Tag Archives: Forgiveness

Non-Transactional Love

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:9-11 (NIV)

Years ago I was asked to give a message among a weekly gathering of Jesus’ followers. The text above was part of the message that I shared that morning. The observation that I made in that message was the same thing that struck me again this morning as I read the chapter. It’s so subtle that I missed it for many years of my spiritual journey.

The observation is simply this: the Father’s love and pleasure we’re given to Jesus and we’re just ten verses into the story. Jesus’ ministry hadn’t started. He hadn’t preached a sermon. He hadn’t healed anyone, performed miracles, or cast out a demon. So God’s love was there, it had already been there, and it was always going to be there. The Father’s love for the Son was not dependant on His dutiful and obedient carrying out of, and completion, of the mission. Therefore, in the same way, God’s love for me is not dependent on my good works, purity, morality, church attendance, or my upstanding life. It’s always been there.

After my message, I was immediately confronted by an angry person. There was no preamble to the conversation. They immediately dove into an argument to let me know that Jesus was thirty years old when He was baptized, so He obviously had “done stuff” and proven Himself to the Father. In other words, Jesus had to have earned the Father’s love and pleasure.

Along my spiritual journey, I came to realize that quid pro quo theology was so deeply ingrained in me that I was blind to it for many years. While I cognitively agreed with the doctrinal statement that salvation was “by grace through faith,” I functionally lived, acted, and treated others as if God’s love was dependant on my obedience and theirs. I discovered that I was treating it like a transactional relationship, and I liked it that way. If God’s love was earned by my being a “good person” then there was a measuring stick I had understood since I was a child; A measuring stick I could use to decide whether others were worthy of my love. God’s love and grace being transactional made things so simple for me on a human level. Be good: Heaven and acceptance. Be bad: Hell and rejection. It was a religious version of the Santa Claus principle my parents used to get me to behave when I was a child that I could now apply on an adult level.

In His parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus told the story of a younger rebellious brother who does all of the wrong and sinful things. When he returns home the poor, penniless, sinful, broken child is greeted by his father who runs to embrace him and forgive him. The father throws a huge homecoming party. The older brother, who has been dutiful and obedient is indignant. The point Jesus was making is this: the father loved both of his sons. His love belonged to both of them, had always been there from the beginning, and had remained with both even when the younger one was lost and the elder was obedient.

In the quiet this morning I find myself reflecting on my own life journey. You can look back at my life and find me playing both roles in my own life’s production of the Prodigal Son. I have been the wasteful, wandering, rebellious child squandering what I’d been graciously given. I have also spent years being the indignant, dutiful son projecting my miserly, transactional world-view onto a loving and gracious Father.

I’m older now. The reality for any actor is that as you get older you find yourself cast in very different roles than when you were young. C’est la vie. It strikes me this morning that I’d like to think I’m ready to play the role of the father with everyone in my circles of influence, extending grace and love freely, regardless of a person’s actions.

And so, I find myself coming back to that argumentative, angry “older brother” who conversationally accosted me after my message those years ago. I get where that person was coming from. I pray that they experience the fullness of God’s love that has always belonged to them and has nothing to do with their goodness.

Have a great week, my friend.

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple index for you.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Sad Endings

Whoever would foster love covers over an offense,
    but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.

Proverbs 17:9 (NIV)

I have been blessed with many great friends across this earthly journey. I consider them a huge part of the reason I am where I am on Life’s road. Even though our respective paths in life led us to different places, there are a number of friends that I can call at any moment and we can pick up right where we left off as if no time had passed and there was no distance between us. As I look back, however, I can also recount friendships that were important and special during a particular stretch of the journey, and then they ended.

In most of these cases, not all, there were things that I said, things I did, or things that I didn’t say or do, which offended or hurt my friend. In at least one instance, my friend repeatedly declined to tell me what it was that I had done to cause such pain. In every instance, my attempts at reconciliation in these friendships were rebuffed. Even ten, twenty, thirty years later, I still feel sad when I think about each one.

