Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Put Yourself Out There

“I can’t offer the Lord my God a sacrifice that I got for nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:24).

            This seems to be one of those “lost” verses of the Bible.  No one really wants to sacrifice.  Anybody who has been around church for any length of time knows that the church is all for change – that is, everyone else should change to conform to the way we are already doing things.  People are not looking to change themselves – to offer God a sacrifice that is costly.  In fact, we want pastors and church leaders who will offer change with a minimal sacrifice on our part.  We want assurances and certainties that there will be changes made that will not disturb us, but will affect others.  After all, it’s the world that’s going to hell, not us.  They are the ones who need to change, not us, right!?

            Um, wrong.  Jesus did not die on the cross so that we could avoid the cost of discipleship.  The Holy Spirit was not given to us in order to fulfill all our ideas of how church and life should operate.  No, we are called to a radical life of following Jesus in a sacrificial life.  Taking up our crosses and following Jesus daily does not mean that we are suffering through media bias, or have to put up with mediocre preaching and/or pastoral care.  It means that there are demands on our lives as Christians to live sacrificially, giving our very lives for the sake of Jesus. 

            Let’s face it.  Living the Christian life and committing ourselves to a life of following Christ is dangerous business.  Following God got Daniel in the lions’ den; Isaac on the altar; and, Paul at the end of a whole lot of stones being thrown.  But we have no record of Daniel, Abraham, or Paul whining about how hard it all was; or, how much they would have to give up to actually change and live for God.  In fact, we get just the opposite:  “Christ has shown me that what I once thought was valuable is worthless.  Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  I have given up everything and count it all as garbage” (Philippians 3:7-8).

            Let’s be honest with ourselves:  We don’t put ourselves out there and live for God with complete abandon because we are afraid, risk-averse, and just do not consider it worth committing to some church thing that may or may not pan-out for me.  What we need to hear, and what we want to hear, are often two very different things.  When parishioners simply look to pastors and leaders for easy answers and simple solutions to the complex challenges of our world, the church ends up with dysfunction.  If our concept of leadership is expecting a pastor, elder, or ministry leader to solve problems with no ramifications for ourselves, then it ought to be no surprise when churches do nothing but routine management instead of boldly reaching others with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

            I’m not delusional.  I get it that congregations rarely hire pastors to disturb their lives.  Members expect that pastors will use their authority to provide them with right answers, and not to confront them with the need for growth, change, and completely wrapping their entire lives around the person and work of Jesus.  But the work of ministry demands disturbing people – just doing so at a rate they can absorb.  Even then, after all has been done with discernment and love, it could still all implode like a house of cards.  After all, Jesus was perfect and he ended up being killed by people who could not absorb the life he was calling them to live.

            So, you and I have a decision to make.  Will we be the kind of leaders that shrink from the rigors of ministry, fearing what people will think of us?  Or, will we be leaders who embrace the good news of Jesus and seek to orient all of church ministry around Father, Son, and Spirit?  Put yourself out there.  For we all really play to an audience of One.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Good Grief

            Sometimes we just need permission to grieve.  In the evangelical church today it is sometimes looked down upon to grieve since we know the reality of heaven.  This is both unfortunate and unbiblical.  Bereavement is Scripture is a reality and recognized as an important part of coming to grips with death.  Far from stuffing his feelings, the Old Testament character David personally expressed his grief and agony over the death of his best friend, Jonathan.

            The final chapter of the book of 1 Samuel is the account of a decisive battle in which the Philistines defeated the Israelites.  As a result, both King Saul and his son Jonathan were killed.  Jonathan and David were close – so close that their relationship was as if they were one soul, not two.  So, to have his friend no longer with him was a great loss to David.  The beginning of the book 2 Samuel tells us of David’s response to the news that his friend was gone:  he lamented the loss.  To lament means to have a deep and passionate expression of sorrow over a significant loss.

            Here are a few observations about David’s lament (2 Samuel 1:17-27):  it was not only personal, but was voiced publicly, meaning that others were invited to grieve along with him; it affirmed the tragedy of death and its deep impact upon us; it focused on remembering the positive characteristics of the deceased; and, it was verbalized with heartfelt thoughts and emotions.

