Seventy-seven Times?!

This Matthew 18 stuff is hard, really hard …

What do you do when your friend gives you a gun? For Roger, this was easy: he used it. And he says that if he had the chance, he’d use it again. Roger’s entire life has become consumed by one unquenchable desire: avenging his daughter’s death. Sarah was out on her bike when she was hit by a drunk driver. She died almost instantly. The driver was sent to prison for manslaughter. But that wasn’t enough for Roger. He borrowed a gun and when the driver was released years later, he shot him, fully intending to kill. Now the tables were turned, and Roger found himself charged with attempted murder, facing the possibility of a similar long prison sentence. I asked him if squeezing the trigger and watching the man collapse in agony made him feel better. “No,” he said, “Only killing him could have made me feel better.”

Thus begins a little book entitled Why forgive? It is full of stories, horrific stories of pain and injustice suffered by ordinary people like you and I. But the book is also full of hope, illustrating vividly the life-giving power of forgiveness, and why “to err is human, to forgive is divine.” Its message is a huge challenge in the face of the world’s horrific injuries inflicted daily by terrorists, armies at war, ethnic conflict, as well as by tragic accidents, disasters and disease, alcohol and drug abuse, family violence, sexual abuse etc. etc.

With the mind of an accountant, adding and subtracting offences and pardon, Peter asks Jesus: “How often do I need to forgive the one who wrongs me?” With the mind of God, in the business of unbridled mercy, Jesus gives an outrageous answer: “Seventy-seven times seven.” In other words, there’s no end to the need to forgive…

The Bible is full of admonishments to forgive those who injure us. We know that – it’s ingrained in our minds. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray “Forgive us our debtors as we forgive those who sin against us.”

We’re good church folk – we know we “should” forgive. We recognize the importance to let go of hurts and resentments. However, most of us are really good at telling others to forgive. When it’s our turn, it can often feel impossible to extend heartfelt forgiveness.
Believe me, recently I had another opportunity to practice this — it was mighty hard. And to be told that we ought to forgive can actually make things worse. We might heap a whole bunch of guilt onto ourselves, simply adding to the anger and vengeful feelings instead of helping them disappear.

Here the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) has something to teach us. Jesus tells an incredible story of the king who forgave one servant an impossible debt. But then that servant turns around and refuses to forgive a fellow servant who owed him a debt much smaller than the one the king forgave.

At first hearing, the servant’s behaviour is shocking. Why does the servant, having been treated so generously by the king, immediately act so ruthlessly toward his fellow servant? The king is justified in his harsh retaliation. But upon deeper hearing, this parable should make us blush… We often treat one another in similar fashion.

When the forgiven servant hears that his debt is forgiven, he shows no appropriate response. Scripture does not tell us whether he rejoices, whether he gives thanks, whether he celebrates with wife and children who are spared imprisonment. All we learn is that on the way out he refuses … the plea … of a fellow servant. That creates a very serious gap in the story. That gap makes a very important point. The servant clearly has not “experienced” the king’s forgiveness. We already hear that in how he approaches the king. His debt is beyond any reasonable ability to pay — 10,000 talents represents more than the wages of a day labourer for 1,000 years! Yet he says, “I will pay you everything” – how naïve can you get? The servant thinks that he is dealing with the king on the basis of justice. What he receives but never grasps is the king’s mercy.

God is in the forgiveness business, but we have a hard time forgiving each other – and even ourselves. A Chinese proverb describes this human inability to forgive rather bluntly: whoever opts for revenge should dig two graves. God is not stopped from forgiving us because we are unforgiving towards each other. But there is a link between our experience of God’s forgiveness and our capacity to forgive another sister or brother.

Forgiveness is quite different than justice or retribution. That is what Jesus is trying to teach us. The first servant keeps thinking in terms of justice, and fails to realize he has received mercy. Mercy is a divine gift which transforms the heart. God deals with us, not on the scale of justice, but by granting mercy. A heart transformed by God’s gift of mercy is set free to offer mercy to another in turn.

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu was chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tutu says to forgive goes beyond unselfishness: “To forgive is a process that does not exclude hate and anger. These emotions are all part of being human.” Tutu  continues, “You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things; the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.” Tutu stresses that, “When I talk of forgiveness, I mean the conviction that you can come out the other side a better person.”

