Forgiveness

Dear Younger Me

I recently saw a post to a Facebook group I’m part of about a 20-year high school reunion. I glossed over it, figuring that the post was for another graduating class, because I’m not that old—but then it dawned on me that I AM that old! My 20-year high school reunion is supposed to be THIS summer!

Well, a lot of people have been posting pictures and life updates to the group, but one in particular brought up the fact that she was hesitant to attend a reunion because she was treated poorly in high school and didn’t really want to see those same people. Her post set off a number of responses (78 at last count), many from people with the same experience. Then there was one response from a girl who was hesitant to attend a reunion because she had been one of the ones doing the mistreating and felt a lot of regret over it. The proposed theme of the reunion is now “Kind is the New Cool.”

All of this is to say that I wish we could all have gotten along better back then, done great things in school, made great memories, and avoided the regrets that so many seem to have. And then I figured, now might be a great time to pen one of those “letters to my younger self.” What would I say?

  1. Own who you are. There’s no point in pretending to be someone you’re not. If people don’t like who you really are, then they don’t really like you anyway.
  2. Portray confidence. If you do, it will translate into REAL confidence. How? I’ve found over the years that three things help: smile, eye contact, and posture (and it also helps to know and accept your identity in Christ!).
  3. Develop your strengths. Try out for the debate team, or speech, or apply to work for the school paper. Stop lamenting about the school plays or the Concert Choir you weren’t chosen for, and find something you excel at.
  4. Go for it! Don’t just go to a week’s worth of cheerleading training—actually try out for the squad…Or for the fast pitch softball team…Or swimming…or cross-country running. And if you don’t make it, it’s not the end of the world. At least you’ll know, instead of always wondering whether you could have made it.
  5. Look outside of yourself. Instead of feeling alienated from others (usually the popular kids) who don’t want anything to do with you, forget about them. Instead, befriend someone who looks lonelier than you. Be the answer to someone’s prayers for a friend. And when all is said and done…
  6. Forgive. I can’t imagine any of us made it through school without ever getting hurt. Someone, whether intentionally or not, will have said or done something unkind or thoughtless or insensitive. Remember that kids don’t always know better. And when they do, it is sometimes a symptom of something else that’s going on—consciously or otherwise. We may never know someone else’s whole story, but we can respond with grace and compassion. Forgiveness is a freeing thing—don’t let bitterness and resentment control and imprison you, or steal your joy. Let the past go and start fresh.

As I continue to reflect on the advice and wisdom I would give my younger self, I’m sure I’ll come up with many more nuggets. In the meantime, how about you? What would YOU tell YOUR younger self?

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Even the Swallows

Psalm 84:2-4 (NASB)

“My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the LORD;
My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. The bird also has found a house,
And the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, Even Your altars,
O LORD of hosts, My King and my God. How blessed are those who dwell in Your house!
They are ever praising You. Selah.”

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Many essentials in life can be gleaned from the Bible and from the Berenstain Bears. Today’s post is no exception. You see, in the story “God Bless Our Home,” Papa Bear reminds us all of the Biblical truth found in Psalm 84:3:

“…swallows built their nests of mud in the rafters of the garage. Papa had to duck when the swallows came swooping in to feed their babies. But he didn’t mind.
‘As the Good Book says,’ Papa explained, ‘Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself.’”

Well, God bless Papa Bear! He has much more patience than most of us! I can’t say I really appreciated this aspect of the story (or the Psalm) until we moved from town to the country—which is apparently where swallows live. And I have to say that those mud nests are DISGUSTING. Even worse is the bird poop EVERYWHERE! And to make matters worse, they dive bomb your head. I’m hesitant to even let visitors approach our front door, for fear that they will get attacked and then sue us over our angry birds. We’ve tried all kinds of tricks to encourage them to nest elsewhere, but they will have none of it.

I think that the Psalmist presents us with both a literal and a figurative illustration through the verses above. From a literal perspective, I’ve just realized after reading the surrounding context that the altars of God (in the Temple courts, perhaps) were the sites of swallows’ nests—and therefore their excrement! And yet, He welcomed them!

Turning to the figurative application of Psalm 84:3, there may be a reason that it is God’s care for the sparrow that often makes it into the songs and sayings of Christendom, rather than the swallow. You see, sparrows are small and insignificant, often going unnoticed. But I’ve never thought of them as pests or nuisances, and would never consider them gross or malicious.

