The Freedom of Forgiveness Received

13 Dec

Image result for the freedom of forgiveness

In the Gospels Jesus tells the story of a certain servant who owed millions of dollars to a king.  When the king requested an accounting of the debt, the servant couldn’t pay.  The king ordered the servant, the servant’s wife, children and all his possession to be sold to pay the balance.  Horrified, the servant fell on his knees before the king, pleading for time.  The king, filled with pity, forgave the entire debt.  The man left rejoicing until he bumped into another servant who owed him a few thousand dollars.  The first servant violently demanded that this other servant pay him immediately.  When the man could not, he had him thrown into prison until the debt was paid in full.  Word of this got back to the king who called in the man he had forgiven.  How could he have his enormous debt forgiven and then go out and choose not to forgive the small amount this other man owed him?  The king, astounded and angry, reinstated the large debt and threw the man in prison until he paid every penny.  Jesus’ concludes by remarking, “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters in your heart.” (NLT)

It is a story familiar to us; perhaps too familiar.  All of us can share probably numerous personal illustrations of broken relationships, bitterness, and grudges.  We wonder when we’ll ever experience the full life that Jesus promised he came to give us.  Jesus skillfully used this parable to illustrate that this full life should never include grudges or bitterness toward people for anything they do to us.  Symbolically, and certainly in reality, forgiveness frees us.  We see in the parable the joy of the first servant, who, if he had not received forgiveness from the king, would have remained locked in a prison, despairing for his lost wife and family and everything he had.  Sadly, like us, he returned to that prison as a result of his inability to receive forgiveness and show it to others.  I know from firsthand experience that this parable is true-to-life.  I am that first servant.


The Crime

In the fall of 1991 just eleven months after passing my driver’s license test, I had been driving with no accidents, no tickets, and basically thought I was the best driver in the nation.  I remember how much fun it was trying to push the limits.  My parents’ drive to church, for example, took about fifteen to twenty minutes; I did it once in eight.  It was a video game to me rather than the responsibility it should have been.  Like I said, I hadn’t gotten into any trouble, no tickets for speeding, no accidents because of recklessness, though I had a few close calls.  But don’t we all?  On Sunday November 3rd, 1991, I went to church with my family and couldn’t wait for it to be done so I could rush home, shovel down dinner, and leave to play football with the guys from church, our Sunday afternoon tradition.  After lunch, my brother, Jeff, and I hopped into my parent’s early 1980s AMC Concord station-wagon.  Yellow with imitation wood grain paneling on the sides, it is a model hardly seen on the roads now twenty years after its manufacture.  We picked up his friend, Chad, my friend, Dave, and sped over to Lancaster Christian School for the game.

I knew the back way to LCS very well because my brother, sister, and I all attended there through 8th grade.  Part of that back way took us south on Kissel Hill Road just to the east of the Lancaster Airport.  It was a beautiful fall day, cool, clear, and crisp.  I clearly remember driving on the section of Kissel Hill Road between Millport Road and Oregon Road.  As I came over the crest of one small hill, I hit the gas and we felt the car lurch into high gear.  Sounding like I knew what I was talking about, I made some inane comment about the car “doing good today because it hit third gear at 70 mph.”  Dave, who hadn’t yet put on his seatbelt, responded that he’d better do so!  Little did he suspect that his caution might have saved his life.  As he fumbled with the belt, I saw an Amish buggy about 100 yards in front of us in our lane, heading the same direction as us.  I said to everyone in the car something like, “I’m going to blow by these guys.”  I thought I was so incredibly cool.

For those of us in Lancaster County, accustomed to the Amish community within our borders, the sight of Amish horse and buggies is commonplace.  Lancaster is known world-wide as a hotspot of Amish culture.  Thousands of tourists visit each year hoping to catch a glimpse of gray horse and buggies on the roads or of Amish families in their traditional black and blue outfits.  Subject to religious persecution in Europe, the Amish journeyed to the New World in search of their own promised land.  Their culture and customs have remained, for the most part, exactly as they were centuries ago when they first came to America.  The Amish know English, for example, but talk amongst themselves in their Pennsylvania Dutch/German dialect.  All Lancastrians can tell you stories about how their culture is changing incrementally, but there is no denying that the Amish have maintained a traditional culture in the midst of a progressive one.  The changes and pressures of a farming county that is rapidly blossoming into a wealthy suburban county have, however, over the last few decades, soured many Amish to their Lancaster County soil.  As neighborhoods and business parks cover farmland, hundreds of Amish families have migrated to quieter farmlands in such places as Indiana and Mexico.

This small second exodus has done little to change the face of the Amish in Lancaster.  Buggies are still regulars on country roads like that one I traveled.  By and large, the American culture in Lancaster treats the Amish just as they do their slow-moving buggies, taking them for granted and passing them by.  The standard legal practice for passing buggies is to slow down behind them, put your left turn signal on, verify that the left-hand lane is clear ahead, pull over the double-yellow lines into the left-hand land, pass the buggy, put your right-turn signal on, and move back over the double-yellow into the right-hand land.  For some this drill is a nuisance: “They slow our progress.  Their metal rims wear ruts into our roads, and their horses make a stinking mess everywhere.”  This minority view with its accompanying round of Amish jokes can be contrasted, as most Lancastrians will tell you, by the accurate description of the Amish as extremely hard-working, peaceful, and prosperous.

I stomped on the gas again, now doing about 70-75 mph and steered the car into the left lane to pass the buggy.  As we raced closer to the buggy, I will never, ever forget seeing the nose of the horse turn out in front of me.  Instantly I knew they were trying to turn in front of me.  I hadn’t looked for, nor had I seen their turn signal or the small country road they were attempting to turn left onto.  Instinct took over as I pounded the brake pedal with my foot.  The brakes locked and the car skidded forward, tires screaming.  We smashed into the buggy, and I heard the POP of my windshield shattering into tiny pieces of glass.  The buggy flew over top of the car and we rumbled to a stop in the field to the left.  My hands, gripped tight to the wheel, were streaming with blood, but only from shards of windshield glass that grazed my knuckles.  I still have a tiny scar in between two knuckles on my left hand, a constant reminder that basically nothing happened to me.

Dave never quite got his seatbelt buckled.  When I hit the brakes, he grabbed the shoulder belt and held on with both hands.  The belt locked and swung him around like Tarzan and his left shoulder hit the windshield.  Possibly his shoulder, but maybe the buggy, broke the windshield.  Other than soreness, though, neither he, Jeff, nor Chad were hurt.  Dave’s father, who visited the scene that evening after it was cleared, later told us that the skidmarks from the car quite visibly ran off the road, missing a telephone pole by about 12 inches.  It all happened so fast, I do not even remember seeing a telephone pole.

