Thursday, September 14, 2017

Painting Over Our Sins

Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. Genesis 50:15-21

Forgiveness heals. It does. I know it from experience, and I know it from study. I have seen its salutary effect on people as individuals, and its effects on people in relationship. By extension, I have seen its profound effect on community as well. When real forgiveness pervades a community, then remarkable grace is evident, vital and trans-formative. Why? Because as long as the process of forgiveness is in abeyance, then nothing can happen. We get stuck: Stuck in relationships, stuck in our walk in the world, stuck with God.

Without forgiveness, we can't move forward. If we can't move forward, then we enter stasis. That static state? The word comes from the Greek word for death, being dead. It is the true state where no change is possible, not any more. Stagnation, lack of forward movement, means the death of trust, or relationship, of self.

So, we get a choice, as we always do in this existence. Jesus lays it out for us, as does the continual exhortation of a loving God throughout all salvation history. Before us is a way of life, and a way of death. Choose life, says God.

That means being willing to let go of some things. It also means being willing to take on some things that are daunting.

It means letting go of certainty, of being certain that forgiveness is the end result of some transaction between two parties that offers any sort of quid pro quo. Forgiveness doesn't do anything to any sum found at the foot of any balance sheet. That can be challenging, because most of us carry along a ledger that is just full of things that we KNOW people need to atone for in order to heal our brokenness, or our broken relationships. But atonement, or really redress, for wrongs done is not forgiveness. It is at best restitution...and that in the end is just a transfer of debt from one party to another. Nothing in the end is really resolved.

Real forgiveness is a one-party expression. At its best, it is OUR release of debts that we carry against another. It is a release of a burden we lug along behind us, one that drags and pulls us apart while we maintain that it is not ours, but another's responsibility. It is rewinding and replaying a tape that plays a scratchy recording of remembered offenses, over and over on repeat, of a tune whose author has long since forgotten how to play but whose collector has preserved for the sake of resentful posterity.

Of course we struggle with asking for forgiveness, especially when we KNOW we have done another wrong. Of course, we struggle with offering forgiveness, because it renders us vulnerable to being hurt again by the same person/people in perhaps the very same way we were wounded in the first place! Why? Because we fear the true and inevitable repetition of hurt and wounding that is a part of being in relationship with each other, and even with God. Even if we forgive, we KNOW that there will be another wounding, and we KNOW that forgiveness will be required of us again.

I will exempt, in this moment, the forgiveness required of us from people who persist on tendering abuse, of any kind. Until we are able to know that the abuser will not, or is not able, to abuse us anymore there cannot be forgiveness that renders one vulnerable to further abuse. Forgiveness is something we need to move on, but it is not permission to allow anyone to continue to hurt anyone else!

So, when Joseph's brothers come to him and petition his mercy and forgiveness for their unforgivable abuse of his person (and his memory with their father), the assumption might be made that Joseph would be within his power to exact revenge for their assaults and deceit. The thing is, he does something else.

He weeps.

He asks, "Am I God, to judge?"

Then he does something truly awesome. He forgives them.


His testimony is that the wrong is there before them all, and even God bears witness to it. He avows, though, that to repay evil for evil, or wound for wound, is not God's justice. Instead, he points out that throughout his life, the evil that befalls him (and the commensurate suffering) have all brought him to this place, to now. His perspective? That all of his life, what one might see as good or evil as it befell him, has been used to God's purpose. Why should he presume at this point to choose anything other than mercy? His great power, and it is great in this moment, can be used either to punish or to forgive. He chooses to forgive, for the most part because he already has forgiven his brothers. His action does not paint over the sins of his brothers....there is no forgiving and forgetting here. Instead, he chooses to enfold their poor choices, and their wounding of him, into a broader tapestry of God's being willing to take everything (even the worst we can offer) and render it to a greater end by being purposed to God's will.

Peter, in this Sunday's Gospel story, struggles with Jesus same enjoinder to forgive continually and with abandon. "How many times, Rabbi, must I forgive?" (Unspoken: "Until I finally am released from that command and can retaliate?")

How many times is always, Peter? How long is forever?

Forgiveness is an active and lively response to the abundant love God bears for us. It is part and parcel of what it means to be a lover of God and by extension a lover of other, or neighbor. Sadly, to be practiced it means embracing not only the "forgivable" affronts we have suffered, but also the "unforgivable" as well. Humbling, to be sure.