And of course, God does see us and love us—no matter how small or insignificant we might be. He notices our plight. But do you know what else He does? He sees us, loves us, and offers His gift of salvation to us—not only when we feel small and insignificant, but also when we are disgusting, sinful, malicious, destructive, filthy, and rejected by all. We know this because of the thief on the cross, whom Jesus promised paradise with some of His last words. I’m convinced that, had Judas repented, God would have welcomed him home as well. Quite possibly, even Satan himself could have found forgiveness and redemption, if he’d only accepted it.

And that’s the Good News of Easter—that Jesus accepted the punishment for our sins, and rose from the dead to defeat death and hell on our behalf…even if we are but nasty little swallows!  May we all celebrate together today that He is risen indeed!

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Burning Coals

Romans 12:18-20:

“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’”

I have to be honest, I’ve never liked this passage. I’ve always thought to myself, first of all, that we as believers shouldn’t be wishing God’s wrath or vengeance upon anyone, no matter their offense. We should hope, pray, and work for repentance, redemption, restoration, and reconciliation. So revenge has never been my M.O. And I’ve never really seen it as God’s, either.

The second reason why I’ve always disliked this passage is the idea of doing good to your enemy in order to “heap burning coals on his head.” That has always struck me as incredibly spiteful. And God doesn’t call us to spite our enemies. No, He calls us to love and bless them. So in my cognitive dissonance, I’ve just glossed over the verses, vowing to ask God about it one day. Well, it turns out that now I don’t have to—thank you Jon Green!

You see, Jon taught from this passage in his Sunday sermon this week, and he shed SO much light on the context of this passage for me. Specifically, he pointed out that this refers to a common-ish practice of the day, and one undertaken when an enemy was attacking. From the top of the city’s wall, soldiers would heap burning coals on the heads of their attackers in order to keep them at bay. And Jon rightly described this as a defensive action, a response from a position of strength, but one respecting appropriate boundaries. So rather than going on the offensive, or being spiteful, this heaping of coals was simply a strategy for protection. And for me, that changes everything.

So then, what about God’s wrath and His vengeance? Well, when Jon suggested that we are to leave revenge to God, I got to thinking that one reason for this is that we do not know how to properly wield vengeance. But God does. And do you know how we know that? John 8. You remember, don’t you, when a woman was brought before Jesus after being caught in adultery? And the teachers of the law wanted to stone her, but Jesus quietly called each one out in his sin, and said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7b). “At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:9-11).

So when we turn our enemies over to God—who is righteous, just, AND merciful—we can trust that He will do the right thing. We can certainly have no such faith in ourselves. What a relief, then, to let go and give it to God—not asking Him to avenge us, but pleading with Him for mercy and forgiveness, on behalf of our enemy. Jesus Himself did no less as He hung on the cross to die for our sins. Let us live by His example, saying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

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Known

John 4:28-29

“Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people,
‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’”

You know something that doesn’t change about Jesus throughout the scriptures? The way He knows everyone He meets—inside and out. He knows the depths of their souls, the depths of their sin, and the depths of their needs. Each has a different story, but Jesus knows every detail. What I’ve found does change is the response of the known to the Knower, and to the being known. For some, it’s a source of comfort—for others, a source of shame.

Consider the woman at the well. After Jesus exposed her sins of adultery and promiscuity, she dropped everything and ran back to town to tell everyone. She was no longer ashamed of her sin. Instead, she was hopeful in the face of Christ’s forgiveness and was eager to share that Living Water with everyone she knew. She allowed her failures to become her testimony.

Similarly, recall the woman who in John 8 was brought before Jesus upon being caught in the act of adultery. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees had wanted to stone her, but had to retreat at Jesus’s command that he who was without sin must throw the first stone. When she looked up and saw that none of the religious leaders had condemned her, and when Jesus himself offered her mercy and forgiveness, there seemed to be a sense of gratitude and relief as Jesus told her to “go and sin no more.”

In contrast, though, reflect on Christ’s conversation with the rich young ruler, which is chronicled in all three synoptic gospels. In Mark 10:17-27, we see that, as Jesus

“was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.” And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.’ Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.”

