Sunday, October 31, 2010

From Failure to Forgiveness

27The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 28And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the LORD. 29In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
30But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. 31The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989

God says a lot in His “Book” about forgiveness. It’s taught in a variety of ways; it’s also abused in a number of creative ways to suit what we really want. Just a quick search on my computer’s Bible software brought up over one-hundred references to forgiveness. In the Jeremiah text (verse 34) God not only promises to forgive, he says he will remember no more; God promised Israel that He would forgive AND forget!

A pastor’s son and his mom had been to a shopping mall and the boy had acted badly, wanting this and that, running off, etc. As they were driving home, he could sense her displeasure and said, “When we ask God to forgive us when we are bad, He does, doesn’t He?” His mother replied, “Yes, He does.” The boy continued, “And when he forgives us, He buries our sins in the deepest sea, doesn’t He?” The mom replied, “Yes, that’s what the Bible says.” The boy was silent for awhile and then said, “I’ve asked God to forgive me, but I bet when we get home, you’re going to go fishing for those sins, aren’t you?”[1]
There are two very different kinds of forgiveness – that of God, and that of humans; according to Scripture we need both. However as we are well into the second decade of the 21st century, there is a “forgiveness disconnect” in our culture. It seems nobody needs forgiveness, because we’ve come to the conclusion that our personal behavior is now a subjective issue; there are no absolutes in the arena of right and wrong. There is no all-encompassing standard for measuring behavior, except as each person measures it in his own life.
The self-help book “I’m OK – You’re OK” was first published by Dr. Thomas Harris in 1969. Three years later it topped the NY Times best seller list for over two years. It’s a self-help book that espouses the Gestalt, non-judgmental, very politically-correct sentiment: “I am not in this world to please you, and you’re not in this world to please me, but if, by chance, we meet…it’s beautiful”. In other words – there is nothing to forgive….we don’t need it; I don’t care what you think, and you shouldn’t care what I think.
The most popular “look through the keyhole” at life and philosophy in 2010 America is that we are basically very good, and sin is only a word the fanatics use. The prevailing message that our children receive educationally is that, with our technology and man’s inherent ingenuity, we have the ability to overcome any obstacle by sheer willpower and human brilliance! The short version is:
Man has ascended the throne;
We are God!
Swallowing this concept (hook-line-and-sinker) are even good people who’ve bought-into the idea that being good citizens and being nice enough to even populate the pews of local churches on a regular basis is an outgrowth of their own moral goodness. Somehow God has been relegated to a position of co-pilot in our lives – a sort of partner in our goodness. Certainly he knows our hearts and the whole spectrum of how we really are wonderful, and he is most pleased to have our attention occasionally – even if he doesn’t have our undivided attention.
The effect is that the idea of needing forgiveness from God is antiquated and wholly-irrelevant; we don’t need forgiveness from a God who is kept in a closet until something bad happens and we need some power outside our own abilities.
There are Exceptions
There are some exceptions that are too glaring to just ignore. We do have a legal system. There are plenty of rules that get transgressed on a regular basis. Although the court system has its flaws, society regularly holds persons accountable for all sorts of things that are “unforgivable” without restitution or payment. Allow me to offer a list…forgiveness must be obtained by those who:
· Murder, steal
· Start wars, spread disease and poverty
· Racists, hate crime perpetrators, internet scammers
· Child abusers, drug dealers, and…
· Failing to use your turn signal before changing lanes on I-40
Societal pressure created a whole legal system that says: “You shalt not!”
Question Begged
And, of course, this begs a different question:
If forgiveness is necessary when you break man’s laws….
how, and why, can we possibly presume that
forgiveness is not necessary for breaking God’s laws?
There are numbers of answers that could be proffered for the begged question about why we don’t feel we need forgiveness; however, there is generally one underlying reason:
We’d Rather Ignore Reality
We would rather ignore the reality that we need God’s forgiveness (or anyone else’s for that matter), because it hurts to admit that we have the need…that we’ve done anything wrong. During one Sunday school lesson, [the teacher] was trying to teach the children that we all need God's forgiveness. After the story she quizzed one of the girls. “Lisa, when is a time you might need God's forgiveness?” Noticeably perplexed, Lisa was reassured by one boy, who whispered, “It’s okay, you don’t have to tell her.” Then he looked the teacher straight in the eye and said, “We don’t have to tell you our problems. This isn’t the Oprah Winfrey show.”[2]
