Tag Archives: forgiveness

Embracing Your Daughter’s Killer: The Freedom of Radical Forgiveness (Betwixt Podcast)

21 May

I am so thankful to my friend Deb Gregory for the wonderful podcast she created, Betwixt.  I encourage you to subscribe, listen from the beginning and learn about the wonders of liminal space.

I am also thankful that on her most recent episode, Deb featured my story!  You can listen to the episode here I would be glad to talk with you further about it.  Just comment below.

The Freedom of Forgiveness Received

13 Dec

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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.

How God feels about sinners…even the worst ones!

31 Jan

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Can God save the worst sinner ever?  Would he want to?  You and I might not feel like the worst sinners ever in history, but we can often feel pretty guilty about our bad choices.  In the middle of the guilt, we wonder, “How does God feel about us when we have screwed up?”

As I mentioned last week in the intro post, our continuing study in 1st Timothy brings us to chapter 1, verses 12-17.  In that section, the writer of this letter, Paul, declares that he was the worst sinner.  He calls himself a blasphemer and persecutor, a man who arrogantly insulted God.  If you want, you can read all about it in Acts 7-9.  Paul is not exaggerating.  He was part of the same religious establishment that opposed Jesus, and now a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul was leading the charge to round up Jesus’ followers and crush their movement.

Why wouldn’t God just eliminate Paul?  Instead, Paul tells us in 1st Timothy 1:12-17 that God considered Paul faithful.  Faithful?  That seems incredulous.  How could God see Paul as faithful when Paul was on the brink of destroying God’s new movement to save the world?  The reason is that while Paul had not placed his faith in Jesus, Paul was very passionate about what he considered to be the truth about God, the Old Covenant that God had with Israel.  Therefore Paul considered the Christians a cult, a threat to the truth.

So Jesus stepped in, as you can read in Acts 9, when Paul was headed to imprison more Christians.  Literally breaking out of heaven in a bright light, Jesus revealed himself to Paul, totally changing the course of Paul’s life.   In 1 Timothy 1, at the end of verse 13 Paul looks back on that momentous event when God changed his life, and Paul says he was shown mercy because he acted in ignorance and unbelief.

The word here that Paul uses to describe how much grace and faith and love God gave him is quite vivid.  The NIV uses the image of pouring, but I would argue that there is a better image.  The word is actually a compound word “over fill”.  It is the image of a cup into which a liquid is poured not just to the top, not to the brim, but overflowing.  The liquid pours out over the edges.  The container cannot contain that much!

I love that.  That’s how much grace and faith and love God gives to us!  More than we can handle.  You are the container, and God is filling you with his grace and faith and love, and he is giving you more of his goodness that you can hold!

That’s how amazing God is.

Paul continues talking about this in verse 15 where he refers to the mission of Jesus to save sinners.  Paul was the worst. Paul is using himself as an illustration of how far-reaching God’s grace is.  He was the worst of sinners.  Everyone in the early church knew this.

He was ISIS.  He was their worst enemy.  And how do you think they felt when they heard that their worst enemy supposedly changed into their strongest advocate?

No way, buddy!

How would you feel if a top ISIS leader started saying that he was now a Christian?

No one would believe him!  That’s what Paul was going through.

But the change in Paul was true, and in due time, Paul showed them that it was true.  We see clearly in Paul that Jesus has the power to save anyone and to change anyone’s life.  Even the worst of sinners.

I hear Paul saying in this passage that he was the worst of sinners, and I think “I don’t know if you were actually the worst of sinners even in your own time, Paul, but I can pretty much guarantee that with all the horrible stuff that has happened in the last 2000 years since you wrote this, you aren’t even close to the worst.”

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized it doesn’t matter who is actually the worst sinner, or whether or not Paul was the worst sinner.  What matters is that Paul saw himself as the worst sinner.

And when you can be honest about how sinful you really are, then you start to see how amazing God’s grace and mercy are.  Christian pastor and author Tim Keller has said “We only fully grasp the gospel when we understand, as Paul did, that we are the worst sinner we know.”

