Thursday, July 29, 2010

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a paradoxical concept, at least the way we Christians put it into practice. On the one hand, we treasure the forgiveness we have from Christ. We teach that we should and must forgive each other. We tell our children to forgive.

On the other hand, in practice, our lives are full of exceptions to the principle. It seems that, for most of us, there is a specific sin or list of wrongs that actually are unforgiveable. There is a certain wrong done to us we do not feel we can forgive or that God really wants us to forgive. Whether it is marital unfaithfulness by our spouse, selfishness by another that leaves us behind, or dishonesty in the church that results in turmoil and upheaval, we seem to shove the concept of forgiveness far into the background.

In short, often we do not feel like forgiving. It is thus timely and critical to circle back to the basics of this New Testament tenet to examine what we are actually called to do, because, like many others of the commands of Christ, forgiveness is indeed based on our actions irrespective of our feelings.

God’s forgiveness of us (Matthew 6:12, 14-15)

It is axiomatic that we have been forgiven of our sins. The singular act of salvation, while we were yet sinners, is the triumphant moment of our lives. As far as the east is from the west have our sins been removed from us.

Forgiveness, however, is not limited to that singular salvation event. We continue to sin, for we have not yet laid hold of the prize. We still see through that glass darkly, and as Paul laments in Romans 7, we do what we do not want to do, and we do not do what we know we are supposed to do. As children of God and royal priests, therefore, we are constantly in need of God’s ongoing forgiveness; we crave our daily relationship with God, yet our sin separates us from God.

In the Model Prayer, Jesus teaches us to ask for God’s forgiveness “as we forgive others.” Too often, we tend to hear only the first half of that, the reminder to ask for forgiveness. Jesus does not leave us there and reminds us, immediately after the text of the Model Prayer, that our continued forgiveness from God is tied to how we forgive others.

You may well be saved, but if your daily walk with Christ is hampered, if you feel separated from God, if you do not share the closeness with God you once knew, perhaps the cause is unforgiveness to which you cling. If you are not forgiving the trespasses of those around you, you are unable to access the full offerings God has for you.

The parable of the unforgiving slave (Matthew 18:21-35)

Few of Jesus’ parables are this clear or this hard hitting. We have been forgiven of a debt so huge we cannot imagine it, yet we turn around and fail to forgive wrongs that are minuscule in comparison.

There are two causes for our failure in this regard. First, despite the fundamental knowledge we have, we underestimate what we owe God. We forget how overwhelming our sin was before we were forgiven by God. Though we were not ax murderers or child abusers, the sins we did commit were detestable to a holy God, whose very nature means that He cannot commune with any impurity. The wages of our sin was Christ's death. For God to forgive the sins of rebellious creatures and allow them eternal life with Him was the act of supreme generosity and love. Too often, we have simply forgotten the depth of the debt we once owed that we could never pay.

Second, we overestimate what others owe us. We magnify the wrong done to us. In the moment, the denarius owed to us seems to be of such importance that we think (in fact, the tempter is whispering in our ear) that surely God will understand how important it is that this wrong be recognized for what it is. To forgive something that has hurt us so much—the infidelity, the rift in our church, the abandonment—cannot be, we tell ourselves (and in actuality we hear the tempter tell us) what God expects.

Of course God expects it. Indeed, God demands it. Not just once. Not just seven times. But more times than we can count.

The clothes of the Christian (Colossians 3:12-14)

Paul reminds us to live constantly with the recollection of how God has treated us. We must never forget we are “holy and dearly loved” ones, chosen by God. To “clothe ourselves” with compassion and humility is to live out these virtues so that they are seen by all around us.

As a part of this clothing, we are to forgive anyone against whom we have a complaint. Once again, like Jesus has done in the Sermon on the Mount, Paul reminds us that we forgive not because of our personal feelings or because of what seems right to us but rather because God has forgiven us.

Paul adds the final word—the outer garment, if you will—that over all these things we must put on love. This is not just our love for each other, for we humans can and do fail regularly. No, here Paul is talking about the “tie that binds,” the love of the Holy Spirit that covers us and prompts our forgiveness, as it does our compassion and our humility. We must wrap ourselves in the love of God, for it is only then that we can find the way to forgive those around us.

Forgiving little grievances is easy. We would not need these strong commands and parables to remind us to forgive the child who spills milk or the co-worker who accidentally takes our paper clip. It is where forgiveness is hard—where we have been truly and deeply hurt, where the one who has wronged us is not seeking forgiveness—that we need the instruction. Neither Christ nor Paul conditions our duty to forgive on the gravity of the wrong done to us or on the apology of the wrongdoer. We are simply to forgive.

