorite line in her description of when this emotion gets misdirected:

Unhinged from justice, bad anger aims at another’s injury,
rather than another’s good.
(p. 130)

Put less poetically, sinful anger causes more harm than good. How I need discernment to know when my anger is righteous and when it is making a hurt-filled situation worse!

Thinking about anger reminds me of this part of Psalm 103:

The LORD is merciful and gracious,
– – slow to anger and abounding in love.

God’s anger is perfect, yet He is slow to get angry. My anger is imperfect. I suspect it would most often be best if I were even slower to get angry than God!

(I’ve blogged about anger before.
It includes a classic Goofy cartoon!)

I’m a hypocrite, too

As dozens of media outlets have reported, reality Photo of Josh Duggar from nypost.comTV star Josh Duggar has been outed as one of the 32 million people who used the cheating website Ashley Madison. Acknowledging the contradiction between adultery and the family values he espoused while part of the TV show 19 Kids and Counting and a director at the Family Research Council, Mr. Duggar declared, “I have been the biggest hypocrite ever.”

I’m not sure I entirely agree with his assessment. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he’s the hypocrite with the biggest spotlight on him right now.

Full disclosure: I have never watched 19 Kids and Counting. However, I suspect that if the Duggars are anything like me, they tried to show the best side of their large family, keeping dark secrets locked away from the public’s eye. That’s very understandable. But also unfortunate as it gave the impression that they – finally! – are the model Christian family everyone should imitate.

Well, that can only last so long. Although created in God’s image and filled with His Holy Spirit, I am tainted by sin. Sometimes sin sideswipes me in ways I didn’t see coming; sometimes I consciously choose to go down the wrong path. It’s the same with all the members of the Duggar family as well as everyone who professes Jesus as Lord.

I’m not saying this to justify a defeatist attitude, suggesting we may as well just give into to temptations to do things that hurt God, others, or ourselves. The apostle Paul pointedly said something about that. But I think it’s worth recognizing that to be a Christian simply means to be a hypocrite. On this side of the new heaven and new earth, I won’t follow Jesus perfectly. I’ll make mistakes and I’ll be impacted by others’ mistakes.

Does the media make a big deal about Christians caught in sin because Christians tend to put on a false front while the cameras are rolling? Do I think my message to the world must be that I’ve got it all together because I follow Jesus? If I was more humble and more quickly acknowledged my mistakes – while not ignoring the good things God is doing in and through me – perhaps people wouldn’t pounce all over me when one of those mistakes comes to light. Both Christians and non-Christians might say, “Yeah, he messed up. He warned us he would. Just like I do.”

Until Jesus returns, confession of sins and reaching out for forgiveness will be part of what it means to be human. Instead of pretending I’m something I’m not, my energy is better spent repenting and asking for forgiveness when I sin… as well as extending grace and forgiveness when the person next to me messes up, too.

It would be cool if the media caught some of that on camera once in a while.

Alluring letdowns

Our trip to British Columbia last month involved catching a few flights there and back. One of the flights began with the usual offer of in-flight entertainment: For $7.99 I’d have access to more than 100 TV channels and new-Picture of airplane cabin with seat-back screens found via Googlerelease movies on the little screen embedded in the seat ahead of mine. I saved my money and brought along something to read.

I found it interesting that the offer continued to appear on everyone’s screens the cabin during the entire flight. In fact, even as we were preparing to deplane, screens were still showing happy people inserting their credit card and watching TV. Apparently it’s never too late to purchase inflight entertainment – even if you’re only a couple minutes away from stepping into the airport terminal!

Seeing the invitation to purchase inflight entertainment after the flight was over reminded me a bit of sin. Sin is enticing: It promises quick happiness and pleasure outside of God’s will and design for the good life.

But succumbing to sin is like paying $7.99 to watch inflight TV after the plane has landed. I might get a minute or two of fun, but ultimately it’s a letdown. It always turns out that sin never comes through with what it promises. As attractive as the devil tries to make them look, immoral shortcuts to happiness, pleasure, cash, or status will ultimately prove to be empty. They’ll likely even be harmful to myself and my relationships with others.

Trusting God and pursuing His will, on the other hand, bring fulfillment. I pray that by focusing on God’s free gift of grace, I can see that the things sin offers – alluring as they may seem at first – are actually empty and about as worthless as purchasing inflight entertainment after the plane has landed.

Joseph 2: “Run, Joseph, Run”

“I can resist everything except temptation.”
– Oscar Wilde

My second installment in our series on Joseph at Trinity CRC circled around the theme of temptation. I wonder what’s harder for Joseph in Genesis 39 – to give into the temptation to commit adultery with Mrs. Potiphar or to give into the temptation to give up on the God of his fathers? Think about it: Joseph is abandoned and sold into slavery by his own brothers. He is exiled to Egypt where his boss is the king’s chief of security (a.k.a. the country’s “Executioner General”). Who would blame Joseph for thinking, If this is how the God of my fathers treats the people of families with whom He has repeatedly made covenants, I don’t want anything to do with Him.