I’ll never forget a sight I saw at EC National Conference a few years ago.  We were all singing praise to God, a normal part of our sessions of conference.  One particular song emphasized this theme of brokenness before God, of taking our sin seriously, and a man in the crowd, without any prodding from the worship leader, got up from his seat, walked down the aisle, and got down on his knees in front of the whole assembly.  He was clearly broken up inside about his sin.

Do we let ourselves off the hook?  I wonder if we haven’t fully grasped the Gospel because we haven’t taken our sin seriously?

And if you’re thinking “Man, Joel…this sin talk dire stuff.  Bleak.”  Get ready.  What comes next is a game changer.

In verse 16, Paul says something that many people think is crazy: God showed mercy to the worst of sinners!

God shows mercy to sinners, even to really bad sinners.  And more than that, why would God do this?  Paul says that God showed mercy to him so that Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.

God had unlimited patience for sinners.  That is crazy talk.  Unlimited?  On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is no patience and 10 is unlimited patience, where do you rank yourself?

God is a 10.  He is the only one who is a 10.

When you realize how God is so merciful, so patient with you, even when you feel like the worst of sinners, what do you do?  You do what Paul did!

In verse 17 he bursts forth in praise: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever!”  Praise Him!  Paul is praising him as he thinks about how amazing God was to him.

This is who God is!  Paul is looking at the depths of evil that was in his heart and how God saved him.  And he bursts with praise.

Paul uses himself as an example of why we should praise the Lord.  But all of us have stories.

If God can save the worst of sinners, of course he can save the rest of us.

Paul is also an example for us in that he is sharing his story.  Likewise we should share our stories of God’s intervention in our lives.  And I’m not talking about only super dramatic stories.  Stories of God’s work in the non-dramatic moments are also amazing.  It is just as astounding for God to save us in a non-dramatic way as it is for God to break out of the clouds and save a Christian-killer like Paul.

All of us should have the words of praise found in verse 17 flooding our hearts and minds!

So if you grew up in a Christian family and you always believed in Jesus, that is just as awesome as if you didn’t grow up in a Christian family and have a more intense conversion experience.

Christians, be reminded of the grace, love and patience of God in saving you, pour out in praise, and tell the story!

How God wants to restore you

16 May

Betrayal and denial.  Jesus experienced both, from two of his closest followers, in a matter of no more than one hour.  That had to hurt deeply. You can read the story in Luke 22:47-62.

Yesterday at Faith Church we talked about what it feels like when we have been betrayed or denied.  We also talked about how easy it is, like Jesus’ disciples Judas and Peter, to betray or deny God.  Imagine how those two guys felt when the realization of their betrayal and denial of Jesus finally broke over them.

We are told that Peter had godly sorrow that led to repentance.  After Peter denied Jesus the third time, just as Jesus said he would, Luke tells us that Peter and Jesus were in close enough proximity to one another that Jesus turned and looked right at Peter.  Imagine being Jesus at that moment.  Heartbroken.  Imagine being Peter.  Sick to the stomach at his failure, Luke tells us Peter goes away sobbing bitter tears.

Judas had a different reaction.  We have to go to Matthew’s story of Jesus’ life to learn about it.  In Matthew 27:3-5 we read: “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. I have sinned,’ he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood.’  And he went out and hanged himself.”

Peter wept, and Judas admitted his sin.

But there is a difference in the nature of their actions.  Judas acted with premeditation.  Peter did not.  Judas took time to plan out his betrayal, sought out the religious leaders, received payment, set up the arrest.  Peter did nothing like this.  Peter’s denial was not premeditated or proactive.  Instead it was reactive.  It was an unplanned act, a terrible choice in the midst of a horrible situation.

Judas’ response of suicide showed he had no hope.  Why would he have no hope?  Shouldn’t he have known Jesus and the grace, mercy and forgiveness of Jesus?  Yes, he should have.  But he didn’t, and that is revealing.  Judas didn’t really know Jesus.  Peter did.

Peter’s response is very different.  He is broken, sorrowful.

Have you ever been like Peter, caught by the proverbial crow of the rooster, reminding you of your failure?

2 Corinthians 7:10 says it perfectly: 

We can be sorry we got caught.  We can be sorry because we don’t want consequences for our actions.  When we examine our motives, we can learn that they are really messed up.

