Practicing Forgiveness

So, it seems like the posting from last week that pointed out that forgiveness is a practice we undertake instead of a feeling we have for our enemies was helpful to some of you.  So, I was thinking that maybe pushing a little deeper into our struggle to forgive and reconcile might be helpful for all of us who try to follow this Jesus we call Lord.

The first habit I have that makes the practice of forgiveness hard is that I work above my pay grade.  I look around the world and I see all kinds of people who are just wrong: The neighbor who does not act like a neighbor, in my (not so) humble opinion (IMHO); the member who is not faithful enough, IMHO; the person “living in sin” and on the list goes.  Now, these folks are not hurting me directly, I just know they are sinners.  Am I to forgive them so easily?  Should we not condemn all those who, IMHO, are dishonoring God?  Probably not, that is God’s job.  They have not wronged you.  They have wronged God – IMHO. You?  Me?  We are to remove the log from our own eye, drop the rock we were about to cast and concentrate on our own sins.  You see forgiving the whole world for all the things that we choose to allow to annoy us, to get under our skin, is what God does.  And I know that it is annoying in and of itself.  Counting the sins of others is very often what enables us to focus on someone else’s problems other than our own.  Stop judging everyone and the load presented by practicing forgiveness gets much lighter.

The second habit I have is something that keeps me from answering the call to reconcile at all.  How often have you felt wronged by someone – spouse, child, friend, and co-worker – and, with arms folded and a look of righteous indignation on your face have waited for an apology?  After all, they should know what they did wrong.  After all, you deserve the apology.  And if they have not figured out what they did wrong, I’m not going to tell them!  Some obvious pouting and a little silent treatment will motivate some humble attrition, right?  Notice what Jesus says in Matthew 18:15:  “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”   

Now, wait a minute Jesus – I am supposed to go to the one who wronged me?  Yep.  I’m supposed to talk to the offender and not share my hurt with others?  Now, you are getting it.  I’m supposed to take the initiative and speak one to one?  I’m afraid so.  And worse than all that I am supposed to go with the purpose of “regaining that one.”  Yes, as I did for you.

This teaching follows the parable of the lost sheep, where Jesus leaves the 99 healthy sheep behind to look for one errant problem sheep, bringing it back to the fold.  In other words, we go not to get an apology; not to extract what is due; but to forgive and restore a relationship.  The burden here is all on the wronged party.  That just seems, well…. so unconventional; so difficult; so wrong, Jesus! 

Matthew 18 continues by telling us if we can’t regain the one by our own effort, we involve elders. If that does not work, we bring the matter to the church.  If that does not work, we are to treat the offender as “a Gentile or tax collector” – precisely the people that Jesus endlessly welcomed. As Paul says, we – the followers of Jesus – have been given the ministry of reconciliation.  To us falls the duty of peacemaker and bearer of forgiveness. (2 Cor. 5:18)

So, how do we do this?  How do we deal with all the hurts and sins committed against us? 

  1. Take an honest look at what offends you.  Just because your feelings got hurt does not mean you were sinned against.  Our hurt, anger, and resentments are all too often the product of our own making.  We choose anger way too much – when we are tired, anxious, stressed.  If we took everything said and done to us, as Luther counsels, “in the best possible light,” we would be happier people with a drastically shortened list of enemies.  So, before you run off to accost the one who hurt you, sleep on it for a while.  Pray about it for a long while. Ask yourself if the hurt was intended, if it is meaningful enough to destroy the relationship.  Be a grown up and put away the childish things like wanting to get even or hit back with words.  You’ll grow in understanding yourself.  And you may find that there was no breech to repair in the first place.
  2. Confess your own role – My mother always said of any conflict, “It takes two to tango.”  There is always a second side to every coin.  When a rift develops in a relationship, before we confront anyone with forgiveness, we need to be honest about our part in the problem.  Almost always, we will find that we are to blame as much as the other.  Celebrate your forgiveness in Christ – and now maybe you need to ask for forgiveness from another, instead of the other way round.
  3. Discard the emotions – Figure out how you go to another person and tell them, rationally and without anger that they have offended.
  4. Bring forgiveness, not a request for an apology – Your forgiveness must be genuine, not a ploy to point fingers or to evoke an apology. Forgiveness is granted whether accepted or not; and is the doorway to a renewed relationship. Truly, forgive and then forget.

