Forego Thanksgiving, Try Again Next Year?

2020 has been called the annus horribilis (“the horrible year”) and described as hellacious, apocalyptic, awful, and exhausting. The pandemic rages on, with some areas seeing higher infection rates than ever before. Many people are out of work and out of money and, as the coronavirus spikes, some are out of time.

Those who manage to avoid the virus can’t sidestep the measures taken to prevent its spread. In my state, restaurants are closed, mask requirements are in place, high schools and colleges have moved online, and theaters are shut down. Sports stadiums are empty. Churches, like ours, are seeing half their members attending worship gatherings.

Experts warn that the pandemic is causing anxiety, stress, stigma, and xenophobia. A review published in The Lancet linked an increase in mental health problems to the boredom, loss of freedom, and uncertainty caused by quarantine. Children and teens are most at risk.

We have heard the welcome news that an effective vaccine is around the corner, but many Americans are wary of taking it. Even those who are eager for the vaccine may be looking at the summer of 2021 before they are able to get it.

As if the pandemic was not bad enough, there was also the election. Usually after a general election, the nation recovers and, to some degree, reconciles. This year’s election did little to decrease divisiveness but rather increased it. Many people have lost faith in the election process, while others have doubts about the transition process.

The pandemic brought many things screeching to a halt. One thing that did not stop was war. There are serious conflicts in Yemen, Afghanistan, the South China Sea, on the Indo-Tibetan border, in Mali, Nigeria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and elsewhere. If only countries and warring tribes would practice greater social distancing.

This year has earned the title of annus horribilis for many reasons, most of which can be located under three categories: loss of comfort; loss of faith; and loss of hope. The first category includes sickness, bereavement, financial need, isolation, stress, and the other physical and emotional conditions that have accompanied the pandemic.

The second category includes loss of faith in experts and authorities. How, under the circumstances, could it not? So-called “expert opinion” can be claimed for almost anything one wants to believe in both science and politics. Experts contradict each other and sometimes themselves – witness the changes regarding the effectiveness of masks and the length of quarantine periods. Who can one trust?

The third category, loss of hope, seems to me to be the most devastating. People can live and even thrive with pain, but without hope they can only shrivel.

So, should we forego Thanksgiving in 2020 and try again next year? Or is it possible to expand our field of vision and find things for which we can genuinely be thankful? That may depend on the person. As someone who believes in God and a larger spiritual reality, I find gratitude not only possible, but also reasonable and powerful.

It is possible to be genuinely thankful in painful circumstances, as long as we retain our faith and hope. I have known people, characterized by friends and family as spiritual, who have demonstrated not only gratitude but joy in the midst of pain. I saw this repeatedly when I worked with Hospice and have seen it many times since.

These thankful people were people of faith. They might not have trusted the experts and authorities, but they had a robust faith in the Expert and Authority – in God. They trusted his intentions, his ability, and his character. Whether they lived or died, they were convinced that God was for them and would take care of them.

They were also hopeful people. It is inspiring to be around someone with a terminal diagnosis who is nevertheless overflowing with hope. I have sat with them, their hope undiminished and their faith unshaken, even as death stole into the room.

If what they (and I) believe is true, we have good cause for faith and for hope. Giving thanks is more than reasonable; it is warranted. Even in 2020, the annus horribilis.

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Thankfulness Is a Predictor of Spiritual Vitality

(First published by Gatehouse Media in 2018)

The holidays are the season for giving, for getting together with family, and for watching movie sequels and prequels. This will be the first Christmas since 2011 that there has not been a hobbit or a stormtrooper in the movie theaters, but Mary Poppins will be back. 

It can be hard to understand what’s going on in a story if you don’t know the backstory. This is not only true in the movies; it’s true in everyday life. The dynamics of the workplace will confound you unless you know that the woman in HR who is married to the boss used to be married to your department supervisor. Knowing the backstory is also important when it comes to understanding the Bible. 

One of the fascinating backstories in the Scripture has to do with the relationship between Jews and Samaritans – as in the “Good Samaritan.” The northern Jewish kingdom of Samaria was conquered in the Assyrian War, its inhabitants deported, and the land resettled by people from other conquered nations. The new residents, known as Samaritans, and their southern Jewish kingdom neighbors did not get along. 

When the Samaritans offered their help in rebuilding the devastated Jewish temple, the Jews refused and told them they were unworthy. Later, according to the biblical scholar William Barclay, a “renegade” Jew married the daughter of a well-known Samaritan leader and preceded to build a rival temple to the one in Jerusalem. A famous Jewish general led a raid into Samaria and destroyed the temple. The Samaritans responded by vandalizing and contaminating the Jewish Temple. 

This is the backstory to the Bible’s chronicle of Jewish-Samaritan relations. It helps the reader understand why Jesus’s disciples wanted to call fire down from heaven on a Samaritan village. It also explains why Jesus’s disciples were shocked to find him speaking to a Samaritan woman – something no other Jewish rabbi would have even thought of doing. 

