Seventy Times Seven

I’ve been thinking about forgiveness lately, and wondering if it’s a little bit like hope, which we discussed on this blog back in December. In December we discussed whether we could truly understand hope without knowing hopelessness. Similarly, forgiveness is a complex and difficult concept that cannot be understood without a betrayal, a hurt, a wrongdoing that creates a need for forgiveness.

I’m not sure if forgiveness must be continually practiced in order to be understood, but Jesus does command Peter (and us) in the New Testament to forgive an individual person 70 times 7 times. Whether this is for our sake or the other person’s, we probably can’t be entirely sure, but I suspect it’s for our own sake. Sure, if we manage one giant act of forgiveness after a huge betrayal, we might in that instance realize the power and joy and peace of forgiveness, and all its other many and varying complexities, and never need to bother with it again. The deeper we have been hurt, after all, the greater our opportunity to understand the depth of the complexity of forgiveness.

But.

That isn’t usually how life works. Usually we are experts in righteous indignation, in sanctimony, in holy offense. Instead of being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, as James commands us, we are often slow to be gracious, and slow to forgive. Quick to judge, quick to take umbrage. Slow to offer a benefit of the doubt. Slow to consider another perspective.

And are these usually instances of justified hurt? Are they usually grand stories of deception and betrayal and lies spun so thick we can’t even reach through to find the initial first thread of truth? No. Usually it’s the minor inconveniences or annoyances that we tell ourselves are enormous personal injustices. Like someone cutting us off in traffic, or having too many groceries in front of us in line, or telling us they can’t attend our party when we know (read: think) they’re just sitting at home.

It’s not usually of a magnitude that would require a great deal of effort on the part of the wronged person to forgive, except for that fact that it is enormously difficult to step outside our own self-centered worlds and consider others. But, in the everyday injustices and annoyances we encounter in our lives, it is important to practice forgiveness because an interesting quality of forgiveness is that it is very powerful no matter how small the sin. After all, as we can infer from Jesus’s conversation with Peter, the act of forgiving is not always for the forgiven. It’s more often for the forgiver.


The Great Redeemer (not the Great Fixer)

In Christianese, we use the language of redemption to describe a variety of situations. But often we misuse this term, questioning God’s “redemptive power” when we expect God to fix our problems and nothing changes. Perhaps we invoke the language of redemption without understanding what redemption really is.

To redeem is not to fix. These words and their definitions are very similar. Fixing and redeeming both involve restoration. But there is an important difference.

Fixing:things::Redeeming:people.

We as human beings have agency to fix. We fix broken things all the time, including relationships with people. We even, in fact, often try to fix people themselves, but we quickly learn that is not an agency we have. God made people in God’s own image, and God gave people free will to do with what they would. Therefore, God is not first and foremost in the business of “fixing.” Though God, in God’s great omnipotence, certainly can fix anything on a whim, the experience of most of us along this journey of faith is that God lets things play out as they will, especially—so it would seem, in the worst of times—suffering.

God is very interested, however, in the redemption of entire people.

When we encounter troubles in this life, we often call on God to redeem our situations, but usually what we’re really asking is for God to fix things, and that typically isn’t God’s way. God’s gift of free will allows us to make our own mistakes, and it also allows us the opportunity to clean up our own messes. But it doesn’t promise that we won’t make the same mistakes again, and it doesn’t promise that God will tidy up our messy bits for us.

What God’s gift of redemption does do, however, is free us from the burdens of our past mistakes. It allows us to live life with the confidence that, though we have erred, and though we will err again, we belong to someone. We are marked and chosen and purposed. We are restored and holy, though not sinless. We are forgiven, though not fixed. We are, simply, redeemed.


Lent: (Surprise!) It’s Not Really about Chocolate

Lent can be a controversial tradition in the church. Many Protestants believe Lent is not applicable to them. Many others (Catholic and Protestant alike) who do observe the season miss its point entirely, giving up caffeine or sugar, and mistakenly believing they’re somehow suffering for the sake of Jesus.

But Lent does not exist so we can suffer. The Lenten season does not call us to “suffer for Jesus.” In fact, Jesus himself suffered during these days so we wouldn’t have to. Jesus died so we could live. Ergo, the point of Lent is to highlight the opposite of suffering—our very great need for and dependence on Jesus, the Christ, our Lord and Savior.

When teaching our teens the significance of the practice of Lent, let’s go beyond the surface. Help them dig into the meaning of Lent in a way that will mean something to them. Assist them in identifying unhealthy habits in their lives, and—instead of teaching them that Jesus would want them to go without that one thing for 40 days—teach them what Lent is really about: bringing balance to our self-centered lives, and finding ways to make everything we do more God-focused.

Therefore, giving something up for Lent isn’t about a 40-day, one-time fast. It’s about learning to balance our hobbies or indulgences with our spiritual disciplines or healthy choices. If your teens are going to give up video games or Twitter, help them replace the time they would’ve spent doing that with something more God-centered, like a devotional book, or prayerful journaling, or volunteer work. If they’re going to give up coffee or soda or sugar, help them replace those unhealthy voids with natural stimulants and energy foods (like apples or bananas).

