When I was a new believer, I hungered for a deeper relationship with God. I followed the example of a mentor in my life who had taken a focused time to work his way through past sins as a means for drawing near to God, confessing them one by one, category by category. Over the course of several days in a summer vacation, I brought my sins to the foot of the Cross in the presence of the Lord. I started this process with excitement, eager to draw near in vulnerability to God, but over time I slowly grew overwhelmed by the multitude of ways I had turned away from God in the course of my life. When I finally completed the process of confessing sin over those days, I needed to read and re-read portions of Scripture about the forgiveness assured to me by faith in Jesus Christ. Certain verses struck me as incredibly powerful: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21) and “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). In his work of art, All My Sin, Ted Prescott relies heavily on process to create the final piece. In this work, Prescott first took a month to write all his sins that he could remember on paper (“a creepy and depressing list,” he writes). After shredding that paper, he inserted the bits into four open forms of glass that were heated up, sealed, and then cooled over the course of a day. The paper turned to ash and blackened the glass from the inside. The final work reflects the process of confession but also the process of Jesus’ work on the Cross. Jesus took upon Himself our sin and entered into the darkness of what sin does to us, in death and separation from the Father. Jesus did this so that we might have life to the full (John 10:10). Lent reminds us that when we bring our sins to the Cross of Christ, our creepy and depressing list of wrongs can be transformed by Christ, leading us into life, love, and forgiveness. One portion of Scripture I have never forgotten from that extended season of confession I mentioned earlier is a verse which we all might benefit from committing to memory: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Begin with Brokenness: An Ash Wednesday Sermon
Last week at Eastbrook’s “Journey to the Cross” service, I shared this message for Ash Wednesday rooted in Joel 2:12-17.
Sometimes what’s broken can become more beautiful and stronger than before.
In the Japanese artform kintsugi broken pieces of pottery are taken by an artist and repaired by mending the imperfections with a lacquer infused with powdered gold. Instead of flaws to be hidden, the imperfections become part of the beauty and strength of the vessel worth highlighting.
Kintsugi speaks about two realities we experience in our lives and in the world all the time. One the one hand, things are not the way they should be, and on the other hand, beauty can break forth unexpectedly from brokenness.
The journey of Lent is like this. On the one hand we travel a shocking, broken road with Jesus in Jerusalem. He is hailed as King at His triumphal entry. Many people flock to hear His powerful words and teaching. They watch Him cause a scandal in the religious center. He shows the fruitlessness of dead religion and turns expectations upside down. But what started with great acclaim turns to dark destruction as Jesus eventually is crucified in Jerusalem. His body beaten. His blood poured out. His suffering for us.
“He took up our pain and bore our suffering” (Isaiah 53:4). On the one hand, Jesus’ journey is difficult.
On the other hand, we discover that Jesus’ difficult pathway to the Cross is God’s pathway for bringing what is good. God brings life, healing, forgiveness, change, and transformation through the sacrifice of Jesus upon the Cross. He turns an upside-down world right-side up. It’s the sort of thing we describe with the Bible word “salvation.” The Apostle Paul describes the wonderful paradox of Lent in 1 Corinthians:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God….For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 25)
Sometimes what’s broken can become more beautiful and powerful than before. We see this in the life and ministry of Jesus.
We see that with God’s work in our own lives as well. On the one hand, we all know that despite appearances we’re not all we’re cracked up to be. We have sinned and we are broken. We experience that in our relationships, in our pursuits, and inside of ourselves. Lent gives us an opportunity to pull off the mask before God and before others and just be our real selves.
To name before God and others that things are not right and we still need God’s healing, redemption, and salvation in our lives. As Paul says: “I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin” (Romans 7:25).
On the other hand, God can bring beautiful transformation in our lives by His grace and truth. We are never castoff by God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). We are all trophies of God’s grace, prizes of Jesus’ rescue mission.
Sometimes what’s broken can become more beautiful and stronger than before…and that’s even true of us.
But sometimes we can forget all this. Like someone with a case of amnesia we forget why we’re here and what we’re all about. Like someone lost in the forest, we become disoriented and forget which way we are supposed to go. And so, we move through our daily routines without thinking or feeling. Like someone who wakes up in the morning without having a jolt from their daily cup of coffee, we’re groggy in a dreamworld and lacking touch with reality. This touches our life with God as well, both individually and as a community. Amnesiac, disoriented, and groggy, when Lent arrives, we tend to just go through the motions. We give up something. We read the devotional. We participate in the Journey to the Cross service.
But the prophet Joel snaps us awake with his stark words:
“Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.” (Joel 2:13)
Sometimes what’s broken can become more beautiful and stronger than before. The prophet Joel calls out to a people sinking in the waves of sin and idolatry. He calls them to turn around from their wrong ways and seek after God. Drawing on the action common with repentance, an outward tearing of garments, the prophet tells the people to tear their hearts, to break them up, before God.