One of the Bible’s more famous “Samaritan stories” comes from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus was traveling along the border of Samaria and Galilee, on his way to Jerusalem, when he encountered a band of lepers. In the Bible, the term “lepers” signifies people with a variety of contagious skin diseases. Such people were completely cut off from society.  

This particular band was comprised of nine Jews and one Samaritan. They pled, from a distance, for Jesus to heal them and he did. He sent them to the priest, the person authorized to readmit former “lepers” into society, and they all rushed off to resume their old lives. All except one: the Samaritan. 

He came running back to Jesus, shouting praise to God, and threw himself at Jesus’s feet, overwhelmed with gratitude. Jesus looked around to see if any of the Jewish members of the band had returned, but they had not. Disappointed, he said: “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?” 

There are fascinating aspects to this story. For one thing, we see how isolation can make strange bedfellows. Before contracting leprosy, the Jews and the Samaritan would have had nothing to do with each other but being rejected by society brought former adversaries together. One can see how something similar might happen among Christian traditions that have historically snubbed each other. If society ever anathematizes Christians, which is conceivable, liberals and fundamentalists, Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Arminians might finally learn to get along with each other. 

It is also interesting to see that the Samaritan, whose theology was all wrong – Jesus says as much in John’s Gospel – was the only one to get it right. Apparently, being wrong-headed is not as harmful as being wrong-hearted. Perhaps this is a truth political rivals should consider before demonizing their opponents. It is certainly one people of faith should consider before demonizing anyone. 

One would expect that the Samaritan, like his Jewish companions, had a life waiting for him, perhaps a family and a job. Yet he paused to give thanks, suggesting that he did not merely see God as a means to an end but as the end for which life was a means. This, in turn, suggests that ethnicity and religious training are not good predictors of spiritual vitality, but thankfulness is.  

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Deuteronomy and the Root of Bitterness

When I have preached on Hebrews 12 in the past, I have taken the “root of bitterness” that “grows up and defiles many” to refer to personal bitterness harbored toward another for real or imagined ills that have been done. I have warned people against harboring bitterness and urged them to forgive those who have wronged them.

If a person misses the grace of God (I have said), “there will be a price to pay – or, to be more precise,there will be hell to pay: a bitter root will grow up, a root that springs from the very soil of hell; and it will ’cause trouble and defile many.’”

Many years of pastoral experience have led me to this conclusion, and I believe it is an accurate one. I have seen people’s lives, marriages, relations to children and parents, and mental health destroyed because they harbored bitterness and refused to forgive.

I believe this warning remains true. I further believe it has biblical support. I have begun to doubt, however, that this is the point Hebrews 12:15 is making.

This past week, I was reading Deuteronomy 28-30, one of the foundational passages for coming to grips with how Jews in the post-exilic period understood their situation, when I came upon Deuteronomy 29:18. The NIV translates: “Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.”

I noticed the similarities with Hebrews 12:15. “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Knowing that the author of Hebrews routinely quotes from the Septuagint (the Greek-translation of the Old Testament, completed prior to Christ), I looked up the Deuteronomy passage in the LXX (the Septuagint). Greek readers can find the passage below.

Deut. 29:18 (17 in LXX) μή τίς ἐστιν ἐν ὑμῖν ἀνὴρ ἢ γυνὴ ἢ πατριὰ ἢ φυλή, τίνος ἡ διάνοια ἐξέκλινεν ἀπὸ κυρίου τοῦ θεοῦ ὑμῶν πορεύεσθαι λατρεύειν τοῖς θεοῖς τῶν ἐθνῶν ἐκείνων; μή τίς ἐστιν ἐν ὑμῖν ῥίζα ἄνω φύουσα ἐν χολῇ καὶ πικρίᾳ; [2]

Now here is Hebrews 12:15 in Greek: ἐπισκοποῦντες μή τις ὑστερῶν ἀπὸ τῆς χάριτος τοῦ θεοῦ, μή τις ῥίζα πικρίας ἄνω φύουσα ἐνοχλῇ καὶ διʼ αὐτῆς μιανθῶσιν πολλοί,[1]

Note the repetition of 8 words from Deuteronomy. Also note the similar sounding ἐνοχλῇ (Hebrews) and ἐν χολῇ (Deuteronomy). I have no doubt that the author of Hebrews was thinking of Deuteronomy when he wrote.

That may give a different meaning to what the author of Hebrews wrote than what I have understood in the past. Falling short of the grace of God may be in his mind parallel to ἐξέκλινεν ἀπὸ κυρίου τοῦ θεοῦ ὑμῶν (“turning away from the Lord your God”) to the worship/service of the gods of the nations. This seems especially fitting when we remember the warnings against drifting away, turning away (3x), and falling away made elsewhere by the author of Hebrews.

If this is so, the root of bitterness is not the bitterness I feel toward another person but the bitterness I suffer (as in Deuteronomy) for missing the grace of God by turning away from him and to other things. It is a bitterness that spreads, affecting not only me but the people around me.

I am sure than many people have seen and commented on this. Somehow I had missed it until now. There are always new and interesting (and often challenging) things to discover in the Scriptures.