It is hard to be sorry with a godly sorrow that leads to repentance.  All of us have messed up.  What does it mean to be restored?  To find restoration we can examine Peter’s story: What was it about Peter that led him to make a rebound?

This past Sunday was Pentecost Sunday.  Do you remember what happened on Pentecost Sunday?

We read about it in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit first came to fill the disciples, while they were waiting in Jerusalem, waiting for what to do next.  The Spirit comes and they start preaching in other languages.  One guy takes the lead in the preaching.  One guy is particularly bold.

Guess who it was?  Peter.

Think about the timing.  The events of Pentecost, where Peter is so bold, are only about a month and a half after the events of his denial of Jesus.  A month and a half!

What we saw in Luke 22 is that Peter is a broken man.  He has just denied Jesus, three times, and Jesus knew it, and Peter runs out weeping bitterly.

Now a month and a half later he is preaching boldly about Jesus.

What gives?  How did that turnaround happen?

To find out we turn to John 21:15-17, a story that does not appear in Luke.

After his resurrection, the disciples went back to their jobs.  They were fisherman, and they needed to make some money, feed their families, and so they went fishing.   Jesus found them, made a fire on the beach, waiting for the disciples to return so they could eat together.  Though he had resurrected, he was about to return to his Father and turn the mission of his Kingdom over to them.  He had some unfinished business with them to care for.  The disciples return to shore, and Jesus pulls Peter aside and says “Do you love me?”

It is more precise in the original language, Koine Greek, which has a variety of words, all of which we translate with one English word: “love.”

 

Jesus starts in verse 15 asking Peter “Do you agape me?”  Agape is perfect love.  This is the love that is used to describe God’s love, or to describe the love we should have for one another, as stated famously in 1 Corinthians 13.

Peter responds “Lord, you know that I phileo you.”  Phileo is brotherly love, very relational.  Phila-Delphia is the City of Brotherly love.

In a way, then, while Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, Peter answers very relationally, saying he has brotherly love for Jesus.

So Jesus says “Feed my lambs.”  It might sound odd to us, this shepherd language. But Jesus knows that Peter felt terrible about denying Jesus, that Peter would be wondering if he was no longer acceptable to Jesus. Perhaps Peter should forfeit his position in the inner circle of Jesus’ twelve disciples.  Jesus, who had once said to Peter “on you I will build my church”, now reinstates him: “Feed my sheep.”

Then surprisingly, Jesus asks him again, “Do you agape me?”, and Peter repeats “You know I phileo you”.  You can see Peter internally, and maybe in body language on his face, wondering, “Why is he asking me again?”  You and I know how it feels when our spouse or loved one asks, “Do you love me?” and we respond “Of course I love you!”  And then they ask again, “But really, do you really love me?”  At this second questioning, we can start to get offended, thinking that they shouldn’t have to ask a second time!  Do they not believe us?  Why would they have any reason to doubt?  Peter is starting to feel this, to think these thoughts.

So Jesus says again “Take care of my sheep.” Again, reinstating Peter.

Imagine the shock as Jesus now asks Peter a third time, “Do you love me?”  But this time Jesus has used the word “phileo”.  Now Jesus is getting very personal.

John tells us in the middle of verse 17 that Peter is hurt.  As any of us would be when we are asked to repeat ourselves a third time.  But Peter now says a third time, “You know that I phileo you.”

And Jesus says a third time, “Feed my sheep.”

Do you see what Jesus has done?  Each of Peter’s three denials have now been overturned by three “I love yous”, and by Jesus’ three reinstatements of Peter to “feed his sheep.”

Peter is restored.

Jesus is in the business off restoration.  Do you need to be restored?  If you have denied him, if you have disobeyed him, if you have been ashamed of him, you can be restored!

He loves you with Agape and Phileo, and he wants to restore you.

So come to him, like Peter, with a heart, mind and will that show your godly sorrow, and he will restore you.

That’s how Peter could preach a powerful sermon just a few weeks later.  He was restored.  And he fed Jesus’ sheep.

If you have betrayed Jesus, if you have denied him, know that he loves you.  Let him restore you.  Then feed his sheep.

Does Michael Phelps have an unfair advantage? (and why it matters for followers of Jesus!) Luke 17:1-19

15 Feb

Quick trivia question: which Olympian is the record holder for the most Olympic medals of all time?