Right alongside his invitation to break our heart with repentance—to turn to God—Joel reminds everyone that God is ready to meet us with His patience, forgiveness, and unyielding love. He takes the broken places of our lives and restores them, infusing these imperfections with His inestimably valuable grace, truth, holiness, and love.
Lent begins with brokenness. It begins with realizing the ways we have strayed from God. We turn back, tearing our hearts open with confession, bringing to Him the places where we are broken, and presenting to Him our lives. Twentieth-century novelist Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Now, that may be true generally, but with Lent, we do not place ourselves at the mercy of an anonymous world, but in the hands of a loving God who graciously remakes us through Christ.
Sometimes what’s broken can become more beautiful and stronger than before.
The Weekend Wanderer: 19 February 2022
“The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like. Disclaimer: I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles
“I’ve Reached My Breaking Point as a Pastor” – Peter Chin in CT Pastors: “A new Barna study discovered that 38 percent of pastors have given real, serious consideration to quitting the ministry in the past year. I am one of that 38 percent. Even in the best of times, pastoral ministry has always felt like a broad and heavy calling. But the events of the past few years have made it a crushing one. The presidential election. Unrest around racial injustice. A global pandemic that has taken the lives of over 800,000 Americans. Never before had I considered health protocols in the context of the church. But today, being too strict with health guidelines might damage the well-being of the church, while being too lax might take the life of a congregant. Pastors like me have to deal with the never-ending conversation about in-person versus online services—and how to serve churchgoers without leaving behind the immunocompromised or disabled. All of this has injected a paralyzing degree of complexity and controversy into every single situation I face, every decision I make. And to make things worse, it feels as if everyone is on a hair trigger, ready to walk away at the merest hint that the church does not line up with their political or personal perspectives. Normally, pastors might rely on their personal relationships to navigate such fraught dynamics. But COVID-19 has taken that away as well, forcing us to rely on phone calls and video screens—which are no substitutes for physical presence.”
“Scraps of Thoughts on Daily Prayer” – Tim Keller at his blog: “There are three kinds of prayer I try to find time for every day – meditation (or contemplation), petition, and repentance. I concentrate on the first two every morning and do the last one in the evening. Meditation is actually a middle ground or blend of Bible reading and prayer. I like to use Luther’s contemplative method that he outlines in his famous letter on prayer that he wrote to his barber. The basic method is this – to take a Scriptural truth and ask three questions of it. How does this show me something about God to praise? How does this show me something about myself to confess? How does this show me something I need to ask God for? Adoration, confession, and supplication. Luther proposes that we keep meditating like this until our hearts begin to warm and melt under a sense of the reality of God. Often that doesn’t happen. Fine. We aren’t ultimately praying in order to get good feelings or answers, but in order to honor God for who he is in himself.”
“Learning to Love Your Limits” – An interview with Kelly M. Kapic by Erin Straza for Christianity Today: “Being human can be very frustrating. We’re always long on demands but short on time and energy. And so we redouble our efforts, searching for the magical time-management hack that will allow us to cram more life into our waking hours so that we can live the most efficient and productive life possible. Yet even as we strain against our natural limits, ultimately they cannot (and should not) be overcome, because God designed them for our good. That’s the premise underlying Covenant College theologian Kelly M. Kapic’s latest book, You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News. Persuasion podcast cohost Erin Straza spoke with Kapic about the beauty of our human limits and the freedom that comes when we learn to embrace God’s design for a meaningful life.”
“Can You Go Home Again?” – Bill Kauffman reviews Grace Olmstead’s Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind in Modern Age: “Uprooted is the young, Idaho-bred, D.C.-area journalist Grace Olmstead’s book-length grappling with the question ‘Will I move back?’ It’s a good and thoughtful and searching book, comprising equal parts family memoir, meditation on the cause and cost and consequences of uprooting, and reportage on her native ground’s besiegement by ‘economic consolidation, suburban development, and brain drain.’ The only member of her clan who departed the Mountain Time Zone, Olmstead is acutely aware of the place she left behind, in that self-conscious way of the expatriate. Lord Acton said that exile is the nursery of nationalism, but in Uprooted Olmstead is a clear-eyed and analytical guide to her home state, oozing neither treacle nor bile.”