Yet Joseph resolutely sticks with the God of Israel, pursuing Godliness Graphic of fleeing found via Googleand fleeing from sexual temptation. Choosing to be faithful to God certainly plays a role in successfully resisting temptation. Although Joseph’s response to Mrs. Potiphar’s advances is spontaneous, it reveals serious forethought. In the moment of temptation, Joseph was prepared to do the Godly thing.

Even though I might know what the Godly thing to do is, I find ways to justify doing the opposite. I suspect that if Satan is unable to convince me that temptations don’t exist, he’ll settle for me becoming the master of exceptions. He loves for me to think, Yeah, that’s an important rule, but it doesn’t really apply to me, especially considering everything you’re going through right now.

It leaves me asking how can I be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading so that I, too, can be prepared when temptations arise. He prompts me to recognize the types of temptations to which I’m susceptible, whether it’s lust or pride or selfishness. He helps me investigate when these temptations are strongest so I can make a plan for how I can avoid those occasions, situations, and/or locations. And that says nothing about the strength I find in prayer and having an accountability partner.

Our gracious God provides us with plenty of ways to run like Joseph, fleeing from temptation. Can you and I run together?

Real change

This past Sunday evening at Trinity CRC, I spoke on Psalm 51 and the events in King David’s life that precipitated him writing it. Graphic of Psalm 51 found at digitalsojourner.comAmong one of the penitential psalms, Psalm 51 is a deep expression of sorrow over one’s sin and the havoc it created. As the notes in my new NLT Parallel Study Bible explain, “This psalm expresses one of the clearest examples of repentance in all of Scripture. Countless broken sinners have found in these words an exquisite expression of their deeply felt need for God’s mercy and forgiveness.”

In many of our prayers, we ask God to change a situation or to change a problem: We pray for favorable weather and bountiful crops. We pray for restoration for a relationship that is at (or past) the breaking point. We pray for peace in places in the world where there is violence. And these are good prayers; indeed, other psalms ask for a change in the poet’s situation.

But I think Psalm 51 is so powerful because it acknowledges how my biggest problems are not external but rather internal: Don’t change my circumstances, Lord. I’m the problem. Change me.

When I make the words of Psalm 51 my own, I’m inviting God to do something new in my life. And, in Jesus Christ, that is the one thing our loving heavenly Father loves doing most.

Grace comes first

Put in orderA few weeks ago at a profession of faith class, I scattered several recipe cards on our coffee table and asked the class to put them in order.  One of the cards said “Confess our sins;” on another I had written, “Experience God’s grace.”  A good discussion ensued over which order those two cards in particular should go.

It seems logical to say that we confess our sins in order to receive God’s grace: We repent of the wrong we’ve done and then God forgives us.

But where did we get the motivation to confess our sins in the first place?  Is not our desire to be right with God already evidence of God’s grace at work in us, wooing us back to Him?

Searching for Home by M Craig BarnesAs in my previous post, I found this fresh insight in
M. Craig Barnes’s book Searching for Home:

…Grace precedes confession, guides it,
and makes the movement [towards it] possible.  The historical reality of what Christ did on the cross means that we confess our sins because God has already forgiven us.  That is our only hope, the one we were not counting on, and the one that appears only after we abandoned all others.  So we do not confess in order to receive grace, but in order to enjoy it.  If confession preceded grace, it would mean we deserve God’s mercy by our contrition.  What we deserve is the last thing we want… 
(p. 75)

Broken laws, broken people

Searching for Home by M Craig BarnesWhen we confess our sins to God, we might say something like, “I’m sorry, Lord, for breaking your commands.”  A few sentences from M. Craig Barnes’s book Searching for Home suggests how that’s not the most accurate way of stating the problem:

We don’t actually break God’s laws.  They are still standing whether we obey them or not.  To try to break God’s law would be like trying to break the law of gravity.  If you try it, you’ll discover the law always wins.

But when we violate God’s law, it breaks us. (p. 90)

Our disobedience doesn’t do anything to God’s commands, per se.  Because God’s commands are in place for His glory as well as for our own wellbeing, we’re the ones who get broken and hurt through our sinful disobedience.

Thank God for how He invites us to confess our sin and find restoration from our brokenness in Him!

Great is my faithlessness

Does my faith save me?  In one sense, I don’t think so.  I’d be in trouble if I had to rely on my own faith for salvation.  Or, to clarify: I’d be in trouble if I had to rely on my own ability to be faithful.  My doubts get in the way.  I falter in following Jesus.  Inconsistencies between my beliefs and actions are embarrassingly frequent.  And this really bugs me.