After making sure everyone in my car was okay, I tried to open my door but the collision had jammed it shut.  Just then an Amish man came running up to our car yelling frantically, “Does anyone know CPR?  Does anyone know CPR?”  At 17, I was the oldest in the car.  I think Dave had a bit of training, but we were not prepared for what we saw after we got out.  We walked down to the crash site, and there the Amish man was holding from behind the crumpled pile of what looked like his mother.  She was severely injured, convulsing, and definitely missing teeth.  I told Jeff and Chad to run to the nearest homes, which in that area were all farms, to find a phone and call 911.  They sprinted across the fields, so riveted on getting to a phone that my brother never even saw the Amish lady.  He remembers that the fields were recently plowed, as though he was running sluggishly on a sandy beach.  A very frustrating prospect when all you want is to get to a phone as fast as possible.  My brother’s race to the phone is the first instance of many in which I realize the extreme pain my sin brought not only to the Amish family, but also to my family.  Imagine being a 13 year old, running with all your might to get to a phone to call 911 because your older brother had caused an awful accident?  Dave and I stayed and flagged down cars hoping someone might have a mobile phone, which at that time was still a rarity.  I tugged at his shirt in desperation saying something like “What do we do?”


Immediate Aftermath

Eventually cars stopped, and a policeman and an EMT/ambulance crew came to scene.  That was a huge relief for me.  A family friend who was driving by picked Jeff up from the scene and dropped him off at our home.  He was the first to inform my parents, and together with my dad returned to pick me up.  On their way back to the accident they could see from a distance the car in the field, the buggy unrecognizable.  Imagine the dreadful feeling of driving to the scene of devastation that your son caused.  How that must have felt for my dad!  As my dad and I sat in the back seat of the police cruiser, I don’t remember much except fear and an overwhelming desire to tell the truth, to get what I knew was a weighty burden off my back.  The officer gave my dad and me a few moments alone after I had blurted some initial details.  We figured he left us to ourselves then so we could go over the details of the story together, possibly to come up with a spin that didn’t make me so culpable for the accident.  I knew it was horrible, so I told him exactly what happened, even that I was going at least 70 mph.  They were able to confirm that later anyway by the length of the skid marks.  I came to find out in the coming weeks that the officer was really impressed with my honesty.  At the time I was simply scared to death of any further trouble.  Lying was not an option.  I didn’t know if I was going to jail, the local juvenile detention center, Barnes Hall, or some other awful place.  But the cop let me go home with my dad clearly stating that there would be follow up.

I’ll never forget what my dad said in response to my rather tepid apologies as we drove away, “You’ve been through enough.  We’re not going to make it worse for you.”  He was right, and I’m very glad for it.  It was already bad, about to get worse.  When we arrived at our house, less than five minutes away, my mom met me at the door.  I must have spent the next half hour just crying on my mom’s shoulder.  As the news got out many family and friends showed their love and support by coming over to do nothing and everything at the same time: be there.  The friends from church who we were on our way to meet stopped their football game and came over, dirty and disheveled from the game.  Gradually a herd of my school and church friends migrated to our house to show support.  That in itself was meaningful because I had rarely attempted to mix these two groups of people.  I think they even prayed together.

As I was with my friends huddled downstairs in my basement, my parents called me upstairs to my bedroom to tell me that the police officer had just called with a report about the Amish lady who had been taken to the hospital.  Due to permanent brain damage, she needed life support to stay alive.  Since the Amish don’t believe in life support, she died that night in the hospital.  The horrible news began to pile on top of me.  The Amish lady, the officer told us, wasn’t the mother of the man.  It was his wife.  More than that, it was his newlywed bride, and they had been on their honeymoon.  They had only been married for 5 days, he was 21 years old, and she was 19.  Traditionally, November is the Amish marrying season, and they were on their customary Amish honeymoon travels, visiting a few days in one relative’s home then moving on to another and another and so on.  In the midst of that bliss, she was dead, and I had killed her.  It was, and still is by far, the worst day of my life.  My mother recalls that she held me crying in her arms while my dad and brother sat next to me on the bed, and my 9 year old sister Laura was convinced I was going to jail!  Eventually everyone left our house, but God and I talked long into the night.

The next day my parents let me stay home from school, and actually, one of my friend’s parents let him stay home with me.  He picked me up and we watched Monty Python videos to get our minds off the disaster.  In the middle of Live at the Hollywood Bowl, my parents called.  They had found out from my uncle, who had connections in the Amish community, that the viewing was going to be that day, and they told me that I was going.  It was extremely frightening news.  Yet it signals the depth of my parents’ character.  I know my dad later told people that it was the hardest thing they ever had to do.  As a parent of a 6 and 5 year old now, I can hardly imagine what I would do if I was in their shoes.  How would I handle this horrible thing my son did?  How responsible would I feel?  And what would my reaction be?  Step by step through the process of dealing with my sin, my parents did everything right.  In a world where so many want to shift blame, especially when their children mess up, my parents stood by me and guided me through handling this situation in a God-honoring, responsible and truthful manner.

That evening, my parents, my youth pastor (who had only been at our church for 3 months…it still amazes me that he came…another example of godly commitment), and I went to where we thought the viewing was going to be.  I felt so nervous there was actually pain ripping across my guts.  I didn’t know what these people were like (shows how much this Lancastrian cared about the Amish sub-culture as I grew up around it) or what was going to happen.  Would they come pouring out of the porch of the house with shotguns?  That was literally the image in my mind.  We got the house and it didn’t seem like anyone was home.  We had mistakenly been given the location, not of the viewing, but of the husband’s family’s home.  Some of his relatives were inside, and my mom remembers his grandmother coming out to meet us, hugging me and expressing her forgiveness.  This kind gesture I do not recall, most likely due to the fact that in my mind the worst was yet to come.  Amazingly the husband’s father was there and needed a ride to the viewing.  So we took him with us, and he led the way.  The father, while very reserved, wasn’t mean to us, and even expressed his forgiveness.  But can you imagine driving to the viewing of your son’s new wife with the family of the guy who was responsible for her death?

When we finally made it to the viewing, we saw Amish buggies parked all over the farm property, heightening my fear.  This was a tragedy in the life of Lancaster’s Amish community, drawing many to support the family and attend the viewing.  A loss in what was supposed to be a joyful season made the front page of the local paper.  Then the moment came.  We got out of the car and walked into the dimly lit house.  My mom mentioned that because the father-in-law was with us we didn’t have to go through the painful process of knocking on the door, we were immediately ushered into the house.  I had never been in an Amish home and was surprised at how similar it looked to my own.  The family, through the grapevine, knew that we were coming and met us in the front room.  The parents of the Amish lady who died, Melvin and Barbara Stoltzfus, walked up to me and put their arms around me.  Through tears I muttered how sorry I was, and they spoke some of the most incredible words that I think are possible to utter, “We forgive you, we know it was God’s time for her to die.”

Unbelievable.  It was totally, absolutely amazing.  But they went even further than that!  They proceeded to invite my family to come over for dinner!  And they wanted us to come soon, within a few weeks’ time!  I cannot express the relief that flooded over me.