            Grief and lament is as individual as a fingerprint; there is not a fixed process to a person’s bereavement.  Therefore we cannot pigeon-hole ourselves or someone else to fit a certain way of grieving.  But no matter how we grieve, we must do it so that we come to a point of making sense how to live without the person’s presence and relationship.  David was close to the Lord, and God’s presence was the most decisive factor in helping him move on to the demands of serving others as their new king.

            There are times when we simply feel stuck.  Not much seems to be happening and nothing apparently makes any difference.  Oftentimes, at the root of such feelings, is some unrecognized and/or unresolved grief underneath.  It causes us to respond to life as if we were moving in slow motion.  There is no quick and easy solution to the reality of a loss; it must be acknowledged and worked-through with some attention and care.  If not, it will inevitably lead to problems down the road, and end-up causing emotional breakdowns over the smallest of issues.

            So, let’s take our cues from David.  Let’s do the good work of lamenting losses and grieving significant changes of life.  Otherwise, we will only run into each other in the church like uncaring zombies and avoid the truly important things which God has for us as his people. 

            May you know the comfort and grace of God today through his encouraging Word, his comforting Spirit, and his compassionate people as you do the good and important work of grieving your losses.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A Christian View of the Body

“Don’t you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? Don’t you see that you can’t live however you please, squandering what God paid such a high price for? The physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, The Message).


            You probably already know you should lose weight, or stop smoking, or get in shape, or have better sleep hygiene, and generally take much better care of your body.  I am not here to add to the burden.  Rather, I am here to bring out a very important point:  Our bodies are the vehicle given to us to glorify God.  In other words, our spirituality is really quite embodied.

            One of the reasons we fail our bodies is that we do not always make the biblical connection of seeing our physical selves as important as other things – as if care of the body is somehow optional to the Christian life.  The major reason Paul brought up a discussion about the body was because Corinth was a Greek city thoroughly imbibed with a Platonic philosophy of life.  At the core of Plato’s view of humanity was that the immaterial and the spiritual were of higher value than the body.  For Plato, the body is a necessary evil.  He referred to our souls being imprisoned within the flesh.  When we die the soul is released and is freed from its bodily jail.

            Western civilization has been significantly influenced, even today, by Plato’s view of humanity.  But that is not the biblical view of the body.  Instead of being a prison, the body is a temple, a sacred place which is no better or no worse than the soul.  When we die, Paul made it clear to the Corinthians at the end of his letter to them that we will not be disembodied souls, but will experience a bodily resurrection at the end of the age.  Eternity will be spent existing in a renewed body free from sin, but nonetheless a real body.

            If it is true that the body is sacred, and that we cannot glorify God apart from our bodies, then it is of great spiritual importance that we steward our bodies just like we would steward any other physical material possession we own.  We have bought into Platonic philosophy, for example, when we treat our cars better than we treat our bodies.  If a warning light comes on in our cars, we get it checked out by the mechanic.  He fixes the problem and tells us what we need to do to prevent it from happening again, and we listen to him.  But when warning lights go off in our bodies, we ignore them until our bodies literally break down and we have to go to the doctor.  And even then, the doctor tells us to do something, and we don’t do it.  We do not even think of ignoring the advice of our mechanic, and yet we do it with our doctor.  Why in the world would we do that?  We function in such a wrongheaded way because we need to listen carefully to the biblical wisdom that we glorify God on this earth through using our bodies. 

            If we do not have time or priority for sleep, exercise, and eating well, then we do not have time for God because God has given us our bodies and he expects us to care for them and use them well.  I look at my body the same way I look at borrowing something from another person:  I return it in the best condition I can.  When God takes me home someday, I don’t want it to be because I did not take care of my body and hastened my own death.

