Thank God for the ability to forget

When you come into the Promised Land and move into houses you did not build, take over crops you did not plant, and eat victuals you did not grow, then beware lest you forget the Lord. (Deuteronomy 6:12)

Don’t forget.  Unless you need to.

The theme of half the sermons from Old Testament prophets is “Remember, O Israel.”  The Hebrew word is zakar and it’s justifiably a big deal in God’s Word.

But there is a lot to be said for forgetting, too. Much in our lives does not need to be retained.

I heard of Jill Price, a California woman who remembers everything. Not that she wants to. Ever since she was 8 years old, beginning in 1974, her mind appears to have switched on some feature the rest of us do not have and wouldn’t want in a thousand years. From 1980 forward, she has “near perfect” recall on everything.

By “everything,” we mean what she had for dinner, what she watched on television, the news that night, the temperature, conversations, everything.

Jill Price’s story is told in a book some have called “the weirdest book of the year” with the title The Woman Who Can’t Forget.

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Sometimes apologizing is not enough

“My sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3).

Bill Glass played a full career with the Cleveland Browns as an All-Pro defensive end before retiring for another career spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In his book Get in the Game, Bill Glass tells of the time his team was battling the St. Louis Cardinals (back when they were still in that city).

That day, Cleveland had St. Louis backed up to their own 5 yard line. Cardinal quarterback Charlie Johnson took the ball and was running around in the end zone looking for someone to throw it to. Meanwhile Bill Glass, right defensive end for Cleveland, was bearing down on him from his blind side, while Paul Wiggin, left end, was barreling toward Johnson from the other side.

It was a defensive end’s dream. They are about to sack the quarterback in his own end zone. This can be a game-changer. Bill could just hear the crowd cheering.  This was going to be great.

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Where are my old, forgiven sins?

“Their sins and iniquities I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:34 and Hebrews 10:17).

In the former days of computer technology, back when we preachers were finding what a help it could be to our writing, Pastor Frank Pollard retreated to the mountains to work on sermons and a book.  At one point, as he told later, in the midst of a chapter he was laboring over, he accidentally stroked a certain key and the entire piece disappeared.  Nothing he did retrieved it.  We all know that experience and identify with the frustration he felt.

So, later, he asked a computer-savvy friend to explain this.  “Where did my writing go?”

“It didn’t go anywhere,” said the friend.  “It just disappeared.”

Frank insisted, “It had to have gone somewhere.”

“Nope,” said the computer friend.  “It did not go anywhere; it went nowhere.”

Now, being the preacher constantly in search of illustrations and metaphors to make the Christian life understandable and the gospel applicable, Frank decided that this is how it is when “the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sins.”  Where are those sins now? They’re just gone.

I can think of three scriptures that pretty much voice the same reality.

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Forgiveness: Shortcut to healing

I walked into the hospital room just as the doctor was leaving. “He said I could go home,” the patient beamed. “And just think–after seven months!”

She had entered the hospital on March 6, and today was October 9. Through every day of the Spring, all through the hot Summer, and into the Fall, she had lain in that hospital room as sick as anyone I had ever seen. Even two weeks earlier, I wondered why she didn’t just give up. And here she was leaving.

I pulled up a chair and asked the question on my mind:  How had she gotten better so fast?

Something radical had happened.

“It was two things,” she said, and she gave me permission to tell her story. “They found out how to cure my infection and then a man came into my room. He stood right there and told me he sensed that I had a spirit of unforgiveness deep within me.” She smiled at me, then added, “Now, imagine someone coming into your room and telling you you’re carrying a grudge and it’s keeping you ill! But the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right.”

And what did you do, I asked.

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What if Jesus had not died?

If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  –I Corinthians 15:17

“What If?” is a series of best-selling books put together by Robert Cowley, in which historians look at key events in history and try to imagine what if things had not happened that way.

What if Pontius Pilate had spared Jesus?

That is the title of the chapter by Carlos M. N. Eire, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University. The subtitle reads, Christianity without the Crucifixion.

Eire imagines Pontius Pilate heeding the warning of his wife whose sleep had been disturbed that night by thoughts of “that righteous man.” Her message to the governor said, “Have nothing to do with him.”

So, he asks, what if Pilate had done the right thing and resisted the religious leaders and the rabble who were crying for Jesus’ execution; what if he had released Him?

On one page, underneath a 13th century painting of Pilate with the Jewish leaders is the caption: “The Decision That Made a Religion.”  (We can insist that it was the resurrection that “made” the Christian faith, but we won’t quibble over the importance of the crucifixion.)

Eire asks, “What if Jesus hadn’t been nailed to a cross at Pilate’s orders? What if he had lived a long, long life? Or even just ten more years? Or one? What if his person and message had been interpreted differently, as they surely would have been?”

