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Forgiven Much

That is the point. Forgiveness. Unless you’re fine with all that, you know, fine with the things you’ve said and thought, fine with the choice you made that hurt someone else, fine with the way things worked out when you lied, fine with the time you looked away, fine with your plenty in the face of another’s scarcity, fine with the status quo. But if you’re not, if you want to turn a corner and do life differently, then, there’s this:

woman_crying_1Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” [Luke 7:47-49, NIV]

Who indeed?

We each have had a way in which we do life. For some, it was an upper middle class dream with plenty of food on the table, two (or more) cars in the driveway, and college tuition paid out of a well-thought out plan. Others grew up under a cloud of smoke and the smell of stale beer, got lost in math class and never caught up, accepted a minimum wage job and bolstered their income with a few illegal drug deals or sex for hire. Some of us skated and while others drowned.

To choose a savior, a kind of help that can turn a life’s direction requires an experience of awareness, a moment of revelation, an epiphany if you will, before forgiveness even comes into the picture, before surrender is possible, before faith can be born.

I cannot make that happen for anyone else. I can only tell you my story.

For, like the woman who drenched Jesus’s feet with her tears, I too have nothing but gratefulness for this same Jesus, who, by the power of Spirit, which makes this three-dimensional world  pale in its atmosphere, I capitulated my former understanding of the way of the world. I am changed. Forgiven.

And now I am asked to do likewise. To forgive the “you’s” in my life who failed me and hurt me and shamed me; to forgive myself for my self-indulgences and false starts. To forgive daily.

Crucified with Christ

Well, it’s just this simple. Whatever it might mean for you or any other, I cannot really know. But when I say this well-worn verse, I understand it quite subjectively for myself because it is to this truth I literally surrendered when I prayed that “sinner’s prayer” so long ago and asked that Jesus become my personal savior, my atonement and my redemption, my portal to the God of the Universe.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. [Galatians 2:2]

It’s a contract of sorts because I gave permission to a spirit being, a very specific Spirit Being, to indwell within me. According to that contract, I also agreed, in theory at least, to give over authority to that Spirit, a right that Person actually earned through a blood covenant, the shedding of blood, which has been a symbol of agreement throughout the centuries of humankind. Interesting too, that this bloodletting was done preemptively, before I was even born. Impossible? Perhaps. But this I believe.

However, I am constantly meddling with the authority of this Presence: arguing and negotiating, ignoring and placating, lying and withholding. In essence, I spend a lot of time pulling on the threads of our contract and it’s only by sheer grace that I have not torn the thing to pieces.

And because I know these things about myself, I must often regroup, reconnect, recommit myself to that deal I made over thirty years ago. It’s shameful really, but true. Thanks be to God, there’s been a contingency plan for every misstep I have made.

path crookedToday, I was walking a path I have walked many times but for the first time, I was walking it in reverse. I assume it’s for this reason I had never noticed that moment in the path where it looked like it came to a dead end. It was just a sharp right turn, but as I approached it, my brain didn’t compute that logic. Instead, I stopped in my tracks, pondering how it could be that the path would end. I hadn’t really reached that point yet, but I stopped anyway, thinking I might have to turn back. How often have I done this in life? How often have I assumed something was at the end, when the way was still there, I just couldn’t see it. The calm of knowing and trusting in that “other way,” comes from within, comes from the Presence of the Holy Spirit, who is more than willing to direct me. It is in this way, that I understood my foolishness yet again.

And it is in this small lesson that I remind myself to trust my God and the Holy Spirit yet again.

sprout in asphaltBe careful what you ask for. That’s the old saying when people ask for patience. . . . you know what you get? Trying and irritating situations that give us patience practice. Well, here’s another one, be careful about asking God to increase your faith, because it’s dire circumstances that build faith.

Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”
[Mark 4: 37 - 40; CEB]

They were nearly drowned. Despite having walked with Jesus and watched him heal hundreds of people (see verse 3:10), when they were in their own cataclysm, the challenge to “keep the faith” was much more difficult.