I have forgiven the forgivable, and I have upon occasion even forgiven the unforgivable....and I have been forgiven the forgivable and I have been forgiven the unforgivable. I know what that feels like, and I suspect you do as well. I also know, if I am to be honest, that there are a multitude of debts that still linger against me in the hearts and souls of others whom I have failed, either by intention or lack thereof...and even for affronts of which I am innocent, but whose debt still adheres to me.

We have to acknowledge that there is still a lot of work to do when it comes to forgiveness in our lives. There really is not enough of it in the world, but that is not God's fault. It is our responsibility, because forgiveness is truly the one renewable resource we as humans can produce that will not only benefit our own person, but also the lives of all those around us. On top of that, it is the one gift we can give back to a God who loves us so much as to continually call us into deeper acts of reconciliation in the life of grace.

So, who are you going to forgive today?

How often, you might ask?

Why forgive at all?

Go back to the beginning of this post, as often as you need to....and then repeat. 

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Wake UP! (Romans 13:8-14)

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. Romans 13:8-14
Waking up isn't hard for us in our home. We have an elderly cat whose inner alarm clock is connected directly to that Atomic Clock, and whose personal alarm drifts between 4 and 4:30 AM. Given that he needs to eat when he wants to eat, one of us must get up or everyone in the house must face his rowling alarm calls at 4 second intervals. Refuse him too long, and the rowls become howls...and then other threats become imminent. The "running across the bed" tactic is a good one...but his hips are not what they used to be and so the disruption is compounded by worry that he will stumble, fall and break something. Then there is "don't agitate the old man" threat...and I will leave that resulting image to your imagination. So, to sum up, one of us is usually up long before sunrise...and on bad mornings both of us wind up out of bed and onto the day shift. Now, once the old man has been fed, watered and cared for, he does what he does....and goes back to sleep.

We, on the other hand...are now awake.

I think of that moment of being roused from slumber every time I read the passage above from Paul's letter to the Romans. It is time, he tells his readers, time to wake from sleep. The sleep he is talking about, though, is a lack of awareness of (and connection to) the work of God in this world. With the dynamic, wonderful, awesome work of reconciliation and redemption being accomplished in Christ, the world itself is being given a wake up call. We don't get to have a spiritual lie in, there is no going back to bed...proverbially or otherwise. It is time to wake, and to head off into the day. Sounds good for morning people like you and me, yes...and a bit more tortuous for those who think that 9 AM is a good time to take the first sip of the day of their preferred morning beverage.

But the kind of early waking we are summoned to is more than just finding the energy to be chipper at an early hour. It is a commitment to a mindful readiness that whatever, whomever and whenever the Kingdom calls, we are alert and aligned to love, act and serve as witnesses to the rise Lord, Jesus.

Why? Because the hour of deliverance, as Paul says, is nearer now than it was when we first were enfolded and loved by God into renewal and resurrection. When is NOW. This isn't about fire alarms, mind you, but about the calm readiness that comes when we know our ducks are in a row and we are open and prepared for.....whatever.

Does someone need prayer? Good, let's pray.
Does someone need encouragement? Good, let's embrace that challenge together.
Does someone need love? Good, I have some to share.
Does someone need service? Good, we stand ready.
Does someone need help? Good, we are here.

Waking early, and being alert means we are unencumbered and open to what the day brings. I confess that sometimes, when the cat alarm goes off in the mornings I am VERY thankful for a wife who gets up and lets me sleep. I am also happy to offer her the same. I am as well grateful when we are up together and get those quiet hours in each other's presence. I am happy to have a quiet moment after the tumult to sip coffee with her...and equally happy to sip coffee with an old, napping cat on my lap, listening to the household sleep around me. I am happy to greet the rising sun and the new I am happy to trust that the sun will rise without my input from time to time.

Waking early, and being wakened to life in Christ are quite similar, really. Both require a willingness to sacrifice a bit of comfort for the grace of a chance to serve. Both require mindful awareness to be truly appreciated. Both demand attention in the NOW....and not a loose confidence in the past, or wistful hope for the future.

So, tomorrow of the next day...make a plan to wake early, both spiritually and physically. Take some time to be aware when it is quiet and twilit....and then perhaps carry that wakefulness out into the business of your day. You will be surprised how much more aware you will be....and also how much more committed to getting to bed a little earlier you will be.....

Sleeper, wake....for a voice, THE Voice, calls......

