First, repent

I’ve been pastor of this amazing church for ten years, a milestone that seems to call for reflection. What have I learned? What surprised me? What could I have done better?

Ten years ago, I thought that I might have something to offer in the way of experience that would be helpful to the church. Now it seems to me that my role is insignificant, at least compared to what God is doing here and has been doing here all along.

Both the joys and the challenges are greater than I imagined.

The church has transformed me far more than I’ve transformed the church.

The thing that surprised me the most? How hard it was to name a problem. You would think that you could identify a problem, fix it, and then move on. That doesn’t seem to apply in church. When I pointed out what I thought was a problem, people got hurt or mad. As our church secretary frequently said, “You expected this to be logical?”

I’m starting a sermon series on Nehemiah this week. Nehemiah was a long way from home; an exile in a foreign country; when he got word how bad things were back in Jerusalem. Instead of getting angry or depressed, Nehemiah prayed…and prayed.

And Nehemiah repented. Not just for his own sins, but for the sins of his ancestors and for the sins of the entire Jewish people.

I had no idea just how many jobs pastors do, especially city-center pastors. Now I think the job is to first repent, cast ourselves on the only One who can really fix things, and then work as hard as we can.

Repent? Who, me?

A school district took away jump ropes. Kids could still jump rope, but without the rope. It seems that jumping rope was hard for some kids. Failing might damage their self-esteem.

For two decades, psychotherapy has been in decline, despite research that it really works to promote patients’ mental health. The reasons for the decline are complex, such as the increased use of medications, but here’s the thing: psychotherapy involves long, hard work facing our own issues. Most people blame others for their problems. Psychotherapists used to see patients who were unhappy and wanted to understand themselves. Now, more patients want someone else to change. Fewer people say, “I want to change myself.”

It would seem that Ash Wednesday and repentance are out of touch with the times. That’s too bad, because repentance allows you to face the evil that you’ve done without the guilt crushing you.

The classic case study in repentance is the parable of the prodigal son. A young son took his share of his father’s wealth, left home, and squandered his wealth in wild living. When his life had fallen totally apart, he resolved to go home and work his way back into his father’s good graces. That was the first part of repentance—turning from his old way of life and heading home.

While the son was still a long way off, his father ran to him and kissed him. Instead of giving him the punishment he deserved, he welcomed him back as his son. When the son experienced the radical love of his father, he fully repented. In that moment he had access to all the father’s love and riches.

Repentance is like a key which unlocks our own hearts and allows the love of the father to flow into us. True repentance isn’t about feeling guilty for what we’ve done; just the opposite. True repentance is about joy.

The father, who represents God in the parable, didn’t give his son what he deserved.  He transferred the son’s guilt and humiliation to himself. Real repentance is turning away from an old way of life and accepting God’s love.