Hatred comes in many forms; the great hatred of 9/11, civil and ethnic conflicts, suicide bombings in major world cities. Apart from world-scale events of evil, there is a lot of small stuff we sweat every day, small stuff needing the healing touch of mercy: We suffer painful family relations. We feel unjustly treated at work.  A friend deserts us, or betrays us. A teacher judges our son or daughter wrongly. A pastor abuses our trust…

We must not take these actions lightly for they affect the health of the world. In the same way, however, we must not take Jesus’ call to forgiveness lightly, for it too affects the health of the world.

One of the first things Anglican priest Dale Lang did after the fatal shooting in a Tabor high school, quite a few years ago now, was to forgive the boy who killed his son. “ If you can’t reach that place of forgiveness, then you’re going to get stuck in that place of anger and bitterness ,” said Lang. Dale Lang still travels the country sharing his tragic experience of loss and his call to mercy. A number of years later similar words were spoken by another father whose son, an RCMP officer, was killed in the Mayerthorpe ambush on a farm: “If I let hatred for my son’s murderer eat my heart, I would become another victim of the shooting,”

God is in the forgiveness business in and through Jesus. In Ephesians 1:7 Paul writes, “In him [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the richness of his grace.” Paul later reminded the Christians at Ephesus, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you.” Paul asks the Romans (14:10), and us: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Why do you despise your sister or brother? We will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”

The last paragraph in the book Why Forgive?  reads as follows: Forgiveness is life-giving power. It frees us from every constraint of the past, and helps us overcome every obstacle. It can heal both the forgiver and the forgiven. In fact, it could change the world if we allowed it to. But too often we stand in its way, not daring to let it flow through us unchecked. With God, we hold the keys to forgiveness in our hands. And we must choose whether or not to use these keys – every day.

With the mind of an accountant we ask: How often did you say, Lord? With the mind of God Jesus answers: Seventy-seven times seven … Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

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A Spring in my Step

While it has been quiet on my blog, it`s been hectic in my life thanks to three young adorable granddaughters who took up my time, energy and attention for nearly three solid weeks. I discovered that I can no longer mix writing and tending to the needs and whims of little disarming and enervating creatures.

But while my days were filled with laughter, summer fun and young charm, the world kept on `burning`: more police shootings in the US, another friend in palliative care with cancer, random killings by mentally unstable persons, 1/4 million civilians trapped in Aleppo, suicide bombings and a coup attempt in Turkey, break-in at a friend’s house, an ISIS terrorist attack in a parish in rural France killing an 86-year old priest, a friend struggling mightily with his son’s transgender orientation, a Husky oil spill in our own beloved North Saskatchewan river affecting 100,000 + people’s water supply, Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination and then angering his own constituency with discriminatory comments regarding a slain Muslim US soldier … and on and on and on …

It`s a sheer miracle that beauty and love, joy and compassion, mercy and justice still break through in this messed up world. Despite all the evil, the bad choices, the wrong-headed decisions, the undeserved pain and suffering, the natural disasters on all levels — personal, communal, global — God continues to remain intimately involved with us in both ordinary and extraordinary ways, even if evidence is hard to see.

Blessing and curse, good and evil, have always woven themselves into every corner of our existence. Charles Dickens said it well when he wrote:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven,
we were all going direct the other way.
~ Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities

Still, if you’re anything like me, all the bad stuff around us makes me want to scream and storm heaven, demanding healing and justice and peace. But all we get is a call to foster a heart of peace, love and mercy after the example of Jesus. Much of the bad stuff is the result of evil finding a nesting place in hurting and vengeful hearts, and then growing to take up all that heart’s space, snuffing out any chance for love, mercy and peace. Evil always looks for a heart/spirit in which to make its home. The antidote to this, according to Brian Zahnd in his book Radical Forgiveness, is to absorb the blow without retaliation and without allowing it to damage, define or destroy one’s own spirit. This, according to Zahnd, is exactly what happened at Calvary when Jesus uttered, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