            People often give up on their best laid plans for physical health because it is disconnected from the rest of their lives.  What I am insisting is that care of the body is as important as anything we do in the spiritual realm because our bodies belong to God.  The church, rather than ignoring proper care of the body, really ought to be at the forefront of promoting physical fitness and health by stopping the insanity of bifurcating body and soul. 

            I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.  We are holistic beings, created by God to glorify him in the church and the world.  Let’s uphold this by taking care to be responsible with how we treat and use our bodies.  After all, it is a spiritual issue.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Facing Transitions

            Life has its seasons.  The journey from childhood to teenager, from adult to spouse, from parent to empty-nester, from caregiver to being cared-for, are all just a sampling of the different seasons of life that people travel through.  Each period of life has its own joys and sorrows, rewards and regrets.  But the really difficult trick is moving from one season to the next.  Transitions imply change – every time.  These transitions are things everyone experiences, and some are more difficult for us than others.  But if there ever were sure events of life, transitions are it.  So, we must learn to navigate them with some attention and care.

            At the time of this writing, I am in the process of moving my youngest daughter to a new job and new adventure in a new city for her.  It is all good stuff.  But it is a transition.  And it is not particularly easy.  But I am committed to not simply move on with life as if there were no challenge to it.  Her leaving marks a new era in the lives of me and my wife (who will certainly find this transition more than challenging!). 

            Churches also face the challenge of transitions because they inevitably go through cycles of change.  To try and never change is to forsake the sheer reality that congregations have their own life experience of birth, growth, change, maturity, decline, and eventually death.  None of the churches mentioned in the New Testament of the Bible still exist.  It does not necessarily mean they did anything wrong or unwise; they just underwent a particular life journey, experienced a full range of Christian life and service to their people and communities – then they passed away.  But just as we, in some ways, live forever through the ongoing generations of our progeny, so churches never really die in the sense that they live on in the many people who came to Christ, grew in spiritual maturity, and multiply by proclaiming the good news of Jesus to others.

            Since life transitions are highly significant, here are some ways to approach them when they occur:

--It is a new opportunity to be in a different role.  When a child leaves for college, the parental role is changed to become an adult peer and even a friend.  Yes, in one sense parenting never ends; but in another sense it just shifts to being a faithful mentor and example like never before.  When a church member or family leaves a congregation, the relationship is changed.  People leave for all kinds of reasons, but the relationship should be kept open to respond to them as the universal Body of Christ.

--It is okay to bawl and be sad.  Grief attaches itself to any significant change or loss, and not only to bereavement.  It is both normal and necessary to experience the passing of a season of life that you will never have again.  It is also appropriate to celebrate and remember a job well done in raising a well-adjusted person who is becoming an important contribution to society.  Go ahead, pat yourself on the back.  It’s okay.  It is also okay to remember and celebrate church ministries that have had their day, but are no longer viable.  Give them a decent remembrance so that you can move on to the new thing God is doing.

--It is important to connect with others who have been through it.  Everyone goes through transitions.  But not everyone has done it well.  Seek out and find those persons for whom you see a successful and fruitful transition from one season of life to another.  As it pertains to churches, they almost always need help from those outside the congregation to transition well into a new phase of ministry.  Let it happen by purposely seeking out wise people who have been through it.

--It is finally now your chance to pursue God’s unique calling.  That ministry, job, or education which has been set on the back burner for so long now has the chance to come to the fore in your life.  Embrace the new beginning that God has been stirring in you for a while to come out and have its day.

            I am not communicating as any sort of expert on the subject of transitions.  I just have had to experience a good many of them in my life, and have learned a few things along the way.  But I am still discovering along with everyone else.  And each transition is new and different than all the others before it.  I am not sure yet what God has for me with my daughter’s transition.  But I do know that I am entering a new season which is full of fresh possibilities.  May you discover yours, as well.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Power of Gratitude

Thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live (1 Thessalonians 5:18, The Message).