Michael Phelps is the correct answer, which if you didn’t know already, you probably guessed by the title!

But this picture only shows his medals from one Olympics. Guess how many total medals he has won? Total of 22!  See the chart below.  (Update 8/13/16 – Phelps is adding to his record total in the Rio games!  So this info is out of date.  The guy just keeps winning!)

Olympic Medal Winners Top 10When I watched Phelps swim in previous summer Olympics, I thought, he has a freakishly long torso. And he’s not this huge body-builder type. Instead he seems like he has a God-given body for swimming superiority. Anyone else every notice that? Well, it has made the news.   And because he has done so well, scientists have taken notice.

Does Michael Phelps have an unfair advantage? Scientists studied Phelps, took measurements, and they found that he does have some unique physical characteristics. The long torso, double-jointed ankles, long arm span. The scientists noted all these things, and found that compared to the average human, these characteristics are really helpful for swimming

It got me thinking about how perfect it is for Phelps that he got into swimming then. How many other people with bodies suited for swimming or some other sport never got into swimming? Maybe there are people with better-suited bodies than Phelps? It is amazing that not only does he have an amazing body for swimming, but that he got into swimming!  It’s almost not fair for the other swimmers.

My thoughts were dashed by the scientists. You know what they said? Sure his body might be better suited for swimming, but the actual advantage would be so minute as to be negligible. In fact, they suggested that his double-jointed ankles could be a disadvantage, when it comes to force and power in his kick.

You know what they said is Michael Phelps’ reason for success? Almost entirely his training. His insane training regimen is also the stuff of legends.

If you want to get your body operating at premium athletic levels, you have to fine-tune it with a commitment to daily habits.

Just like Olympic athletes, are there habits or practices that disciples of Jesus should be known for?

The answer is a resounding “Yes!”  Jesus gave us habits, practices that he wanted us, his disciples, to follow. Some of them we learn by just watching him. Then we do what he did. What did he do? In Luke we have seen him regularly getting away from the crowds, spending time alone in prayer. We have seen him make disciples. So prayer and making disciples are two things he did, and thus they are two practices that we must do.  How are you doing in those areas?

But there are other important practices that we disciples of Jesus should learn.  He specifically teaches a number of them.  In Luke 17:1-19 he teaches that disciples should have a regular habit of the following practices:

Don’t cause people to sin, confront sin, be forgiving, have great faith, serve dutifully, be grateful.

An Awkward Bible Story – Luke 7:36-50

8 Jul

There are some really awkward stories in the Bible.  This past Sunday in our series teaching through Luke we came to one those stories.  Take a look:

When you read the story, if you’re like me you’ve heard it many times, and you have been accustomed to it, so you’ve already classified it in your mind as “that time Jesus was anointed by a sinful woman” and you go on.  No big deal.

No big deal?  How did you feel watching that video?  Awkward?

This story makes me feel like I want to turn my eyes away.  It’s weird!  Is it okay to say that about a Bible story?  Yes, it is.  Because this story is genuinely, truly weird.  But maybe we find it weird from our cultural vantage point?  Maybe it wasn’t weird in Jesus’ culture?

What is so striking is that Jesus doesn’t seemed phased by the awkwardness.  As we see time and time again in Jesus’ lifestyle, his way, he defies convention and teaches us just by example.  What can we learn from Jesus in his interaction with this sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50?

First, It is okay to interact with sinners, especially when they are repentant. We can be very repulsed by sinners. If there ever was a situation to be repulsed about, this is one. A sinful woman comes to a single man who is a religious leader, and she starts doing very intimate things to him in presence of another high-powered, but legalistic, religious leader? You and I would probably be quick to get the heck out of there. If we let her continue for even a few seconds, people could start talking, and we could lose our ministry.

But Jesus knows her repentant heart. He sees that this is not a sneaky, wily woman. Just think about it. Why else would she be so bold, walking right into a house of a Pharisee like that? Because she has bad intentions and is desperately hopeful that this will start a romantic relationship with Jesus? I mean he is the most eligible bachelor in the land, if you think about it, but no way would her method work. She is walking into the morality police’s dining room! If anything, this is a risky stupid move that had all the makings of getting her stoned. But Jesus knew her heart and he intervened before anything damaging could happen. He shows us that we can and should interact with even repulsive people who are repentant and want to change.