Jesus was adamant that His followers practice forgiveness. It was non-negotiable. When asked by Peter if forgiving a person who wronged you seven times was a righteous thing to do, Jesus doubled down and instructed Pete to forgive seventy-times-seven. The hyperbole was the point. Forgiveness is to be on-going and never-ending. Jesus then provided the example as He hung on a cross and said of His executioners: “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”

In today’s chapter, one proverb states that love “covers over” an offense. I couldn’t help but think of an old piece of furniture that is dinged and scratched up with constant use over time. A little sandpaper and a fresh coat of paint make it new again. The scratches and dings are covered over and forgotten.

The proverb goes on to state that “repeating a matter” separates friends. In this contrasting situation, there is no sanding over the scratches and no fresh coat of paint. One friend wants the other friend to view every scratch and see every ding, every time, and be continually reminded that they are there and not going away. There is no forgiveness, just power and leverage, and shame, and the continuation of relational pain.

I’ve come to realize that a relationship can not long survive in such circumstances, at least not with any degree of health. It is not a reciprocal, life-giving relationship.

In the quiet this morning, I begin my week thankful for friends both past and present. I’m thankful even for those who were friends for a season. The end of those relationships, with all their sadness, don’t take away the tremendous, positive impact those friends made in my life during that season. And, who knows? Perhaps reconciliation will yet occur down the road. I hope so.

Have a good week, my friend.

No Apology Necessary

Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel.
Zechariah 3:3 (NIV)

Over the past few years, I’ve been serving as a mentor and coach for individuals in our local gathering of Jesus’ followers who are developing their gifts and abilities as teachers/preachers. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience and it’s a radical paradigm shift for almost anyone who grew up in the institutional, denominational church.

When Paul spoke of the Holy Spirit bestowing spiritual “gifts” on believers (see 1 Corinthians 12-13) for the common good, there are no limits or caveats mentioned regarding age, education, gender, race, or occupation. Spiritual gifts are given to every believer for serving the whole. Everyone is included. No one is exempt. Our local gathering is courageously believing that there are individuals within our midst who are spiritually gifted teachers despite the fact that they have not been institutionally trained as such. Like Paul himself, who worked tirelessly as a tentmaker, the teachers I’ve been privileged to serve over the past few years represent a diverse array of day jobs including diesel mechanic, corporate executive, middle-manager, engineer, non-profit director, IT network specialist, banker, writer, realtor, church staff member, and stay-at-home mom.

The feedback I and fellow team members provide each week is both the identification of a teacher’s strengths as well as opportunities to improve. At last night’s teacher’s meeting, I shared my observation that the most common opportunity for improvement I’ve identified across the broad cross-section of apprentice teachers is our seemingly requisite need to apologize to listeners for what they are about to hear. I’ve heard apologies for lack of ability, knowledge, experience, education, preparation, professionalism, and genetic similarity to the senior pastor. The apology almost always comes out in the opening statements. It takes the form of self-deprecating humor, humble confession, and nervous admission. Yet, I’ve observed that in every humorous, humble, or honest guise, this self-deprecating statement at the start of a message asks something from the listener (empathy, sympathy, mercy), when the teacher’s main role is to give something worthwhile to her or his listeners.

I’ve pondered on this for a long time. I’ve observed that there are two common motivations for this need to self-deprecate. The first reason is the simple fear of public speaking and the terror that comes with imagining yourself saying something wrong, silly, stupid, or offensive. The second reason is more intimate, and it’s the question any worthwhile teacher asks herself/himself in the quiet before she/he steps up in front of a group of listeners: “Who am I?”

I know my tragic flaws, my shortcomings, my hypocrisies, and my secret sins. “Who am I?” I whisper to myself as I’m ready to step up to the podium, “to think I have anything worthwhile to say to these people?” And so, I lead with an apology. I beg my listener’s mercy. Immediately, with that apology, I create unwanted and unnecessary nervousness, anxiety, tension, contempt, mistrust, or outright dismissal within the ranks of my listeners.