Perhaps they even tried. I can imagine the guys debating whether or not to wake Jesus up (who apparently was so unfazed by the situation that he slept like a baby). Did they know this was some kind of test of faith (after all, it was Jesus’s idea to cross over the lake)? Which of the twelve finally caved in and woke up the master with fear and trembling and even challenged Jesus, “Don’t you care . . .?” (Reminds of the character, Martin Udall, in the film, As Good As It Gets, who says, “I’m drowning here, and you’re describing the water!”)

We are driven by our circumstances. Despite knowing in our heads that the world does not revolve around us, we still tend to view the world from center of the universe. Look, what is happening to me! Where is God? Where is Jesus? This can’t be right! I’m suffering here, like another movie character, Ratzo Rizzo in MIdnight Cowboy, “I’m walkin’ here; I’m walkin’ here.” The implication, again, is that circumstances need to adjust to our presence.

But faith walks in the face of circumstances. Faith moves in a straight line no matter what is happening around us. Faith is the tortoise, undaunted by the wily hare or the long, long road.

Faith is not built on the easy life. In Matthew 5:43-48, we are reminded that it’s easy to love those who love you, it’s loving the enemies that becomes a challenge. So it is with faith. You want your faith to grow? Give thanks for the difficult days.

Devoted to You

Bible translations do make a difference in how we respond to the words. Today, I was particularly struck by the word, “devoted,” only to discover it’s from the older 1984 NIV version. And yet, two verses later, the contemporary version of verse four, “I offer my life to you” is more compelling. I’m sure they ultimately speak the same message, these various translations, but I am speaking to the way in which the words resonate in my heart.

Guard my life because I am faithful. Save your servant who trusts in you—you! My God! . . . Make your servant’s life happy again because, my Lord, I offer my life to you, . . . [Psalm 86:2, 4; CEB]

Guard my life, for I am faithful to you; save your servant who trusts in you. . . . Bring joy to your servant, Lord, for I put my trust in you. [Psalm 86:2, 4; NIV 2011]

Guard my life, for I am devoted to you. . . . Bring joy to your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up soul. [Psalm 86:2, 4; NIV 1984]

Am I faithful or am I devoted? Perhaps the difference for me is that faithfulness implies a kind of reliability and steadfastness that, I hate to confess, is not my strength. Whereas, devoted appeals to my passionate side. I can be devoted but also screw up, knowing my God knows my heart is an open book to the Spirit within. It’s a kind of Peter vs. John kind of thing, the dopey bull in a china shop compared to the studious academician. Silly, I know, but that’s where my head is today.

And then the other phrase, “I offer my life to you,” gave me pause. Compared to a rather amorphous lifting up of my soul, the CEB version feels more like surrender, intentional and conscious and immediate. This is what I want to do today: not just trust or hand over some part of me, but the whole of myself, I want to cross the line of fear and doubt, fully devoted.

It was supposed to be such a big put-down to Barak, who Deborah, the prophet, called up to gather forces and attack Commander Sisera of Canaan. She was assured of their victory and yet Barak, although willing to go, would not go without Deborah. He must have believed that her presence would give me more credence. He didn’t care that he might be seen as a less of a leader by bringing a woman along.

“Certainly I will go with you,” said Deborah. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” [Judges 4:9a]

But here’s where I cringe, just a little. We haven’t gotten much better in this culture. Oh, we’ve made some inroads, but truthfully, I still think people are surprised that a woman did this or that. It’s one of the reasons that Americans still hedge at the idea of having a woman president, as though her decisions might somehow be impeded by her sex. The glass ceiling still exists.

And the scriptures don’t help much. I am grateful for the many times that Christ, himself, opened doors for women in his age that were never open before. Women were called upon to be leaders and encouraged to embrace the Gospel fully, a promise of full participation. And yet, old laws held on to people’s minds, even Paul, who taught the old ways for women, to be silent and submissive and unengaged outside the home.

It’s still an insult to “run like a girl.”