“When Jesus Doubted God: Perspectives from Calvin on Post-Traumatic Faith” – Preston Hill in The Other Journal: “The willingness to witness trauma is often autobiographical. This is true of me in my role as a professor of theology who is active in our university’s Institute of Trauma and Recovery. During my postgraduate education, I tried to stay in one lane and focus solely on Reformation theology and history. That would have been clean and tidy—theology in the academy, and trauma in the real world. But trauma and recovery has pursued me and refused to let go. No one starts from nowhere. We all carry stories that frame our daily professions and relationships. So how did I end up teaching integration of theology and psychology to trauma therapists after completing postgraduate research in John Calvin? I am still not sure. But I do know that these thought worlds, separate as they might seem, are deeply integrated in me, the person; that we cannot help but be who we are; and that there is a clear reward to integrating our professional lives with our lived experiences. A person-centered, holistic approach to life may just be what the world, divided as it is today by endless abstract classifications, is hungry for. What we may need is to encounter reality fresh and face-to-face, whether that reality is violent or beautiful. As a professor of theology and pastoral counselor, I have had the privilege of witnessing countless students and friends share stories of surviving violence. I have also had the privilege of sharing my story with them. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I live daily with the symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) that affect every aspect of my life. Recovery has been slow and steady. The journey is long, but the friends on the road are more numerous than I had assumed, even in the academy. Indeed, it has been a privilege to research trauma with fellow survivors and witnesses who are keen to explore how theology can be reimagined in our ‘east of Eden’ world.”
“David Brooks Wants to Save Evangelicalism” – Russell Moore interviews New York Times columnist David Brooks on The Russell Moore Show: “‘Are the times we’re living in really as crazy as they seem?’ This is the first question that Russell Moore has for David Brooks, a New York Times op-ed columnist, author, and commentator. Brooks’s recent column “The Dissenters Trying to Save Evangelicalism From Itself” details some of the unsettling, disheartening events within evangelicalism over the past few years and highlights several individuals who are trying to forge a different path. On this episode of The Russell Moore Show, Brooks and Moore discuss many types of people that ‘evangelical’ can describe. They talk about the difficulties of resisting the climate of the times. And they talk about what politics are meant to do and be.”
Music: Jon Foreman, “The House of God Forever,” from Spring and Summer
A Prayer for Purification
“Is not my word like fire, says the Lord,
and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29)
burn our hearts, O Lord,
with Your pure word.
You, who are consuming fire,
in whose radiant holiness none can stand,
come with refining heat
to purify our wayward hearts
and with Your pure word,
O Lord, burn our hearts.
break our hearts, O Lord,
with Your hammer-strong word.
You, who made all things,
who raise up and throw down,
come with pure fire
to shatter our hardened longings
and with Your hammer-strong word,
O Lord, break our hearts.
What is the Unforgivable Sin?: insights from John Calvin
While studying for my message, “The Messiah and Satan,” from this past weekend at Eastbrook, I spent a good deal of time studying the nature of the unforgivable, or unpardonable, sin. Jesus says the following provocative words:
“And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:31-32)
There are a wide variety of opinions on this, but it seems pretty clear that Jesus is not talking about simply grieving the Holy Spirit or resisting the Holy Spirit one time, but the steady rejection of God and His work manifested in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit’s power. I found these words from John Calvin within an extended section on regeneration and repentance with his Institutes of the Christian Religion to be particularly helpful. While not without his faults and blind spots (like all of us), Calvin is an astute commentator on Scripture.
Here, however, let us give the true definition, which, when once it is established by sound evidence, will easily of itself overturn all the others. I say therefore that he sins against the Holy Spirit who, while so constrained by the power of divine truth that he cannot plead ignorance, yet deliberately resists, and that merely for the sake of resisting. For Christ, in explanation of what he had said, immediately adds, ‘Whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him; but whosoever speaketh against the holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him,’ (Mt. 12:31). And Matthew uses the term spirit of blasphemy for blasphemy against the Spirit. How can any one insult the Son, without at the same time attacking the Spirit? In this way. Those who in ignorance assail the unknown truth of God, and yet are so disposed that they would be unwilling to extinguish the truth of God when manifested to them, or utter one word against him whom they knew to be the Lord’s Anointed, sin against the Father and the Son. Thus there are many in the present day who have the greatest abhorrence to the doctrine of the Gospel, and yet, if they knew it to be the doctrine of the Gospel, would be prepared to venerate it with their whole heart. But those who are convinced in conscience that what they repudiate and impugn is the word of God, and yet cease not to impugn it, are said to blaspheme against the Spirit, inasmuch as they struggle against the illumination which is the work of the Spirit. Such were some of the Jews, who, when they could not resist the Spirit speaking by Stephen, yet were bent on resisting (Acts 6:10). There can be no doubt that many of them were carried away by zeal for the law; but it appears that there were others who maliciously and impiously raged against God himself, that is, against the doctrine which they knew to be of God. Such, too, were the Pharisees, on whom our Lord denounced woe. To depreciate the power of the Holy Spirit, they defamed him by the name of Beelzebub (Mt. 9:3, 4; 12:24). The spirit of blasphemy, therefore, is, when a man audaciously, and of set purpose, rushes forth to insult his divine name. This Paul intimates when he says, ‘but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief;’ otherwise he had deservedly been held unworthy of the grace of God. If ignorance joined with unbelief made him obtain pardon, it follows, that there is no room for pardon when knowledge is added to unbelief.John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter 3, Section 22