[1] Nestle, E., Nestle, E., Aland, B., Aland, K., Karavidopoulos, J., Martini, C. M., & Metzger, B. M. (1993). The Greek New Testament (27th ed., Heb 12:15). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft.

[2] Septuaginta: With morphology. (1996). (Dt 29:17). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft.

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How to Go Through Post-Election Withdrawal

Politics may be our most wide-spread addiction. With a dealer on every corner, it is always available. Media reporting and commentary provide an endless supply of partisan views.

As soon as someone starts coming down from the last high, a tempting report from CNN, or a Fox News update, or a tweet from the president can draw them right back in. During a general election year, it is possible to remain politically intoxicated for months.

Like other addictions, dosing on politics brings users pleasurable feelings which they then want to repeat. These feelings include the sense of belonging, the gratification of being right, and the heady shot of being in power.

There are deleterious side effects as well. Huffing politics can and often does lead to anger. It leaves one vulnerable to hatred of “the other”. Should one’s side win, it can result in arrogance; lose, and it can result in soul-wounding pride.

During the presidential campaign, I heard stories of how political addictions were destroying families. A pastor friend of mine related the bitter story of a married couple whose adult son warned them that he would disown them if they voted for the wrong candidate. He wasn’t joking.

That is the kind of thing addictions always do. They distort vision, turn priorities upside down, and redefine a person’s identity. They alienate friends and relatives and obstruct the performance of necessary duties. They drain previously enjoyed pastimes of their pleasure.

It is the nature of addictions to grow more demanding over time. This is as true of political addictions as any other. Watching the evening news was once enough. Then it was necessary to download the news app. It wasn’t long before checking the news several times an hour became a habit. Binge watching election results followed.

When something prevents the political addict from imbibing – say a job gets in the way – he or she begins sneaking looks at the latest headlines or covertly reading the president’s tweets. It is the political equivalent of carrying a concealed flask in an inside pocket. Thumb and finger rest on the alt and tab keys in case the boss comes near.

One of the signs that a person is hooked is that they cannot stay away from the object of their addiction. It beckons. It tempts. They can stop but they cannot stay stopped. They start to do something else but, almost before they know it, they are back for more.

A significant percentage of the population may now be on the verge of withdrawals. The election is over. If the president’s lawsuits fail to overturn the results, which seems likely, a new administration will take the reins. News organizations will actually need to look for stories once again. Viewership will diminish. The rhetorical volume will decrease.

It will be the perfect time to break the habit. Delete the news feed. Only check headlines once a day (or even once a week during detox), rather than once an hour.

Instead of watching the news, why not make some news? Attend city council meetings. Write legislators. Start a neighborhood improvement campaign. Join an effort to help people in need. Really, which will make the world a better place: watching cable news or delivering meals to the elderly?

The thing about addictions is that they don’t go away unless they get replaced. Instead of non-stop talk radio, try listening to good music. Put on a sermon a day from a great preacher. Listen to an audio book – try starting with the action-packed Gospel of Mark.

Rather than jumping into an online political brawl, use a Bible app to memorize helpful verses. Join a book club online and enter into discussions – but take care to avoid the latest political potboiler. If you simply must have something political, read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

It might be better to go offscreen altogether. Volunteer at the community food pantry. Get involved in the local church’s outreach efforts. Sign up to deliver Meals on Wheels or to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.

Put down the phone. Lay aside the mouse. This is an opportunity to reassess values, reprioritize time usage, and create new and more productive habits.

(First published by Gannet)

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Can We Forgive When We Are Still Angry?

(Part three of a previously published series on forgiveness from a Christian perspective.)

One of the great examples of forgiveness in our time comes from Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch Christian woman who, during the Second World War, was arrested by the Nazis for harboring Jews. She was imprisoned, along with her sister, Betsie, in a concentration camp and subjected to brutal and degrading treatment. Betsie, and four other ten Boom family members, died as a result of the treatment they suffered in prison. Only Corrie survived the concentration camps.

Years later, at the conclusion of a speaking engagement, Corrie came face to face with the cruelest and most heartless of all her prison guards. The very thought of him had been too painful to bear. He had humiliated and degraded Corrie and her sister again and again. He had jeered and sexually harassed them as they stood in the delousing shower. He had treated them like animals. In her mind, this man was evil incarnate, the embodiment of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp. To her surprise, he now approached her with outstretched hand and said, “Will you forgive me?”

Corrie later wrote, “I stood there with coldness clutching at my heart, but I knew that the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. I prayed, ‘Jesus, help me!’ Woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me and I experienced an incredible thing. The current started in my shoulder, raced down into my arms and sprang into our clutched hands. Then this warm reconciliation seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, brother,’ I cried with my whole heart. For a long time we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I have never known the love of God so intensely as I did that moment!”

It may surprise you to know that this remarkable woman, who could in one extraordinary moment forgive her greatest enemy, was still at times plagued by bitterness and painful memories. On another occasion, after sincerely forgiving a person who had hurt her, Corrie found that she couldn’t stop rehashing the incident in her mind. After many sleepless nights, she cried out to God for help. She tells what happened next in her own words:

“His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor to whom I confessed my failure… ‘Up in that church tower,’ he said, nodding out the window, ‘is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope the bell keeps on swinging. First ‘ding’ then ‘dong.’ Slower and slower until there’s a final dong and it stops. I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down’.”