Admitting your own need of forgiveness requires letting go of anger and resentment towards others. Remember what Jesus taught us in his model prayer…forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
It’s easier to overlook our own anger. Two little brothers, Harry and James, had finished supper and were playing until bedtime. Somehow, Harry hit James with a stick, and tears and bitter words followed. Charges and accusations were still being exchanged as mother prepared them for bed. The mother instructed, “Now James, before you go to bed you’re going to have to forgive your brother.” James was thoughtful for a few moments, and then he replied, “Well OK, I’ll forgive him, but if I don’t die in the night, he’d better look out in the morning.”[3]
There are two well-known basic realities about this business of forgiveness:
1. We Need to be Forgiven
The story is told in Spain of a father and his teenage son who had a relationship that had become strained. So the son ran away from home. His father, however, began a journey in search of his rebellious son. Finally, in Madrid, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in the newspaper. The ad read: “Dear Paco, meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon. All is forgiven. I love you. Your father.” The next day at noon in front of the newspaper office 800 “Pacos” showed up. They were all seeking forgiveness and love from their fathers.[4]
Deep down we all understand our need of forgiveness from God and each other. Scripture informs us in both the Hebrew and Christian writings that there is no person without sin…no person who hasn’t offended God. When we can stop ignoring reality long enough to be honest from the inside out, we know that. We need God’s forgiveness, and…
2. We Need to Forgive Others
Colossians 3:13 (NRSV) 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
God gave the command for us Christians to forgive one another. God doesn’t give commands just to throw his weight around; He knew that it is necessary for us to forgive so we can move on in life.
Dr. Thomas Tewell, pastor of 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York shared the following in a sermon:
Author Frederick Buechner warns us about the dangers of reliving past hurts when he says, "Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll your tongue over the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you."
Betty was a living illustration of Buechner's words. Betty was filled with anger at her husband because of an affair he carried on with his secretary. The worst part of it was how she found out. The morning after her husband was honored by the Rotary Club for outstanding service to the community, Betty was looking through her husband's desk at home to find an old photograph. Imagine her shock to find motel receipts in a file drawer from a local motel. When she confronted her husband, he confirmed the affair and rubbed salt in the wound by telling her that it had gone on for 15 years. Betty's husband was not the man that the Rotary Club nor she thought he was. Two weeks after Betty confronted him, her husband had a sudden heart attack and died! Betty was left with a huge beach ball filled with rage and resentment in her soul.
Betty told me this story at a conference several years after the death of her husband when she challenged my point in a sermon that forgetting is often the outgrowth of true forgiveness. Betty used to be a whistler she told me. She was known for her whistling. But she hadn't whistled since she discovered her husband's affair and she would never whistle again. She asked me how to forgive someone who had died? I suggested that she write a letter to her husband and be honest with him about the hurt he had caused her. I told her to write down the unedited rage in her soul. Betty thought this was the craziest idea she'd ever heard! I thought I had offended her because she didn't show up at the conference for the next two days.The day before the closing session, Betty came into the conference with a big stack of paper. "Betty, you look tired." "You're darn right I'm tired! I haven't slept in two days. Here's the letter and I'm going to read it to you—all thirty-five pages of it! (There's got to be an easier way to make a living than the ministry I thought to myself!)We went to the cemetery and on a bench near her husband's grave, she read the letter out loud. The catharsis in her soul was punctuated by tears, screams and long moments of silence when she couldn't speak. When she finished, we burned the letter and watched her rage disintegrate into ashes. I offered a prayer for Betty and she said one too asking God to help her forgive and forget. I believe God answered those prayers. Do you know why I think so? Because the last morning of the conference, I looked out at the congregation and my eyes locked with Betty during the closing hymn, Amazing Grace. Betty wasn't singing, she was whistling! That's the power of forgiveness.[5]
Christ forgave us; now it’s our turn!
In the name of the Father,
Because of the Son,
Cooperating with the Spirit
[1] Illustrations Unlimited, © 1988 by James S. Hewett.
[2] Ranai Carlton, Waterford, California. Christian Reader, “Kids of the Kingdom.”
[3] Illustrations Unlimited, © 1988 by James S. Hewett.
[4] Illustrations Unlimited, © 1988 by James S. Hewett.
[5] Thomas Tewell, in a sermon “The Things We Dare Not Remember”