Then someone led me to a back room where the husband, Aaron Stoltzfus, stood beside the open casket of his wife, Sarah.  To my surprise, as I nervously glanced at her, I was looking at a beautiful young woman.  Aaron, like her parents, came to me with open arms.  I said, “How can I ever repay you?”  He simply forgave me.  We hugged as the freedom of forgiveness swept over and through me.

As I read and reread the previous few paragraphs, I feel extremely limited in my command of the English language to evoke the feeling of what took place.  When I tell the story live, it seems to carry a greater impact.  Maybe the audience reads my face.  Maybe the emotion can’t help but flow through me.  All I know is that the Stoltzfus’ concise words of forgiveness rushed through me with power.  Some people have said that Amish are able to forgive like that because their theology leans toward fatalism, meaning that they believe everything is determined, is bound to happen, so there’s no reason to get all bent out of shape about something bad.  God is in control.  They become somewhat emotionless about all the pain and suffering in life and are much more capable of dealing with it well.  I don’t know how true that is for every single Amishman, but I do know that this particular family is very emotional.  In a positive way.  They are incredibly upbeat and warm people.  And I know the accident, Sarah’s death, was very, very hard for them.

My mom, recalling the events said, “I will never forget what Pastor Jim told us the next day.  He watched Joel during this entire night.  He said he started out as a young teen with an incredible burden of guilt on his shoulder but walked out of that house with a tremendous weight taken him through forgiveness.”


The Sentence

The Stoltzfus’ did have us over for dinner sometime in that next month, an event I recall with wonder.  There we were sitting in that same Amish home with Sarah’s family, Aaron, and some from his family too.  The table was loaded with delicious food, and never once did they show any kind of resentment.  Never once did they attempt to make us feel bad.  On the contrary, it was a kind of a get-to-know-you session, an intentional beginning to a meaningful relationship.  We exchanged stories comparing and contrasting the Amish sub-culture with mainstream American culture.  They were so kind.  They had opened their home and hearts to us!

The larger Amish community in Lancaster was also very impressive to me.  I still have the pile of at least 50 cards that I received from various Amish people across the County.  They were constantly encouraging and pointing me to God.

It was also in this time that I clearly recall a striking visit from my soccer coach.  I remember meeting him at the door one evening, probably just a few days after the accident.  I will never forget what he said.  “Joel, you will be compassionate from now on.”  How true.  Since that time I have never had trouble forgiving people.  Not that I have worked on it and have become talented at it.  On the contrary, I think God must have changed my heart, because I don’t have to try to forgive anymore.  It flows out as naturally as my heart beats without me having a say in the matter.

In the ensuing months, I did not drive again, handing my keys over to my parents.  My trial was set for February 5, 1992.  Because of the severity of the accident I was charged with vehicular homicide, a charge that indicates the accidental, but irresponsibly reckless use of a vehicle that caused the loss of life.  I’m not sure where it falls on the murder/manslaughter scale, but I do know that if I was one year older, I could have been facing jail time, which is another facet of the whole story that points me to the grace of God.  I was 17, a minor, and was therefore dealt with under the juvenile justice system, saved from a much harsher penalty in the adult courts.  Soon after the accident, I was assigned a probation officer and a public defender to walk me and my family through the penal process prior to the court date.  The standard punishment for juvenile vehicular homicide at the time was a suspension of the offender’s driver’s license for 3 years, 200 hours of community service, payment of all court costs (only about $100), and probation until the community service requirement was completed. To me, with Sarah’s life gone because of my actions, it was an extremely generous sentence.

My trial and punishment served as another instance for the Amish family to demonstrate the freedom of forgiveness.  They wrote letters to the judge begging for my pardon, asking that I be acquitted on all counts!  Imagine the character it would take to write that letter! Because of the severity of the crime, however, there was no way pardon was possible based on the law.  At the trial the only thing my dad asked the judge was if it might be possible for me to get my license back sooner because I would be going to college soon and would need to drive.  I hoped that maybe I could have more community service in exchange for a short suspension, but the judge held firm to the standard.  A wise decision that was completely rational and acceptable to my thinking.  As we walked out of the courtroom, my probation officer met us in the hallway.  I will never forget pulling out my wallet and handing my precious driver’s license over to her that day after the court appearance.


From Forgiveness to Friendship

Our relationship with the Stoltzfus’ family has continued ever since (both Aaron and his in-law’s surname is Stoltzfus.)  Over the years they have come to our house and we to theirs, about once each year near the anniversary of the accident.  Once when they came to our house, I remember playing ping-pong with Aaron.  We must have played 10 games and I beat him every time, which was to me an awkward situation.  Here I am, I thought, an irresponsible kid who killed his wife, and now I’m playing ping-pong with him.  He really seemed to enjoy it and wanted to keep playing.  I wondered if I should have let him win, but what would that do?  I came to realize that our relationship with Aaron and the rest of the Stoltzfus family, though it began under the most horrible circumstances, had grown into a legitimate, normal relationship.  They had forgiven me, and never, ever, went back on that decision.  And they backed it up with a real relationship.  Consider this: five years after the accident, Michelle and I invited them to our wedding, and they came!  For the ceremony and the reception, bearing gifts.  Some may read this and think, “How insensitive!  You invited them to your wedding?  Isn’t that a slap in the face!?!?!”  On the surface, it certainly looks like it.  It does seem odd to me that we would invite the Stoltzfus’ to share in our celebration when only five years earlier, I had totally shattered theirs.  But that viewpoint fails to realize the depth of the relationship.  The past had been forgiven, and we were actually friends.  People invite their friends to their wedding.  I particularly like the idea of trumpeting to the world their brand of forgiveness.  To me, having the Stoltzfus’ at my wedding was not to show off the fact that I had friends in the Amish community, it was to display for everyone who knew us the glory of God that results when people obey his commands!  To accent this further, when we moved to Jamaica to be missionaries three years later, the Stoltzfus family supported us financially.  Forgiveness, they taught me, is not always a one-time event.  Perhaps this is one angle of what Jesus intended when he replied to Peter that we ought to forgive someone not just seven times, but seventy times seven.  In other words, Jesus said, in order to follow its purpose of freedom, it requires follow-up, the rebuilding of a relationship or, as in my case, the creation of a new one.

God blessed the situation even further as Aaron eventually remarried Sarah’s younger sister, Levina.  To me it was as though God allowed the family to be whole again.  They now have a beautiful family, full of children.

This past year when we visited Melvin and Barbara (Aaron and Levina live in a house on Aaron’s family’s property in Leola, so we don’t see them as much) on their farm/bakery in Lititz, it was the first we had seen them in a couple years.  We missed one year when we lived in Jamaica, and the next year because we had just returned home, so it was good to see them after a 2 or 3 year gap.  For the first time in 11 years we talked about the accident frankly, but very kindly.  Again, they were never condemning, just admitting how hard it was.  How they miss Sarah.  I had the chance to express my gratitude and share with them how the freedom of forgiveness they gave me impacted so many people whenever I share the story.  I cried then as I am now as I type this.