Corrie continues: “And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations . . . but the force – which was my willingness in the matter – had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at last stopped altogether.”

Like Corrie, if a person is to forgive, he must take his hands off the rope, and he mustn’t be surprised if the painful emotions and angry thoughts continue for a while. When such thoughts come, the best way to banish them is to pray for the offender – to pray for his well-being, his health, his family. This is in line with Jesus’ wise instruction: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).

A person who reaches out to God in prayer every time angry, painful thoughts come, will find both their frequency and intensity reduced, and his or her disposition toward the offender transformed. But not only will the person’s relationship to the offender be changed, his or her connection to God will be significantly strengthened as well.

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A Freedom That Does Not Ring Hollow

It’s been a long time coming. Back around 1969 or 1970, I read in a Popular Science Magazine that everyone would own a flying car by the year 2,000. When the millennium turned and everyone was looking out for Y2K, I was still on the lookout for flying cars. Popular Science did me wrong by getting my hopes up like that.

However, I may get a flying car yet. This month, Klein Vision released footage of a test drive/flight of its version of the flying car. Other design firms are busy with their own prototypes in Europe, Japan, and the United States. All I can say is it’s about time.

Why was I so enamored with flying cars? For the same reason, I think, that I dreamed – this went on once or twice a month for years – that I could jump into the air and sail at a leisurely pace wherever I chose. Flight, whether in a futuristic car or in a dream, represented freedom, the absence of restraint, the power of unimpeded motion.

Freedom is one of humanity’s big ideas. It goes back at least to the political freedoms of ancient Athens, though Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle each criticized the forms such freedoms sometimes took. The great Athenian orator and statesman Pericles once said, “The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life … in Athens, we live exactly as we please…”

No people since the Greeks have been more committed to freedom than Americans. James Madison called the spirit of the American people “a spirit which nourishes freedom and is in return nourished by it.” Samuel Adams called the right to freedom “the gift of God Almighty.” Thomas Jefferson cautioned that freedom can only be retained at the price of “eternal vigilance.” Ben Franklin reminded Americans that “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

Abraham Lincoln referred to freedom as “the last, best hope of the earth.” Dwight Eisenhower said that “America is best described by one word: freedom.” But what is freedom? Are people “born free” or are they, as the old spiritual intoned, on their “way to the freedom land”? What is freedom?

As a political ideal, freedom is embodied in specific rights. Hence, we have the right to assemble, the right to speak, the right to a speedy and public trial, the right to due process, the right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and more. Such freedoms are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Yet any and all of these freedoms may be possessed by a person who is very unfree in his or her personal life. Such a person may be enthralled by passions, fears, and addictions at the same time they are receiving due process. They may be enslaved by illegal drugs while enjoying the freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.

Political freedom is worth fighting for but it is not the only, nor the highest, form of freedom. A just society requires political freedoms, such as those promised in the Bill of Rights, but a fulfilled life needs a more comprehensive freedom, personal in nature, spiritual in origin.

This is the freedom of which Jesus spoke when he claimed, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” St. Paul was adamant with his readers: “It is for freedom Christ has set us free.” It is a freedom that is consistent with our nature and can only be achieved by becoming one’s true self.  

God is the great emancipator. He desires people to be genuinely free. But this freedom, like political freedom, comes at a price. It is one of the great paradoxes of life: We become free only as we submit to God. As the Scottish poet George Matheson put it: “Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free.”

One major religion makes submission the goal of life, but Christianity sees submission as a means. Freedom is the goal (though not the only one), submission the vehicle, and confession of Jesus as Lord (to borrow biblical language) the path that leads to the goal. And no one is more pleased for people to reach that goal than God himself.

(First published by Gannett.)

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Clearing Away the Confusion Surrounding Forgiveness

(This is part two of a three-part previously published series on forgiveness.)

In what is arguably the most oft-recited Scripture text in history, Jesus teaches his apprentices how to pray. We call this, “The Lord’s Prayer,” or the “Our Father Prayer,” but it might be more accurate to call it, “The Disciple’s Prayer.” It was given as part of Jesus’ brilliant Sermon on the Mount and was meant to serve as a pattern for the disciple’s own prayers.

Jesus apparently felt one part of the prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” required clarification. Immediately following the prayer, he explained: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” With these shocking words Jesus puts us on notice: Our forgiveness is related to our choice to forgive.

Experience has taught me that many people struggle with this issue. They know, all too well, that they need forgiveness, and genuinely want to forgive those who have hurt them, but they don’t know how. When the pain of the past still washes over them like ocean waves, leaving a residue of bitterness and profound sorrow, what can they do?

The fact that God’s forgiveness is linked to our willingness to forgive can be unsettling, but one can learn to use that dynamic to one’s own advantage. A person who relishes God’s grace in forgiving his sins will find the grace necessary to forgive others’ sins, which is why Paul says, “Forgive, as in Christ God forgave you.” One ought to give thanks for God’s forgiveness, even bask in it. Only those who have experienced forgiveness can fully extend it.

