Between 2015 and 2016 I found myself facing unprecedented personal and professional challenges. My marriage of forty years came to an end for reasons I neither share nor defend in public. As word of my divorce spread through the Body of Christ – sometimes through my disclosure and most other times through gossip – I found myself increasingly shunned by many if not most of the leaders I had called friends, colleagues and partners over decades. (There were spectacular exceptions to that pattern.) The Word of God and my personal experience are unambiguous when the wheels come off. We are called to repent.
That call to repentance, by the way, is independent of any wrongdoing that may have been done or good-doing left undone. We are all flawed human beings – works in progress at best – and our Abba calls us to repent every moment of every day. None of us other than Jesus Himself is sin-free, but difficulties are not always fallout from our flaws. Yet repentance is always the solution. Jesus calls every person He ever meets to turn back to the Father. He never says let all who have sinned turn back; He even declares more than once – of the blind man in John 9, of 18 people crushed by a falling tower, and of worshipers murdered in the act of worship by King Herod in Luke 13, to name some examples – that He simply calls all to turn and seek God.
His call – in another by-the-way – is not necessarily about remorse and is certainly not limited to a commitment to stop doing one thing or begin doing another. Repentance is a word – in Hebrew and Greek – that means literally to turn about and pragmatically to refocus our attention on God. It is even more important when we are convinced we have not caused our particular troubles. The universality of its relevance releases us from temptation to defend ourselves. We need not figure out if we are innocent or guilty in any particular; we need only seek the One who loves us. He says – from Old Testament prophets to each of the Gospels – that we will always be blessed in the seeking itself.
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This is not the first time I have found myself depending on God’s radical and undeserved intervention. In 1990 I was in an untenable situation pastoring a church so dysfunctional it had destroyed the previous two pastors, and I was on a collision course with becoming number three. I cried out to my Lord, begging Him to show me any offense I had committed and to rescue my family and me from the quicksand. While I was at it I begged Him to use the situation to teach me how better to serve Him. Within a few months I was on my way to California with a scholarship to graduate school, my house in Virginia sold for what we paid for it, and a year’s salary was guaranteed as we re-established ourselves. Although my former bishop did all he could to blackball me – denominational authorities tend to do that when subordinates reject their advice to knuckle under – when I did accept another pastoral position in California, the church elders assured me the blackballing was one of the things that made me attractive to them.
A decade later I was in a similar position, albeit without the thunder and lightning. I knew God was calling me to leave congregational ministry to found a parachurch ministry that would be all about calling churches to take seriously the idea we are one Body of many parts and to be proactive in the reconciliation needed to activate that reality. I believed with all my heart that another Great Awakening was on its way. And I had a lot of people angry and accusing me of bailing out on them to pursue something they did not want.
With a furious bishop threatening to take not only my job but my hope of obtaining another if I did not abandon my vision for PrayNorthState, the Lord gave several words indicating I was to wait in place. These words countered my own conscientious conviction that I ought ethically to just resign my position and take my chances raising funds for the new ministry – or let the whole thing go, as so many urged me to do. The path of repentance was – of course – to obey the very counterintuitive word I had from the Lord. Redemption came about six weeks later when my congregational ministry was evaluated by surveying members. I scored so well on all measures, the angry bishop offered to fund the new ministry for six months and I accepted.
The fruit is not always so spectacular; neither is it usually so quick in coming. But the God who promises (in Romans 8:28) to work all things (ultimately) together for good (in those who love Him and are called according to His purposes) is utterly reliable. The catch is we can express our love and submission only in repeated acts of repentance.
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And that most recent time of challenge for me? I have lost a great deal on the one hand. On the other hand, I have gained a wonderful new wife and child, and my first novel – rejected by more than a dozen publishing houses before this crisis broke in 2015 – is on track for publication in the U.S., U.K. and Australia around the end of this year. And I know more of the peace which passes all understanding. Repentance, I find, is a privilege rather than a punishment – no matter what the circumstances.
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