Archive for February, 2009
“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Have you ever heard this well-worn proverb? I have. Usually from someone who has been wronged in a monumentally significant and deeply painful way. “I’m never going to let them do that to me again!” they exclaim. “I’m never going to trust them! They won’t be able to fool me again!”
Usually, in a conversation like this one, I will try to help the wronged person understand the difference between foolishness and forgiveness. “Foolishness,” I say, “is when you put yourself in a position where your perpetrator can recklessly and dangerously hurt you. Forgiveness,” I continue, “is when you give up your right to wish hurt on them.” Sadly, this important distinction is often lost on a freshly wounded heart. Objections usually come immediately and vociferously: “I can’t forgive him!” they might say. “If I let my guard down for even a second, he’ll get me again! There’s no way I’ll ever be able to trust him again!”
As hard as it may seem, this distinction between foolishness and forgiveness is a vital one to take to heart. As Christians, we are certainly called to avoid foolishness: “Stay away from a foolish man, for you will not find knowledge on his lips” (Proverbs 14:7). Yet, at the same time we are called to eschew foolishness, we are also called to embrace forgiveness.
Indeed, this is the exhortation that Paul gives the Corinthians in our reading for today from 2 Corinthians 2. Apparently, there was a man among this congregation who had grieved and embarrassed its members greatly by his sin. And, in accordance with sound doctrine, the Corinthians had disciplined this man. But now, this man has repented and sought forgiveness and restoration. And so, Paul tells the Corinthians: “The punishment inflicted on this man by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive him and comfort him” (verses 6-7). I can imagine what the reflexive protestations from the Corinthian congregants must have sounded like: “What do you mean forgive him and comfort him? This guy almost wrecked our church with his raucous behavior! If we forgive him, comfort him, and then restore him to our fold, he could bring us to the brink or destruction once more. He fooled us once, but he’s not going to fool us twice!”
Sadly, those who so stridently hold on to unforgiveness so that they will not be “fooled twice” are actually being played for fools. But they’re not being played for fools by their menacing perpetrators. They’re being played for fools by Satan. For unforgiveness strangles the soul and smothers the spirit – Satan’s very goal and desire for us. That is why Paul encourages the Corinthians to be timely and sincere in their forgiveness: “In order that Satan might not outwit us” (verse 11).
And so, today I call you to choose forgiveness over foolishness. And I’m under no delusion about the difficulty that this choice involves. Indeed, this choice was difficult even for God. So difficult, in fact, that it literally killed him…on a cross. And yet, I must say lovingly, but also truthfully, that one of the most foolish things you can do is withhold forgiveness. For unforgiveness is nothing but a trick of the devil. So don’t let Satan play you for a fool. “Forgive each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
Last night, I had to change my plans. I say “I had to change my plans” because, honestly, I never like to change my plans. Midcourse corrections, last minute updates, and on the fly modifications are not my spiritual gift. In fact, they have sometimes been known to bring out my less endearing spiritual gift of crabbiness. But last night, the need was so pressing, the situation so acute, and the circumstance so weighty that even I made an eleventh-hour change. Such was the reason I was not able to attend our Ash Wednesday service yesterday evening.
As we begin studying together through 2 Corinthians in our “Word for Today” readings, I am comforted by the fact that I am not the only one who has “last minute change aversion.” Paul, we read in 2 Corinthians 1:15-16, had planned to visit the Corinthians twice (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:5-7). But at the last minute, he has to turn two shorter planned visits into one longer unplanned visit. This change in plans gives his detractors fodder to accuse him of, to use some political parlance, “flip-flopping.” Their accusation is piercing and damning: “If you cannot be trusted in something as elementary as keeping an appointment, how can you be trusted in your message of Christ?” Paul, knowing that the very gospel is at stake in their accusation, responds swiftly and pointedly: “When I planned this, did I do it lightly? Or do I make plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say, ‘Yes, yes’ and ‘No, no’” (2 Corinthians 1:17)? When Paul asks this question, he sets it up with the Greek word meti. This particle is used when its speaker expects a negative answer to his question. To paraphrase in English, “I didn’t make my plans lightly, did I?” Paul already has in mind the answer to his own question and that answer is “no.” Paul would never change his plans on a whim. Yet, in this instance, the need was pressing, the situation was acute, and the circumstance was weighty. He had no choice.
Even though Paul may have had to occasionally, if not begrudgingly, change his plans, he reminds the Corinthians of something that he has never changed – his message of Jesus Christ. “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me…was not ‘Yes’ and ‘No,’ but in him it has always been ‘Yes’” (2 Corinthians 1:19). There is no “flip-flopping” in Paul’s gospel message because there is no “flip-flopping” in God, as he himself promises us: “I the LORD do not change” (Malachi 3:6). And because there is no “flip-flopping” in God’s essence, we can also be assured that there is no “flip-flopping” in God’s plans. Indeed, God had planned all along to send us Jesus. As 1 Peter 1:18-20 reminds us: “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world.” Long before we saw our need for a Savior, God did. And so God planned the cross before the creation of the world. Why? Because God planned you. And God has plans for you. Aren’t you glad his loving plans for you are secure?