The point of Lent is not to suffer and then forget. The point of Lent is to examine, to fast intensely in order to see the positive difference a change can make in one’s life, and then—afterward—to adjust one’s life and practices to reflect something that is overall more healthy. Teens should understand that, once Lent is over, if they just resume their usual habits as if Lent never even happened, then they’ve missed the entire point. The goal is that they’ll want to incorporate their new habits and practices into their lives, even after the 40 days are up.


Is Sacrilege a Myth?

Most of us probably know at least a couple of little old ladies whose favorite hobby is finding things to be mortally offended over. It’s no secret that the elderly have more trouble evolving than the rest of us, even if they were young and crazy world changers once upon a time. It seems that, more often than not, most of them get to a place where they stop appreciating change, and it’s never more obvious than in the church.

In the church, teenagers are often made to feel offensive just by existing. They can’t skateboard through the parking lot or play tag in the hallways or laugh loudly in the empty sanctuary after service because the old ladies tell them they’re being disrespectful. The ever-present villain we call Generation Gap does its best to drive a wedge between these two age groups so that the elderly assume teenagers don’t understand reverence and teenagers assume the elderly don’t understand that having fun is a kind of reverence and respect.

“Nothing is sacred anymore” is a popular refrain with the old people, and that is both true and completely false. The idea of sacred is one we use in the church to refer to things that are set apart to remind us that God is holy and worthy of our worship. But our understanding of sacred gets off track when we assume that God can be contained in human parameters. We often forget that God created the very world we live in. And, if God created it, doesn’t that make it sacred? That is to say, God created everything. Therefore, nothing is sacred because everything is sacred.

Which means that loud and boisterous teenagers being who they are is a sacred act of worship reflecting the beautiful creation of God.


What Are We Really Getting Out of Short-Term Missions?

True, The Onion is irreverent, and no subject is sacred with them. True, they’re not a credible source for serious news stories. True, they are willing to speak truth and and expose subtexts surrounding situations that the legitimate media outlets ignore or avoid or hide.

So how about this time? Does The Onion have short-term missions pegged?

And what if The Onion is wrong? It’s the type of media outlet many Christians would describe as ‘worldly’ or ‘secular.’ So, suppose short-term missions really can be life-changing and transformational in lasting ways. That’s all fine and good, except for the fact that, somehow, a worldly site like The Onion is still getting a different message. If the message we send is what’s reflected in that article, then what are we getting wrong, exactly? The act of short-term missions itself? Or the translation and explanation of its meaning and significance?

Whatever it is, we’re obviously going wrong somewhere.


Scripture Is Not Just for Others; It’s for Us Too

Do you ever consider how often we use Scripture to prove ourselves right? To back up actions that other people view as unloving?

Yet how often do we use Scripture to gauge the state of our own hearts and souls?

There are so many commands and instructions in the Bible, and we Christians often use these to argue with other people about why they are wrong. We may not frame it that way. We may not ever admit that we’re judging someone as wrong and trying to prove ourselves right. We frame it with all kinds of fancy terms like discipling, and imparting truth, and doing God’s will, and sharing the gospel, and—my personal favorite—correcting in love.

But, if Scripture is for rebuking and correcting, how often do we use it to rebuke and correct ourselves? Jesus commands in various places to watch out for false prophets. He often uses wolf/sheep metaphors to get his point across.

When reading these passages, do you ever internalize the command, and wonder if you have sometimes acted as a false prophet, a wolf leading sheep astray? In Matthew 7, Jesus says you will know false prophets by their actions. Do you ever ponder your own actions, and wonder if you’ve done anything that might mislead someone about the truth of the kingdom of heaven? Have you ever lost your temper? Have you ever been dishonest—even a little bit? Have you ever said something hurtful that you wished you hadn’t? Have you ever alienated a non-Christian with divisive or judgmental words, or shut someone out of the kingdom of heaven based on a flawed idea of what the kingdom is?


Suffering: When Others Hurt [Part 2 of 2]

Remember a couple of weeks ago, when we talked about how we tend to explain away past hurts and difficult times in our lives? It’s perfectly natural to internalize and trivialize our own hurts. After all, it’s been drilled into us that we have so much to be thankful for, that to focus on hardship is to be ungrateful for all of God’s other blessings, such as food, clothing, shelter, employment, financial security, etc. We learn to tell ourselves that we can’t afford to indulge our own heartache and suffering because there are “real” people with “real” problems in other parts of the world, dealing with issues such as starvation, extreme poverty, diseased water, human trafficking, child soldiers, etc.