As I am currently reading Zahnd’s book, a concrete example of forgiveness came to mind, one that has inspired me in many a hard time in my own life. Etty Hillesum left a few dairies after WW II, during which time she died in Auschwitz, and a huge witness to a spirituality of beauty and mercy that can rival any famous saint. If anyone had reason to hate and seek revenge, it was her. Yet, she didn’t let the horrors around her define her. No, her heart was committed to seeking beauty, love and mercy no matter how bad the world was. Just absorb her wisdom in the following words:

WalkingBarbedWire1“All I wanted to say was this: the misery here is quite terrible and yet, late at night when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire and then time and again it soars straight from my heart—I can’t help it, that’s just the way it is, like some elementary force—the feeling that life is glorious and magnificent and that one day we shall be building a whole new world.  Against every new outrage and very fresh horror we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness. … Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.”  ~ An Interrupted Life, Etty Hillesum

One moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. The more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world. Thank you, Etty, for reminding us of the one important task.

While the world burnt, my heart/spirit drank in the love and hugs, the water splashes and fun with my dear granddaughters. I give wholehearted thanks for those energetic days of laughter and sunshine, for little feet dirtying my floor and leaving their footprints of love on my heart, and for the joyful exhaustion after all safely returned to their parents 🙂 It is little ones such as these that help shore up large amounts of the peace, grace and mercy needed to remain a whole human being in this beautiful yet broken world.

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Promises Believed, Broken and … Restored?

As a seasoned preacher I know well the temptation to “bend” the Holy Word to suit our personal pet-themes. When preparing a homily I do my best to discipline my efforts in responsible ways. But sometimes present painful realities scream for attention from that Holy Word. And so it was yesterday when I preached in a United Church congregation on Genesis 15:1–18, Psalm 27 and Luke 13:31-35. If I took some liberties in the sermon text below,  I ask forgiveness. Small and imperfect, it was motivated by my deep desire to contribute to the healing of our beautiful nation, Turtle Island:

In each of today’s Scripture lessons we hear words of covenant, words of trusting God and words of God’s faithfulness against all odds. We hear words of bold witness and words of lament, both from Jesus’ lips. God’s promises are the foundation of faith, even when everything seems to be going in the opposite direction. Living in hope of God’s promise of peace and justice, of love and grace, offers hope for the future, even in painful and trying times.

The Quakers have a saying “a way will be made.” Out of apparent scarcity, abundance can emerge. Where there appears to be a dead end, a path appears. When we hit bottom, we discover God is with us and we can, with God’s companionship and inspiration, climb out of the mess in which we find ourselves. When we think we are unlovable or will never find a loving friendship, a chance encounter can change everything. We discover a highway in the desert, a path in the wilderness, a guiding star in the darkest night. A way will be made.

This was the experience of Abraham and Sarah. They had followed God, leaving their familiar home for the promise of a new land. They had dreamed of children to populate the land and be their companions in old age. But, still they had no children. They were desperate and wondered if God’s promises could be trusted. In the midst of his despair about the future, Abram (Abraham) had a vision in which God showed him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. It is an improbable promise to an old couple. A way will be made!

Psalm 27 promises the same thing – a sense of security and well-being – despite conflict and threat.“The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” Fear is epidemic in our time and some may be justified, but being paralyzed by fear won’t get us to the next step.

Abundant living and trust connect, scarcity thinking isolates and diminishes.A way is made when we choose to push toward a heavenly goal. We experience a deeper realism than the “earthly minded.” We see a great plant in a mustard seed and a multitude fed by five loaves and two fish. We see resurrection beyond tragedy and promise in unexpected people.The world’s realism dictates that we recognize a bottom line, but God’s realism imagines a great plant coming from the smallest seed and the gift of a small child multiplying to feed a crowd. Who knows how? Indeed, there are realities beyond what the eye can see that lure us toward the future.

A way is made indeed – for God is faithful – but we need to “will” that way and we need to choose to trust that a way will be made. Jerusalem didn’t will that way and didn’t trust. So Jesus mourns that Jerusalem has closed itself off to the future, turning away from the provocative alternative vision he presents to them.