In today’s chapter, Zechariah has a vision of the high priest, Joshua. This is part of a series of visions intended to instill confidence and hope for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and God’s Temple among the exiles living in Persia. Keep in mind the context. It’s been 70 years since the temple was destroyed, and it was abundantly clear from the prophets, like Jeremiah, that the sins of the nation (including the priests) led to their captivity and exile.

In Zech’s vision, Joshua the high-priest stands there in filthy rags (a common, ancient metaphor for being sinful). Satan (the original Hebrew is more specifically translated “The Accuser”) stands next to him. I can easily imagine “the Accuser’s” stream of whispers: “Who are you to think you’re any better than your grandfathers that got them into this mess? Who are you to think you have anything to offer? Who are you to think you can actually restore God’s temple? Do you compare to Solomon?”

In the vision, the Angel of the Lord oversees the removal of Joshua’s filthy rags, and new garments are placed on him. “I’ve taken away your sin,” Joshua is told. “I’ve made a place for you here.” Joshua was called to fulfill God’s purposes despite his weaknesses, flaws, sins, and shortcomings. There is not one person on this planet whom God could call who doesn’t have weaknesses, flaws, sins, and shortcomings.

In the quiet this morning, I’m finding all sorts of encouragement in that word picture for myself and those I serve on the teaching team. I sometimes think that we do such a good job accusing ourselves that we make The Accuser’s job easy. The truth, however, is that since the ascension of Jesus there’s not one person who’s stepped up in front of a group of listeners to share His Message from Paul (murderer, a persecutor of the church) or Peter (who denied Jesus three times) to Martin Luther, John Calvin, Billy Graham, Mother Theresa or Pope Francis who didn’t stand in the darkness of the wings whispering “Who am I?”

“You are my child, my friend, and one whom I love,” I hear Holy Spirit whisper in response. “I’ve forgiven your sin. I’ve made you clean. I have given you a gift and a calling. You are purposed for this. You have something to say.”

“Say it, without apology.”

When I open the ears of my heart to hear, embrace, and embody that message, I grow to become a better teacher.

Click on this image to go to an index of all posts in this series on the writings of the prophet Zechariah!
A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

What’s Your Story?

In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly.
Nehemiah 9:33 (NIV)

Everyone has a story.

In recent years, I have started asking people a simple question:

“What is your story?”

I find that those I ask are often taken aback by the question. It’s not unusual for a person to sit quietly for a moment and size me up. I imagine that, at times, the person is questioning my motives for asking. I also assume that some individuals are pondering just how much they really want to reveal to me. A person’s story, the revelation of self, is an intimate gift. What an individual chooses to share with me, and how they frame their own story, says way more about the person than his or her mere words.

In today’s chapter, the Hebrew exiles gather on what was known as a “Day of Atonement.” They recounted the story of their people from creation, through Abram, slavery in Egypt, Moses, the giving of the law, the wilderness, conquest, kings, prophets, captivity, and exile. At the end of their story, they summed things up:

“In all that has happened to us, you have remained righteous; you have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly.”

Nehemiah 9:33 (NIV)

I have been a follower of Jesus for almost forty years. No one knows my own story, my own journey, as well as I do. Like the returned exiles in today’s chapter, like everyone else, my life journey is a tale that contains both incredible blessing and tragic mistakes. I have witnessed and experienced the miraculous, and I have willfully exhibited misdeeds and immorality.

I find in today’s chapter a good example to follow. It’s a healthy thing to remember and to recount my story warts and all. In all of the joy and pain, the triumphs and trials, the blessings and mistakes of my journey I am reminded of God’s faithfulness, guidance, goodness, and abundant grace despite my many missteps.