In this land of liberty, that kind of freedom I received often eludes us.  We have so few pictures of what it actually looks like.  God glorified himself in my life, however, by blessing me with a wonderful picture of how people can handle terrible crimes against themselves.  My uncle, Jim Ohlson, when commenting on an early manuscript of my story added, “What I have seen in you is that the forgiveness of the Amish gave you the confidence to live life to the full.”  Jesus said “I have come that they might have life, and life to the full!”  That full life is only possible by through the freedom of forgiveness received.

What if America was invaded? A thought project to teach us how to be restored

12 Dec

Related image

Imagine that some nation invaded the USA, defeated us, and started carrying us away back to their land where we worked for them as slaves!  How would that feel?  Horrible, right?  And life in that foreign land would not be like life here.  It would be very, very hard.  And we would cry out in lament to God to restore us.  Perhaps we would rack our brains about why this happened.  We would like conclude that it was really our fault, whether due to complacency or apathy or internal moral decay.  And we would feel the weight of guilt and shame and embarrassment.  But then imagine we had a sudden restoration of fortune, as the foreign nation finally after 70 years allows those of us from Central PA to return.

By then our parents and grandparents had passed away, and we were returning, ourselves in old age now. We are bringing our kids and grandkids to see the wonderful land of Lancaster PA to show them all the places that to this point we had only been able to tell them about in story after story.  Our grandkids are to the point where they say, rolling their eyes, “Grandpa…you’ve told me about the farmland and Central Market and Tastykakes like a million times.”  Now you are actually getting to show them!

When you show up, brimming with excitement, what do you find?

A shock.  The land is trashed and scarred, with buildings burned out.  The Promised Land has become a waste land.  And you fall to your knees and cry out to God.  You remember the glory of what it used to be, and your heart aches, and what is worse you know you will never be able to show your kids and grandkids what you once saw.  Because that is now gone.  But it gets still worse.  You remember that the Promised Land is now a waste land because of you and your people and how poorly you behaved and it was your fault.

You’re restored, but there is still a lot of work to do.

I think something like that is happening in Psalm 85.  I also think something like that happens to all of us in many ways throughout our lives.  Let’s look at the next section of Psalm 85 to discover more about how to respond to the restoration that needs to take place.

In my previous post, I introduced Psalm 85 as our second Psalm of Lament in our sermon series for Advent 2017.  Psalm 85 seems to have been crafted in four sections, and in that previous post we looked at the first section, which talks about how God forgave the sins of the people of Israel, restoring their fortunes in the past.  Which restoration is the psalmist talking about?  Most likely it seems this psalm was written about the time when a small group of Jews was giving permission to return to Israel after having been exiled in Babylon for 70 years.  But when they returned, they were in for a surprise. And that surprise is what we read about in section two, which we are studying in this post.

Section Two covers verses 4-7, which is a lament for restoration and revival, for God to show his love and salvation in the present time.  If Israel has been restored to their land, if they have been forgiven, as Section One (verses 1-3) clearly states, then why are they asking once again to be restored?  Didn’t God already do that?

It seems that when the people were restored to the land, after the initial excitement wore off, they realized the immensity of the situation.

They were away from their land for 70 years, during that time working hard to maintain their traditions living in the midst of a foreign power.  So for 70 years they were dreaming of their return to Palestine, and they waited and they waited. Whole generations of them passed away, striving hard not to lose their faith, striving hard to maintain their culture.  And finally, after so many years and so many prayers, a group of them return to the Promised land.

And guess what happened.

It wasn’t what they thought.

The grand capital city of Jerusalem was in ruins.  The temple was destroyed.  The land was ravaged.  Most of them were still in exile.

Israel was a shadow of what they used to be.  And they knew why. It was their fault.  They had sinned against God over and over and over.  You and I have been there, right?  Imagine the guilt and pain that you feel when you know you are dealing with consequences of your bad choices.

Imagine being Israel looking at their holy city in ruins.  Yeah, God brought you back to the land, and that is amazing, but there is so much work to do.

Ever been there?

It’s easy to read verses 4-7 as if the psalmist is making it sound like this restoration is all God’s responsibility.  As if it was God’s fault that Israel was invaded, that the Promised Land was destroyed, that the people were in exile in Babylon for 70 years.  Yes, on the surface, verses 4-7 seem like the lament is a blaming of God.  But remember from our posts on Psalm 80, lament is deep like that.

In fact, in sermon discussion last week we wrestled with this a bit.  Is lament only appropriate when life gets so bad that there is no other option but to cry out to God?  No doubt that is an excellent time to lament.  When things are bad, lament.  But I think we can also practice lament when times are not at the point of no return.  It is not like lament is a kind of prayer we only practice when we have no other choice.  We can and should practice it then.  But we can and should practice lament before things get that bad too.

It seems to me that is what the psalmist is doing here in verses 4-7.  He knows the people have just experienced the kindness and forgiveness and favor of the Lord.  They are actually in a good spot.  They have been allowed to return to the Promised Land after being away from it for 70 years.  And yet the psalmist laments what is yet to be done.  It’s great to be back, but there has been so much loss, much of which will never be recovered.


This is not just a fictional story of America.  It’s not just the story of Jewish exiles returning to Palestine.

It’s also your story and mine.  I know you’ve been there.  I’ve been there.  It occurs in many ways in our real lives.

A relationship that is broken, but then it gets patched up.  The thing is that the patching up is just the beginning.  You know there is a lot of work to do yet.  Hard work.  And it seems like too much.

Or maybe you make some bad financial decisions, and now you find yourself in debt.  Maybe you have to declare bankruptcy.  Maybe you get help from a generous family member.  And you are saved.  But you know that is just the beginning.  You have lots of work to do to start making changes with how you handle money.

You’ve been restored, but there is so much work to do.  Too much work, it feels like.  Extra work that is your fault, and you’re hard on yourself, and you ache because it seems like it will be too hard.

And what do you do?  You lament.  Not because life is so bad that all hope is lost.  Sometimes you lament because life is just so dang hard.  Sometimes you lament because you know you need to do a lot of work to keep the restoration going, and you don’t know if you can handle it.  You probably think you can’t handle it. That’s a horrible feeling.

You love the progress that you’ve made.  A relationship that seemed dead has a new spark.  The bill collector that had been calling is paid off.  God has restored your fortunes.

But you know there is so much more to do for the restoration to continue.  That relationship is going to require a lot of time and energy, and you are going to have to stop some bad patterns, and you don’t know if you can.  That bill collector might not be calling today, but unless your income starts to grow larger than your expenses, he’ll be calling again soon.  And you know that you have a tendency to make bad choices with money.

Or maybe at your office, you work through your inbox, and your boss is pleased, but there were the ten previous times when you were lazy, and your work was late, and not only was your boss upset about it being late, but he also found all kinds of errors in your work, and it cost the company a contract.  You know that can’t happen again.  You’ve got a reprieve, but you have very little confidence that you’ll be able to work as fast and as good as your boss is asking you to.

