Sunday, May 7, 2017

Tears of Grief, Ashes of Repentance & Trumpets of Praise

You’ve surely heard the phrase “an elephant in the room.” This expression is applied when there is something everyone can see, but no one wants to acknowledge it or talk about it. The problem is: sometimes elephants can do a lot of damage if they stay in a room too long.

Years ago, NASA scientists knew that insulation foam was falling off of space shuttle fuel tanks. No one wanted to acknowledge this design flaw, because they didn’t know how to fix it. Finally, during one space shuttle mission, that foam flew off and hit the shuttle during take off. The Challenger exploded for all the world to see.

For years, Detroit automakers didn’t want to acknowledge the surge of Japanese cars being produced. “If we ignore it long enough, it will go away!” It didn’t. Refusing to talk about that elephant crippled the American auto industry for decades.

For IBM, Apple became their elephant in the room. For American Airlines, cross-state rival Southwest Airlines became their elephant. For Michael Jackson’s entourage, his drug dependence was the elephant in the room.

The longer you refuse to deal with the elephant, the worse damage that elephant can do. I’d like to visit with you about an elephant in our room. No one wants to talk about it, least of all me! But we need to; the healthy thing to do is to name it. I think the only way forward for us is to name it.

But first, let me say that I know our church is filled with different groups of people. Some of you are long-time members. Others are visiting us for the first time. And if you are our guest, you don’t have a lot of context for what I’m about to say. I apologize for that. But, I hope you can appreciate the fact that sometimes families have to be honest with other. Sometimes we need to be vulnerable and transparent with each other. So, please bear with us. I think you’ll see Jesus’ gospel this morning even in what I am about to say.

About a year ago, our shepherds made the announcement that we would be studying the topic of women in the church together. Immediately following that announcement, many members of our family decided to leave Glenwood and find a new church home. Then, we embarked upon a lengthy and thorough study of that topic. Though the study did not take place immediately after that first announcement, and though it was not continuous, we spent about a year studying and thinking about that topic. Six weeks ago, at the conclusion of that study, our shepherds announced that we would begin including women in more and more roles at Glenwood. Women will not serve as elders. Women will not serve as the preacher. But we will begin to include women in other roles, gradually and with sensitivity. Since that announcement, we’ve had many more families leave us. And to acknowledge the elephant in our room, our once full room, is not so full anymore. Some of our closest friends have left us. Some of our family members have left us. And it hurts. It really hurts.

I think it is important for you to hear the leaders of this church acknowledge that. We see it. We are grieving just like you. We also have lost friends, brothers and sisters in every sense of those words. Yes, they are still part of our larger Christian family! But, the fact that they are not here, the fact that they have made the conscious decision to leave us and go somewhere else, that hurts, and we are grieving. I want you to know, church, that it is OK to grieve. That is an appropriate response to loss. So, instead of going on with business as usual, acting as if things are perfectly normal, I want us to acknowledge the elephant in our midst and to grieve. And to help us do that, our service will be modeled after the Psalms.

There are at least three types of psalms in the Old Testament. Some psalms help us cry “Tears of Grief.” Others bring us to the “Ashes of Repentance.” And some help us sound “Trumpets of Joy.” Ancient Israel believed all three of these kinds of actions were appropriate for worship. Sometimes we need to lament in worship. Sometimes we need to repent. Other times, we need to shout our praise to God. I’d like for us to do all three. I’ve already acknowledged our grief. God made us for relationships. And when those relationships are strained or broken, it hurts. God created us to grieve broken relationships.

I also want you to hear our repentance this morning. When we initiated this process a year ago, I want you to know that we had the best of intentions in mind. We really did. Our goal was to help this church study an incredibly difficult topic together. We knew it would be difficult. But we also knew this family was strong. We also knew that all families have to have difficult conversations together from time to time. One question I’ve heard over and over again: Why now? If you knew it would cause so much commotion and conflict, why bring it up at all? That is a good question. There have been many points in our history when church leaders asked that question. “Why now?” Let me try to answer that question this way: From where I stand, it always comes back to the Gospel. The most important thing is the Gospel! And when I say “Gospel” I mean something very specific. This is the good news that God came in the form of a man to save us. He saves us from our sin, he picks us up from our fallenness. Through the power of the Spirit, we are free! Nothing can stand in the way of that message! Paul knew this. When he began traveling with Timothy, he told Timothy to be circumcised for the sake the gospel. When he worked with Titus, however, he told him not to be circumcised, for the sake of the gospel.