Monday, October 18, 2010

Deeply Defeated

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.[1]
We, who inhabit America, live in a “success story” land. We enjoy more luxury and ease than most of the rest of the world can imagine. And we are told, from a very early age, that anything we want, or want to be is within our grasp. We are a nation of winners, achievers – over-achievers!
If there is a prototype for this American dreamer, it might very well be the iconic professional football coach, Vince Lombardi. In the late 1930’s he was part of Fordham University’s storied “7 Blocks of Granite” defensive line. His first pro head coaching job was with the Green Bay Packers in 1959. In his first year he was named coach of the year. A total of nine seasons in Wisconsin brought him five world championships, including the first two Super Bowl games played. After Lombardi’s death in 1970 the league renamed the championship trophy after him.
Lombardi-isms are legendary. There are websites with dozens of sayings attributed to him, such as:

If you can accept losing, you can’t win
If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?

I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious.[2]

Vince Lombardi was a man committed to winning. It is part of our national heritage and collective personality – we want to win!

Sometimes – often times – the obsession to win (and in an effort to “fit-in” to this mold) causes people to lose contact with the purpose for which they were created. We can lose sight of who we are, and what the pursuit of power, pleasure, possessions and position can do to the image of God that is stamped on each of our souls. In short, we trade character for cash or personal pride!

We do get to choose our character
It is by our actions that character is formed, and it is either growing into the image of Christ, or growing more hellish every day! It was that way in the life of Jacob. His life’s story is competition, deception and ruthless ambition. Consider the timeline of Jacob and his twin brother Esau:

Esau was the first-born, but Jacob wasn’t far behind; in fact, when they came out of the womb, the second-born had his brother by the heel.

Being first-born gave Esau the right to a double-portion of the estate; Jacob wanted more. He waited until his brother came in from an unsuccessful hunting trip and tempted him with a pot of stew. Esau sold away his right to lead the family and be in the middle of God’s plan for a “happy meal”.

When the twins’ father, Isaac, was elderly and near death, it was time to bless the offspring. Now, if stealing the birthright wasn’t enough, the smooth-talking, smooth-skinned Jacob (with help from his Mom) put some goat skins on his arms, and spread the smell of wild animals on himself to fool his blind dad into thinking he was blessing Esau.

When Esau found out about it he vowed to kill his mama’s boy of a slimy, scheming brother. Jacob hit the road…all heels and elbows! He was out of town before his shadow could find him.

The Return – 20 Years later
Our text is the homecoming – only it wasn’t by invitation. Jacob hadn’t seen Esau since stealing the blessing the night he donned the designer forearm hair and eau’de’crud disguise.

On this night he is shaking like a skeleton hanging in a tree on a windy Halloween night. He is camped just across the Jabbok river crossing, less than a short walk from the home he’d left twenty years prior. His servants have informed him that his brother Esau is on the way to meet him; and, by the way, he’s got 400 men with him. (What would be going through YOUR mind about this time?)

Jacob has matured some by this time, but this night he would fall back on his manipulative ways. He is scared, but not enough to forget how to strategize. He sends his servants on ahead with gifts for his brother. He divides his wives and children into two groups and sends them ahead at different flanks. Jacob is alone with his thoughts, and he settles down near the river bank for a night of wondering and Pepto Bismol.

That’s when God showed up!

Jacob’s character development was about to bump-into a test for signs of growth. God had been working on this character’s character, and it was time to check-in for a mid-term exam. The river’s name, “Jabbok” is actually a play on Jacob’s name, and it means “wrestle”. Jacob was really good at scheming and manipulation; unbeknownst to him that night, there is no planning, training or alliances you can make when the wrestling match is scheduled by God. That’s the really unnerving issue here – it is God who decides when the test is given….what the rules are…and He knows the outcome before you even know you’re in a contest. It was going to be wrestling, but it wasn’t much of a match!