Friday, September 01, 2017

Take Up Your Cross...Taking on the Storms of Life

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Matthew 16:21-28

I sit down to write this morning, September 1, 2017 humbly mindful of the great mercy and love of Jesus Christ. Not just because of his complete and abject love for generations and multitudes of humanity that never met him face to face in this life, I am thankful for Him whose presence and teaching continue to form and commission us to lives of mutual love, respect and service in the face of the daunting challenges we all must face. The reason this column is late is four-fold on my part...but I give thanks that the pause demanded allowed me to reflect and pray on just how important Jesus' call to us to take up our crosses, even as he took up his, continues to form and shape his Church and how we are responding to the needs of the world around us.

I woke yesterday morning with a full pastoral schedule that I knew would demand my time, prayers and attention. In the late morning, I traveled south to preside over the burial of a woman who had survived and thrived for 57 years with Down's Syndrome. Her life was a remarkable and uncommon triumph. Most people born with her gifts (yes, gifts!) didn't survive long...and if they did their families were usually encouraged to institutionalize them. This family held her in love, and her love in return formed them into as tight and loving a family as I have had the privilege to meet over the course of my ministry. A woman with severe "disabilities" became the strength and heart of a family and for three generations. Coping with her challenges allowed her beloved family also welcome and love two children with autism, the death of two brothers and the loss of their parents. That woman took up her cross, and with stubborn, loving strength she encouraged her whole family to join her in following our savior's example to do it with joy and abandonment to God's love. Christ be praised.

Then, I had the opportunity to visit and pray with the patriarch of a local family who is facing his last run around the track of life. He is trying to keep his strength for his grand-daughter's walk down the aisle tomorrow, and then his goodbyes will begin in earnest. He spoke of his dreams of late...

Father, I dream over and over again, seeing us coming down from the trees in Africa, the Rift Valley. We walk on the grass and find food. Then, we hunt. After a time, we gather more food with tools; and then we learn to grow more food for each other. We learn, and we become prosperous. It is amazing, and all through the ages we learn more and can do more and more. And then we get to today, and so much is possible. What I can't see then is what comes next. I am so grateful for everything, Father, all that we have done and learned and accomplished. But I as you this...would you rather go back and dwell in all that story, or go forward and see what happens next? I know I don't have strength for that journey, and I worry that I am losing my curiosity. I do pray that we will learn more how to use what we know to do good, to make sure we don't do more damage. I want that, Father....
That exchange moved me to tears. How wonderful and awesome the dying process is, I know. I have seen people approach it by reviewing their lives and wondering about the choices made. He was the first to look at life as the whole span of human history. His cross to bear? Being able to see in these last moments the wonders and challenges that ALL of us have faced through ALL human history. HE loves and celebrates the triumphs and he repents of the errors and brokenness humans bring with their rampant success to this ecology. For a moment, as he prepared to close his eyes on this life, he is opening my eyes to a wider perspective. Christ be praised.

Then, I traveled to a parishioner who has survived open heart surgery and is recovering at home. She is doing well, but still feels from time to time the fragility and vulnerability...and anxiety...of life post-surgery. Who would not? A surgeon has done a wonder, and repaired her heart. At the same time, in order to do so, they had to literally open her up. Too often, we forget that the wonders of healing also create powerful impacts...we are open to the world in ways unimaginable just a century ago. Her cross is to feel returning strength, and continuing vulnerability. Christ be praised.

As I was performing these planned visits, two more pastoral challenges presented themselves. Two parishioners were in the hospital, Could I visit? Yes.

One deals with a heart that has been compromised since birth. Her cross to bear is a daily maintenance of a part of her that the rest of us take for granted. Each heartbeat MATTERS. She was getting checked and tested in order to make sure the balance of medication and therapy was just so. Another parishioner had fallen at home, and her son had brought her to the hospital to make sure her injuries were not serious and to ensure her fragile body had the help it needed to heal. I was able to pray with take time to sit with them. They bear their crosses with resolve to meet each new day as survivors, even with broken hearts they live in hope. Christ be praised.

Finally, I wake this morning to write having just finished penning a message to my parish that their Vestry leadership has challenged them to a matching drive to raise funds for the recovery efforts due to Hurricane Harvey. It was six years ago this week that the devastation of TS Irene destroyed much of our church and deeply scarred our community with loss. Now, after having been supported by other St. Peters' and a multitude of people, our parish now stronger in recovery, we are reaching out to them as they shoulder their cross of recovery in the face of historic, devastating flooding and storm damage. Christ be praised.

I am humbled, awed and moved to grateful tears by the beauty of God's revelatory love to me over the past few days....and to you for bearing witness to that grace.

Take up your cross, the savior says....I have seen that and now find my own cross a little less a burden and more a blessing by the light of the love of our Savior shown me by others. Christ be praised!