It is not easy. It often does not feel good. It may go unnoticed.

But it is a reflection of our loving, holy, forgiving God.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Couple of Kids' Movies

I am not sure if it is a good or a bad comment about Hollywood, but there is no question that the best couple of movies I have seen in 2010 are both animated - "Toy Story 3" and "Despicable Me."

I was expecting TS3 to be good. The first two installments were excellent. Pixar produces great stuff. Tom Hanks is in it. What's not to like?

I was not expecting to like "Despicable Me." The previews made it out to be a silly adolescent semi-gross out movie, sort of a dumbed down cartoon version of "MacGruber." The previews are wrong.

The lessons that abound from these two movies are profound. They are not necessarily multi-layered feats of subtlety, but they are worth contemplation. Don't worry - I am not going to spoil the intricate plot twists of the movies for you.

None of this is new, either as a movie device or as a thought for us to consider. But seeing these two movies so close together, I am struck by the critical importance in these age-old themes.

First, both movies focus on teamwork. In TS3, the toys work together to escape the seemingly inescapable. In Despicable, a group of lovable "minions" come through more than once by working together to overcome very long odds.

Teamwork sounds sanitized. It sounds like athletics. It reminds of vaunted "teambuilding activities" that dot the itineraries of corporate retreats. In fact, teamwork is a crucial biblical theme. Jesus chose twelve, and then seventy, and He sent them out in groups. He said that He joins groups of "two or three gathered" in His name. The description of the church is the "body of Christ," with each of us fulfilling only one role and thus needing each other for our very existence.

Secondly, and more importantly, and more profoundly, both movies focus on the transforming power of love. The message in TS3 is expected - the toys have grown to love each other and "their boy" over the years, and this love motivates everything they do. In "Despicable Me," the power of love takes a different tack: innocent love transforms a bad guy into a good guy.

Love cannot be oversold. It cannot be the theme of too many movies. We hear it all the time, and still we don't really get it. Love is not, really, about feelings or eroticism or even emotions. Love is about commitment and actions and putting the needs/desires/wishes of the loved one above your own. Love motivates even when the feelings are absent. We love in spite of our emotions, not because of them.

It is tempting, in both movies, to get distracted from these basic themes. In "Despicable Me," we can easily find ourselves following the bad-guy-vs.-other-bad-guy storyline. In "Toy Story 3," there is a legitimately heart-tugging tone to the whole movie, and for people like me (my son leaves for college one short year from now), the boys-and-their-toys message is one to ponder.

Still, let's not forget the importance of relying on each other and loving each other. Cooperation and teamwork are empowering, for "two are better than one; ... if one falls down, he has the other to help him up, but pity the man who has no one to pick him up!... Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves, and a cord of three strands is not easily broken." And love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails."

I have no idea if the producers of these movies know their scripture, but their message certainly does. We need each other. We should act like it.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Peace

Peace does not come when something is taken. Peace is something added.

Most of the world says that peace means taking something away. If we could stop wars, or stop fighting, or stop arguing, or stop the noise, we will have peace. That is what the world has always thought. Jeremiah says: “'Peace, peace' they say, but there is no peace.” And they will never have peace as long as they keep trying to get it by subtraction.

When Jesus was born, the angels sang “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace.” The wars in the Roman Empire did not suddenly stop. In fact, there has not been a single day since the birth of Christ that somebody on earth was not at war with somebody else. So, were the angels wrong? I don't believe they were. I believe that peace arrived with the Prince of Peace.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus, when describing His gift of peace, said that He does not give us peace "as the world gives"?

The world seeks for peace, visualizes peace, sues for peace, signs peace treaties, marches for peace, and even smokes the peace pipe. And, as Jeremiah prophesied so long ago, there is no peace.

Jesus came to give us life more abundantly. That means He adds things. He does not subtract. He brings something new. Paul said that Jesus Himself is our peace. He gives us peace not as the world gives but as He gives.

And we have peace... in a storm, amidst the noise, even where there is war. I don't for a minute suggest that we stop trying to end wars, for of course war is inhuman and evil. My point is only that ending war is not the same as peace.

Peace is the addition of something. It is something supernatural, mystical, mysterious. There is no recipe. Peace comes with relationship with the One who is beyond. Jesus did not sleep through the storm because He was unconcerned - He was able to sleep because He knew the one holding the wind. Peace comes when you trust the one in control.

So we go about our daily lives with joy, led forth in peace. We don’t worry about anything, but we pray about everything; and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Go in peace.