It seems as though this young man was counting on Jesus NOT knowing him, not being able to see deep into his heart to identify his sin. So when he realized that the Messiah did know him, inside and out, it brought sadness, as opposed to comfort. And ultimately, rather than repent of his sins and accept Christ’s love and forgiveness, this young man walked away.

The Bible is full of people just like him, unwilling to give up their earthly treasures in exchange for eternal ones. But the Bible is also full of people who embraced Jesus and His intimate knowledge of their sin. And in so doing, they were able to accept with confidence the grace, mercy, and forgiveness He offered them. Our world today is full of both kinds of people, too. The question that you and I need to answer is, “Which kind of person will I be?”

Compassion for Humanity

Psalm 103: 13-14

“Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.”

I may have mentioned before how I feel like our testimonies should be living, changing, and growing. God should be moving in us each day—what He’s doing in and through us should never be stagnant, it should never be only in the past. I’m thankful that God challenges and convicts me each week, and that I have the privilege of sharing that journey with all 12 of you. Does my testimony include falls and failures? Absolutely. But just as surely, His continued work in my heart is evidence to me that I am not living surrendered to my sins. It gives me faith that God is not through with me yet. And I praise Him for it.

It is against this backdrop that I confess that this week, I lost hope in humanity. I felt disappointed, and to some extent betrayed, by the words and thoughts expressed by some within my circle of friends and family. I felt like we couldn’t find a common ground—and of course, I was in the right. My first instinct was to—well—judge. I quickly convinced myself that these people lacked compassion. To some degree, they were heartless. I mean, doesn’t the Bible say that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45)? So there I was, peering into hearts that looked to me a lot like tar pits. But then I felt the disquiet that often accompanies the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and I heard a still, small, slow voice speaking to my heart, No.

No. Okay, you’re right, it wasn’t my place to judge. I can’t see people’s hearts. But I could see their actions, and I could tell that these people (and frankly most others) were not to be counted upon. I mean, doesn’t the Bible say that GOD will supply all my needs (Philippians 4:19)? God, not people. So the best course of action was clearly just to rely solely on God for every need and to ask for nothing from others, expect nothing from others. But again, there was that still small voice, No.

How about bearing with one another (Colossians 3:13), and accepting those of weaker faith (Romans 14:1)? No. I don’t know about you, but in my flesh, I end up applying these verses from a place of pious self-righteousness, which was never the author’s intent. It wasn’t Paul’s intent, and it wasn’t God’s.

My heart finally started coming around to a right place once I started thinking about what Jesus would do, what Jesus in fact did. I know it sounds trite, but it’s so right. Jesus encountered an adulterous woman at a well, and another in the street, and He forgave both. He chose Peter, knowing full well that this guy’s fear of man and his temper would lead him to sin. Then later, He asked if Peter loved Him with a sacrificial love. Peter’s answer was essentially, “No. I mean, come on Jesus. You know I love you like a brother and you’re one of my closest friends. Isn’t that enough?” The answer was basically, “No. But that’s okay, you’ll get there.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

But this seems to always be Christ’s sentiment. So even though I may occasionally struggle with my fellow humans, even though I may not be able to reconcile their perspectives with my own, I know what Jesus would do. Or rather, I know what He wouldn’t do: He wouldn’t give up on them. So if I want to be like Him, then I can’t give up either.

Peter

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John 21:15-17

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” 

John 21 tells the story of the miraculous catch of fish. Let me set the scene. Jesus has died and been resurrected. He has appeared to Mary Magdalene, the disciples, and Thomas. Then Peter and the others decide to do a little night fishing, at which time they catch nothing. In the morning, they see a stranger on the shore who instructs them to cast their nets out one more time. They do as they’re told and come up with a net full. At this point, they realize that this stranger is the Lord. Peter immediately jumps into the water and swims the 100 yards to Jesus. The others follow in the boat and the friends enjoy a nice breakfast together.

After breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him three times to reaffirm his love. When many read this passage, they presume that Jesus is making Peter profess his love three times to make amends for the three times he had earlier denied him. But what many don’t realize is that, in this passage, Peter is not answering in the affirmative. Not really. You see, Jesus uses the word agape throughout the exchange. But in each of Peter’s replies, he uses the word phileo. Both mean love, but they are not synonymous. The latter describes a brotherly love shared among friends, whereas the former refers to an unconditional, sacrificial kind of love. So, in essence, Peter’s response to Jesus is more like a, “No. I really want to love you like that, but I don’t. I can’t.”