Wrestling Lessons
There are some really important and valuable lessons that Jacob learned that night. They are still valid.
#1. Our really important struggles challenge and determine our character.
The text (v.24) says they wrestled all night. You have got to care about something to wrestle with God like that. It has been my observation that the bigger the character issue is, the messier the fight! And you won’t have a whole lot of help. Jacob was alone – and when it comes to character, it’s all about being alone. Character is even defined as the way you act when nobody is looking. Nobody else can wrestle for your character – that is something as individual as your fingerprints!
#2. Character begins with honesty (facing the truth about yourself)
Again the text (v.27) says that the angel (God) demanded that Jacob tell him his name. It’s not that God didn’t know – Jacob needed to say it, own it, admit it – that his name “Jacob” meant surplanter, trickster, heel-grabber…DECEIVER!
In that time and culture, names were an indication of character. Jacob certainly lived-out the prophetic nature of being so-named . God was asking him, “What’s your character, Mac?” Often people would rather not face reality; denial is so handy, so warm and cuddly. We can be that way personally, or in homes or even church families. God demanded Jacob face the truth, name the truth, and then God could do something about that truth. Until we’re honest, we haven’t a prayer of lasting 30 seconds in the ring with God as adversary!
#3. An honest struggle always produces growth!
God re-named Jacob the deceiver; now he was Israel, struggler! Now, that’s quite an upgrade…but it didn’t come easy.
If you cut down a tree sometime take note of the “growth rings”. You can tell a lot about the history of a tree by the thickness and shape of its rings. Tough years, dry years, good years, storms – the whole life of that tree is there for the reading. It’s that way in humans – struggle produces growth in character. James (1:2) says that when you’ve got trials on top of trials, count it all joy! He doesn’t suggest you be thrilled with having trouble – he’s telling you to look beyond the trouble to the kind of persevering character that’s being built in you. You’re pumping “character iron”!
#4. Even an honest struggle won’t settle everything
The text (v.29) says that Jacob also wanted to know his adversary’s name. God told him to back off, and then blessed him anyway. I know just what Jacob (Israel) felt at that moment. I’ve always wanted clarity; I like to plan ahead, know where I’m going….I hate surprises….I want it all laid out, neat and clean.
I suppose Jacob and I are related. He wanted to know what kind of God he was going to serve – if he could expect this kind of rough treatment again. (Don’t forget, by this time his leg bone socket was dislodged from his hip; his pain was off the chart – he’d wrestled like WWW-Smackdown all night long….he was entitled to at least know whether he’d really accomplished anything here!) I have to admit to being that way. Give me a little sign, God…how about a hint? Do I really have to step out without knowing for sure? This leads right to the next lesson…
#5. We often resist out of fear – we don’t like struggle or change
We hate to change the way we do things…ruts are comfortable, struggle is hard and the outcome is in question. Jacob named the place Peniel…survivor. Nobody relishes the kind of struggle he faced; we prefer the warm, fuzzy womb of our complacency. But God is not content to let us rest in ruts – his plan for us is abundant life; they don’t sell that in bargain basements…life is all about struggle:
· Have you noticed that a baby has a rough ride down the birth canal?
· Have you noticed a baby taking his first steps? Falling down is next!
· Have you noticed how hard geometry and calculus are?
· Have you noticed that ceremonies and honeymoons only last a little while, and then she actually expects you to take out the garbage?
Life is about struggle – and God offers us life…you cannot have one without the other. And now, for the good news…
#6. If you choose Godly character, the struggle will probably leave you with a limp where he knocks your legs of pride out from under you.
Often the test comes just when we’ve got our lives neatly arranged. The job is going better, and you’ve gotten used to that mortgage payment. Your child stopped throwing a tantrum at bedtime every night.
And then, wham! The car breaks down, dog bites the mailman, and you get sued for looking at somebody the wrong way. On top of it all you’re gaining weight for no apparent reason. Life just isn’t fair! And then, the preacher picks that passage on being called to ministry – and you’re actually sensing that God is asking you what YOUR name is. What timing! Suddenly, everything that was so settled is now a real bother….you were running the race…now you’re limping.
Perhaps it’s not quite that simple? What if it’s that you found out he’s having an affair? How about the doctor telling you it’s Leukemia? What if your daughter was murdered? Now, that is cause for a limp, is it not?
What if it’s September 11th? You know….9/11. What if it was your husband in the North Tower? It was that way for Susan Retik and Patti Quigley. They were widowed by the attacks of 9/11. They had a struggle; their existence was plagued with limping along in grief. Do you know what they did? They formed a non-profit organization called “Beyond the 11th”. Do you know what they do? They help Afghan widows grow past their poverty by starting businesses – Afghans! They supported a women’s center where carpets are woven for export and it has a literacy center with a bakery.[3] They decided if they’ve got this limp, they’re going to do something Godly with it!
Choosing Godly character means limping, because it’s not an easy ride, but you will be changed. Like Jacob, God will give you a new identity and a new mission. Jacob became Israel, the struggler. He had 11 children…then one more. Those twelve became the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Success or Servant?
If you played for Vince Lombardi you bought into “winning is everything”. Fitting-in with the American success story is what the Apostle Paul called being “conformed to this world”[4]. It’s letting this world squeeze you into its mold so that you look, act and breathe “success” for yourself. It means you’ve chosen cash over character, career over character, comfort over character.
That’s how Jacob spent the first half of his life – me, mine, and right now! Then he wrestled; he wouldn’t let go – he chose character, and his surrender to God was complete. He said, “Kill me or bless me; I am in your hands.” He didn’t write it, but he could have, “Have thine own way, Lord; Have thine own way; Thou art the Potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me, after Thy will, while I am waiting yielded and still.”
A poet[5] once wrote about how character grows through struggle:
…he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.
Jacob chose character – and he was transformed into Israel. He gave up his “winning” and gained everything.
I choose that also…call me deeply defeated…and transformed.

[1] Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible
[3] Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times, September 8, 2010 (quoted in Christian Century 10/5/10, p.8)
[4] Romans 12:2
[5] Ranier Maria Rilke, The Man Watching,