            Gratitude has the power to change our lives and our churches.  That is, if we let it.  If we want to live happy contented lives, then we will obey the Scripture’s exhortation to give thanks in any kind of circumstance in any kind of context.  It can be a challenge to give thanks during hard times.  But that might be the most important time to do it.  The biblical character David had the where-with-all to acknowledge his desperate condition, yet chose to praise God in the middle of it.  In Psalm 57 he said, “I am in the midst of lions; I lie among ravenous beasts – men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords… They spread a net for my feet – I am bowed down in distress… But my heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music… I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples.”

            If you are in between a rock and a hard place, for what can you express praise and thanksgiving to God?  Our spiritual ancestors, the pilgrims, came to this country.  The original colonial pilgrims of America numbered over a hundred when they came, and, after the first winter, less than fifty of them remained.  It does not get much bleaker than that.  Yet, instead of retreating into bitterness, resentment, and envy, they decided to set aside a particular day to give thanks for what they had, and not be constantly upset about what they did not have.

            We are to give thanks in all kinds of circumstances, whether good or bad, whether big or small.  In her book, The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom tells about an incident that taught her the principle of giving thanks in all things. It was during World War II. Corrie and her sister, Betsy, had been harboring Jewish people in their home, so they were arrested and imprisoned at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.  The barracks was extremely crowded and infested with fleas. One morning they read in their tattered Bible from 1 Thessalonians the reminder to give thanks in all things.  Betsy said, "Corrie, we've got to give thanks for this barracks and even for these fleas."  Corrie replied, "No way am I going to thank God for fleas." But Betsy was persistent and persuasive, and they did thank God even for the fleas.  During the months that followed, they found that their barracks was left relatively free, and they could do Bible study, talk openly, and even pray in the barracks. It was their only place of refuge. Several months later they learned that the reason the guards never entered their barracks was because of those blasted fleas.

            Sometimes we do not understand what God is doing.  Sometimes we just don’t perceive that the Lord is up to anything.  You may feel as if you are sitting still right now, yet, planet Earth is spinning around its axis at a speed of 1,000 miles per hour.  We are also hurtling through space at an average velocity of 67,108 miles per hour. So even on a day when you feel like you did not get much done, do not forget that you traveled 1,599,793 miles through space! To top things off, the Milky Way is spinning like a galactic pinwheel at the dizzying rate of 483,000 mph.

That is amazing. But we don’t feel it, so it’s off our radars.  When was the last time you thanked God for keeping us in orbit? I'm guessing you have never prayed, "Lord, I wasn't sure we'd make the full rotation today, but you did it again!” We just don't pray that way.  But we are to learn to thank God in every circumstance, both big and small.  If we can trust God to keep our feet on the ground with a big thing like gravity, then we can trust him in any and every situation we experience.

            Gratitude has healing power.  It is easy to complain about church.  Any common fool will go on and belly-ache about how bad things are and play arm-chair Deity about how to fix all the ills of the church and the world.  But it takes a wise person to find gratitude and choose to give thanks for all the good things God has done and is doing, being careful to give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will in Christ Jesus.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Worth the Effort

            When my family and I lived in West Michigan, we spent a lot of time every August at Lake Michigan enjoying the wonderful sandy beaches.  One summer was unusually hot, and, as a result, thousands of fish died in the lake.  On a Saturday we went to the beach.  It was very windy and hot.  Most Saturdays would find hundreds of people on the beach.  But on this day, not so many people were around.  There were dozens of dead fish getting washed up on the beach, and it smelled the part.  On top of it, there was a wind warning where no one was to get in the lake.

            As we settled on the beach and the girls went about playing, I sat and was reading a book.  There were two boys playing together.  They were having all kinds of fun running around with sticks poking out the eyes of the dead fish.  They also were working on a big sand castle.  They were nearly finished with it when a large wave from the lake came in and destroyed hours of work.  I was thinking to myself that these boys were going to really be disappointed and upset.  Instead, they both had big belly laughs over it.  Then, they just started building it again as if nothing had happened.

            As I thought about the scene of watching the two boys, I realized a life lesson which the book of Ecclesiastes teaches us:  Sooner or later something comes along and knocks down what we work so hard to build in life.  Initially, it all seems meaningless.  But if we have built it together, we will be able to laugh and rebuild it together. 