Jesus goes on to tell Peter that he will in fact be crucified for his faith. I used to think that Peter’s love for the Lord must have grown during the ensuing years, and that he was somehow transformed into one with a sacrificial love for his Savior. And maybe that is the case—it does happen. But I’ve recently become convinced that Peter already had an agape kind of love for Jesus. After all, when he recognized Jesus on the beach, he couldn’t even wait another minute or two to see Him face to face. He threw off all dignity and hurled himself headlong into the sea and toward his Lord. I think he loved Jesus with every fiber of his being.

He was just scared to say it out loud. He had espoused this love before when he had pledged his loyalty to Jesus just prior to His crucifixion. And when he failed, he became riddled with self-doubt. For many people, to hear straight from Jesus that their destiny was to be martyred for their faith would be the most frightening revelation imaginable. But I believe that, for Peter, this prophecy brought an uncanny sense of comfort and relief. Jesus restored Peter’s confidence by basically saying, “Peter, I know that you’re doubting yourself, and the conviction of your faith. But trust me. As surely as I foretold that you would thrice deny me, I am telling you now that your love and commitment to me are true. You can boldly proclaim your love for me—as agape—because you WILL remain faithful. You have my word.”

Oh the weight that must have been lifted off of his shoulders in that moment—freed from the burden of his past and commissioned for his future service. What a sweet, sweet time that must have been for him. And may you and I also embrace that same forgiveness, allowing God to use us in His service, confident that He has made and is still making us new in Christ Jesus.  

Father Figures

Psalm 103:13-14

“As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.”

Here we are: Fathers’ Day. A day that we often celebrate fathers. We celebrate what they’ve done for us, what they’ve given us, what they’ve taught us, what they’ve sacrificed for us. But then, what about those who have never been fathers? What about those who have been fathers, but who aren’t anymore, either because their children are grown or are no longer with us? And what about those who have never had a father—or at least not a good one? Surely, there are many people out there for whom Fathers’ Day doesn’t feel even a little bit like a celebration. So what about them?

My answer? Father figures. Granted, I’ve been fortunate to have a dad who’s been around all my life. And I’m fortunate to have a husband who is a great dad to our kids. But I’ve also had several father figures during that time. And it’s interesting to think about how God has orchestrated my life and relationships in such a way as to bring these father figures at just the right time to meet a need or fill a gap. I can think of many:

  • If you’ve ever encouraged me to pursue my passions
  • If you’ve ever helped me identify my gifts
  • If you’ve ever made sure I had a job or a place to stay
  • If you’ve ever given me sound and needed advice
  • If you’ve ever surprised me with a thoughtful gesture
  • If you’ve ever loved my kids like they were your own grandkids
  • If you’ve ever called me out during a season of sin
  • If you’ve ever challenged me to love others more deeply, or to forgive

I’m sure I could think of many more, but you get the idea. So, whether you are technically a father or not, if you have done these things for someone, celebrate that today.

If you don’t have an earthly father who is present and active in your life, try to think of some people whom God has placed in your life to fill that void. I think it’s easy to fault the people in our lives for where they fall short. But really, isn’t it a lot to ask that mere humans might be able to fulfill every need that we have? If even the Creator and God of the universe bears with our weaknesses, and remembers that we are dust, maybe we could bear with others as well.

And ultimately, where all of these dusty creatures fail and fall short, God never will. He will supply all of our needs, for He cares for us.

So, whoever you are, Happy Fathers’ Day!

My Lord’s Ten

“I lost her and all my friends
Broke all but one of my Lord’s ten
But Jesus died for all my sins
That’s how I know I’m gettin’ in”

 –Love & Theft

Have you heard Love & Theft’s new song, “Whiskey on My Breath”? If not, you ought to check it out. It’s a soulful and poignant tale of a guy who wakes up realizing his need for grace—after all, he’s broken “all but one of my Lord’s ten.” Hmm. And here I was, thinking I’d coined that confession. And frankly, given the band’s inception date and the year of this song’s release, it’s entirely possible that I did. I just never had the foresight to copyright it. But really, if we want to get technical, the guys from the band and I are all equally guilty of plagiarism…call it the Lord’s eleventh, if you will.