“Forgive . . . as he forgave you.” If God’s forgiveness is the standard, then we must attempt to understand how he forgives. When God forgives us, for example, does he say, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Forget it. It was nothing”? Not at all. In fact, he takes sin so seriously that he sent his Son to die for it. Offering forgiveness never minimizes the seriousness of the offense.       

The idea that it does has prevented many people from experiencing the freedom that forgiveness brings. If I believe that forgiveness requires me to act as if abuse, deceit, or adultery – offenses that may have turned my life upside-down – are something trivial, best ignored, I simply will not be able to forgive. But the truth is, trivial things don’t require forgiveness; sin does. Forgiveness isn’t – and  needn’t – be offered for idiosyncrasies or foibles or personality conflicts. It is offered for sin. God won’t ignore sin. He takes it so seriously that he insists on forgiving it.

People who have suffered physical and sexual abuse as children often struggle with forgiveness right at this point. If forgiving one’s abuser implies that his or her sin was insignificant, then it can only mean that the victim’s life is also insignificant. But rather than implying that sin doesn’t matter, forgiveness insists that it matters very much.

Forgiving as he forgave us also means forgiving completely. Some people hold out forgiveness like a carrot on a stick or offer it a piece at a time so that they can be in control. But God forgave “all our sins” (Ps. 103:3). Some people use the possibility of forgiveness or the threat of unforgiveness as an instrument to manipulate another’s behavior. This is especially common with parents and their children, but it is always counterproductive. God does not act this way with us, and we must not act this way with others. Forgiveness cuts the chains of the past, it does not use them as marionette strings to control someone else’s behavior.                                    

Does forgiving as God forgave also require us to forget? No, we cannot forget on demand, but we can refuse to remember. Clara Barton, the founder of The American Red Cross, was reminded of an offense, but didn’t seem to remember. Her friend said, “Sure you remember what she did to you!” But Clara responded, “No, I distinctly remember forgetting that!” It’s not that she couldn’t remember, but that she chose not to, which is just how God forgives us.

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Identifying a Cause for Society’s Perforations

President Donald Trump is frequently blamed for the divisions in our society and it is hard to deny that he has been a contributing factor. But the president is like a person tearing a sheet of perforated paper. The perforations were already there.

Those perforations were created by sociological and psychological forces that are constantly at play in our culture. Many of these are well-attested and frequently cited: race and sexual discrimination, wealth disparity, and educational inequality, to mention a few. One dynamic that is often overlooked is the human need for belonging.

Among the life qualities that social scientists and psychologists say contribute to personal satisfaction, none is more important than a sense of belonging. Wealth, goal setting, sexual fulfillment, and even the practice of religion cannot substitute for it. A sense of belonging is a primary human need.

Our church sends students and adults to Tijuana, Mexico to help and encourage disadvantaged children and elderly adults living in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Each year when they return home, they always tell the same story: the people there have nothing compared to us, but they are happy. They belong.

This reality exposes the hollowness of the lone ranger, I-don’t-need-anyone narrative that is so often told in America. People experience the need to belong, whether they admit it or not. That need is not only present in us, it has an impact on our attitudes and actions, even when we are not aware of it.

This has been apparent throughout the pandemic and the run-up to the election. As the coronavirus swept the nation and state after state ordered shutdowns and other measures, people quickly formed opinions about how to proceed. Within a short space of time, two different narratives emerged, one which called for an energetic and proactive engagement and the other an essentially hands-off approach.

The fervor with which people lined up behind these positions, especially in the light of a flood of constantly changing data, was surprising. There was almost a religious fervency to it. An us-against-them mentality was obviously at work, which signaled the presence of the need to belong.

The election has been, to a significant degree, animated by this need to belong. I can join a side, toe the party line, carry the party banner. It helps me feel like I belong to something big. It gives me a platform to stand on and, even more importantly, a people to stand with.

This human need to belong is one of the implements that creates the perforations along which society divides. But where does this need come from? Is it entirely psychological, the emotional relic of our earliest experiences? Is it an evolutionary imperative that protects us in illness and threat?

Without discounting other possible explanations, I would suggest that there is a theological dimension to the need to belong. Christians and others believe that there has been a breach in the relationship between God and humans. This is described narratively in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis and attested throughout the rest of the Bible. Belonging is to this separation what drinking is to thirst.

The Bible goes on to narrate how the tear that split humans from God continued tearing, dividing humans from humans. This is a principal theme of Genesis 3-11. Along with the estrangement from God came the disjunction between humans.

Because our identity is so wrapped up in our sense of belonging, this rupture not only divided humans from God and from one another, it separated individuals from their own God-given identities. The Bible speaks of “the ignorance that is in [people] due to the hardening of their hearts.” This has left a rift between who a person is and who they perceive themselves to be. The fault line doesn’t just run through the nation, it runs through us.

When a math problem goes wrong, it is necessary to find the initial error. Fixing subsequent mistakes is necessary, of course, but it will not correct the problem. A solution depends on going back to where things first went wrong. When it comes to the need to belong, that means going back to God.