What should you do?  Lament.  Get on your knees and passionately plead for God to intervene.  Ask for him to restore you again.  Ask for him to shower you with his unfailing love. When the work of restoration seems too much, lament.  It is a proper response to the weight of the world.

Lament is not blaming God.  Lament is not a cop-out either, trying to get God to do what it is our responsibility to do.  Lament is a crying out to God for his help and empowerment while we work for the restoration to continue.  Just as God had restored their fortunes and brought them this far, the psalmist now sees the mountain they have to climb, and he knows that they can’t do it alone.  So he laments.  Calling for God to show them his unfailing love and salvation.

He calls for God to revive them again.  Restoration and revival.  They were words in Psalm 80 which we studied last week.  Lament calls out for restoration and revival!  “Bring us back to life again, Lord.”

Whether we are lamenting our own situation or lamenting the state of the church or the state of our country, we are asking for restoration and revival. It might sound like we are saying to God that we are blameless and our situation is not our fault.  That is 100% not true.  And that is not what the psalmist is doing.  That is not what lament is all about.  Lament is not blaming God, acting like we have no part in this.  When we lament, we know our part in it.  And we own up to our part.

How about you? Do you have a situation in your life that has seen the spark of restoration, but the ongoing work seems too hard, too much?  How can you lament to God?

Do you struggle with FOMO?

11 Dec

Image result for fomo

Do you struggle with FOMO?  Fear of missing out.  I recently read an article where a guy talked about his fear of missing out.  Because of the prevalence of social media in our society, and the quick access to social media accounts on our phones, FOMO is a real thing for many.

The author of the article would see all these amazing photos people put on their social media accounts, and he would think, “That’s awesome, I want to see that too.  I want to be able to post that to my social media account.  I’m missing out!”  He went so far as to spend thousands of dollars to visit exotic locations, just to get that ultimate picture of coolness so that he could post it on online to show all his friends.

But something happened. When he actually went on made it to the exotic spot, it would be a cloudy day.  Or he would get sick. Or there would be obnoxious tourists, all conspiring against him being able to get that perfect photo.

He didn’t take stock of all the loads of details that you need to take into account when you are trying to achieve something momentous. Having a successful vacation takes a lot of work.  You don’t just decide to go on vacation, and the next day go on vacation and have everything go perfectly.  You have to think through all the details, working hard to plan it right.  And then when you get there, the unexpected can take over and surprise you and mess up your plans.

How many of you have ever had that experience?  Where you are looking forward to something for so long, and you are waiting and getting excited and finally that day comes, and when you’re actually experiencing the vacation or the event or watching the new movie or reading the new book or listening to the new album, and you’re thinking “What??? I waited and worked and got excited for this???”

I think that is what was happening with the people of Israel in our next Advent Psalm of Lament.

To review from last week, lament is a type of prayer, directed to God, asking God to intervene.  In lament the pray-er is calling out to God with a passionate expression of grief or sorrow, like mourning, but deeper.

In Psalm 80 last week, we heard the psalmist lament by repeating the phrase “Restore us, O Lord God Almighty, make you face shine upon us, that we may be saved.”  Let us hear how a different psalmist laments today, Psalm 85.

It seems like the author was purposefully using a structure when he put together this psalm.

  • 1-3 Past Blessing
  • 4-7 Present Lament
  • 8-9 Present Obedience
  • 10-13 Future Blessing

Today we’ll look at the first section, and then in the following posts we’ll work through the rest.

Section One: Verses 1-3 – Past Blessing

In verses 1-3 the psalmist reviews God’s favor to Israel in the past. Look at verse 2 where he describes God dealing with their sin.

A verse like that gives us a clue about that time period this psalm was written.  It came after the people had sinned and God forgave them.  There are many, many instances in the Old Testament that Israel had sinned.  Which one is this one talking about?

Scholars I studied suggest that the most likely event that the psalmist is referring to in verses 1-3 is the time when Israel was allowed to return to the land after the Babylonian exile when in 538 BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia, conquered Babylon, and allowed some of the Jews to return to Palestine, the Promised Land.

The people of Israel had been in exile for 70 years.

But God allowed them to return.  That’s what we think verses 1-3 are all about.  God showed them favor, restored their fortunes, forgave their sin, allowing a small group of them to return to their land.

You can read about their return from exile in books like Ezra, Nehemiah, and in the prophets Haggai and Malachi.

Guess what though?  Just like the guy who wrote the FOMO article, when the exiles return to Palestine, they have a shock waiting for them.  We’ll learn about that surprise in our next post.

How lament can shine light into the darkness of our world

8 Dec

Image result for psalm 80

Do you sense the darkness in our world?

I started this series of posts by describing the tragedies in our world, all adding to the darkness.  Just last evening, my wife and I watched the episode of The Crown where a dense poisonous smog settles on London.  It stayed there for days, and thousands lost their lives.  The result of burning coal, that smog is an apt metaphor for darkness in our world today.

How will light shine into the thick darkness?

In the last post, we started looking at our first Advent 2017 Psalm of Lament, Psalm 80.  Asaph, the author of Psalm 80, wrote this lament in three sections, each concluding with a repeated refrain.  The last post looked at the first two sections, in which Asaph passionately cries out to God to restore the afflicted nation of Israel.  In his third and final section, Asaph gets right back to the business of lament.

Section 3 – Verses 8-19

Asaph now likens Israel to a grapevine, mirroring the nation’s journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  He depicts God as uprooting a vine from Egypt and replanting it in a new land, making a new walled vineyard for it.  But now time has passed, and the vineyard is in bad shape.  Passersby pick its grapes, and wild animals eat from it.  So the Psalmist is once again calling for God to intervene.

In verse 14, he pleads with God, “Return! Look down from heaven and see!”

Then in verse 16 the situation gets worse, because now the vine is cut down and burned.  This is dire.  A vine cut down and burned is being eliminated, right?  So Asaph is desperate, calling out for a major intervention. The psalmist is saying, “God, we are about to be destroyed! Do you see this? Help!!!”

In verses 17 and 18 Asaph calls out for God to rest his hand on Israel.  Then, he says, if God will do this, Israel will not turn away.

He calls for God to revive them.  Revive is a word that means “to bring back to life.”  Asaph knows that the nation, if it stays on this trajectory, does not have much time.  They need revival.

Psalm 80 concludes, as do all three sections, with a message of hope. In Verse 19 Asaph asks for restoration, that God might shine his face on Israel, that they may be saved. This is his third plea for restoration, each time increasing the length of God’s name.  Remember the previous instances?

In Verse 3 he said, “Restore us, O God.”  There he is calling out to God, but not by name.  He is just using the title “God.”

But in Verse 7? He adds another title.  “Restore of us, God Almighty.”  Almighty adds the idea of God’s strength.

