Choosing the Ferris Wheel
AUGUST 4, 2021
A reporter once asked Bob Kuechenberg, a guard for the Miami Dolphins when I was a pastor there, why he had gone to college when most of his family had not.
He replied, “My father and my uncle were human cannonballs in Carnivals. One day my uncle came out of the cannon, missed the net, and hit the Ferris wheel. I decided to go to college.”
The choice between being a human cannonball and going to college seems a no-brainer.
Do you know what else is? Doing it God’s way. Somehow we have this spurious belief that God is a “spoiler” of anything we enjoy or want to do. So, if you enjoy something, it’s probably a sin. And if you didn’t enjoy it, there is no way it’s a sin. That’s a lie. Repeat after me: That’s from the pit of hell and it smells like smoke. It is the exact opposite of the truth. God’s ways are designed to give us a way that leads to fulfillment, joy, and blessing . . . or at least as much as we can get in a fallen world.
Psalm 119, the longest of all the Psalms, is a brief for the law of God. The Psalmist writes, “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways (v. 37).” Then “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies . . . I have more understanding than all my teachers . . . I understand more than the aged . . .” (vv. 97-100). And “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (v. 105).
Frankly, I’ve done life my way (I still do sometimes) and I’ve done it God’s way (I’m getting better at that), and God’s way is always the best. Maybe I’m just getting old so I don’t have the energy to run from him and his love, and to do it my way as much. Or maybe it’s God’s doing. But I have learned that doing it my way is the equivalent of being a human cannonball, missing the net, and hitting the Ferris wheel. I’ve been there, done that, and have the T-shirt. And not only do I own the T-shirt, I even sometimes wear it.
Why do I do that?
I have no idea. I guess sinners sin because they’re sinners. Maybe it’s a part of our fallen nature and we have a self-destructive gene or something. Freud said that we have a “death wish.” While he was wrong about almost everything, maybe he got it right for a change. Maybe it’s my authority problem and my desire to do it my way, even if I hit the Ferris wheel and it hurts. Whatever the reason, I’m amazed at my proclivity to choose the wide gate instead of the narrow gate that Jesus talked about in Matthew 7. The reason I can be honest here is that Jesus said that “many” choose the wide and easy gate. So, you’re probably worse than I am. Okay . . . at least as bad.
All of this is to show you how we, as it were, choose the Ferris wheel instead of college. It’s in the area of repentance.
I knew it. You’re a closet Pharisee and it’s finally come out.
No, I’m not. You just don’t get what repentance is . . . after I’ve taught it a thousand times. (You never listen to me. (: ) Repentance isn’t knowing your sin, working hard, and then succeeding in changing so you can be self-righteous about it. Repentance is a mind/attitude thing. The Greek word means “to change your mind.” Repentance isn’t a neurotic focus on your sin and a promise to change. (That’s probably more ego-centered and prideful than the original sin from which one repents.) Repentance isn’t change, okay? Repentance is the way God changes us if he wants to. In other words, it is putting the ball in God’s court. It is keeping our eyes on Jesus, walking with him, and agreeing with him about who we are, what we’ve done, and our need and our rebellion, and sometimes even being really sad about it. Repentance also includes (and most people leave this out) the love (a “hug,” if you will) that happens when we repent. Christians are not called to repent on occasion; Christians are called to live lives of repentance. That is God’s way of changing us and changing the world. It removes the Ferris wheel.
It’s God’s way.
As you know, we have a whole bunch of pastors on our mailing list, so I spend a considerable portion of my time listening to, and crying and laughing with, pastors, as well as talking about pastoral and church problems with them. (Pastors trust me because they figure that I’m the one person who is worse than they are.) There is one pastor I know who made some horrible mistakes . . . and the church leaders cheered him on as he made them, on occasion even adding their mistakes to his. They’re all looking for a way out and there isn’t one. (They’re like a cat that caught his tail in a crack and is trying to figure a way to get it out without the pain.) They’ve tried spinning the situation and the congregation isn’t buying it. They’ve tried to turn the church in a different direction, but they’ve gone so far down the wrong road, it’s almost impossible. They’ve said “trust us” to the congregation, but the congregation is trusting them less and less. Very soon the inevitable will happen. The congregation will know the truth—all the truth—and there is a real possibility that the church will go up in ashes. My pastor friend asked if I had any ideas to remedy the situation.
“Yeah,” I said, “Repent! First repent to God, then call a congregational meeting, and at that meeting, you and the leaders should repent to the congregation.”
“Are you crazy?” he asked.
“Yeah, crazy like a fox.”
I then explained what would happen. “First, the Pharisees and the self-righteous will throw rocks at you as they walk out the door, and the offerings may go down a bit. At that point, you should get a bottle of champagne and celebrate. Second, the great majority of the congregation will forgive you, make jokes about it, and pray harder for you. Third, you’ll have a unified congregation of people who have learned to cut slack for one another. And finally, as a result, your preaching will get a lot better.”
I have no idea if my friend and the church leaders will do that. I’m not even sure I would if I were in their place. But at least I know what needs to be done because it would be “doing it God’s way.”
God’s way of repentance “works” in a thousand personal, ecclesiastical, and political places. Repentance also works in relationships, marriage, child-raising, and business. Self-righteousness hardly ever does. Do you know why? Because no one has enough righteousness to be self-righteous about it. When you know that, it makes repentance a lot easier.
Last night my wife and I drove to another town to have dinner with some old and beloved friends. When we got to the restaurant, our friends weren’t there. Frankly, I was kind of irritated because I don’t like to be late (even though I am sometimes) and I don’t like for others to be late either. We waited for a fairly long time, and my wife sent a text to our friends, “Are you guys close?” She received a text back, “Are you already there? We’ll be there in a couple minutes.”
They showed fairly quickly and I was ready to kid them about being late . . . in a nice way, of course, because I’m always nice. (If you believe that, you’ll believe anything.) Before I could even make a joke, the husband said, “Let me show you a text.” He got out his phone where we had set up the dinner by text. To my horror, I realized that we had made the dinner plans for the next evening. I could have said, “It was a typo,” “Someone else was using my phone,” or “We’re friends and you should have known what I meant.” I didn’t say any of that. I repented in “sackcloth and ashes,” and apologized profusely. I’m never going to hear the end of it, but our friends got so tickled they found it hard to eat. The dinner was wonderful because, in response to my repentance, they—like God—forgave me.
The central message of the Christian faith is that we’re loved and forgiven . . . and, heaven knows, we need both. Once we “get” that, we don’t have to be right, we don’t have anything to protect, we don’t have to pretend, and we don’t have to win. That is the secret behind great effectiveness and joy in the Christian life.
Don’t thank me. I was glad to help.
God told me to remind you.
He also said, “Brown, you first!”