In the quiet this morning, I’m recounting my story to myself. It leaves me with feelings of gratitude and humility in light of God’s goodness. It reminds me that the story is still being told. Thanks for being part of it.

So, what’s your story?

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Victim of My Own Poison

So they impaled Haman on the pole he had set up for Mordecai.
Esther 7:10 (NIV)

I once had a person who told me they were angry with me. I had done something to offend, and the person confessed that they knew I had no idea what I had done to hurt them so deeply. I asked what I had done and sought to reconcile, but they chose to not to tell me. Sometime later, I made another appeal and asked the person to share with me what I had done. Again, they chose not to do so.

Two cannot be reconciled if one is unwilling to do so.

Along my life journey, I have encountered many individuals who hold on to their anger, their grudges, their hatred, and their judgments of others. Typically, I find that underneath it all lies a spiritual, relational, and/or emotional wound. The wound often remains carefully hidden beneath all the bitterness and rage. If the wound is not addressed the destructive emotions remain.

I have observed that anger, hatred, grudges, and vengeance are spiritually dangerous things. It has been said that harboring them is like drinking a cup of poison yourself and expecting that it will somehow kill your enemy.

In today’s chapter, the plot twist is downright Shakespearean. Haman’s plot to kill Mordecai and all of the Hebrews is uncovered. Ironically, Haman is impaled on the very pike he had erected for the impaling of his enemy, Mordecai. He allowed himself to drink from the poisonous cup of anger, resentment, bitterness, and rage for so long that he became its victim.

This morning I find myself praying for the person I mentioned at the beginning of this post, as I do whenever that person comes to mind. Perhaps someday the time will be right and they will be ready to talk things out. I hope so. I also find myself taking an internal inventory of my own wounds and examining my own levels of anger, resentment, bitterness and the like. I don’t want to harbor such things lest I find myself the victim of my own internal poison.

Bad Blood Boiling Over

All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.
Esther 3:2 (NIV)

I recently read a fascinating op-ed by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali by birth who became a member of the Dutch Parliament. In the article, she shares about her journey of understanding that she was culturally and systemically raised to hate Jews and blame them for everything, and how she overcame that hatred.

Feuds are as old as humanity itself. Whether it is unresolved interpersonal conflict, blood feuds between familial tribes, or long-standing hatred between people groups, there are countless examples of systemic hatred and generational conflict throughout history.

For the casual reader, there exists in Esther an underlying conflict that is not easily detected on the surface of the text. Mordecai was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin. The tribe of Benjamin had a famous ancestor in the person of Saul, the first King of Israel. Saul had warred against the Amalekites and their King, Agag. Saul’s disobedience to God’s command in the battle against King Agag led to Saul’s downfall which, in turn, brought shame to the tribe of Benjamin. Haman was an Agagite, a descendant of Saul’s famous enemy. There are over 500 years of bad blood between Haman and Mordecai’s tribes.

This adds a whole new layer of understanding to the story. Mordecai had thwarted an assassination plot against Xerxes in yesterday’s chapter, and yet he received no real reward for his courage. Haman, in contrast, is elevated to a place of unprecedented power within Xerxes administration and no reason is provided to explain why he was deserving of such favor. The King demands that everyone bow before Haman. Bowing and kneeling before others was a common form of public respect in ancient Persian culture. It would be similar to shaking hands in our culture or taking your hat off in respect. Mordecai’s refusal to offer this basic courtesy to Haman was not treated as treasonous, but as culturally impolite and disrespectful. Mordecai was scolded and lectured, but still, he refused to bow. Each day he stood as Haman passed by and each day the insult pricked Haman’s ego and pride. With each passing day the 500 years of cultural bad blood between Benjaminite and Agagite, between Jew and Amalekite, slowly simmered to a boil. Haman plots to have Mordecai and all of his people annihilated.