            Healthy relationships are always at the heart of a well-lived life.  The Bible is a story about relationships, and is filled with instruction about them.  The Great Commandment of Jesus – to love God and love neighbor – is about relationships.  The Ten Commandments are given to us in order to govern how to rightly relate to God and others.  The fruit of the Spirit in the New Testament is relational fruit.  Paul’s letters to the churches all deal in how to handle relational problems amongst others.  The narratives of Scripture communicate to us the consequences, both good and bad, of relationships.

            The author of Ecclesiastes spent his entire life seeking happiness, purpose, and meaning in life.  He affirms that enjoying relationships with others is a major key in possessing contentment in life.  The author tells us that working our tails off with no meaningful relationships, and/or sacrificing our relationships at the altar of work is meaningless.  There is no end to work and there is always another job to do.  Constant work with no significant relationships is vain, meaningless, and misguided.  

            If anybody could have been an independent lone ranger it was Jesus.  But Jesus made relationships a priority.  He nurtured individual relationships with a number of people, including his dear friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.  Jesus also nurtured group relationships.  He appointed twelve disciples to be with him.  They did everything together – worked, prayed, laughed, cried, and fought together.  Even Jesus looked to his close friends in his greatest hour of need in facing the crucifixion.  Jesus was not self-sufficient, so our trying to live this way is completely against the grain of how God created us. 

            Maintaining good relationships with fellow church members can be hard work.  Prioritizing relationships takes lots of energy.  When we get to the end of our lives, it is not going to matter how much stuff we have or how far up the ladder we climbed in our vocations.  What will matter is how well we loved all the people in our lives.

            We are coming up on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.  Stories abound of people, trapped in the twin towers, knowing they were about to die, calling friends and family.  There is no story about an employee calling his/her boss to say the work would not get done today, or financial adviser to check on how such a tragedy would impact their portfolio.  They called their spouses, sons and daughters, and best friends just to say three little words:  “I love you.”  Relationships, it turns out in the end, are worth the effort.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Principles of Forgiveness

Since the heart of God’s gospel of grace is the forgiveness of sins we possess through the person and work of Jesus Christ, the church really cannot talk too much about the need for forgiveness.  Christians are not meant to pray a sinner’s prayer, and then move on with their lives without thinking about forgiveness anymore.  Forgiveness is to be a constant dynamic of relationships because we live in a fallen world.  People sin against us.  We sin against others.  Relational pain is a reality this side of heaven.  But revenge and/or passive-aggressive behavior are not biblical ways of handling our hurt.  Let’s keep in mind some principles of what forgiveness is and is not:

Forgiveness is hard work. 

God did not promise forgiveness would be cheap or easy.  He knows exactly the kind of cost it brings.  Through the blood of Jesus there can be and is forgiveness.  “The blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean.  How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Hebrews 9:13-14).

Forgiveness is a process.

            It is a process of putting off and putting on.  It takes time, and cannot be quickly done.  Forgiveness must be deliberate with no shortcuts to it, otherwise it will not stick.  “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).

Forgiveness does not mean we condone bad behavior.

            Forgiveness is not blanket amnesty.  It does not simply give another person a “pass” on their sinful words or actions.  Forgiveness just means we do not hold the offense over the other person’s head.  Dr. Fred Luskin from Stanford University does research in the area of forgiveness, and says this about it:  “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.”  We cannot undo the past.  But we have control of the present, and can choose to forgive.  True forgiveness calls a spade a spade and names the specific offense in all its ugliness, and lets it go.

Forgiveness does not always result in reconciliation.

            It takes two to reconcile.  It only takes one to forgive.  I have often been told by individuals that it would do no good to forgive another because it would not change the other person.  That is not the point.  We forgive because it is our responsibility to work through our forgiveness issues and to do it.  We are not in control of whether another person will feel sorry for what they did, or not.  We are in control of our own decision to forgive, no matter what the other person does or does not do, or whether they feel the gravity of their sin, or not.