Now jump to verse 19, and Asaph gets personal.  “Restore, us LORD God Almighty.”  See the capital letters in the word LORD?  That means in the Hebrew he wrote in, Asaph is using the personal name of God, Yahweh.  He used God’s personal name, Yahweh, already in verse 4, so there is a sense in which the whole psalm has been personal.  But Asaph’s gradual lengthening of the name of God in the refrains adds an urgency to his emotional, personal plea to God.

This is lament, crying out deeply, personally, directly to God, asking for restoration.  In particular, Asaph’s lament in Psalm 80 is asking for God to make his face shine into Israel’s national darkness.

We live in another time where there is great darkness.  Asaph demonstrates for us that one important response to the darkness is lament.  Lament is calling out to God in our pain.  Asking him to intervene.  Asking him to shine light in the darkness.

I’ve entitled this Advent series Community Lament.  The psalms were not just private poems.  They were placed together in the Book of Psalms and used whenever Jews met to worship.  People would read and sing them as a group.

We, too, can practice community lament as well as private lament.

We can and should lament the tragedies going on in our world, in our nation, in our communities.

Do you need to practice lament?  It will require more than “thoughts and prayers”.  It will require time, perhaps blocks of time.  Perhaps journaling honestly to God. Perhaps gathering a group of others to share your lament with.

I will admit that as I studied this, I realized that lament is mostly foreign to me, and frankly, I don’t know that I want to do it.  I suspect some of you might be feeling that too.  Do we have to lament?  Won’t it be depressing and sad?

Clearly, this psalm does not teach, “You all must lament or you are bad sinners.”  It doesn’t say that.  Instead Psalm 80 is an emotional response to a tragedy.  It is an honest embrace and examination of a situation, of our feelings, of our culpability, and of God’s involvement.  That’s where lament starts, a willingness to be very open and honest about what is going on.  A willingness to cry out to God, then, even if we don’t have all the answers, and even if we might be really confused and frustrated with what is happening. But in the end, lament is an act of faith.  A clinging to God, desperate, for him to intervene.

And because of that, lament is a practice that we would do well to add to our lives.  Let’s go beyond thoughts and prayers and passionately plead for God to shine his light in our darkness.

What would it look like to lament on Facebook?

What would it look like to lament as a family?

It could be that you write out your lament, just as Asaph did.

It could be that you organize a communal lament.  Gather people together to grieve, share stories, hold a vigil.

I urge you to practice lament during Advent.  With Asaph in Psalm 80, reach out to God, cry out for restoration and revival.  Call out for God to make his face shine on us, that we may be saved. Instead of saying, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” I urge you to lament.

When you hear about the next shooting, lament.

When the news talks about people committing sexual deviancy, lament.

When you hear about a broken relationship, lament.

When you cry out to God over and over and he doesn’t respond

7 Dec

Related image

Have you ever waited for something a long time?  I feel like I regularly get in the store check-out line that has the longest wait.  It’s uncanny.  But that kind of wait is not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about waiting for something for months or years, and often the waiting involves pain.  It might be a physical ailment, and no matter the treatment, surgery or medicine, you are not getting better.  It might be relational pain, where a person who is a loved one now seems like an enemy, and as hard as you try, it is not getting fixed.  It might be a financial difficulty where, despite working multiple jobs to exhaustion, you can’t seem to pay off debt.  It might be national or global pain, as you watch the news about wildfires, floods, racism, poverty, refugee crisis, terrorism, or sexual predators.  As we discussed in the last post, there is much darkness in our world. And deep down you cry out to God, and you ask him to intervene. In fact, you ask him over and over and over, and it seems like you’re not getting anywhere.  You are just waiting and waiting, sitting in the pain.

If you’ve ever felt that, your in good company with Asaph, the writer of the first Psalm of Lament that we are studying at Faith Church this Advent.  Asaph looked at the situation the nation of Israel had gotten itself into, and he was deeply concerned.  Let’s take a look at how expressed his pain in this first lament, Psalm 80, and perhaps we might learn to lament as well.

Structurally the psalm has three sections, each with a repeated “Restore Us” refrain that concludes the section.  Here is a summary:

  • Section 1 – verses 1-2, concluding with the refrain in 3 – total of three verses
  • Section 2 – verses 4-6, concludes with 7 – total of four verses
  • Section 3 – verses 8-18, concludes with 19 – total of 12 verses

You see what the author, Asaph, is doing?  He is increasing the length of his plea. Even the repeated refrain is slightly expanded each time, a fact we’ll look more at in the next post.  Why is Asaph adding material each time?  He wants us to sense a growing urgency to his lament.

Let’s take a deeper look at each section to hear and learn from his lament.

Section 1 – verses 1-3

The image he uses here is that of God as Shepherd, residing in the temple.  Asaph sees God as the shepherd, and thus the people of Israel are his sheep.  The idea of God as Israel’s Shepherd is very common throughout the Old Testament.  They were led by God, cared for by God, as a good shepherd does for his sheep. Asaph looks around him and sees that the sheep are in danger, and he cries out for the Shepherd to do his job!

But the scene that Asaph paints for us is not just a pastoral one.  The mention of the cherubim in verse 2 is that of the Ark of the Covenant in the most holy place of the temple.  There the presence of the Lord resided.  Perhaps he is here likening God to a shepherd that is just hanging out in the temple, and not doing his job, which is to care for the sheep.  In fact, he depicts the shepherd as being asleep while the sheep are being afflicted.  So he calls for God to wake up, move out from there and save the people.

Lament often cries out to God to wake up and intervene.  That might sound very inappropriate.  As if the lamenter is accusing God of not doing his job.  The psalmist, no doubt, knows that God is holy and perfect and righteous.  Therefore, Asaph is not being disrespectful or accusing God of being irresponsible.  Instead Asaph knows that Israel is at fault for the predicament they’re in.

And yet that is lament for you: emotional, deep, crying out to God.  When we’re emotional, we don’t always think straight do we?  We don’t always craft our words perfectly.  We sometimes say things we don’t mean or even believe.  The emotion is so strong.  We’re desperate.  And so we say things like “God, you are our Shepherd!  Get up off your seat and take care of us!”  Lament is intense like that. And in the next section the intensity continues.

Section 2 – verses 4-7

Verse 4 starts with Asaph calling out to God again, asking of him “How long will your anger smolder against the prayer of your people?”

The image is quite vivid isn’t it?  The word “smolder” there could also be translated “smoke”.  I think of the hot smoking glowing red ashes in my wood stove.  We put ashes from our stove in our ash bucket, and take them out on our deck.  But if they are hot, if they are smoking, glowing red, we do not keep them on our deck.  All it would take is a gust of wind to blow some of those hot coals on to the deck, and we would be in big trouble.

So anytime we have smoking ash and coals, we dump it in our fire pit, which is way down in our yard, far away from the house.  There it can safely cool down, even if the wind is blowing.  We do this because smoldering ash and coals are powerful, with a great potential for destruction.  That’s the image the psalmist uses of God’s anger.