 

The Blame Game

head in the sandHow often do we blame someone else for our situation? In the extreme, it’s a victim mentality, but in small doses, it’s a type of laziness. If it’s not my fault, I don’t have to do anything about it. I also call it a “head in the sand” approach to life.

When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is that you, the one who troubles Israel?”
Elijah answered, “I haven’t troubled Israel; you and your father’s house have! You did as much when you deserted the Lord’s commands and followed the Baals. [I Kings 18: 17-18, CEB]

A young friend of mine demonstrated the extent to which blame can be stretched. Apparently, he had checked out a video game from the library and lost it or misplaced it or loaned it to someone else (I don’t really know the details). Since I work at the library, I know how these things work: a series of emails or texts or phone calls go out to the patron alerting them to a potential fine. At some point, the item is coded as lost and the patron’s cost jumps from a fine to a full replacement cost of the item (this takes several we reached my friend for his lost video game. He was livid at the cost: $75! And the next statement? It’s all that librarian’s fault for making me get a library card. His anger justified because it wasn’t his fault. He’s not the first library user to blame staff for fines and fees.

A more egregious example happened to my own daughter, who we adopted at fifteen and assumed she was an orphan since we had death certificates on both of her parents. Instead, it turned out the birth mother had hit the skids and lost all of her identity papers and did not surface again until some two years after our teen was adopted. And of all things, it was on Russian Facebook that they found one another. But instead of joy of discovery, the mother blamed our daughter for her losses and literally said, “If you hadn’t left, none of this would have happened.”

blameThese stories sound outrageous but are we any better? Am I? How many times have I kicked a chair after I ran into it or cursed a tree limb that connected with my head or bad talked the bank when my check bounced? And of course, while driving, it’s always the other guy!

The first step in changing the rules of the blame game is to identify the moment. If I can catch myself (that means close my mouth before the words come out), I might even be able to stem off the worst of it. And only then do I have even a hair’s breath of chance to figure out why I am passing the buck. Am I afraid of how I will be perceived by others? Do I feel that taking responsibility will diminish me? Does it make me feel better to shift the blame to another person?

In and of itself, the word “blame” has a negative connotation. It carries accusation and condemnation. Just the word alone feels like a burden. And I’m thinking that’s the problem. Instead of shifting the blame, it may be that the paradoxical Christian thing would be to simply accept responsibility (when true) and give God a chance to work with the truth.

Taking responsibility when we err is no fun, but its merits outweigh the negatives in the long run. It’s part of the learning curve and character building. I am not encouraging anyone to become a scapegoat or to become a martyr, taking the weight of guilt when it’s not ours to take. But when our own mistakes and choices bring consequences, then we must confess that truth to ourselves first and thereby invoke the power of the Holy Spirit to bear it and eventually change.

Photo by Irm Brown

Photo by Irm Brown

So simple really, how else would the weak find traction? God is the great equalizer.

Then Asa cried out to the Lord his God, “Lord, only you can help the weak against the powerful.Help us, Lord our God, because we rely on you. . . [2 Chronicles 14:11a]

Unfortunately, the strong forget their own need for God. They rely on themselves. And eventually, the mighty fall. Sometimes, in their pride, the strong give assistance to the weak, but it is always measured, to keep the weak in their place. Or worse, the gifts are not particularly useful or what is actually needed.

When I was in Africa on a mission trip, we visited one of the poorest villages that was created on a portion of land owned by a wealthy landowner for the families of the men who worked his land. They were reminiscent of slave quarters, but African style with dirt floors and huts and water a football field away that had to be carried daily by the women and children. They were fortunate to have a place to live but nothing more. From the landowner’s perspective, he had been generous, but it was a measured generosity. That was bad enough but while there, among the partially clothed children was a little girl who wore a torn and tattered party dress, clearly, a gift from a well-meaning westerner who had sent used clothing to the poor. The girl probably loved that dress, but what was the donor thinking? Again, a misplaced generosity.

If the strong want to help the weak, they must enter the life of the weak. So did our Jesus serve humanity. So did Mother Teresa in India  and Jackie Pullinger in China.

 

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