What is hard about forgiveness for you?  Add your insights to the conversation.  Leave a comment, or just an Amen!

Pax Christi, Pastor Tim

Practice Makes Perfect?

So, I was thinking about all the wonderful conversations I get to have with people about faith and other spiritual matters.  I was thinking that there are two concerns that are persistently present.  The first is a concern of global proportion.  In the face of violence and brokenness we see every day –  a shooting here, a a terror attack there; a murder on a local city street or a casualty in Afghanistan; another child dead of abuse or just starving to death – people wonder, “Why?”  Why do people take life? Why do people do such unspeakable things to others?  Why can’t we get along, be more civil, stop shouting at each other? Why can;t we even discuss our faith or politics without getting ugly?

The second concern flows from the first.  “Pastor, how can we forgive?”  Sometimes this question is applied to those aforementioned terrorists and gunmen .  Sometimes it is applied to those people, much closer, who have so deeply hurt us we cannot imagine forgiving them – ever.  The questions implied in our struggle are: Doesn’t God have a means of overcoming the evil of the world?  Isn’t love and forgiveness wasted upon those who so violently or unrepentantly do harm and wreak havoc?

The gospel of Christ does not offer an easy solution. First, we are commanded to love and pray for our enemies. (Matt. 5:44)  Second, we are commanded to forgive as we have been forgiven (The Lord’s Prayer).  The unconditional love of God shown in the death of Christ for our sin, becomes the model for how we treat others. We might long for a better way; a way that allows for a pound of flesh; we might rail at God with the shear impossibility of forgiving people who seek to damage and destroy us, but as Richard Lischer says in his book The End of Words, “We preach God’s love to those who are staggering through loveless relationships.  We preach forgiveness to injured parties who possess a moral right to say ‘Never again.’  Worst of all we preach reconciliation to those who, either consciously or unconsciously, seize upon our words for permission of continued sin.  Of them the Scripture says, ‘They crucify the Son of God afresh.’  Nowhere do you see the vulnerability of the church more clearly than when it gathers up its authority and announces the forgiveness of sins.”

The truth is that the very means by which God overcomes evil and our enemies is through the cross.  Jesus dies out of love for even the enemies who nail him to the tree of death.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says “Father, forgive them, they know not what the do.”  The very way that God looses us from our pain and restores the brokenness of the world is through the power of forgiveness.  Forgiveness frees us from being eaten alive by the hate.  But even more than that, it compels us to move toward those who are against us, with open hearts and hands.  It compels us to risk hurt to take the path of peace.

I must confess, and it is indeed a confession, that there are a handful of people for whom the thought of reconciliation seems impossible for me. In some way, I may carry the hurt and hate to my grave, where God will indeed heal the pain, and refine the hate out of me. Until that day, however, I will be called each day by Christ to forgive as I have been forgiven.  I will be challenged to practice forgiveness.  Forgiveness is not a feeling, it is a practice – I will try to pray for my enemies and with stuttering words utter words of forgiveness.

One strategy for helping all of us deal with the brokenness of our world and the hard time we have with forgiving others is through our prayers. So maybe we should be praying for our enemies each week as we gather.  I’m not sure this is a popular solution, or an easy pill to swallow. In fact, as I have tried this in other places, I have actually had people stop coming to church.  But, think with me….  What if each week, as the congregation prays during worship, we add a petition dedicated to one thing: praying for our enemies.  I know it doesn’t make sense, and it is going to bug me as much as it does you.  But, it seems to me that if we are going to trust God to change us and the world; if the cross truly has power to make a difference, we need to take the command to pray for enemies and forgive seriously. It is perhaps the only way the gospel addresses our world and our pain; our brokenness and our sin.  Besides, it is a command from the Lord.  Who knows, God might just use those prayers to transform our enemies and the world. Maybe God will transform us.

What do you think about forgiving enemies, letting go of hurts and hates?  What about praying each week for enemies?  Can we do that?  What will happen?