(First published by Gannet.)

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Forgiveness (part 1): Breaking the Chain

Photo by Felix Koutchinski on Unsplash

(In the light of the wrongs perpetrated and suffered across our fractious and fractured society, I am re-posting three previously published articles, one each week, on the nature and practice of forgiveness.)

A relationship with God is like a Baroque music composition: there is a point (what God must do) and a counterpoint (what we do in response). The point/counterpoint structure provides the soundtrack to a life of faith. Point: “He first loved us.” Counterpoint: “We love him.” Point: “He gave himself for us.” Counterpoint: “We ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” Point: “The mercies of God.” Counterpoint: “Present your bodies as living sacrifices.”  Point: “He has forgiven you in Christ Jesus.” Counterpoint: “Forgive one another.”

When point is present without counterpoint, the soundtrack of our lives loses its power and our talk about God rings hollow. If that continues – God’s work without our response – our children and friends will naturally tune out anything we have to say about God.

There are plenty of examples of the point/counterpoint composition when it comes to forgiveness. Consider these from the lips of Jesus. “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”  “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Listen to the same point/counterpoint structure in the words of Paul. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

 “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” We may be tempted to explain away these challenging words, but we must not do so. This is serious business.

The novelist and teacher Frederich Beuchner writes, “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 over your tongue 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.”

 Unforgiveness not only ruins the music of one’s life, it can destroy the instrument as well. People’s lives and relationships – and even their bodies – can be damaged because they either refuse to forgive or refuse to believe that they can forgive. Unforgiveness stops the Christ-follower dead in his tracks, and he cannot follow any further until it is cleared away.

Here is the irony: In refusing to forgive, a person feels that justice is being served, that the offender is being made to pay for his sin. But the person who pays most – both spiritually and relationally – is not the offender, but the offended.

A man was once driving by a farm when he saw something in the farmyard that made him sick: an eagle chained and manacled to a stake. He swung the car around and went back to talk to the farmer. He asked him how much money he would take for the eagle. The farmer quoted some exorbitant sum and the man, without haggling, reached for his wallet. He then told the farmer to unclasp the manacle and free the magnificent bird. Grumbling, the farmer obeyed and released the eagle, but it didn’t fly. It continued to walk in a circle around the stake, as it had done a thousand times before.

This is a picture of the person who, freed by Christ’s forgiveness, still clings to his own injuries. He is chained to his past and will never soar again until he has unlocked the chain that binds him. Whether he realizes it or not, he already possesses the key: Forgiveness. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

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Christ Died for Our Sins

(This is the fifth sermon in the series, “Finally … Some Good News.”)

(1 Corinthians 15:3-8) For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.  (NIV)

If someone from another faith asked you to explain in a nutshell what Christians believe, you could do worse than reciting the four bullet points that the Apostle Paul gave the Corinthians. Christ died for our sins; he was buried; he rose (all of which, by the way, fits perfectly with the Old Testament); and he was seen by witnesses.

But what if your non-Christian friend said to you: “That doesn’t make any sense. Why do you call the death of your leader good news [gospel]?” How would you answer? That is what we are thinking about today.

We looked last week at what the Bible means by the word “Christ” (if you didn’t hear that sermon, you might want go to and listen). We saw that the Christ is the rescuer-king appointed by God. We learned that people, especially in Israel, were looking for that king.

The nation had been conquered, her government dissolved, and her people driven into exile. That was just what Deuteronomy 28 warned would happen if the nation turned from God. But based on the promise of Deuteronomy 30, together with texts like Genesis 12, Isaiah 52, and many others, people were expecting another king to appear who would inaugurate God’s kingdom.

But they were confused about why it was taking so long. Was it possible that God had given up on them? The psalmist had asked: “How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? …where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David?” (Ps. 89:46, 49) – that is, the love that promised a rescuer-king.

There were so many promises: Abraham’s seed, through whom all people on earth will be blessed (Genesis 12); David’s descendant who will be God’s ruler (2 Samuel 7); the “son of man” to whom God will give all authority (Daniel 7); and God’s own promise to return to his people (Isaiah 52; Ezekiel 43).

People were waiting, wondering, hoping. Then came the spiritual earthquake that was John the Baptist, flattening hills and raising valleys, preparing the way for the Lord to return to his people. When John was asked if he were the rescuer-king (the Christ), he flatly denied it, but he insisted that the Christ was already on the scene.

Then Jesus showed up saying, “The time has been fulfilled! The kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:14), and John pointed to him as the one. The crowds grew quickly. People hadn’t miss the fact that Jesus referred to himself as “the Son of Man,” Daniel’s term for God’s rescuer-king. The excitement was palpable. There was even a foiled attempt to force Jesus’s hand by proclaiming him King.

But when John the Baptist was wrongfully imprisoned and wasting away in a jail cell, he started having doubts. Isolation can do. What had become of the kingdom revolution? Why was nothing happening? Had he been mistaken about Jesus?

He sent friends to ask Jesus if he really was the one. Jesus sent them back to John to reassure him that what he was doing lined up perfectly with the Old Testament prophecies: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22).