For Paul, the communication of the Gospel was most important. It reminds me of something that happened during the first Gulf War. A female reporter was sent to cover the war. She was trying to interview a leading member of a Middle Eastern government. They said, “We will not talk to a woman without her head covered.” She threw a fit and demanded to be allowed to go in uncovered. She appealed to the NBC executives. They told her: “Cover your head!” Because getting the story was most important. For us, the Gospel is most important, and we should do everything in our power to make sure there are no obstacles to hearing the gospel.

Every now and then, in history, there are tipping points. There came a time, early in the church, when not to address the Jew/Gentile divide did more harm to the Gospel than to address it. There came a time, later in the church, when not to address the slavery issue did more harm to the Gospel than to address it. There came a time, when the church decided for the first time that it was more harmful to the Gospel to bar African Americans from an all-white congregation than to let them in. These were tipping points. Before those decisions were made, it was deemed too great a risk, too great a distraction. But the church reached a tipping point, to not address these items will do more harm than good. So, they did it, and it was difficult. People were hurt, and people were angry. People left.

The Glenwood leadership believes we are at a tipping point on this issue. To not address this topic will continue to cause a bigger and bigger barrier to the communication of the Gospel. That is why “now.” Now, you may not agree with us. I understand that. But, I want you to understand why we did what we did when we did it. It wasn’t because we are mean and insensitive. It wasn’t because we only care what a few people think. It is, believe it or not, for the sake of the communication of the Gospel. Brothers and sisters, I just want you to understand our hearts. Our intentions were good. But I will say this: Though it was not our intent to hurt anyone, we know we did. And we are sorry. From the depths of our hearts, we are sorry. We love you, and we love every individual and family that chose to leave. We apologize for causing so much sorrow. We also apologize for sometimes not acknowledging the destruction it was causing. As leaders, we have a tendency to want to “spin” things to make them sound perfectly OK. Over the last year, we probably did not acknowledge your pain, at least publicly, like we should have. And though we attempted to provide multiple venues for you to be heard, we know some of you felt like we weren’t listening enough, and we are sorry for that. Though we bathed this process in more prayer than you can possibly imagine, we know it was not perfect, and we are sorry for that.

The truth is, we all bear some responsibility here: We all, including the leaders of this church, have not treated each other like Christ would treat us 100% of the time this year. We all, including our leaders, have said things we wish we could take back. We all, including our leaders, have not always done a good job of seeing this issue through the eyes of other people with whom we disagree. On our part, let me say, we are sorry and we repent. Please hear this most importantly. We love you. It was never our intention to hurt you or anyone else. Please accept our most sincere apology and repentance. And may God also hear and accept our repentance this morning.

The Bible is filled with “Three-Day Stories.” Jonah had a three-day story. Jonah was a prophet on day one. On day two, he was running from God and was in the belly of a great fish. On day three, God saved him, and he completed his mission (albeit reluctantly). Abraham had a three-day story. Abraham traveled to Mount Moriah with his son, Isaac, and the Bible tells us they were on that mountain for three days. On day one, Abraham walked with son Isaac on the mountain. On day two, Abraham held a knife over his son’s head, ready to sacrifice him to God. But on day three, God delivered Isaac and provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead.

Jesus had a three-day story. On day one, Jesus was arrested and killed. On day two, Jesus is gone. But on day three, Jesus is resurrected. We see this clear pattern in Scripture, the Three-Day Story. On day one, God’s glory departs. On day two, God’s glory is hidden. On day three, God’s glory is returned. Church, I don’t think that three-day story applies only to the Bible. I think we may also be on a three-day journey. And we may be living right now in day two.

God’s glory appears to some of us to be hidden. That doesn’t mean it is gone! God’s glory never left those people in the Bible, they just couldn’t see God for a moment. But, church, I want you to know, God’s glory always returns. And though, in our sorrow, we might not see Him now. God is here. And God will be seen very clearly by us again!

It is OK to hurt. And we need to repent. But know that morning follows the night. God is faithful. God has always been faithful! So we celebrate God’s faithfulness. By acknowledging our pain, because we know God can heal it! By wishing those who have left us God’s richest blessings, because we know that God’s family is bigger than Glenwood! By anticipating a rich and glorious future here, because we know God is not through with us yet!

This discussion does not “make everything better.” I’m not trying to spin this into something it is not. The fact is: We live in the in-between times, as Paul calls it. We have experienced God’s glory in part, but one day we will receive it in full. Until then, we will see and experience fallenness at times. And until then, we will see great and wonderful things at times. As we move closer and closer to the fullness of God’s glory, I pray we will give each other grace. And I pray God will grant us the tremendous blessing of seeing His glory more and more and more.

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