Three Free Sins
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The Impossible Task of Flying Frogs
Someone recently sent me a statement purported to be from a public school teacher who was applying for a position in the school system:
Let me see if I’ve got this right: You want me to go into that room with those kids, correct their disruptive behavior, observe them for signs of abuse, monitor their dress habits, censor their T-shirt messages, and instill in them a love for learning. You want me to check their backpacks for weapons, wage war on drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, and raise their sense of self-esteem and personal pride. You want me to teach them patriotism and good citizenship, sportsmanship and fair play, and how to register to vote, balance a checkbook, and apply for a job. You want me to check their heads for lice, recognize signs of antisocial behavior,
and make sure that they all pass the state exams. You want me to provide them with an equal education regardless of their handicaps, and communicate regularly with their parents by letter, telephone, newsletter, and report cards. You want me to do all of this with a starting salary that qualifies me for food stamps . . .
. . . and then you tell me I can’t pray?
Now that’s not a great job! But I can top it! I’ve had a lousy job for most of my life!
I’m a preacher/pastor, and my job description is to keep people from doing what they obviously want to do. I’ve often felt like a police officer at a rock concert charged with keeping the concertgoers from smoking pot. Everywhere I turn, people are lighting up, and the air is so sweet that I feel like a mosquito in a nudist colony.
With a job description like mine, I hardly ever get invited to parties (at least, not the good ones). Sometimes I feel like a wet shaggy dog shaking himself at a wedding. I tell the guests that I’m trying to help and that God anointed me to reach out to them, but they simply don’t care.
Preachers are supposed to keep people from sinning. I haven’t been very successful so far. And I’ve been trying for forty years.
There are times when I feel like I’m standing by the sheer edge of a high cliff that people frequently approach. “Be careful,” I tell them. “It’s a long way down
and coming to a stop at the bottom will be quite unpleasant.” They look at me. They sometimes even thank me.
Then they jump.
They look at me. They sometimes even thank me. Then they jump.
But I keep at it. “Hey,” I say to the next group who approach the cliff, “not too long ago, I saw people go off that cliff; if you’ll bend over and look, you can see the bloody mess they made.” Like everybody else, they seem grateful for my concern. They may even say something about my compassion and wisdom.
Then they jump. It happens again and again.
Frankly, I’m tired of it. In fact, I’ve given up standing by this stupid cliff. I’m tired of being people’s mother. I’m tired of trying to prevent the unpreventable. I’m tired of talking to people who don’t want to listen. And I’m tired of pointing out the obvious.
Just when I determine to leave my position by the cliff, to my horror and surprise . . .
What’s with that?
Let me tell you. Human beings have an undeniable proclivity to sin—to jump off the cliff. We’re drawn to it. We love it (at least for a while). No matter who tries to keep us from doing it or how much pain it will cause, we are irresistibly drawn to that cliff. Maybe we want to fly.
Could it be that we have a masochistic streak in our DNA? Could it be that our default position is jumping off cliffs? I don’t know. But for whatever reason, we do jump, we do get hurt, and—if we survive—we then climb back up the cliff and jump again.
I heard a parable (author unknown) about Felix the flying frog. Even though it mixes the metaphor a bit, let me tell it to you.
Once upon a time, there lived a man named Clarence who had a pet frog named Felix. Clarence lived a modestly comfortable existence on what he earned working at the Walmart, but he always dreamed of being rich. “Felix!” he said one day, hit by sudden inspiration, “We’re going to be rich! I’m going to teach you to fly!”
Felix, of course, was terrified at the prospect. “I can’t fly, you twit! I’m a frog, not a canary!”
Clarence, disappointed at the initial response, told Felix: “That negative attitude of yours could be a real problem. We’re going to remain poor, and it will be your fault.”
So Felix and Clarence began their work on flying.
On the first day of the “flying lessons,” Clarence could barely control his excitement (and Felix could barely control his bladder). Clarence explained that their apartment building had fifteen floors, and each day Felix would jump out of a window, starting with the first floor and eventually getting to the top floor.
After each jump, they would analyze how well he flew, isolate the most effective flying techniques, and implement the improved process for the next flight. By the time they reached the top floor, Felix would surely be able to fly.
Felix pleaded for his life, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. He just doesn’t understand how important this is, thought Clarence. He can’t see the big picture.
So, with that, Clarence opened the first-floor window and threw Felix out. He landed with a thud.
The next day, poised for his second flying lesson, Felix again begged not to be thrown out of the window. Clarence told Felix about how one must always expect resistance when introducing new, innovative plans.
With that, he threw Felix out the second-story window. THUD!
Now this is not to say that Felix wasn’t trying his best. On the fifth day, he flapped his legs madly in a vain attempt at flying. On the sixth day, he tied a small red cape around his neck and tried to think Superman thoughts. It didn’t help.