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Forgive? Of course! It’s what I do.

Freely you have received; freely give.  –Matthew 10:8

Dr. Watson was complimenting Sherlock Holmes on a brilliant observation no one else had noticed.

“Of course,” Holmes remarked. “It’s what I do.”

Forgiveness and grace—that’s what we believers do.

Here is one page from Ruth Bell Graham’s 1989 book, “Legacy of a Pack Rat,” with a parenthetical, explanatory remark of my own.

“Someone has said, ‘If there had not been a Stephen, there might never have been a Paul.’” (Paul watched Stephen being stoned to death for nothing more than preaching Jesus. As the stones beat the life from him, with his dying breath, Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” –Acts 7:60 Paul never recovered from seeing this good man die.)

“A tribal war was raging in Uganda. The soldiers led a line of prisoners to a bridge over a crocodile-infested river where they could shoot them and dump their bodies into the water for the crocodiles to dispose of.

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12 things pastors should make a habit of doing promptly–and 5 they shouldn’t!

Do these things promptly…

  1. Confess sins.  “Keep short accounts with God,” it’s called.
  2. Write thank you notes.
  3. Write notes of appreciation.  “Great song Sunday.”  “I hear great things about your class.”
  4. When inspiration for a sermon or an article  comes in the middle of the night, it must be recorded then or, count on it, you’ll never remember it.  Keep a pad by the bedside.
  5. When you agree to do a friend  a favor–write a letter of recommendation, call on a patient in a hospital, whatever–do it immediately or you will never do it.
  6. Jot down a story, illustration, or thought for a sermon that occurs to you.  If you’re in the car alone, look for an exit and get off the highway so you can write this down.  I’ve sometimes asked my wife to make a note for me as we drove.
  7. Pray for someone when prompted by the Spirit.  When I spot someone who reminds me of a person I knew years ago, I take that as an impulse to pray for them.
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The pastor’s heart: Reservoir or cesspool?

“Guard your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23).

“Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnesses, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:19).  “Rend your hearts, not your garments” (Joel 2:13). 

This is one of those lessons almost no pastor learns except by personal experience.

Someone told you a joke years ago.  In my case, it was an older cousin and I was a young teen.  The joke was dirty by any measurement and some would say it was funny.  But it was filthy and has stayed with me all these years.  The joke is still in my mind and I am unable to get rid of it.

I wish I’d known.

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Things I wish I’d said (and done) differently

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves….” I John 1:8

Looking back.

I do a lot of that these days.  I suppose it’s human, seeing as how I’m about to hit birthday number 79 in a few days. There are a lot of days back there to look at! I’m so grateful to be active and energetic and still in the Lord’s field working alongside younger men and women called to His work.

The days behind me far outnumber those in front.

I do not sit around wallowing in regrets, let me make plain.  But sometimes before rising in the morning, I lie there reflecting on times gone by, experiences in churches I served, remembering when my family was young, calling to mind conversations and decisions.

I have many a regret.

I wish I’d said ‘no’ to a lot of requests.  As a young husband and father and ambitious pastor, I accepted many an invitation to speak or travel or serve on a board because it felt like the very opportunity for which the Lord had called me and for which I’d been prepared.  But it took me away from my young children and my over-wrought wife.

Did I really need to serve as a trustee of that denominational board? It required me to travel out of state a half dozen times a year, two or three days at a whack.  Over a four-year term, that adds up to a lot of time away.

I think about the two weeks I spent in Singapore helping the missionaries conceive an evangelistic comic book at the time my three children were 10, 13, and 16.  Such critical ages, so formative, so needy of their father to be hands-on.  Poor Margaret, looking after them, doing all the things a faithful mother does, chauffeuring them to everything, and all the while working on her degree from the local university.  What was I thinking?

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You came to mind again today; I prayed for you.

“I thank my God upon every remembrance of you” –Philippians 1:3

I remember you…from time to time.

Some people I think of often and reflect frequently on what they mean to me. Other people, I have a completely bizarre remembrance.

I’ll be somewhere and see an old friend of forty or fifty years ago and think, “I always loved him (or her) so much. Why have I not thought of them in all these years?”

I’ve been in a cemetery for a funeral and spotted the gravestone of a friend of bygone times and had the same thought.  “They were so precious. I would love to see them! Why have I lost them in memory?”

Recently, I read a novel about a character with perfect memory.  When something happened that required him to revisit a past experience, he had no trouble.  He would activate his memory and return to that moment in time, recallingl every detail, every word spoken, every nuance.  He could read the license plate of a car, could tell you the temperature, and give you as accurate a rendering of that moment as though he were standing there at that moment.  In the book, this was a special gift.

But it’s not.

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