Forgiveness is primarily for our benefit.

            If you hold on to bitterness toward another for their offense, you are not hurting anybody but yourself.  Drinking the poison of bitterness will kill you, not the other person.  So, deal with forgiving that other person, and do not have the magical thinking that they are going to come to you all slobbery sorry for what they said or did.  That often does not happen.  When it does, it is a beautiful thing.  But we forgive everyone who sins against us just as God has forgiven us.

            Relational currency in the kingdom of God is forgiveness.  Without it, we can neither operate well together, nor can we enjoy a satisfying life.  But with forgiveness is a demonstration of the practical effects of Christ’s crucifixion in our lives, not to mention a witness to a watching world.  

Thursday, August 4, 2016

How to Forgive

Peter came up to the Lord and asked, “How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me?  Is seven times enough?”  Jesus answered:  “Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!”

If people want to be content in this life, they must obey Christ’s command to practice forgiveness.  But many people live with discontentment because they think to themselves:  “I will not forget what you did, and I will not forgive.”  Persistent thoughts of revenge only serve as a cancer which destroys the mind’s thoughts, erodes the soul, and hinders the heart’s ability to love.  But people who practice forgiveness are much less likely to be hateful, hostile, and belligerent toward others.  They are healthier and happier, and more at peace.

            I have had people tell me, “But you don’t know what I’ve been through.”  My typical response is:  “You don’t know what I have been through, either.  You may not even believe some of the things I have experienced, and some of the things that have happened to me and were said to me.  So, can I tell you what I have done to forgive those who have sinned against me?”

  1. When I am trying to forgive someone, I pray for them.
            It is hard to keep resenting someone and wish them ill will when you are praying for them on a regular basis.  In the book of Genesis, Joseph was the victim of his brothers’ abuse.  If there was ever a dysfunctional family to grow up in, it was Joseph’s.  Being sold into slavery by your own brothers and being the target of their derision would cause anyone to be upset.  But, many years later, Joseph chose to forgive his brothers.  He acted with their best interests at mind.  He prayed for them, and did not actively work against them.  What is more, he eventually came to see the hand of God in it all.  Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

  1. I write a letter of forgiveness (which I may or may not send).
            In the letter I detail how the person hurt me.  I leave nothing out.  And I express exactly how it made me feel, and how it affected my life.  Then, I express forgiveness and say that I will not hold the offense over their head.  Here is a five-step process for forgiving others using the acrostic REACH which helps shape how I write:

Recall.  That is, name the hurt.  Name it squarely.  Do not fudge on it by saying it is not that bad, or as bad as others might have experienced.  Call it what it is, whatever it is:  deceit; stealing; assault or abuse; adultery; or, verbal shaming; even, murder.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa after apartheid was based on providing full disclosure of all crimes.  Those that stepped forward to do so would be offered a full pardon.  Desmond Tutu, who led the commission, was most struck by how many people wanted to hear what had happened to their loved ones from the perpetrators themselves so that they could know whom to forgive.  Methinks we have much learn from our African brothers and sisters.

Empathize.  Try and see the offense from the other person’s perspective and attempt to put oneself in the other’s shoes.  This does not mean we paper over the offense; it just means we don’t demonize another as a monster.  That only feeds and fuels our own lack of forgiveness.  When we view others as non-human, then we feel no responsibility to forgive.

Altruistic.  Choose to do the right thing and treat the other person well, not because they deserve it, but because it is within your control to extend grace.  Again, this is what Joseph chose to do with his brothers:  “So then, don’t be afraid.  I will provide for you and your children.”  And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them (Genesis 50:21).

Commit.  Commit to practice forgiveness.  Make a decision to do it.  Do not wait too long for your feelings to catch up to you.  “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).

Hold.  Hold on to your forgiveness.  Just because you make the decision to forgive does not mean you will never have to do it again.  Once you have forgiven, let it be a stake in the ground in which you can look back to it again and again.  “I forgave him/her, and I will not let the enemy of my soul keep trying to make me bitter about it all over again.”  One of the reasons we repeat the Lord’s Prayer Sunday after Sunday in my church is in order to forgive those who have sinned against us.