I’ll never forget having my first realization that I was indeed getting older. Then again, as I grow older and more forgetful, perhaps I will. So while I still have my memory relatively in tact, allow me to share. It was my sophomore year in high school. I was taking a course in American literature when I began to realize that I could barely read the things my teacher was writing on the board! Does that say “read pages 1-103” of The Scarlet Letter or “read pages 1-03”? I think I like the second option better.
When I finally told my mother that everything was looking a little blurrier these days, her immediate response was, “We need to schedule you an appointment with the optometrist. You need to have your eyes checked!” “But mom,” I protested, “I’m only 15! Glasses are for old people!” Unfortunately, one week and one optometrist visit later, I became an old person. I walked into my American literature class donning a pair of glasses.
It happens to all of us. Eyesight dims. Hearing gets muffled. Joints get sore. Physical stamina wanes. We get old. And we eventually pass on. This is the sobering reality we remember this day. Today, according to church tradition, is Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday has as its credo this sobering reminder: “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). According to Scripture, human beings were formed from dust (cf. Genesis 2:7) and because of sin, we will one day return there. We will be buried in the dust upon our deaths. The dimming eyesight and muffled hearing and sore joints and waning physical stamina are mere indications of the inexorable and inevitable dusty deaths that await us all.
Interestingly, we see a sign of dustiness in our reading for today from 1 Corinthians 16. Paul, as he concludes his letter, includes this passing comment: “I, Paul write this greeting in my own hand” (verse 21). In the ancient world, it was not unusual to have an amanuensis (who was much like a secretary) pen a letter at someone else’s dictation. Without the clear type settings that we enjoy today, this would insure an easily readable letter because of the professional penmanship. Indeed, this was the reason many believe that Paul dictated his letters to an amanuensis. Elsewhere, in a similar statement, Paul writes, “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand” (Galatians 6:11)! Apparently, Paul had terrible penmanship. He had to write in “large letters,” for his hands were shaky. Was this because of arthritis? Or Parkinson’s Disease? Or Congenital Hyperinsulinism? Who knows. But we do know that we are receiving a slight glimpse into this apostle’s dusty mortality. He was not always healthy.
“Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” This is the credo of shaky hands and dimming eyesight. And yet, that is not all Scripture has to say about dust. As Daniel 12:2 reminds us: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake.” Our dusty deaths do not have the last word, for Ash Wednesday always gives way to Easter. And it is Easter that we are waiting for and watching for and preparing for, even as this Lenten Season begins. And that is what I remind you of as I type this blog…by my own hand.
Like many guys, I am not very adept at multi-tasking. For example, if Melody and I are sitting in bed one evening and she is one the phone while I am reading, I will often get to the bottom of a page and realize that I have no idea what I have just read. Why? Because I was too busy paying attention to her conversation and not to what I was reading. And I can’t do two things at once. Or, let’s say Melody is trying to have a conversation with me while I am watching TV. Often, after she realizes that my mind is drifting away from her and toward what’s on TV, she’ll say in her best frustrated tone, “Zach, stay with me!” To which I will reply, “I am with you.” “Yes,” Melody will say, “but you’re not ALL THERE with me. Your face may be looking at me, but your mind is thinking about what’s on TV.”
Last month, sorrowfully, my wife’s grandmother passed away. And, just like in most instances of bereavement, the night before the funeral there was a visitation with an open casket. So I went along with my wife and my two nephews, Noah and Nicholas. Noah, as a six year old, was having a hard time understanding what he was seeing. He would walk over to “Gi Gi” (that’s what he calls Melody’s grandmother) and he would stare into the casket, and then he would come back and ask me, “Uncle Zach, when is Gi Gi going to wake up?” To which I would have to somberly and sadly reply, “She’s not going to wake up, Noah. She’s died and gone to heaven.” And it was then that Noah asked probably the most insightful question I have ever received from a six year old: “How can Gi Gi be in heaven when her body’s in the casket?”
That, actually, is a really good question. And it’s one that far too many adults fail to ask. The teaching of Scripture is indeed clear: those who die in Christ live with him in heaven. The words of Jesus to the thief on the cross right before he dies, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43) leave no doubt about the precious hope of heaven that awaits us immediately upon our deaths. But it is not our bodies that ascend to heaven after we die, it is our souls. That is why, when John has his vision of heaven in Revelation, he sees not people’s bodies, but their souls in heaven (e.g., Revelation 6:9). And yet, God would say along with my wife, “You may get to be with me when you die, but you’re not ALL THERE with me. Your soul may be with me, but your body is still buried in the ground.” But one day, that will change.
“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep. But we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). In our reading for today from 1 Corinthians 15, Paul talks about the resurrection that will take place on the Last Day, not of our souls, but of our bodies. When Jesus returns, Scripture teaches, our bodies and souls will once again be reunited with each other and we will be “all there” with Jesus. And six year old boys will no longer be confused.
You see, my friends, this is the ultimate hope of the Christian according to Scripture. Not just that when we die our souls get to go to heaven to be with Jesus, but that on the Last Day, Jesus will come and resurrect our bodies and we will live “all there” with Jesus. And so, we confess in the words of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the BODY and the life everlasting.” I’ll most definitely offer a hearty “Amen” to that.