If I Knew Then What I Know Now

Watching the Oscars wasn’t on my must-see TV list for Sunday night, but I have been amused at the mix-up with the “Best Picture” winner. Everyone has an opinion on who dropped the ball. There’s a huge difference between assigning blame and someone taking it. Harry Truman, in good Kansan fashion, said “The Buck Stops Here!” The acceptance of responsibility is refreshing in our blame-everyone-else world. Blaming your parents, your environment, the government, your DNA, and your whatever and whomever is just too easy to do. It’s certainly a lot easier than taking responsibility.

I’m sure Price-Waterhouse appreciates the saying, “If I knew then what I know now, things would be different.” It is an easy mantra to use when it’s too late. It excuses poor past decisions. Wouldn’t it be better if we counted the cost of our decisions ahead of time? In this season of tax forms and filings, we ought to know that the IRS knows how to do math so we better get it right. No excuse. Similarly, God’s E.R.S., Eternal Revenue Service, can also do math. On the balance scales of life we need to realize that “what goes around, comes around.” There’s payback. Even with the grace of God, we’re all found out as poor mathematicians.

People throw away relationships, their lives, and a lot of everything else because of poor choices. We need to take responsibility before it’s shoved onto us. A good friend has a lot of sayings. Most famously, “There’s no lesson learned in the second kick of a mule.” Frankly, I’ve been kicked by a lot of the same mules. I didn’t learn my lesson.

This Is Us isn’t just a TV show that’s taking the country by storm because of fine acting, or the past and future cliffhanging clues in each episode. It’s a hit because it truly is the story of us. We see bits of ourselves in every show. The same could be true if we took a long look at human history. It repeats itself too much. We must not, however, yield to the fatalism that says that it has to.

Lent gives us a chance to take a long look at our choices and lives, and change them with God’s help. The word “Lent” has its root in the Old English “lencten” from whence we get our modern word “lengthen.” The days grow longer in the spring of the year so during these solemn days before Easter we should take a longer look at our lives and repent, re-think and change our ways. It’s time for me to learn something, do something about it, and not make the same old mistakes.

I was looking through a book filled with stories, humor, anecdotes, and noticed there were pages and pages about the subject of “success,” and only half a page on “temptation.” Seems like the opposite should be true. If it weren’t for temptation, I might have more success! Temptations are distractions from what’s important, and oftentimes it’s a “W/who” that is most important. Sometimes it’s a spouse, a child, or others. Truth be told, it’s always God – the big W, WHO, that we continually let down. When we let God down, it’s all downhill for everyone and everything else affected by our decision making.

Lent helps us to get back on track. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God…” The problem is that we usually don’t figure that out until AFTER we’ve messed up. There is good news, however. Lent ends in Easter. Thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, our sins of omission and commission are forgiven if we want them to be. The end of the story overshadows the beginning. This is how Christianity trumps history every time. When Jesus is really Lord of our lives we get to make it through the valley of death, sin, and even the solemnity of Lent with the absolute knowledge that Jesus has already been resurrected.

It’s like the order of the installments in Star Wars. The original trilogy came out as episodes 4, 5, and 6, and then there was the prequel trilogy of episodes 1, 2, and 3, and “Rogue One” fits between episodes 3 and 4. We also have a sequel trilogy of 7, 8, and 9, with only 7 having hit the theaters. It’s confusing, but, here’s the deal: Some people watch in chronological order, some in theatrical release order, and some of us just watch them in the order of the ones we like. Anyway, the point is that Star Wars’ order helps me look at Easter’s retroactive and proactive effect on our lives: Episode 6 lets us know the Empire loses and the prequels let us know how we got into this mess to start with. Episode 7 and the next installments are what’s coming, but we already know the victory is already won.

Easter does the same thing! We know the end before the beginning! The resurrection speaks to what’s come before and should change everything in the future! Easter is God’s story from the beginning of time to its end. Though I have temptations, sins, and failures in the past, I know the sequel – God wins! This doesn’t let me off the repentance hook, but it does inspire me to shape up before my final installment occurs. Just like Star Wars, the New Testament sequel is always better than the Old Testament prequel! My after-Jesus life should be better than my before-Jesus one: “If I knew then what I know now, things would be different.” Right?


Repentance in the District Office!

Today I begin to stack my office with pottery for the UM Center employees. Tonight I will give away nearly a hundred little angel ornaments to the active and retired clergy of the Columbia District. They look a little funky. Hey, I tried making elaborate angels with tipped multilayered wings but the angles on those angels (pun intended) about ruined my Advent hope. Those wings were impossible! Instead I opted for simple angels which my children say look more like plump bald ghosts or mini-me’s that they have dubbed “Timanents” because I more than vaguely resemble the aforementioned description. Ha!

I wanted to start over, recycle the clay, REPENT! Too late, today’s the day and tonight’s the night. I got rushed with the gifts for the UM Center, Cabinet, and family, too. I panicked enough that I pressed Caleb and Josh into service. They helped me glaze and let’s just say that we ended up with some color combinations that stretch the notion of a pleasing color spectrum. Sunday afternoon, out of sheer disgust, I hosed off the unfired glaze from the few remaining pieces so they can dry and I get a do-over before our family Christmas gathering on the 22nd. On top of all this my impatience got exacerbated when one of my kiln’s thermocouples failed. I have rebuilt that kiln for nearly 2 decades but I have never had to replace a thermocouple. Shudder!