In the last century, it was popular to say that Jesus never represented himself as the Christ, the rescuer-king. He was an itinerant teacher/philosopher and never claimed otherwise. That comes from reading the Gospels through a 20th century, westernized lens. Teacher-philosophers don’t promise their closest followers that they will sit on 12 thrones. They don’t guarantee them a kingdom. They don’t play on the nation’s Independence Day celebrations to throw the capitol city into an uproar by acting out a prophecy about the arrival of the rescuer-king.

Jesus did all these things. He was making the claim that he was God’s messiah. When his adversaries said to him, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe.” (John 10:24-25). His actions – healings, victories over evil powers, proclamation of the kingdom, his care for the poor – were his claim to be God’s rescuer-king.

On the Sunday of Passover week when Israel celebrated its emancipation, everything came together. Jesus made arrangements to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey colt in fulfillment of Zechariah’s rescuer-king prophecy. The claim to be the Messiah was unmistakable.

The following day, Jesus took over the temple courts, referring once again to Old Testament prophecy. The question, “How long?” was finally answered: This long. The kingdom has arrived. The Lion of Judah has roared. God has raised up David’s son.

Excitement built to a fever pitch. Jesus’s closest followers were already staking out positions in the new government. But just few days later, Jesus was dead. Mighty Rome has crushed him. They played with him like a cat with a mouse, mocking him, dressing him in a kingly robe (probably just a centurion’s cloak), giving him a crown (of thorns twisted together) and a royal scepter (which was a broken reed).

They laughed at him. Spit on him. Punched him. Tortured him. They showed him who was boss. When they were done entertaining themselves, they stripped him and hanged him on the public square for everyone – including every would-be Messiah – to see. This is what happens to fools who challenge the powers that be.

Jesus’s followers were not just grief-stricken, they were disoriented and confused. They had been absolutely certain – all the signs were there; it was unmistakable –Jesus was the Christ, the rescuer-king. But the Christ does not die. Some of the most forlorn words in the Bible belong to Cleopas and his friend in Luke 24, when they say, “…and we had hoped that he was the One who was going to redeem Israel.         ” That’s what they had hoped, but they must have been wrong because the Christ does not die.

Yet within a short space of time, the early church was summarizing the gospel – their good news – by saying, “Christ died.” How could the death of the rescuer-king possibly be good news?

We might say it is good news because, as the summary goes on to say, the Christ was raised on the third day. The death of the Christ is good news in the light of the resurrection of the Christ.

That’s true, but it raises a puzzling question. Why go through the humiliation and shame, the beatings, and the terrible pain, just to rise again three days later, as if nothing had ever happened?

The answer is that something enormously important did happen that would not have happened had Jesus not died. The resurrection didn’t undo the crucifixion; it fulfilled it. Jesus’s death changed things, changed the world. The events of that day, that cross, accomplished something good for us and for the whole world.

Cleopas and his friend thought the rescuer had got himself killed before he could finish the job. The rescuer needed rescuing but that didn’t come, and even he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But the whole point – the reason the followers of Jesus considered the death of the rescuer-king (the Christ) to be great good news – is that he did finish the job. That’s why, after the terrible cry of dereliction, comes the shout of victory: “It is finished!”

That may leave us more bewildered than before. What was finished? Our text points us to the answer, to the creed the early church knew by heart, the bullet-point summary of the good news. What was finished was the long work to remove the barrier between God and people: “Christ died for our sins.”

On the cross of Christ, the way was opened for the blessing of Abraham to reach all people on earth. On the cross of Christ, the promise made by Isaiah that God would return and reign became possible – possible because God, through his rescuer-king, had provided “forgiveness of sins.”

Sin stands between us and acceptance into God’s covenant people. Sin damages our thinking, ruins our relationships, fractures our society, and defaces our future. Sin must be dealt with for us to experience life with God. The fact that is was necessary for Christ to die suggests how great is the problem of sin and how unfathomable is the love of God.  

When we read the word “sin,” we are likely to think of personal sins – anger, lust, greed, sloth, pride – expressing themselves in ways of which we are ashamed and through actions that have damaged our relationships. We should think of such things, but we need to avoid the danger of shrinking the world-changing event of Christ’s cross into my personal passport to heaven. It is much bigger than that.

Christ died for our sins so that God’s plan for our world could move forward. That plan, thank God, includes me but it is not all about me. That plan has been in the works forever – the same plan God had in mind when he chose to bless all peoples on earth through Abraham. It is the same plan that was in mind when through Isaiah God promised to return and to reign. And it is still the plan.

God chose to fulfill the promises of rescue and worldwide blessing through Abraham’s offspring, the people of Israel. But Abraham’s children had, like the rest of the world, broken down under the weight of sin. They had not fulfilled their calling.

Imagine a rescue vehicle is called out to save people who have been in a bad accident on the Dan Ryan. Rescuers are dispatched but they get into an accident themselves. That’s a little like what happened here. Israel was called to be God’s agent in rescuing the world, but they got caught in the same mess as everyone else and were unable to complete the rescue.