But to explain away hurt to such an extent renders our own sorrowful experiences powerless to transform us. Brushing it off or trivializing suffering often takes us further from the heart of the hurt. It allows us to distance ourselves from our former pain, to put a barrier between us and it, so it can never touch us again. And if we can never touch it again, never again access that helpless, why me? why now? feeling, never open old wounds and stir some salt around in them… Then how can we ever possibly hope to be present with anyone else during their difficult times?

Our own suffering makes a world that is not really about us, completely about us. But suffering is not individual. Suffering is corporate. We need one another.


Suffering: When We Hurt [Part 1 of 2]

Ever notice how good we get at coming up with answers and explanations for the hard times in our lives?

After we have come through a particularly difficult time ourselves, it becomes very easy—the further and further away we get from that difficult time—to look back on it and assign various platitudes and reasoning for why it was so awful. Hindsight is 20/20, after all.

God needed to teach me a lesson.
There is a season for everything, and that was my mourning season.
That happened to me so I could use it to minister to others.

But when we’re in the midst of a struggle, of a difficult situation, the last thing we want—even though it might be the first thing we ask for—is an explanation. Because no explanation is good enough. No explanation will satisfy our questions, nor will it ease the pain. If God is truly omnipotent, after all, then God could manage to arrange a lesson-learning situation that doesn’t involve tragedy and grief. God does not cause situations of suffering and sorrow so good things can be brought out of them. The broken world we live in causes hurt—not God—and perhaps God, in God’s gracious omnipotence, helps us use our faith to learn something or turn our experiences into opportunities to serve.


Love Is

It’s a natural human behavior to work for approval, to work to be worthy of something—whether that something is love, achievement, honor, whatever. There is something innate in humans—even those born with silver spoons in their mouths—that says that working to prove one’s worth is normal and natural, and from the time we are capable of the slightest reason, we begin to do this, starting with our own parents and guardians and protectors.

What it takes us so long to understand, though, is that parents love us because we just are. We may understand that eventually, once we’ve had our own children and have experienced the deep welling-up and intensity of love at first sight, of instant affection based solely on one’s very existence. Before we had our own children, we may have even experienced those emotions when our closest friends had kids, or our siblings produced our first nieces and nephews. When confronted with the presence of an infant, or a small child—one young enough to not have made any choices yet—it is very easy to understand how love just is. How it doesn’t have to be forced, or conditionalized, or coaxed, or explained. It just is.

These are the types of moments we have in life that give us a microcosm of understanding of how God views us. And a microcosm of understanding of what God was getting at when God said to Moses from the burning bush, “I AM.”


It’s Not Really about Swearing

Teenagers tend to feel disconnected from the Ten Commandments. And why shouldn’t they? They were written for a wholly different people—an adult people, no less—in a wholly different context. We do our best as youth ministers to help bring contextual relevance to some of the more obscure commands, and to help our teens understand the spirit of the law behind each one.

For instance, we know they aren’t melting down their purity rings in their backyards and making literal idols to worship, so instead we talk to them about how their smartphones and laptops and other gadgets can become idols, along with their pursuits of popularity or perfect grades. But even our best attempts to cast the Ten Commandments in culturally relevant light can fall short, especially when the language in which we learn and memorize them remains archaic. What, for instance, does it mean when God says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”?

Many, many, many elementary Sunday school teachers and youth ministers say, “Easy. Don’t say the G-D word or J-C when you’re angry. Instead, say pure words like dadgum, gosh-darnit, or geez. Next?”

Of course, none of you have ever made that mistake. Nuh-uh. We know that the youth ministers and leaders and volunteers and parents who read this blog never take the easy way out when discussing matters of faith with their students. This post isn’t for you. It’s for that youth leader of that other church down the street. (Print this off and slide it under his or her door.)

So what does it mean to take the Lord’s name in vain, if it’s not—and we’re pretty sure it’s not—merely avoiding using the name of Christ as an expletive when we stub a toe, or asking God to condemn that huge pothole in the road that just reminded us how bad the shocks are in our car?

Let’s think about the context of the people for whom the commandment was originally written. Yes, the new covenant and Jesus’s sacrifice and his blood ensure that all that exclusive, for-God’s-people-only stuff can now be applied to anyone. But when the Ten Commandments were given to Moses on the mountain, they were specifically for God’s people, who—at that time—were only the Israelites. God repeats over and over throughout the first several books of the Old Testament that the Israelites are to be a holy nation and a priestly kingdom; that they are to be his representatives; that they are his, and that the world will know it by the way they live.

So, armed with that information, the phrase taking the Lord’s name in vain begins to feel a little different. Doesn’t it start to feel like a situation where behavior should be considered? If the Israelites are supposed to be God’s people, then the world is going to watch them. And if you bestowed your seal upon someone else and vouched for that person and said that anything that person said or did was a direct representation of who you are… Well, you’d want that person to be well behaved and articulate and honest, wouldn’t you? You’d want to be represented as educated, kind, courteous, thoughtful, insightful. And anything that person did that misrepresented you… Well, wouldn’t you take offense to that? Wouldn’t you be indignant, and perhaps even hurt?