By the seventh day, Felix, accepting his fate, no longer begged for mercy. He simply looked at Clarence and said, “You know you’re killing me, don’t you?”
Clarence pointed out that Felix’s performance so far had been less than exemplary, failing to meet any of the milestone goals he had set for him.
With that, Felix said quietly, “Shut up and open the window,”
and he leaped out, taking careful aim at the large jagged rock by the corner of the building.
Felix went to that great lily pad in the sky.
Clarence was extremely upset, as his project had failed to meet a single objective that he had set out to accomplish. Felix had not only failed to fly, he hadn’t even learned to steer his fall as he dropped like a sack of cement, nor had he heeded Clarence’s advice to “fall smarter, not harder.”
The only thing left for Clarence to do was to analyze the process and try to determine where it had gone wrong. After much thought, Clarence smiled and said . . .
“Next time, I’m getting a smarter frog!”
A number of years ago, I realized that I was, as it were, trying to teach frogs to fly. Frogs can’t fly. Not only that, they get angry when you try to teach them. The gullible ones will try, but they eventually get hurt so bad, even they quit trying. And let me tell you a secret: the really sad thing about being a “frog flying teacher” is that I can’t fly either.
If you are a teacher trying to teach frogs to fly, nobody ever bothers to ask if you can fly. In fact, if you pretend that you’re an expert and tell a lot of stories about flying; if you can throw in a bit of aeronautical jargon about stalls, spins, and flight maneuvers; and if you carry around a flying manual and know your way around it, nobody will
question your ability to fly. You just pretend you’re an expert, and the students think you can fly.1
If you are a teacher trying to teach frogs to fly, nobody ever bothers to ask if you can fly.
For years, as a preacher charged with preventing people from sinning, that was my problem (and sometimes it still is). I became so phony I could hardly stand myself.
I know, I know, there is a lot more to being a preacher and a pastor than keeping people from sinning, but if you become obsessed with sin prevention, it begins to take over everything you do and teach. Pretty soon you become a police officer, and the crime is sin. You spend your time trying to discern what is and what isn’t sin, you emphasize “sin prevention” by teaching how to avoid sin and stay pure, and you create a disciplinary process whereby sin is punished in the name of Jesus and “for their own good.”
PULLING BACK THE CURTAIN
Have you ever watched the television program that reveals the secrets of magicians? It’s called Magic’s Biggest Secrets Revealed. If you’ve seen it, you know there is this weird, masked man who looks kind of scary. He does the impossible, to wit, performs major illusions to the astonishment of the audience. And then after the trick is demonstrated, he goes back and step-by-step reveals how he did it.
I suspect that professional magicians are not altogether happy with this television show. It’s kind of like the Wizard of Oz who is big and scary . . . until Toto pulls the curtain aside. Everybody then sees that behind the big, scary, demanding image on the screen is a little man pulling levers. I hardly ever go to magic shows anymore. I used to love seeing the illusions and being astonished by an illusionist who did things that seemed impossible. I just don’t enjoy them anymore. The television show took the fun out of it, and I wish I had never watched it.
With my apologies to the teachers of flying frogs (i.e., preachers and teachers), I’m going to pull back the curtain and tell you how I did it—and sometimes still do. It’s a problem, you know? If you can’t fly and have been charged with teaching others how to fly—who also can’t and never will be able to fly—you have to be very good at creating a facade. And not only that, the problem is compounded when you believe that the master flyer (God) has commissioned you to do it.
Being a preacher and a pastor is like that. And it will kill you if you let it. Trying to teach people not to sin and, at the same time, finding out that they are still sinning is not a fulfilling task. Neither is trying to cover up that you have your own sins too (maybe bigger than your students’/parishioners’).
Let me give you some of the techniques of teaching frogs to fly and of keeping people from sinning.
1. Manipulate with guilt.
You would be surprised at how far a “How could you?” or “After all that Jesus has done for you!” will go if it is said with sincerity and passion. It’s even better and more effective if you can attach a Bible verse to it.
Last week I heard about a preacher who said that heaven wasn’t going to be a happy place for some Christians. “When you look back and see how many opportunities you missed and how often you failed when you could have succeeded, it will be depressing.” Now that’s over the top. Okay, okay, I did some guilt manipulation over the years, but at least I left heaven alone. It’s almost like this preacher is not content with making people miserable on earth. He has to mess with heaven too.
2. “Encourage” with comparisons to how much better others have done.
It’s sort of like the rooster who found a gigantic eagle’s egg. He rolled it into the chicken coop and said, “Ladies, I don’t want you to think I’m complaining, but I did want you to know what the competition is doing.”
3. Tell stories of heroes of the faith who persevered and were faithful in the hard places.
“If they can do it, God will give you the grace to do it too!” It’s very important that, when motivating with biography, you not tell the whole story. You have to leave out
the sin, the doubts, and the failures. Only reference the victories.