Because, as I recall, there once was this jerk who wound up blinded on the road to Damascus—circa 33 A.D. or so—when Christ himself confronted the accused of his many sins. And while the Apostle Paul’s resume may have included a different set of nine sins than yours or mine, he’d been there and done that before any of us. And why? Why did he—or you, or I, or any of us—have to screw up so royally? Well, if Paul ever asked that question, he must have found his answer, because he shares it with us in 1 Timothy 1:14-16:

“and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus….Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life…”

So basically, the point was for us to ‘get’ grace. We were meant to understand it and to receive it, in large part so that we could also give it to others. When I come to grips and to terms with my own depravity, the depth of my own sins (plural), I find myself a lot better equipped to extend grace to those around me…that is, until I forget.

Then I start strapping on my phylacteries and allowing myself to feel superior to (or at least less inferior than) others. I reason that my sins hurt fewer innocent bystanders, or that they’re justified by my circumstances. I start filling my satchel with rocks I can use to stone the harlot. But then Jesus kneels down and writes something in the sand. I don’t know what He wrote to the Pharisees that day in John 8, but to me, He recites the Lord’s Prayer—“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

God,
Grant us the strength and mercy to show grace and compassion toward our fellow transgressors. Help us to forgive those who trespass against us, just as you have forgiven us. Amen.

How Then Shall We Love?

1 Peter 4:8
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”

As the untrusting, pessimistic cynic that I tend to be, I often look around me and notice a multitude of sins. That is, I notice a horde, a mass, a swarm, an abundance…droves, heaps, piles, tons, dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions, gazillions, bajillions (at least, those are some synonyms for multitude offered by Google). I notice the sins of loved ones and strangers alike. I even notice my own sins with a keen sense of awareness that some might consider overkill.

And frankly, those sins—all of them—are difficult for me to overlook, to forgive. It’s especially difficult when they are repeated over, and over, and over again. They might not always be exactly the same. A new day, a new manifestation of the same root sin—you know how it is. But then again, Jesus did say that we should forgive one another “seventy times seven” times (Matthew 18:22). But how?

Peter gives us the answer: LOVE. And not just any love. In 1 Peter 4:8, he says to love each other deeply. And what does that look like? Well, according to Ephesians 5:2, we should love the way God does:

Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love.
Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant.
He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us.
Love like that.”

Until a few months ago, I’d never read The Message version of Ephesians 5:2. But it really spoke to me. God’s love for us is not cautious, but extravagant. I thought of all of the words I could think of to use in place of cautious that would reflect the same idea. For example, God’s love is not reserved. It is also not tentative, hesitant, self-conscious, half-hearted, calculated, insecure, guarded, fearful, or timid. Wow. And God calls us to “love like that.” He calls ME to love like that. Love. Like. That. Word.

Wicked Cool Scars

Romans 5:8

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 

I always tell people that our son Tijge is curious, adventurous, and fearless—and therefore dangerous. So we were sure that he would be the first one to visit the urgent care office for an injury. But alas, it was his little firecracker of a sister who first graced them with her presence. And thus, the hashtag #WickedCoolScars was born. Because, let’s face it—scars are cool. The only thing that would make her scar cooler is if she had an awesome story to go with it. That is, some story other than the “Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” plot line that actually transpired on the evening in question. After all, who wants a permanent reminder of that time when you didn’t listen to your mom, or your dad, or your brother, or the fictional doctor who kept telling Momma, “NO MORE monkeys jumping on the bed!”?

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Tomorrow, we’ll remember the infliction of several scars that Christ endured on our behalf. Unlike one Laredo Jade, His scars came through no fault of his own. Instead, he bore my sin, shame, and punishment—and yours. But you know what I believe? If someone were to ask Jesus about those scars on His wrists and His side, He would reflect not on the pain or ridicule He experienced, not on the sense of abandonment that He felt, but instead on the reward He obtained for His sacrifice.

I believe that He thinks about you and me, and everyone else whose eternity was altered through His suffering, and I think He breathes a sigh of peace and relief. Every cut, bruise, and hateful remark—all of it—was worth it. You were worth it. I was worth it. And I have no doubt that He would do it all over again in a heartbeat. Praise the Lord, though, He will never have to, for it is finished. And that gives us cause for joy, gratitude, relief, comfort, peace, and purpose.

Now, if you ask me, those are some wicked cool scars.