There are people who have lived with unfulfilled promises for generations, and I’m not just referring to God’s chosen people from the Hebrew Scriptures. Most unfulfilled promises  are not caused by God’s unfaithfulness, but by human sin. I am referring here to the plight of our indigenous sisters and brothers in our great land called Canada, Turtle Island. Echoeing God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, God gave this vast land – from sea to sea to sea – first … not to us, descendants of immigrants, but to our aboriginal ancestors: “Look towards the heavens and count the stars,” God said to them, “So shall your descendants be.”

All across our land, our aboriginal sisters and brothers are hurting, weeping and grieving because of generations of systemic policies that have robbed them of family life, cultural customs and spiritual practices. And we still wonder why they “can’t get over it.” The Truth and Reconciliation Report minces no words – you can’t just “get over” a few centuries of internalized oppression and exploitation. Jesus is weeping with them, wondering if we will, like Jerusalem, close ourselves off from the liberating message of sharing the burden of pain, of pleading forgiveness and of owning up to our complicity in this intergenerational cycle of poverty and addiction, crime and abuse.

Opening ourselves to God’s transforming power in relationships with our aboriginal sisters and brothers comes with the need for painful confessions, for owning up to our collective guilt. Opening ourselves to God’s healing power comes with the need to eat stores of humble pie. When we muster the courage to do this, as a church community who claims to follow the ways of Jesus, and as a country, we will find God’s way to reconciliation, and recognize that God is indeed present and active in this enormous collective historical, cultural and spiritual challenge.

As Canadians we have experienced the work of the Truth and Reconciliation  Commission. We have heard the stories of residential school survivors, and the role of our churches, in the Canadian policy of assimilation. This policy has led to a loss of culture and the death of many in the Indigenous community for generations. We have contributed to the pain and loss of Canadian Indigenous people through The Doctrine of Discovery. The church used this doctrine to give the government moral justification to claim lands as their own which were uninhabited by Christians. We have contributed to the pain and loss of Canadian Indigenous people whose children attended residential schools. The vast majority of well over these 150,000 children suffered neglect, abuse and discrimination. We recognize that we have not learned nor taught this painful chapter in our country’s history in our schools and churches. We have contributed to the pain and loss of Canadian Indigenous people through poor record keeping of the death of many children at residential schools, too often without a proper burial. We have contributed to the pain and loss of Canadian Indigenous people in our history. We have denied their right to choose and express their spiritual identity by prohibiting them from practicing and teaching their faith and culture. These accusations come straight from the TRC Report.

Our aboriginal sisters and brothers have hit bottom, and they yearn to have faith, respect and dignity restored  – in themselves, in the Creator, in one another, in us. We need their healing as much for ourselves as for them. We need God’s healing TOGETHER.

Echoeing Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, we lament the despair, pain, and loss that these actions have resulted in, for the Canadian Indigenous community as well as on all of us. We claim to emulate God’s faithfulness in the face of all odds, as today’s Scriptures encourage and challenge us to. We can do no less than commit ourselves to a full restoration of personal and cultural relationships with our aboriginal sisters and brothers, to walk with them the painful and challenging road to personal and cultural wholeness, to allow their collective pain a place in our hearts, so as to carry one another through the bonds of our shared humanity.

There is much to reflect on in the TRC Report and many concrete suggestions for actions given. Read sections of the Report this Lent, make it part of your prayer for healing. The TRC Report reminds us that we are all Treaty People, we are all part of this covenant with one another. Will we honour the calls to action to advance the process toward Canadian reconciliation?

As people of faith, God calls us to wholeness and healing. In this Lenten season, may we – God’s people on Turtle Island – confess and repent, and turn away from the sin of cultural genocide once and for all.

God promised Abraham and Sarah offspring as numerous as the stars. Abraham and Sarah put their trust in that promise against all the evidence to the contrary. God gave to a great people this vast country called Turtle Island, a people of dignity and beauty. This people, our First Nations’ brothers and sisters, put their trust in our Treaties and we betrayed that trust.  They are waiting for the fulfillment of our promise to them by way of the Treaties agreed upon with our ancestors.

Jesus uses the image of a hen gathering her chicks under her wings to explain God’s protection and love. This strength is at the heart of his message to all who follow him: God’s compassionate love gathers everyone together. Jesus understands the challenges that are before him, but holds strong to God’s promise as he faces what lies ahead. He stays firm in his faith.