We could easily see God’s anger here as mean-spirited and unjust.  But God’s anger is best understood as a righteous anger.  The reason for his anger, the reason for the calamity the people have experienced, has everything to do with their unrighteousness. The psalmist would not be unaware of that, or trying to dispute that Israel had messed up.  The psalmist is just expressing deep longing for a change, and he knows God can bring that change.

And so Asaph utters words that are classic signposts of lament: “How long?”.  When you hear the psalmist say “How long O Lord?” you could think he is being impatient or fussy.  He is not.

Instead, one scholar says the words ‘how long?’ describe, “hope deferred, and though sick at heart, still clinging to God and yet protesting against the long-protracted calamities.”

We get the idea of “hope deferred.” How many of you know that very personally?  You have hopes and dreams, but they are deferred, meaning that they are not being realized.  You are waiting and waiting, and you are wondering “How long?”

We also get the idea of being “sick at heart”, that deep emotional longing in the midst of waiting.  Look at how Asaph describes the pain.

In verse 5 he describes the pain by saying to God: “you have fed them with the bread of tears.  You made them drink tears by the bowlful.”  Whew. That is some deep pain.  Rather than the manna in the desert that tasted like honey, and rather than water from the rock that tasted sweet, God is now giving them nothing but tears.

What’s worse, he says in verse 6, is that the neighboring countries around Israel see them in pain, and those neighboring countries mock Israel.

And yet, as the psalmist laments and feels the pain, he is not letting go of God. He is actually reaching out to God.  Clinging to God. That, too, is classic lament.  When we say “thoughts and prayers are with you” we too often put a quick phrase out there, and then we move on to the next thing.  When we face tragedy, the pain and confusion is so difficult to wrap our minds around that we tend not to even try.  But in the psalms of lament, the psalmist is engaging the tragedy and the pain, he is looking it full in the face, he is holding it up to God and saying “God, do you see this?  What are you doing about this?  Why are you taking so long to respond to this?”

He is clinging to God, but he is protesting God at the same time.  “How long, O Lord?”  Lament cries out to God from a heart that is sick with pain, but still clinging tightly to God in faith, knowing God is our hope, and yet also upset with God because it is taking so long.

Rather than turning away from the tragedy, or avoiding dealing with the tragedy, lament sits down in the tragedy, examines the tragedy, and shows it to God saying, “How Long O Lord?”

That might sound light an act of unbelief, or disrespect, or sinful rebellion. Instead, lament is an act of deep faith.  Lament knows that the situation is dire, the pain is awful, and there is only one solution.  God.  And lament persistently, boldy, enters into that pain and asks God to deal with it.

There is something incredibly meaningful, therefore, to the practice of lament.  There is something powerful about it.  I think the power of lament flows from the inner passionate experience of pain found in a person who is facing that pain, combined with that person’s choice to cling tightly to the Lord in the midst of that pain.

Here’s the thing about Psalm 80, though. Though the psalmist says “How long, O Lord,” he’s not done yet!  In our next post we’ll look at section 3, the remainder of the psalm, to see how Asaph continues his lament.

When Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough

5 Dec

Image result for thoughts and prayers are not enoughIn the morning, my family has a routine.  Our two kids still at home, one middle schooler, one elementary, get ready for school while we are watching the local news.  Then at 7am we switch over to CBS for their morning show.  A few days ago, we were surprised to hear that CBS fired one of their anchors, Charlie Rose, because of sexual misconduct.

Then a few days after that, we were watching the same program when they reported that NBC had just fired one of the Today Show anchors, Matt Lauer, for the same reason.

It seems like a new allegation and firing occurs every day.  That the truth is coming out and people are being held accountable is incredibly important and good.  A necessary purging, hopefully leading to deep change in our society.

But on top of the reports of sexual misconduct there have also been mass shootings pretty much every day.  In malls, schools, movie theaters, at concerts, in churches.

As we hear about these abusers and tragedies, we can’t help but think that the world is a dark place.  We can become despondent, confused.  How do we respond to darkness, to tragedy?  What should we think and feel?  What should we do?

One of the first responses to tragedy that we hear is, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

Praying for people is good thing.  You see it on Facebook, in the news, on the lips of politicians.  Prayer rising up out of the ashes of tragedy.

In that sense, “Thoughts and Prayers” is a good thing.

But after one of the recent shootings, the idea of “thoughts and prayers” was called into question. The shooting happened, and almost as soon as the news was reported, people started posting “thoughts and prayers” on Facebook.

“Las Vegas, our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

But this time that sentiment, which is a good thing, was called into question.  Why?  Maybe people had reached a point where things had gotten so bad, that they had enough.  Maybe some people felt that “thoughts and prayers” was nice, but other action needed to be taken.  “Thoughts and prayers” has been called into question many times before, especially when “thoughts and prayers” are uttered by people who could potentially do something to stop or decrease the tragedies, but don’t.  And that makes people very upset.

I am going to agree with them today.  Other action does need to be taken.

Hear me out.  The critique I’ve heard says that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough because something additional needs to happen around gun laws.  Lives are so easily cut down by guns, thus  motivating the critique of “thoughts and prayers.”

I’m not going to talk about gun laws today.  Might be a topic for another time!

Today, though, I am going to agree with the critique of “thoughts and prayers.” I’m going to say that “thoughts and prayers” are good, but not enough.   There is another form of prayer that is so often missing.

That prayer is called lament.

Do you ever pray prayers of lament?  I rarely do.  I hardly even know what lament means.  And yet, lament is very much a common kind of prayer in the Bible. There is a whole book of the Bible called Lamentations, for goodness sake! Lament is especially prevalent in the Psalms.  One scholar I found claimed that more than 50% of the Psalms are lament.

And yet, I suspect many of us do not know about lament.  What is lament?

I suspect that we confuse lament with regret over a bad choice.  If something is lamentable, we mostly, I think, mean that we feel someone made a bad choice.  A error.  The words “lament” and “regret” are related no doubt, but they have different meanings.  Regret is when you are upset about a bad choice you made and you wish you could change it.  Lament is a bit different.  And I think the difference is why we so often have regrets, but we don’t lament.

Lament is defined as “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow; mourning.”

We know about this when we mourn the loss of loved ones.  But lament takes things further.  And that is what we see in these psalms that we will study in Advent.

As I said earlier, when there is a tragedy, we often respond by saying “our thoughts and prayers are with you.”  Prayer for those going through tragedy is good.  I think, though, that we need to add lament to our thoughts and prayers.

Lament is something that we don’t hear about in the face of national tragedy.  How is lament different from “thoughts and prayers”?

Andy Crouch in an article in Christianity Today says: “An equally valid and instinctive form of prayer in the face of tragedy is lament, which calls out in anguish to God, asking why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Lament confronts God with his seeming inaction and distance. This is a profound response of faith. Far from being unchristian, it is actually the prayer offered by Jesus himself on the Cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

So this Advent at Faith Church we are going to learn about lament in the psalms.

