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

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.