In Galaxy Quest (think the original Star Trek movies with better actors and a better plot), it was the Omega 13 Device, a device that, when activated, went back in time 13 seconds, enabling you to correct one mistake. In Sherman and Mr. Peabody, it was the Way-Back Machine (travel through time to make things right). In note taking, it is the eraser. But it is in golf that we are given a proper name for these U-turns. We call them, mulligans. Interestingly, there are two stories for the origin of this term, both equally dubious. The first revolves around a Canadian golfer in the 1920’s, aptly named David Bernard Mulligan. Apparently, Mulligan had a very jarring trip to his country club and was so rattled by the experience that when he hit his first shot, it went way out of bounds. Without asking, Mulligan re-teed another ball and hit away. The other members of his foursome questioned what he was doing. He said it was a “correction shot,” and the Mulligan was born. The other story revolves around a New Jersey golfer, also named Mulligan, this time, John A. Mulligan. This Mulligan not only golfed, but worked for a country club. One afternoon, after work, he was persuaded to join three friends for a quick round of eighteen. He agreed, but his first tee shot went askew. As the story goes, he turned to his friends and said that since he was working and didn’t get a chance to warm up, he ought to be given a do-over, especially since his friends had been practicing all morning. They thought that was fair; and so, they awarded him the first mulligan. The idea soon spread; and now, anyone, warmed up or not, first tee or not, from New Jersey or not, can apply for and take a mulligan–a free do-over that erases the last thirteen seconds of a bad shot and bad sportsmanship.*
Here’s the good news: When it comes to sin, we also have a free-do-over. It’s called “repentance.” And if you are interested in fully experiencing Lent, then you need to have a good grasp on the word, “repent,” because the whole purpose of Lent is to lead us to repent. But what is involved in repentance? Let me offer up four ideas for your Lenten reading.
First, repentance requires that we own our sin. Without seeing and owning our sin, repentance doesn’t happen, no matter what we say or do. Without a doubt, our best model for biblical repentance is found in Psalm 51. Note these verses where David discusses his sins, his victims, and the justice of God’s judgment. David cries out (Ps. 51:3-5):
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
What strikes me about David’s confession here is his willingness to be totally open and honest about his sin (maybe this strikes me because I am often not so open). Maybe he wrestled with whether or not to write this Psalm and publicly open up his soul for everyone to see, but I doubt it. David understood that the path to forgiveness was not by making excuses or by downplaying his offenses or by blaming circumstances, but by taking full responsibility for all of his sin and failure. And David was more than willing to pay that price to obtain God’s pardon. It was that important to him. But owning up to our sin isn’t the first in a long series of impossible demands by an unreasonable God. If we are honest with ourselves and with God, owning our sins isn’t that hard. When the Prodigal Son takes stock of his situation and decides to repent and go home, Luke adds this important insight. He says (Luke 15:17-19):
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants
have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!
I will set out and go back to my father and say to him:
Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I am no longer worthy to be called your son;
make me like one of your hired servants.”
For the Prodigal Son, owning his sin was easy, “once he came to his senses” (vs. 17). And there it is. Owning our sin is not difficult; it just requires us to be honest with ourselves. To remain in sin is to be purposefully self-deceived.
Second, repentance requires that we sincerely desire to be cleansed. Here’s where I trip up. I’m not so sure I want to be cleansed, as much as I want to be forgiven. There’s an old definition for which I cannot find the proper attribution. It says something like this: A Christian is someone who begs for the forgiveness of his sins on Sunday, even as he plans to redo them on Monday. I get that. But David wouldn’t. David pleads with God for pardon and cleansing. In Psalm 51 we read (1-2, 7-9):
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
David earnestly desires God’s grace. He shows it in the sincerity with which he speaks. He shows it with the urgency with which he addresses God. He shows it with the grief he displays. He shows it in his brokenness. He says in verses 16-17:
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.
What is required of us in repentance? Interestingly, not sacrifices or offerings that can be quickly done, but hearts that are broken over our sin, hearts that are soft to God’s touch, hearts that seek God, hearts that are contrite and hearts that want to come home. True repentance means hungering after God’s cleansing. It means replacing our hard hearts with hearts delight in God’s voice.
Third, repentance requires that we desire God more than simply what we can get from God. Again, look at David’s most intense requests. They are all for God himself (10-12):
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
We see this same desire in Revelation 3 (19-20):
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.
If anyone hears my voice and opens the door,
I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
That may be the best news all day. Repentance leads to a loving, gracious, delightful encounter with God, an encounter that looks like coming home and eating together. And we see this all over the place. What happens when the Prodigal Son returns home? His father throws him a feast. What happens when Zacchaeus repents? There is a feast. What happens when Peter repents and is reinstated? There was a breakfast of bread and fish, but to Peter it was a feast. True repentance looks beyond what we can get from God and is overjoyed by the thought of being with God or maybe, even better put, being with God without any barriers.
Last, true repentance requires a change in action. Tremper Longman in his massive Dictionary of Biblical Imagery writes:
“Changed action is the most tangible demonstration of repentance.”
But this isn’t just Longman’s idea. It is everywhere. It is in Paul. In his defense before Agrippa, Paul says (Acts 26:20):
I preached that they should repent and turn to God
and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds.
It is in Isaiah (1:12-17):
When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
It is in Jeremiah (7:1-8):
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:
“Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house
and there proclaim this message: “‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah
who come through these gates to worship the Lord.
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says:
Reform your ways and your actions,
and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say,
“This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!”
If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly,
if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow
and do not shed innocent blood in this place,
and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm,
then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever.
But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.
In short, repentance without an accompanying change in behavior is just words. Trusting in words and prayers and tears is not enough. We need to prove our repentance through our actions because true repentance is all about real change.
So, here are a few questions to think about. First, where does your repentance usually fall short? Second, what is keeping you from repenting well? Third, of what sins are you not willing to give up quite yet? Last, for what sin(s) is God urging you to ask for a Mulligan? Are you willing to go there?
One of my favorite prayers from the Book of Common Prayer is the prayer of confession. Let’s pray it together:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name.
I can’t think of a better way to end this post than that. It is after all, Lent. And repent, Lent and atonement all go together.
*You can read the whole story of the Mulligan, in the April 1, 2020,
article by Christopher Powers in Golf Digest.