In our next post, the first psalm of lament we’ll be studying is Psalm 80.

Who are you really? (And how to find out)

4 Dec

In my last post, I mentioned that in Deuteronomy 9 Moses gives the people of Israel an exam, and he has shocking news for them.  Remember the principle?  They are not righteous in and of themselves.  They were in danger of thinking that God brought them to the Promised Land because they were so good.  So to help them see the truth about themselves, Moses reminds them of their nation’s major mess-up, that time they made an idol and worshiped it.  You can go back to Exodus 32 and read the original account.  Here in Deuteronomy 9 Moses just summarizes it.

Here’s what happened in a nutshell:

The people of Israel had just witnessed the amazing miracle of walking through the Red Sea, as the waters are parted.  That is one of the miracles most people would long to see.  Israel saw it.  If I saw that, I think I would be committed to Jesus for the rest of my life.  I would never doubt him.  My faith would never waver.

Guess what?  A month and a half later Israel is worshiping a golden calf, an idol they made.  How is that possible?  It is tempting to think that something is wrong with Israel. As if they are an especially disobedient and fickle people.  You’d think they’d make it longer than a month and a half trusting in God, after having seen him part the waters of the Red Sea.

But you have to remember that they are still getting to know this God.  And when Moses, their primary connection to this God, leaves them to go up the mountain to meet with God, which is exactly what happened right before they made the idol, what is Israel to think?  They have no word from Moses as to how long he will be gone.  How long do they wait for him to come back?  How long would you wait?  Think about how you would feel after a week?  And then two weeks go by?  Then another week!  I am totally thinking in terms of our impatient American culture where we want everything done fast.  But waiting even a couple weeks for Moses to return seems like an interminably long time.

It does not take long for any people in any era to get impatient.  And the people of Israel at this point are at an especially precarious spot in their walk with God.  They don’t have the benefit of centuries of watching God remain faithful.  They have one and a half months.  It is really hard for us to put ourselves in their shoes, how they must have felt.

And yet, Moses is hard on them here in Deuteronomy 9 isn’t he?  He totally faults them for what they did. As I thought about it, part of me wants Moses to tone it down, to give Israel some grace.  “Come on Moses, they didn’t have the vantage point that you had on the mountain.  They thought you had left them, or maybe that you had died up there.  It’s not like you took food and water enough for 40 days!  Geez.”

I think, though, it is possible that I want grace and mercy for Israel because I know I am like Israel.  I know I need mercy and grace too. We all do.

And yet, Israel did do something incredibly wrong.  They were impatient.  They demanded that Moses’ brother Aaron, who was the high priest, take their gold and make an idol for them to worship. And Aaron did just that.  He made an gold idol in the shape of calf.  The people were impatient, desperate for a god they could see and touch.  They weren’t so sure about this YHWH who was invisible, who had taken their leader Moses away.

So Israel made an idol and worshiped it.  That’s the story of the Golden Calf.

As Moses stands before them here in Deuteronomy 9, that golden calf episode was 40 years prior.  The generation that committed that act of idolatry has passed away.

That makes me question why Moses says to the new generation in verse 7: “Remember this and never forget how you provoked the Lord your God to anger in the desert.”  Does that strike you as odd too?  He lumps that generation right in with their forefathers.  It could seem unfair.  If I was there listening to Moses, maybe I would be thinking, “Wait a minute, Moses, I didn’t do that. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t even born yet.”  And yet Moses goes into detail retelling the story as if they did it, as if they were there.  Why? Moses needs them to face the fact that the Golden Calf episode, though a part of their history that they themselves were not responsible for, still serves as a reminder of how weak their faith can be.

So let’s bring this all back around to what Moses is attempting to do in chapter 9. In Part 1, which is verses 1-6, Moses is teaching a principle which he clearly states in verses 4-6: Israel should not think they are righteous and that their righteousness is why God is giving them the Promised Land.

Then comes Part 2, verses 7-29, where Moses illustrates for them how unrighteous they have been.

What is Moses doing?  He is giving them the truth.  He knows they could easily have a false impression about themselves.  He knows they could become prideful and arrogant, and they have no business being prideful and arrogant considering how unrighteous they have been.  Moses is giving them a dose of reality.

Just as Moses is giving Israel a needed dose of reality, how can we have a healthy, appropriate honest self-assessment, without pridefully or arrogantly thinking that we don’t need it?

We need the correct view of ourselves.  We should not assume that we already have a healthy self-assessment.  We might have the correct view of ourselves, but we should always be cautious about that.

This can go both ways.  Some of us, like Israel, already have or are in danger of having a too-high view of ourselves.  Others among us have a too-low view of ourselves.  Neither are healthy.  We might think we’re righteous when we’re not.  And we might think we’re evil or worthless when we’re not.  I’ve heard a lot of both. People who think they are wonderful, and people who think they are failures.

Instead we need the truth.  We need to be people who actively seek God’s view of us.  What is God’s view of us?  We get a picture of God’s view of us when we look at how Moses finishes Deuteronomy 9.  Moses was so upset at the people during that golden calf incident. But he still prayed for them in verses 25-29. He intervened for Israel. God wanted to destroy Israel and start over with Moses. But Moses pleads with God to show mercy.  God listens to Moses!

What does that show us about how God views us?  God forgives and showers his mercy on us. That is the kind of loving God he is.  God hears and cares.  He listens.  He sees all the rebellion and disobedience we can do, yet he is so willing to forgive.

There is hope for us who have worshipped golden calves.  There is hope for us who have failed.  Because God is merciful and forgiving.  No matter if our opinion of ourselves is too high or too low, we have a God who loves us.

When you look intently into the mirror of God’s word, what will you learn about yourself?  What will you see in the mirror?  You will see a person who God created, a person who bears the divine image, a person who God loves.  That is you.

Therefore, knowing that we are loved more than we can imagine, let us fight hard to have a healthy self-perspective.  Do not trust yourself to give yourself a true perspective of who you are.

Invite others into the process of self-evaluation.

Spend time in the Bible.  The mirror of God’s word, as James calls it (see James 1:19-27). Ask God to speak to you through his word.

Think about how you have annual evaluations at work.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if we had annual evaluations as to how we are doing as disciples of Jesus?

Evals are intimidating and scary.  I feel that too. Every year our Faith Church Pastoral Relations Committee gives me my annual evaluation.  I’m always nervous going in to that meeting.  But every year it is so, so good to learn about myself.

I encourage you to ask for the eval, invite it, beg for it.  Fight for it.  Become desperate for the truth about yourself.  Strive hard to answer the questions, “How is my attitude?  How am I thinking about myself?  Am I believing any lies about myself?”

As you learn the truth about yourself, there might be things you don’t like.  Things that need to change.  Work on changing them.  Do not only receive the information about yourself, begin to make strides to change.  Remember that God loves you, and that he is a forgiving God.  And he wants to empower us to make those changes.