4. Use the carrot-and-stick technique.
This is one of the best techniques there is. The carrot is heaven, of course, and the stick is hell. After someone becomes a Christian, the hell thing doesn’t work very well, but there is always Hebrews 12:8 (“If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons”). It’s a simple matter of telling your congregation that while they probably won’t go to hell for their sins, God will break their legs if they get out of line. A few attention-grabbing words like “cancer,” “financial ruin,” and “leprosy” help.
5. Throw out the “follow me as I follow Christ” thing.
The trick here is to never let them see you sweat. You have to look spiritual, speak spiritual, and act spiritual when people are around. If they catch you in an unguarded moment, the gig is up. But it’s doable. I was able to pull it off for a whole lot of years.
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The above list is, of course, truncated. For a price, I can send you a complete manual on keeping people from sinning. I have, however, given you enough so you get the idea.
Now, can we talk?
That stuff is sick. And that’s our problem, the problem I want to address for the next few chapters.
Simply put, we’re in serious trouble in the church. It isn’t because we are sinners or because we don’t know enough, pray enough, or read the Bible enough. Our problem isn’t about being more faithful or not living a supernatural life of victory. Our problem isn’t going to be fixed with more programs, better methods of evangelism and stewardship, or discipline. Our problem isn’t spiritual formation or that we aren’t missional.
We have taken the best news ever given to the world, run it through a “religious” grid, and made something unpalatable out of it.
Our problem is that we have taken the best news ever given to the world, run it through a “religious” grid, and made something unpalatable out of it. In short, we’ve taken the good news and made it bad news. And if you listen carefully, you can hear old Slew Foot (that would be the devil) laughing.
WHAT IF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH ISN’T ABOUT GETTING BETTER?
So, what if you had three free sins?
Better, what if you had unlimited free sins? Even better yet, what if your sins weren’t even the issue? What if the
issue were living your life with someone who loved you without condition or condemnation?
What if the Christian faith wasn’t about getting better at all?
I have a friend who is struggling with HIV. He was raised in a “Christian” atmosphere of condemnation. I’ll tell you more about “J” in a later chapter, but for now, you need to know that he is just “hanging on.” My friend sinned and the light went out. He thought God turned it out, sure that he had received what he deserved and that God was punishing him with HIV. He thought God said, “I’ve had it with you.”
I told “J” that Jesus wasn’t surprised or angry. He has reached out to Jesus very hesitantly. He told me not too long ago that he would run, but he had no place to go. Good.
I’m glad my friend with HIV is hanging on because I’m writing this book for him. He’s come to a place where he doesn’t much like the Christian faith he has been taught, but it’s the only game in town.
Maybe you’re where “J” is.
On the other hand, maybe you just can’t do it anymore. Maybe you are fed up with the games and the failed efforts and have decided not to do it anymore. Maybe you just gave up and left. I have another friend who did just that.
One of my favorite sounds is the sound of motorcycles in the morning. I know that’s strange, and frankly, I haven’t
always liked that sound. At the beginning, it was a horrible sound—but not because it was loud or because I don’t like motorcycles. It was a horrible sound because it was the sound of leaving.
He was a staff member in a major drug-rehabilitation ministry where the boundaries and rules were very strict and violation of those rules exacted a stiff penalty. Being on the staff, he was the enforcer.
He stopped by my study at the church where I was the pastor and said, “The only reason I’m here is because I didn’t want you to hear it from someone else. I’ve resigned, because I can’t do it anymore. I’m headed for Key West, and I’m going there to sin. I may never come back. If there is a God, He’s going to have to bring me back; and if there isn’t a God, you won’t see me again.”
I had a lot of things to say to him, but he wouldn’t let me say them. He told me that he already knew what I was going to say and not to say it. So I watched him leave my study, go out into the parking lot, and head south on his motorcycle. It was a sad sound—the sound of that motorcycle. For the next three months, I prayed for my friend, and sometimes if I thought about it much, the tears would well up in my eyes.
Then I heard the sound again. I heard the sound of a motorcycle pulling into the church parking lot. My “prodigal” friend was grinning. “I thought you would want to know,” he said, laughing. “There really is a God and I’m back.”
Even as I tell you about that morning, I want to shout and laugh.
So read the rest of this book and you’ll never be able to say, “Nobody ever told me.”
There was a time when Wittenberg, the town where Martin Luther served, went crazy. As the doctrines taught by Luther took root, so did a lot of weird behavior and not a little sin. Luther was depressed, and a friend asked him if he had to do it over again, would he have preached the same gospel of grace?
Luther thought for a moment and said that he would do the same thing because it would be better for them to know the gospel and not live it, than not to know the gospel.
Luther knew what I know about the message of God’s grace. If you “get it,” you will always come back.
And when you do, it will be as if you never left.