So reading Psalm 91 acts like a balm for me, especially verses 3-4:

Surely [God] will save you
—- from the fowler’s snare
—- and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
—- and under his wings you will find refuge;
—- His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

That last part especially – God’s faithfulness to me is what shields me “from the stormy blast” of life’s trials and Satan’s temptations.  He wraps His loving arms around me like a bird will protect her young with her wings.  Similar to how a baby chick is too weak to defend itself, my faith all on its own would never be enough to save me.
Mustard seed
Thankfully, that’s not what God demands nor desires.  In His grace, God can do mountain-moving things with “faith as small as a mustard seed.”  I wouldn’t expect such a small kind of faith to save me from the enormity of my sin.  For that I turn to Jesus.  But I can offer my small faith as a gift to the One who is always perfectly faithful to me.  And as I do so, I pray that my faith in Jesus will grow – not in order to be saved, but because I already am.

Graphic found at Chinny’s Soul Thoughts.

I am Jonah

For a long time I’ve identified with the prophet Jonah.  There was a point during my studies to be a pastor when I felt like giving up.  I even applied to enter a completely different program at a local community college.  But every time I tried getting off the path to ordained ministry, God nudged me back on it.  Sometimes it was a well-timed word of encouragement to not give up; other times it was a door closing in an alternate direction.  You could say that there were occasions I veered in the wrong direction just as Jonah attempted to.

In the past while, however, I’ve come to realize that, even as a pastor, I’m still a lot like Jonah.  Jonah, being a good Hebrew, knew God’s Word and God’s voice.  Jonah never doubted whether he really heard God’s command or not.  His prayer from the belly of the fish echoes the poetry found in the Psalms.  He had the right head knowledge and perceived God’s will in his heart.  Yet he did the exact opposite of what God commanded him anyway!

That sounds like me more often than I’d like to admit.  I know God’s will – that I love the Lord and love my neighbour, walking humbly with my Saviour and doing justice to the people around me.  I’ve even graduated from seminary for crying out loud!  So I know in my mind and in my heart what it means to obediently live for Jesus.  But there are a lot of times when I steer off in the opposite direction – envying what someone else has, speaking in ways that hurt rather than heal, indulging in a little impurity, turning something good into an idol, wanting the approval of others more than of God… you name it!  Jonah is not unique in his ability to run from God.

Thankfully, God has not changed since Jonah’s day.  The God who gives Jonah a second chance offers me the same!  When I suddenly find myself sinking in the depths of sin or despair, God listens to my prayers for help and rescues me.  Every time.

So it turns out that the story of Jonah is not just a throwback to the past.  It’s continues to be part of my story today.

Artwork by graphic designer Mark Retzloff.  I had applied for the graphic design program at that local community college, something that I still dabble in on the side!

A prayer to the God of the Way

We offered this prayer yesterday evening at St. James Anglican and Smithers United Churches’ combined Ash Wednesday service.  I found it meaningful in part because it incorporates words that remind us of how we live our faith “on the way.”  I also appreciate how it takes seriously both our sin as well as our need to be in community.

God of the Way,
You are the road we travel,
     and the sign we follow;
You are bread for the journey,
     and the wine of our arrival.
Guide us as we follow in Your way
     holding on to each other,
     reaching out to Your beloved world.
And when we stray, seek us out and find us,
     set our feet on the path again,
     and lead us safely home.
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, we pray.  Amen.

Good and angry

I remember watching this cartoon Sunday evenings on Walt Disney.  It was originally made in 1950, long before the term “road rage” became part of the vernacular.

The message it taught me was that being angry is bad.  Raised in a Christian home, I equated “bad” with “sinful.”  Therefore, being angry was not compatible with Christ-like living.

Gary Chapman corrects this error in his book Anger: Handling a Powerful Emotion Anger: Handling a Powerful Emotion in a Healthy Wayin a Healthy Way, arguing how being angry can actually reveal our Godliness.  He writes:

…The human capacity for anger is rooted in the nature of God.  …When God sees evil, He experiences anger.  Anger is His logical response to injustice or unrighteousness…

Anger is not evil; anger is not sinful; anger is not a part of our fallen nature; anger is not Satan at work in our lives.  Quite the contrary.  Anger is evidence that we are made in God’s image; it demonstrates that we still have some concern for justice and righteousness in spite of our fallen estate.  The capacity for anger is strong evidence that we are more than mere animals.  It reveals our concern for rightness, justice, and fairness.  The experience of anger is evidence of our nobility, not our depravity. (pp. 18-21)

The book goes on to explain how we are prone to getting angry about the wrong things and to expressing our anger in destructive (read: sinful) ways.  However, Chapman’s underlying thesis connecting anger with God’s nature is a helpful corrective to some of things we may have incorrectly assumed about this emotion.