Pax Christi,

Pastor Tim

New & Improved! Pastor’s Blog Gets Overhauled

So, I was thinking that it should be easier to subscribe to this blog.  I was also thinking it should be easier to post comments and follow the comments others make.  Now, all of this was done under the assumption that people are actually following the blog! 🙂  So, welcome to a new version of “So, I Was Thinking….”

First, a bit about the improvements. 

  • You will note a new look – let me know what you think. 
  • In the Menu Bar on the right, you will notice a place to enter your email to subscribe to the blog.  In the past, I had to send out a mass email to everyone to let you know a new post is available.  This will automatically send the new post to you.  That saves us from sending notices to those who are not interested, and it saves the number of emails we send to everyone each month.
  • When you make a comment, you can now subscribe to receive notice of other comments so the conversation keeps going.  That was something we could not do before.  Now you can see what everyone says.
  • The RSS feed button is orange and located just to the upper right of the post.
  • There is a new “About” page which tells people a little about me.  I will be adding other pages to this blog with things like book lists, helpful links — and anything else you suggest.
  • I hope to add a link to my Pastor’s Facebook page — (and as an aside — does a pastor need Twitter?)
  • My hope is that this revamped site will be a more useful communication tool.

Finally, I have been writing posts for some time now.  Let me know what you think about the topics and subjects.  About what to you want to hear more? Let me know you are out there… OK?

Pax Christi,

Pastor Tim

 

A Community Defined

So, I was thinking that last week’s blog about behavior that undermines our call to be a community of love sparked a few conversations.  I was thinking that pursuing this line of thought might be fruitful.  Last week, the focus was on the ways that unhealthy behavior and just plain mean-spirited actions can hinder our efforts to be a community of love.  But, sometimes — maybe most of the time — it isn’t necessarily bad behavior that kills our mission.  Sometimes we get confused and conflicted over what we should do because we are not all clear about who we are.  More often than not, we argue because we are in disagreement about what is most important to the life of the congregation.  We have not defined the community’s identity well enough to guide our life together.

A congregation’s identity, it’s DNA, is made up of its values, beliefs, mission, and its vision.  Tom Bandy (a smart author and guru on mission) says that a core value is a “positive, predictable behavior pattern that organizational participants can be expected to model, both spontaneously and daringly, in their daily living.” Values are how we act in a positive way.  A core belief is “a principle or conviction to which (members) can be expected to turn, immediately and spontaneously, in times of trouble, confusion, or stress.”  Beliefs establish common principles.

St. Paul, when he wrote to the Galatians (5:22-23) suggested that there were common behaviors that should guide them: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control.”  He told his churches that their core beliefs were things like “justification by grace through faith” and Christ crucified.”  The naming of these behaviors and beliefs gave the community a way to discern what to do — because they new who they were.

With values and beliefs unstated decisions are based on personal preference.  With values and beliefs clearly articulated, we have some idea how to resolve the conflict and be true to our identity.  When values and beliefs are left unstated, every individual assumes their own values and beliefs are the norm.  In a congregation that worships nearly 800 people a week, that means 800 sets of values and beliefs.  Trust struggles, conflict can thrive.

Think of it this way:  As we prepare worship bulletins each week we hear feedback from a wide spectrum of opinions.  On the one hand we hear “Thanks for putting all the songs in the bulletin, it really made me feel welcome and easy to worship.”  Then we hear “You’re putting too much in the bulletin and it is wasting paper.”  The first comment reflects certain values – hospitality, simplicity, welcoming.  The second reflects other values – economy and conservation.  All of these are good values, but here they come to conflict.  What do you do?  Well, it helps if we have stated what our values are before the conflict.

Another example: A congregation gets in a tiff over whether it should be involved in a local social program of some kind.  Some say, “We must do this because Christ lived and ministered among the poor.”  This reflects a core belief in the incarnation of Christ in our world.  Others say, “No, we must stay out of political and economic debates because God is not of the world.” This reflects a core belief in the transcendence of God.  Both can be rooted in Christian faith.  Conflict happens because we have not stated clearly what we believe at the core of our life together.