Second, sins can be forgiven, even awful sins. Like I said earlier, we don’t know the extent of this woman’s sins. And though the anointing is really bizarre in our modern eyes, what is striking is the lengths she goes to express sorry and repentance for her sins.

When is the last time you wept because off your sins? She is broken because of her sins. She could be stoned. But she is willing to lay it all out there. The sinful woman has an understanding of the depth of her sin. As the woman is cleaning Jesus’ feet, Jesus told a parable to the Pharisee whose name was Simon. To summarize the parable talked about two men who had loans forgiving, one ten times more than the other.  Jesus asked Simon who would love more, and Simon correctly answered that is was the one who was forgiven the larger loan.  When we have been forgiven much, we see our sin more clearly and love much. Jesus is saying, like the woman anointing him, how important it is that we have an understanding of how much we have been forgiven.

We have all had sin forgiven. And this lady reminds us that we should take drastic action to make things right!

I’ll never forget a scene at one EC National Conference from a couple years ago. During a time of singing songs of worship, which we always do at the beginning of each session, one of our pastors walked forward to the front of the gathering and got down on his knees and prayed…in plain view of the whole National conference. It was intense.  He was taking drastic action.  I don’t what was going on in his life, but it was a powerful display of seeking the Lord.

Do you need to take drastic action to deal with your sin?

Finally, what is also so amazing about this story is the love and forgiveness of Jesus. He was and is a friend of sinners. He is so filled with love, entering into the awkwardness this woman has brought to him, forgiving of her sin.

And he has entered into our awkwardness. His forgiveness is available for us.  He loves us.  The final few lines of the story are amazing:

  1. Sins forgiven
  2. Jesus forgives
  3. Your faith has saved you, go in peace.

What is the sin in your life? Though sin grieves the Lord, do you know that he loves you, that he died and rose again for you, so that your sins are forgiven?  There is hope!

Guest Post: Why We Tell Our Stories

22 Oct

Today’s guest post is once again written by Lisa Bartelt as a follow-up to last week’s post.  We thank Lisa and her husband Phil for sharing their lives with us!  

The past two Sundays at Faith Church, we’ve shared stories of restoration. Personal stories from the teaching team of how God has taken broken, hurtful experiences (ones we’ve caused and ones done to us) and restored lives.

So, why tell those stories? We certainly didn’t have to tell them. We could have lived among you for years and not shared our painful pasts. And the telling isn’t necessarily easy.

But it is important. Here are three reasons why we told (and continue to tell) our stories.

First, it follows what we read in the Bible. Toward the end of John’s Gospel, he writes, “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31) Later, in his first letter, John writes again, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.” (1 John 1:3) The Old Testament, too, is full of commands to tell redemption stories. Tell them to the next generation. Remember what He’s done. Tell about His power so that the nations will know there is a God.

We tell our redemption stories so others believe there is a God who does the impossible. He restores.

Second, and sort of related, we tell our stories to heal. Ourselves, and others.

I’m reading a book right now by Neil Gaiman called The Ocean at The End of the Lane. There’s a scene where the main character is remembering a time when he and a neighbor girl encountered a creature in the woods. The neighbor girl spoke a foreign and magical language to the creature, a song of some kind. He says he has dreamed of the song, and in the dream he knows the words. Then he says this: “In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. … In my dreams, I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, ‘Be whole,’ and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.”

By telling our stories, we are saying to each other: Be whole. We are speaking a language of shaping, of turning brokenness into beauty, of seeing God use our hurts to mold us into someone we couldn’t imagine being.

Third, by telling our stories, we give other people permission to tell theirs. None of us are perfect, but it’s so easy to look around and think everyone else has it all together and we’re the oddball that doesn’t.

If you heard our stories these last weeks, you’d know that’s far from the truth.

This quote I saw on Pinterest recently puts it another way: vulnerable-gift

Our prayer and hope is that this series of restoration stories would not end here, but that we all would continue to tell our stories. To each other. And, if the Lord leads, to the church as a whole.