  1. I talk to a trusted friend, mentor, or counselor about my effort to forgive.
            Many people get stuck in discontentment and an inability to forgive because they do not seek a wise person to help them walk through the process of forgiving.  The easy path is to complain about the offense to someone we know will react with the same level of disgust and spirit of revenge that we ourselves have in our hearts.  But that only reinforces bitterness.  We need someone who can offer us what we need to hear, and not what we want to hear.

            Forgiveness is at the heart of the gospel, and, so, ought to be at the core of healthy church life.  Let forgiveness shape your life and ministry, and not a bitter unforgiving spirit so that Jesus is glorified in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Practicing Forgiveness

Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us (Luke 4:11, NIV).

            I once was an actor in a Passion play.  Through all of the rehearsals, I came to know the other actors quite well.  The lead actor who played the part of Jesus was an affable positive guy and did a wonderful job.  By his own admission, playing the part of Jesus changed his life.  A few of the events moved him deeply and caused him to feel great emotion.  Two events in particular caused him to see Jesus in a whole new light.  When we rehearsed Jesus being tried by Pontius Pilate in front of the crowd, all of us actors stood around him and shouted at the top of our lungs, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”  It is one thing to think about it happening to Jesus, and it is quite another thing to have it happen to you, even as an actor.  We actually had to take a long break after doing that scene because the man playing Jesus was reduced to tears.  He was so deeply disturbed that he could not keep going.

            The other event which brought great emotion to the man playing Jesus was being on the cross.  When we rehearsed this event, again we stood around and jeered at him.  With this scene, the actor told me afterward that it was all he could do to say the words:  “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  Instead, he really wanted to yell back at them in anger, to let them know that they were going to get in trouble with God after he resurrects from the dead!  Revenge is far more natural and easier than forgiveness.  Yet, Jesus taught us to forgive, and he modeled it for us.

            As a pastor, I am really in the forgiveness business.  I teach it, preach it, and try to live it because I am convinced that grace is at the heart of Christianity and is the best way to live.  I have seen first-hand the life-giving benefits of forgiveness; and, I have seen the tragic consequences of an unforgiving spirit and a bitter heart.  There was once an older woman in one of the church’s I served who had grown up in a difficult family situation.  When she married and had children of her own, her bitterness continually came out on her husband and kids to the point where, when the kids grew up, they left home, had families of their own, and really did not want much to do with their Mom.  She did not ever do anything terrible or horrible, like physically beating them.  She just was so unhappy and so unforgiving all of the time that she was hard and cranky.  The result was that no one wanted to be around her, not even her own kids and grandchildren.

            But then through becoming part of a congregation that was alive and full of grace, she discovered how awful she had been to be around all of her life.  This woman simply had no idea how miserable she made the people in her life.  So, she asked God to forgive her for her unkindness to others.  She asked each of her four children to forgive her.  She then forgave herself because the guilt over a lost life of bitterness washed over her.  And her life completely changed.  She became happy, sought to encourage others, and basked in the grace given her in Jesus.  She began to enjoy the contentment that came with forgiveness and the relational happiness it brought.

            If people want to be content in this life, they must obey Christ’s command to practice forgiveness.  But many people live with discontentment because they think to themselves:  “I will not forget what you did, and I will not forgive.”  Persistent thoughts of revenge only serve as a cancer which destroys the mind’s thoughts, erodes the soul, and hinders the heart’s ability to love.  But people who practice forgiveness are much less likely to be hateful, hostile, and belligerent toward others.  They are healthier and happier, and more at peace.

            If churches want to be places of health and happiness, of peace, love, and joy in the Holy Spirit, then the members within those churches must continually practice forgiveness.  Sometimes we can be completely oblivious to the reality that our own corporate unhappiness actually pushes people away.  But when we awaken to our own sin and misery and deal with it, then the grace that comes in has the ability to alter our relationships forever.  Whom do you need to forgive today?