It looked as if the plan was derailed but Abraham’s offspring, in the person of Christ, avoided the collision with sin, fulfilled the promises, and made a way for God to be with humans. He brought the kingdom of God. The rescuer emerged from the damaged vehicle and ran the rest of the way to save the injured.

There have been numerous theories of how the death of Jesus Christ accomplished this. The dominant one in the Western Church was introduced by St. Anselm in the 11th century, but other theories have been popular at one time or another. That should tell us something.

If the church didn’t have today’s most popular theory for a thousand years; if it has adopted other theories at other times and in other places; then there is one thing we can be sure of: theories don’t save people. God does. Theories don’t forgive people. God does. Theories don’t give people a new life. God does – through Christ Jesus. We may hold theories but theories won’t uphold us. We don’t put our trust in a theory but in the God and Father of Jesus Christ who died for our sins.

I said that Jesus intentionally presented himself as Israel’s messiah, the servant of the Lord, the one who would do for Israel what Israel failed to do for God: extend the blessing through Abraham to all the people on earth.

When Jesus came into Jerusalem on the Sunday of Passover week, he not only knew himself to be God’s servant but God’s suffering servant. He understood that he would fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy by taking on himself the iniquity of us all, becoming the one through whom peace and healing would finally come. And he knew what that would entail: God’s rescue plan would be advanced through his death.

It happened at Passover. That was no coincidence. Passover celebrated the emancipation of Israel from slavery when the heartless master that prevented them from worshiping their God was defeated. That last part is important. Over and over, like a broken record, the original Passover story repeats the goal: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me” (Exodus 10:3).

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, it was with that same goal in mind. He intended to free God’s people once again, once for all, that they might truly worship him.

Sin enslaves people and prevents them from worshiping God, just as slavery in Egypt had done. Jesus understood that and knew that another – and greater – Passover was needed.

But understand: The problem with sin is not simply that people do bad things: get angry, lust, envy, get greedy. Those things are symptoms – serious and even life-threatening symptoms that can make things miserable for us and for others – but there is an underlying condition that must be addressed. Until it is, we cannot truly worship God or come under the authority of his kingdom.

That underlying condition is present everywhere throughout the Bible, but Paul is able to crystalize it in a few remarkable paragraphs in Romans 1. What went wrong, according to Paul – and this is crucial – began as a failure of worship, not of morals. Humans replaced the worship of God with the worship of created things. We call that idolatry and it underlies all other sin, whether personal, corporate, institutional, or national.

Here is Paul’s summation: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator…” (Romans 1:25). Wrong worship – idolatry – surrenders our authority as God’s image bearing regents to other things, other powers. The reason the world is so messed up is that we have given our authority as God’s regents over to things that (in St. Paul’s language) “by nature are not God.” People become slaves of the things they worship.  Paul can say, “You were slaves to those who by nature are not gods” (Galatians 4:8). It is Egypt all over again. That is why another Passover was needed.

Jesus died to free us from the powers that enslave us. He died to re-empower us to be the representatives of God’s love and grace, which was always the plan. But for that to happen, those powers needed to be defeated. Christ accomplished that on the cross, “disarming the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). That is what happens to the powers that be when they challenge the unconquerable love of God in Christ.

It is no accident that, immediately after writing those words in Colossians 2, Paul warns against falling back into false worship that leads again to slavery. Christ didn’t die so we could remain enslaved. He died to set us free to become our own man or woman, which is possible once we have become God’s man or woman. We can never be ourselves until we have become God’s.

More happened on the cross of Christ than we can begin to comprehend. Certainly more than any theory – or all the theories combined – can suggest. Sins were forgiven. The principalities and powers that enslave humanity were defeated. People were reconciled to God and even to one another.

At the cross, we get a glimpse of both how far our sins have taken us and how far God is willing to go to get us back. I’ve heard the love of God refuted this way: If he really loved people, he wouldn’t let bad things happen to them, especially the ultimate bad thing of eternal destruction. But the death of Christ exposes that idea as a fraud. God has gone to unimaginable lengths to save the world. He will forgive anyone and wants to forgive everyone. It’s not too much to say he is dying to forgive.

We love to speak and sing about the cross: where God’s love ran red and my sins washed white; where I first saw the light and the burden of my heart rolled away; where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain. Biblically, the cross is where the second Passover took place; where the powers that enslave us were defeated; where we were reconciled to God and each other; where Moses and the prophets and all the Scriptures were fulfilled; where the ancient mission was completed.

But were we able to sing every song and quote every Scripture every written about the cross, it would still be a mystery. The words “Christ died for our sins” take us to depths we cannot plumb. This is why, I think, we were not given an explanation of the cross. We were given bread to eat. We were not given a theory of the atonement. We were given a cup to drink. We were invited to become participants in Christ’s victorious death, not talking heads – Christsplainers – who offer an analysis of it.

Every time we take the bread and cup, we announce Christ’s victory over the principalities and powers (1 Cor. 11:24). We take our stand with the Emancipator as the Emancipated, the company of the committed, the worshipers of the true God. We enter the mystery and take our stand on the matchless truth that “Christ died for us.”

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