This morning I find myself contemplating Jesus’ command that I forgive my enemies. This not only includes the interpersonal conflicts or wrongs which I have suffered, but I believe also includes the deeper cultural, ethnic, moral, and religious prejudices I may hold against other people groups; Prejudices that I may have been systemically and culturally taught without even realizing it.

Which brings me back to Ms. Ali, a woman from a different culture, tribe, and religion than my own. I found her willingness to confess her hatred of the Jewish people and turn from the cultural enmity she’d been taught a shining example of what Jesus asks of me. I find myself taking an honest inventory of my heart this morning. As King David (ironically, God’s replacement for the disobedient King Saul) wrote in the lyrics to his musical prayer, “Search me, God, and know my heart.” Addressing prejudice and cultural hatred has to begin with me.

Seasonal Companions

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)
Colossians 4:10 (NIV)

“There are friends who are friends for a season, and there are friends who are friends for life.” Thus said a  wise woman to me while I was a Freshman in college. It was the first time I remember really thinking about the purpose and tenure of friendship in life’s journey.

Everyone knows that Jesus had twelve disciples, but Luke records that there was a wider circle of seventy-two disciples that Jesus sent out (Luke 10:1). Among the twelve it was only Peter, James, and John that Jesus called out to join Him when He was transfigured, when He raised Jairus’ daughter, and when He was in His deepest despair in Gethsemane. Like most of us, Jesus had concentric circles of relationship from the intimacy of His inner circle of three to the wider and less intimate relationships He had with the twelve, the seventy-two, and an even larger group of 500 followers to whom He appeared after His resurrection.

Along my life journey, I’ve had a number of friends, mentors, and protégés who became part of my “inner circle” during a particular stretch. Looking back, I observe a certain ebb and flow of pattern and purpose in relationships. As the wise woman stated, some paths converge for a season and then organically lead in opposite directions. Conflict, sadly, severed some relationships. In a few cases, I’ve realized it’s best to leave be what was. In others, reconciliation brought differing degrees of restoration. There is longing to experience reconciliation in yet others when the season is right. Then there are a few in which time ran out, and only memories both bitter and sweet will remain with me for the rest of my earthly journey.

Most readers of Paul’s letters skip through the personal greetings with which he typically tagged his correspondence at the beginning and/or end. This morning, it was one of these oft-ignored greetings at the end of the chapter that jumped off the page at me. Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, sends his greetings to the believers at Colossae. There is a back story there.

Mark, otherwise known as John Mark, had been a boy who was part of Jesus’ wider circle of followers. Mark’s mother was a prominent woman who also followed Jesus and likely supported His ministry financially. When Peter escaped from prison it was to the house of Mark’s mother that Peter fled. It was Mark’s cousin, Barnabas, who brought the enemy turned believer, Saul (aka Paul) into the fold of Jesus’ followers. Barnabas and Mark were part of Paul’s inner circle on his first missionary journey.

Then, it all fell apart.

In the middle of the journey, Mark left Paul and Barnabas and went back home. Paul felt abandoned and betrayed. Years later when it came time to make a return journey, Barnabas wanted to take Mark along. Paul, still angry that Mark wimped out and abandoned them, would have none of it. There was a big fight. There was a bitter separation. Paul went one way with Silas. Barnabas went the other way with Mark. The season of Paul, Barnabas, and Mark was over.

As Paul writes his letter to the Colossians it has been many years since the conflict with Barnabas and Mark. Paul is in prison and is nearing the end of his life. Mark is with him. We don’t know how the reconciliation happened or what brought them back together again, but Mark is there sending warm greetings through Paul. It’s nice to know that sometimes in this life we get over our conflicts. We let go of the past and embrace the present. Seasons of friendship can come back around.

In the quiet this morning I’m looking back and thinking of all the companions I’ve had along my journey. I’m whispering a prayer of gratitude for each one brought to my life and journey, despite where the ebb and flow of relationship may have led. And, in a few cases, I’m praying for the season when the journey might lead divergent paths back together, like Paul and Mark.