So, what do we do?  We define our values and beliefs.  How?  Well, on the one hand it is not really hard.  It simply takes the participation of a significant number of members in a discussion and process that seeks to discern what values and beliefs we all share.  It is a conversation rarely held, but desperately needed.

We are going to try to have such a discussion about our common values on Wednesday, June 6 at 7:00 PM.  We need you to be there!  The process will be fun and will take about two hours.  After an initial introduction, we will work in small groups.  By the end of the evening, we will have developed a good idea of what our values might be. It will work well IF YOU ARE THERE!  Please join us on 6/6 at 7

A Community of Love?

So, I was thinking that following Jesus is really not very complicated.  According to John’s Gospel, Jesus gives one command; one imperative instruction: “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)  Now, just because something is not complicated does not mean that it is easy.  The command is clear – love each other to the point of dying for each other. And that is hard.  Honestly, in my years in the church I have learned that we rarely get anywhere close to dying for one another. Too often we struggle to manage being civil to one another, let alone loving each other.

Recently, an anonymous caller left a message on a staff member’s voice mail that was vile and accusatory.  The only identification the caller left was that they were a member of the congregation.  “Say what?” you reply.  Yes, a member of the “beloved community” left a harassing message.  I’d be shocked too if things like this didn’t happen way too often, even here at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. Perhaps it is why, as Pastor Phil noted (and I quoted before) that many people see the church as “too judgmental, too hypocritical, and too hypercritical” and so want to have nothing to do with church or church people.

Church staffs know to expect and deal with complaints, concerns, even conflict when such is offered in a healthy, loving and productive manner.  But this behavior, and the anonymous letters and notes, the insults and demeaning gossip that happens is just evil.  It is how evil undermines the beloved community and keeps us from following the commandment of Jesus to love one another.  It does not happen all the time here and it does not eclipse the loving and Spirit-filled actions of so many disciples in this place by any stretch of the imagination.  But it does happen too often and to the detriment of all.

Paul writes to the church at Ephesus that should instruct us all and guide our behavior: Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.  Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.(Ephesians 4:29-32)   

Luther, in his teaching on the 8th Commandment (You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor) says this commandment means: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations.  Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” – (Small Catechism)

Each week as we prepare to receive the body and blood of Christ, we share the peace.  We take time to reconcile and put aside anything that separates us from one another.  If you have hurt someone or carry hate in your heart, don’t come forward until you work things out.  How can we receive Christ with a tongue that insults and lies about others?

So, what do we do about this kind of cancer in the Body of Christ in this place? Well, first you need to know that when we receive anonymous notes and letters, they go to the shredder.   No name – no attention.  Second, if you have a complaint or concern and you present it in a manner that does not conform to the two quotations above – in love, grace and in the best possible light, you will not receive a hearing.  Leave your sarcasm and anger at the door. Third, unless you are offering a solution or offering to help, don’t offer a complaint. Fourth, when you insult or accuse a member of the staff, you insult and accuse us all as a team and me as a leader.

Perhaps the biggest thing we can do is for the majority of members, who are indeed loving, committed, disciples to, in ways big and small, call others to account for unhealthy behavior.  We can also model love to one another.  Support the wonderful staff here publicly; recognize the many good things that people are doing.  When there is need for expressing concerns or disagreement, model the most loving, gracious manner possible, treating others with the respect and dignity that comes from being a child of God.  Try these:

TOP TEN THINGS YOU CAN DO TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER

  1. If the person being talked about is not present, stop talking about them.
  2. If someone starts to talk to you about another person, stop them. They should be talking to the other person, not you.
  3. Follow Luther: Interpret everything someone says and does in the best possible light.
  4. If you can’t say it to the person’s face, don’t say it at all.
  5. Before you react in anger, try to imagine the other person’s position and account for your fault in the matter.
  6. Never criticize without first complimenting.
  7. Apologize quickly; take offense very slowly.
  8. Never communicate anonymously.
  9. If you can’t say something that builds up and is constructive, stay silent.
  10. Own your feelings.  Others cannot make you feel anything.  Anger is a choice.