Anyway, the parts have come in and I now have to get up my nerve to deal with ELECTRICITY. Please pray for the gift recipients of this “Charlie Brown Christmas.” I repent, I repent, and I repent some more. I should have paced myself enough to enjoy the artistic process, used careful planning and execution to get the glazes right, and factored in the possibility of equipment failure. But, no…… and I’m caught. Today it begins, ready or not! Repentance without reformation is the definition of stupidity. Saying “I’m sorry,” without any change in behavior is a pretty transparent failure to the dear woman who married me 37 years ago. I can say that I’m sorry that I didn’t get ready for Advent/Christmas, and Jesus’ First or Second Coming, but there’s that point in time when time runs out! A feeble last second “Sorry!” doesn’t cut it unless I change my ways and get my act together.

A friend of mine, Dr. Jim Harnish, who is Senior Pastor of Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, Florida, has a Garrison Keillor Christmas story he likes to use during Advent. It’s about people making their reluctant trek back to Lake Wobegon for Christmas. They have moved away, become smart and sophisticated, but they nevertheless make their way back home. Many annually go to Christmas Eve Mass and listen to Father Emil at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Catholic Church. Every year he blasts them for not living up to their vows, in spite of it being Christmas Eve.

Others go to Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church. One of Keillor’s classic descriptions is about Larry Sorenson’s annual Christmas visit to church: “Larry the Sad Boy was there, who was saved twelve times in the Lutheran Church, an all-time record. Between 1953 and 1961, he threw himself weeping and contrite on God’s throne of grace on twelve separate occasions – and this in a Lutheran church that wasn’t evangelical, had no altar call, no organist playing ‘Just As I Am Without One Plea’ while a choir hummed and a guy with shiny hair took hold of your heartstrings and played you like a cheap guitar – this is the Lutheran Church, not a bunch of hillbillies these are Scandinavians, and they repent in the same way that they sin: discreetly, tastefully, at the proper time, and bring a Jell-O salad for afterward. Larry Sorenson came forward weeping buckets and crumpled up at the communion rail, to the amazement of the minister, who had delivered a dry sermon about stewardship, and who now had to put his arm around this limp, soggy individual and pray with him and see if he had a ride home. Twelve times. Even the fundamentalists got tired of him. Granted, we’re born in original sin and are worthless and vile, but twelve conversions are too many. God didn’t mean us to feel guilt all our lives. There comes a point when you should dry your tears and join the building committee and start grappling with the problems of the church furnace and the church roof and make church coffee and be of use, but Larry kept on repenting and repenting.”

Jim Harnish and my pottery dilemma 2012 remind me that Advent is a time of repenting; but it’s also an urgent call to rise up from repenting and be of use! So wail I will for more than a few moments about things I shouldn’t have done or left undone, but the time has come TODAY to move on and really do something to get ready for Jesus. Talk is cheap and I owe the Birthday Boy more than that!

Ash Wednesday Reflection

Lent is a season that calls for action, real repentance and authentic forgiveness. I remember well the old ritual we used to use for Holy Communion. It was an emotional bummer in many ways. I’m not saying what we have today is glee and gladness but at least it’s Eucharistic and more focused on thanksgiving for God’s grace than us “bewailing our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time most grievously have committed in thought, word, and deed.” At least it went something like that. I remember leaving Holy Communion services feeling somewhat worse about my spiritual state than I did beforehand. Was that such a bad thing? It did make me straighten up and ponder the depths of my being.

Although I like the upbeat God-focused tenor of the current Communion service, I do need more time in repentance than a brief prayer and a few seconds of silent confession. If by nature Holy Communion is a sacrament that mysteriously conveys Christ’s Real Presence then it should be taken more seriously than a “Jesus Snack,” which I heard one children’s sermon presenter call it. I need to recapture the depth of repentance that is part and parcel of true communing with God. I also need to own my real sorrow over the sins that I’ve committed.

To be honest, many of my sins are directly against God but most reach God through the conduit of my actions against people. Haven’t you felt belittled, slighted, or otherwise demeaned by someone? Often when we have been treated in such a way, we get even. We curse back or at the very least feel resentment. We may even feel some self-righteous smugness that we have been unfairly assailed and claim a higher ground that is more sham humility than the real reconciliation. I cannot relish any thought of being better than the attacker if I don’t admit my own sins. Nobody’s perfect, yet the Scripture (Matthew 5:48) says “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In its context this Scripture is all about God being perfect in loving everyone, both good and bad.

That’s a tall order when someone has wronged us. To quote from my devotional this morning from The One Year at His Feet by Chris Tiegreen, “No, Jesus gives no attention to whether our feelings are legitimate (when we’re upset with someone). That is not the point. Our feelings may be entirely accurate. What Jesus calls for, instead, is absolutely counterintuitive to the human experience: a rejection of our resentments and bitterness, no matter how appropriate they are. We are to love even when love grates against our souls. While we hope for the downfall of our enemies, Jesus actually expects us to pray for blessings to rain down upon them.” Wow!

The action that Lent calls us to do is a call to love when we’ve been wronged and especially when the person never ever says they’re sorry or asks for forgiveness. It can be called “unilateral forgiveness.” Unilateral literally means “one-sided.” Jesus modeled a one-sided unilateral forgiveness. For instance there’s no evidence in the Gospels that anyone ever asked Jesus to forgive them but Jesus did it anyway! The handicapped guy whose buddies lowered him through the roof didn’t ask for forgiveness but Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The sinful woman with the alabaster jar of ointment didn’t ask for forgiveness, but Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your sins are forgiven.” On the cross, with no pleas from the soldiers and crowd for forgiveness, Jesus really modeled unilateral forgiveness when he said, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

A valid call to action this Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent is to model Christ’s love and forgiveness. Unilateral forgiveness sets prisoners free and more often than not the prisoners are you and me. May we repent and be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect – in love!