Category Archives: Peace with God

Clearing Away the Confusion Surrounding 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. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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Forgiveness (part 1): Breaking the Chain

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. Continue reading

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What Will You Be Doing on Election Night?

I think I’ll watch a movie on election eve, probably “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and has a stellar cast, including the great James Stewart.

In the movie, an unlikely replacement is chosen for a recently deceased U.S. Senator. He finds himself surrounded by corruption, taken advantage of by a worldly-wise press, and pictured as a dumb ox to the nation.

Senator Smith runs afoul of some corrupt senior members, who determine to ruin him, vacate his seat, and replace him with a more compliant member. Plans are made and steps are taken to humiliate the young senator, break him, and drive him out. In spite of the temptation and corruption, Smith manages to remain true. It is, in many ways, a story for our time.

“Mr. Smith” is my plan for election night. I won’t be watching the results into the wee hours of the night. I will pay no attention to the exit polls. By election night, I will have already done what I can do to influence the election – pray and vote – and what I cannot do, control the outcome, I will leave to God.

Perhaps this seems too laissez-faire. This is, after all, the most important election in our lifetimes – or at least that is what people keep saying. Even if they are right, fretting about the outcome will not change it. Worry will accomplish nothing, as Jesus explicitly taught. I will pray and vote, but I will trust God with the outcome.

The Bible pictures God as big enough to handle circumstances, even ones that are as volatile as ours. The psalmist says that God brings down one person and exalts another. The prophet adds that “he sets up kings and deposes them.” I think the same could be said of presidents. This election will not and cannot undermine God’s supreme authority.

Still, what if America gets it wrong? What if we, confused by fake news and misled by spin masters, choose the wrong person?
Continue reading

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It Is Time for a New Creation

The Bible claims that there is a fundamental reality to people that is not immediately apparent. The truest thing about any person is not something that can be seen. There is a self behind the public self. Of course no one would deny this, but there is also a self behind the private self.

We only catch glimpses of our true self but God sees it plainly. It emerges, inevitably and unavoidably from the heart, the core of the human being. On the Day of Judgment what a person really is – the self behind the self – will finally and undeniably be revealed.

Until then, we judge people by their education, wardrobe, and even their “cool quotient.” Or we judge them by their theology, church attendance, or other criteria. We assume we know them; sometimes that we know them well. But we are unable to see what the Bible calls the “inner person” (literally, “the inside man”). Only God sees that.

St. Paul had to learn that lesson. As a Pharisee, he had judged Jesus by standards like education, accent, and “cool quotient.” He later admitted that his judgment of people, even Christ, was based on “a worldly point of view”; that is, on appearances. But Paul learned how unreliable such a gauge is.

He stopped judging people by appearances. He had made that mistake with Jesus, but he would make it no more. Something had forever changed the way he looked at people.
Continue reading

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How to Handle Pressure (Part 2)

St. Paul knew all about stress and he knew how to handle it.

In Corinthians 4:8, Paul describes what his stressful life could be like. He says he was “Pressed” – squeezed like grapes – on every side but not crushed.” The word crushed is interesting. It means caved in, restricted. We get our word stenosis – the narrowing, closing of an artery – from this word. Paul is the only biblical author who uses it, and the only other time he uses it is to picture one’s affection being so restricted that it no longer flows. That is the danger. When we are under pressure, the flow of affection can be shut off – to our spouses and children and friends. Paul knew that it need not be that way. “Pressed . . . but not crushed.”

Then Paul says he is perplexed. A number of other biblical writer use this word. Several times it is translated as “at a loss.” Etymologically it carries the idea of not knowing which way to go. At a loss, Paul says, but not in despair. He had been perplexed enough times to know that, though he was at a loss, he would not lose out. God would make a way; he is the way-making God. He “makes a way in the wilderness,” the prophet says, and the apostle adds that he makes a way out of every temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). We sometimes find ourselves at a loss, at a seeming dead-in, like the fleeing Israelites when they came to the Red Sea. There is no way to go forward, and no way to go back. Paul had known that experience, and yet God always made a way. Perplexed, but not in despair.

Things got even worse. Continue reading

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How to Handle Pressure (part 1)

Has the pressure has been getting to you lately? Career, financial decisions, leadership responsibilities, a spiritual life to nurture – how are you supposed to stay on top of all that? You feel like the proverbial camel with the badly strained back: one more straw and you know what is going to happen. You are in over your head, and you cannot even tread water because you are holding onto too many important things. So what can you do?

I think we can learn from Saint Paul, who should be the patron saint of the distraught, the overworked and the undervalued. The man faced more pressure per square inch than any of us are likely to, and he survived – well actually he didn’t, but that is another story, and it wasn’t the pressure that killed him. We can learn a few things about handling pressure from Paul. Continue reading

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A Mind for What Matters: Philippians 4:1-9

The first instruction, given previously and now repeated, is to rejoice always.

Really, Paul? Rejoice always? You have no idea what you’re asking. Working from home amidst a thousand interruptions. The kids are out of control. Can’t find toilet paper. Didn’t get my economic impact payment from the IRS, which I need to pay the mortgage. Will probably lose my job, which means no insurance. And you want me to rejoice?

To which Paul (from a dank, dark prison cell, where he has been quarantined for a long time, separated from friends and family, and waiting to hear the outcome of his trial, which might be death by beheading) answers, Of course! “Rejoice in the Lord always.” And in case you missed it the first two times I said it, “I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).

Many people, hearing this, simply brush it aside as unrealistic and unfeasible. When you’re having marriage problems, when you can’t stomach your boss, when your hopes have been dashed yet again, when you’re sick, and tired, and in debt, how can Paul – how can God – expect you to rejoice? It’s impossible!

Yes, absolutely. It is impossible … for some people, but not for us – if our minds are undergoing a process of renewal. Continue reading

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The Stubbornly Silent Future: Learning to Trust

Our governor’s “Shelter in Place” order has changed the way we live. Rather than meeting people at church or in the coffee shop, I’ve been meeting people on Zoom. Pastoral visitation has not happened in people’s homes but on our phones. I and others have been calling our church family, checking on their health, and seeing if they need groceries or meds. Many of these members are older and, to a person, they are doing remarkably well. They are a resilient bunch.

It turns out that many of our older members were spending most of their time at home, even before the governor’s order. The pandemic has not affected them in the same way it affects the soccer mom, who puts 25,000 miles a year on her van, or the retired couple who eat out five nights a week.

While our church family is doing well, the question on their minds, and on their friends’ and neighbors’ minds is: How long will this last? They want to know what’s coming next and when things are going to return to normal.

All of us have a sort of inner gravity that constantly pulls us back toward normal, even when normal is not healthy. When will things be normal again? Our routines, which always have suffered interruptions, have now been turned on their heads. Everything has changed.
Continue reading

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Didn’t See That Coming: Living with Uncertainty

In over a hundred years of Major League Baseball, only 16 men have homered four times in one game. Most of them were power hitters. Twelve of the 16 hit 200 or more career home runs. Nine of them hit … Continue reading

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