That’s what I remember most about church growing up: sitting on the wooden pew next to my mom, stroking the smooth pink that adorned the ends of her hands, and dreaming of the day I would have nails like hers.
Sometimes my thoughts drifted towards God. But mostly, the service seemed to be for adults, and my mind stayed consumed with my own daydreams.
It was the music that would snap me out of my distraction.
First the pipe organ filled the sanctuary with deep and layered sounds, and then congregation swelled in with their harmonies. I sat up straight, looked in the hymnal, and did my best to sing along in broken childish melody.
We sang hymns in rotation, according to the church calendar. But there were a few songs we sung every week, as part of the liturgy.
One in particular comes to mind,
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from Thy Presence And take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation And uphold me with Thy free spirit.”
At the time, I didn’t realize these were the words of Psalm 51:10-12. I knew them only as the lyrics to the refrain we sang in the middle of the service every Sunday.
When I read Psalm 51 now, I can’t help but hum the tune when I get to verse 10. And I have a difficult time reading a translation that does not use the same words that I know. These words are imbedded deep, woven through the fabric of memories and faith.
This song has been stuck in my head for over a week.
And though it has been annoying, it has also been powerful. I have thought of these words upon getting out of bed, playing with my kids, and cleaning up the kitchen. I have remembered them while driving my car, going to work, and talking with a friend. And as I have repeated these words over and over and over again, I have realized anew the profound truth they reveal about repentance.
Repentance is not just about asking for forgiveness.
Repentance is about being recreated.
We tend to think of repentance like a check out lane at the grocery store. We unload our cart of wrongdoings for God to inspect, we sheepishly pay what is owed by looking at Jesus and saying we’re sorry, and then go on our happy way.
But in that visual of forgiveness, what is to keep us from bringing the same things through the line over and over again? What difference is it really making?
When we repent, we acknowledge sin on a deeper level. We bow before God, spilling our wrongs before Him as we place face and arms to the ground. He holds our empty hands and places them to our chests, working with us to pry our hearts free. In repentance, we allow God to hold our hearts, and mold them beat in the rhythm of His ways.
I tried to do practice repentance this morning. To both ask forgiveness and ask for change. The words stuck in my throat as I attempted to utter them aloud.
Lord, I confess my selfishness. Create in me a heart that trusts you. Lord, I confess my envy. Create in me a heart that celebrates others. Lord, I confess my pride. Create in me a heart that is humble.
As the words stumbled from my lips, I realized that these kind of prayers should be my regular practice.
Repentance prayers demonstrate a deep level of faith. Faith in a God that loves us in spite of our wrongs. Faith in a God that has the power to recreate our hearts.
I pray that God will create in me a new heart of faith.
(That was my reflection on Psalm 51. Up next week? Psalm 52.)
There are many ways to practice unhealthy conflict resolution.
Sometimes, we run away from the person that hurt us, cutting off the relationship before we get hurt again. Sometimes, we bury the hurt, trying to maintain peace in the relationship, fearing turmoil in our own hearts. Sometimes, we talk to others about someone that hurt us, looking for an outlet or people to take our side.
If we are honest, we have probably done each of these things at one time or another.
Jesus calls us to something different.
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.” – Luke 17:3b
The Greek word for rebuke is connected to the word for honor, and I don’t think that is a coincidence.
When we speak to people directly about how they have sinned against us, we honor them. We treat them as a reasonable person who will be able to listen to our side of the story. We give them the benefit of the doubt that they may not realize how their actions affected us unless we tell them.
I have been on the receiving end of some difficult conversations. And though they have stung, they have helped me grow as a person. Often, I didn’t even realize what I was doing until someone told me. The conversation gave me a chance to apologize, and to think more deeply about how my actions affect others.
I have also been on the giving end of some difficult conversations. And though the anticipation of them has made me want to throw up, these honest dialogues have helped me maintain healthy relationships and a healthy heart.
It seems that Jesus is giving wise and kind advice.
Until He says the next sentence.
There’s often a next sentence with Jesus. The sentence we like to leave out when we quote Him.
“Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” – Luke 17:4
This reminds me of marriage. Our spouse is the person we love most in the world, but also the person we tend to hurt most often. We cannot put a cap on how many times we talk about how we have been offended or forgive the other person for offending us. Our commitment to the relationship compels us to have difficult conversations over and over and over again.
When Jesus sets up this call to rebuke, repent, and forgive, Jesus uses the word that at other times signifies “fellow believers,” our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to have the same kind of commitment to our family in Christ as we have to our family at home.
We are to be so committed to healthy relationships with fellow Christians that we are willing to have difficult conversations over and over and over again. We are to honor each other enough to tell each other when our behavior does not line up with how Christ called us to live, and to forgive each other when we repent of those behaviors.
This is an extraordinarily difficult teaching.
And to be honest, I don’t know how it applies to all circumstances. I don’t know how this applies people in power who seem to be abusing their privilege. (Perhaps true repentance on their part would mean stepping down or changing behavior?) I don’t know how this applies to a relationship in which a boundary must be set for the health of one or both parties. (Perhaps forgiving people doesn’t mean we have to continue spending time with them?)
What I do know is that this discourse is set up by the importance of not hurting those who are most vulnerable. So, Jesus is not willy-nilly throwing around commands that He knows will end up hurting people.
He wants us to understand that the forgiveness we receive from Christ should become a wellspring within us, which we can liberally and generously pour out on others.
We are called to forgive in the same way we have been forgiven. Without limit.
What would you do if the President were coming to your house for dinner next week? Before you discount the ridiculous nature of that question, give your imagination a chance to take over. What would you do to prepare?
I would pick up the toys strewn across my living room floor, and clean the house from top to bottom- or better yet, hire a maid to do it. I would start meal planning immediately, consulting cookbooks, friends, and the Internet to find food worthy to serve to such an honored guest. I would grocery shop, decorate, seek advice on appropriate table settings, and perhaps have a nervous breakdown.
One thing I guarantee I would not do, and I’m guessing you would not do either: I would not do NOTHING. Knowing the President was going to visit would shift my priorities. I would do SOMETHING to prepare.
Isaiah says that preparations should be made for the coming Messiah.
A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” –Isaiah 30:3-5
Travel in Isaiah’s day was difficult. It was vital to prepare a clear path for the visit of a king. In the same way, God says He will send a voice to prepare the way for the Messiah’s arrival. Before Jesus’ begins His ministry, such a voice calls out.
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” – Matthew 3:1-3
John the Baptist fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3. He is the one God sends to prepare the people for the Messiah. And what does He ask them to do?
In Isaiah’s day, the wilderness that needed to be cleared for a king’s arrival was a literal one. In our day, it is figurative. The wilderness is in our hearts.
Christ fills the empty spaces of our hearts, but He is not a bully. He does not break in- He waits for an invitation and a clear path. Sin blocks the way.
- When we carry pride, it is a mountain. We are full of ourselves, leaving little room for Christ to occupy.
- When we carry greed, it is trees. We let wants and desires sprout up and grow, leaving the path for Christ full of twists, turns, and debris.
- When we carry hate, it is a valley. We have a dark and deep hole, leaving Christ standing at the edge.
Repentance is the most important preparation we can make for the celebration of the Messiah’s arrival. Through it, we can celebrate, in real time, His advent to new places of our hearts.
Admit that these sins fill our hearts with the wrong things. Chop down the trees, raise up the valleys, lower the mountains, and make a straight path for Christ to come in and occupy.
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. –Ephesians 3:14-19