Jesus will fulfill his mission in Jerusalem. His example is a challenge to us. Like Abraham and Sarah, God calls us to a deeper and bigger purpose. With regard to our aboriginal brothers and sisters, Jesus challenges us to commit to ready our ears for listening, deep listening, to ready our minds for honouring – deep honouring of the painful stories of intergenerational cultural genocide, abuse and neglect, and to open our hearts to the long and slow process of confession, healing and reconciliation for the greater good of future generations of all Canadians, in order to restore to fullness the covenant God made with us all.

How will we respond? Will we respond in faith and trust, with courage and boldness, forging a way where there does not seem to be one? Or will Jesus lament over our willful turning away from him, him who lives in our hurting sisters and brothers? AMEN


Prayers of the people

One: O God, often we have trouble understanding your promises.
We do not always know how to be strong.
You promise to be our stronghold, our shelter, and our rock.
All: We desire to be God’s covenant people.
One: God, you promised descendants to Abraham and Sarah,
that his family would inherit the land.
What promises and treaties in today’s world have been betrayed
and that need our prayers today?
All: We desire to be God’s covenant people.
One: Help us remember the covenant moments in our own lives –
graduations, marriages, baptisms, exchanging gifts.
May we draw on the grace of these moments,
especially when we forget your covenant with us.
All: We desire to be God’s covenant people.
One: God, you call us to serve and love one another.
You call us in a particular way to walk humbly
with our aboriginal sisters and brothers who are in pain
over promises and treaties broken and betrayed:
generations suffering cultural, social, and spiritual neglect.
All: We desire to be God’s covenant people.
Help us to be instruments of healing and reconciliation,
to confess the sins of the past and to open our hearts to one another.
Show us where our gifts can be used
and where our compassion is needed the most.
All: We lament the despair, pain and loss
that our past actions have resulted in,
for the Canadian Indigenous community
as well as the effect and impact
these same actions have had on us.
We desire to be God’s covenant people.
One: May we trust like Abraham and Sarah,
serve as Christ served others,
holding on to and restoring God’s promises in good times and  in bad.
All: Covenant God, may we find ourselves trusting you
when the evidence tells us otherwise.
May we find ourselves following you
even as the world says not to.
May we find ourselves living with the impossible
when everything else says we can’t.
May we hear the promise in our souls,
and live it in our world. Amen.

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Really — God does what?

Rote prayers are good and enduring, esp. in times of turmoil and pain when we want to pray but don’t know what to say. But rote prayer can also be recited absent-mindedly, so much so that we don’t always realize what it is that we are saying, even if it borders on questionable theology. Take, for example, the following prayer which pretty much the whole world knows as the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father, who is in heaven …
… As we forgive those who trespass against us
and lead us not into temptation …

Wait a minute, what did we just say? We pray to God who is our Creator, our Father, who loves us into being each day from the moment of our conception, who helps us to forgive so we are open to receive divine mercy ourselves. So far, so good. But then some puzzling words … and lead us not into temptation?? This good God, this loving Father, “leading” us into temptation?! How can a loving and forgiving God “lead” us into temptation? Does this not contradict the words in the letter of James: Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’, for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when lured and enticed by one’s own desire.(1:13-14)

I have long stumbled over this line in the Lord’s prayer. What’s more is that the text of the Lord’s prayer in the Scriptures (Matthew 6:9–13,, Luke 11: 2–4) , at least in the NRSV translation, no longer says that God “leads” us into temptation, but instead, “And save us from the time of trial.” Now that makes sense to me; ours is a God who saves, not a God who tempts.

Having said that, I don’t think this means that God cannot draw good from our wayward ways. We are indeed “lead into temptation” many times a day — enticed by earthly rewards, driven to satisfy unreasonable cravings, seduced by idols and false gods, chasing misguided ambitions. God can use these distractions, sometimes indeed leading to sinful actions, to remind us of our total dependence on divine mercy, sustenance and guidance. That is the great good news for which I am immensely grateful. God’s mercy bestows tremendous dignity, allowing us to not be defined by past missteps but to always being offered new beginnings however many we need. But that’s as far as I’m willing to go though. As far as God leading us into temptation? I’m not convinced. Yet that’s what we keep praying … so … am I missing something?

Any thoughts to add anyone?