Sunday, March 10, 2013

Forgive us as we forgive others

God has forgiven me of much. I am a former child abuser. Never having been reported to CPS or never having a record of my crimes does not change the truth. Yes, I have sought help, and yes, I have changed by the grace of God. Although my past doesn't dictate my future, my present doesn't erase my past.

I realize not all parents are abuse survivors who struggle with breaking the cycle of abuse. But we all struggle with forgiveness from time to time.

It is so easy to get wrapped up in our injuries, the slights and disrespect toward us that we fail to see how we have injured and disrespected others.

Yes, we are all broken people. No, I am not excusing those who intentionally hurt or abuse others physically, emotionally, sexually, spiritually, or otherwise.

I think, though, that we often have an unrealistic view of forgiveness. Somehow, we've gotten the message that forgiveness not only erases a debt, it obligates us to continue to put ourselves in situations where we can again be hurt or taken advantage of. Such is not the case.

Forgiveness means forgiving a debt. When someone has wronged me and I choose to forgive, I am releasing that individual from the obligation I feel they owe me. I am choosing not to let resentment over that obligation build, and I am choosing to move on from the situation. I am NOT ignoring any damage that was done, and I am NOT going to put open myself to being wronged again, especially if that individual is in a pattern of abuse.

I have found that forgiveness, especially in cases where I have been deeply wronged, is a process. I have to continue to choose forgiveness instead of resentment. I must choose to erase the debt instead of expecting certain behaviors or responses from the offender.

I find, though, that I am quick to seek forgiveness and grace for myself, and quick to seek justice for others' wrongs against me.

The parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 always speaks to me.

Christ tells of a king who was taking account of his servants. One servant owed the king 10,000 talents. We have no idea whether the talents were gold or silver, but frankly, it doesn't matter. A talent is 57 pounds, which means in today's market, the servant owed $896,610,000 in gold or $16,530,000 in silver. For most of us, that is an unpayable debt!

The servant resorted to his only recourse: begging for mercy and promising that he would pay the debt over time. The gracious king forgave the servant's debt, no strings attached.

The relieved servant went out from the king's presence and chanced upon another servant. The second servant owed (from what I can deduce) something akin to $4,100 to the first servant. While still a lot of money to most of us, it is a debt that could realistically be repaid.

One would think the first servant, high off his recent experience with grace, would be anxious to share such mercy with his peer. Instead, he grabbed the other by the throat and demanded immediate restitution! When the second man couldn't immediately come up with the funds, the first had him thrown into debtor's prison.

The other servants saw this injustice and told their king. The king immediately called the first man to him and reminded him of the great debt that had been forgiven, and asked why the servant had not had compassion on his own debtor. Apparently, the king was so angry, he rescinded his forgiveness of the original debt and delivered the unforgiving servant to jail.

This is where the phrase "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors" comes into play.

I think the take away from this parable is not just the injustice of being forgiven and refusing to forgive, but it's also how we forgive (or don't) affects how God forgives us.

That's a mind-bending concept.

One is tends to think that a gracious God forgives because He is gracious. We often forget that God is also a Being of justice.

Why, then, should I harshly punish my children for slights against me (back talk, failure to follow instructions, etc.) when God has forgiven me of so much more? Why do I expect those who have offended me to come groveling in humility while I too often wave my hand or roll my eyes when confronted with my own offenses?

"Father, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." Help me to remember the debt I owe You, and let it soften my responses to others.

Church Relationships

Relationships are messy. Church relationships can be even more so, because the spiritual and the personal, the heart, the mind, and the soul are all tangled together in one beautiful, chaotically broken, mended package.

How does one handle the minor offenses that are bound to happen when people from different backgrounds and opinions come together for corporate worship? Frankly, I think a lot of stuff that is just preference can be acknowledged and accommodated to a point. 

For instance, some people don’t like having the offering plate passed in church, but prefer an offering box to sit at the back of the sanctuary. Some people prefer the offering be received after the worship portion, but before the sermon, and some people prefer to give the monetary offering at the very end of the service.

None of these are right or wrong; they are simply preferences. Perhaps a church where several people have expressed their differing preferences could compromise by changing the offering format month to month. It’s fairly simple to do and it shows that the members’ thoughts and opinions are valued.

Perhaps new members have voiced frustration that the church seems to have a lot of “unwritten rules” they are not privy to, and have asked that expectations be clearly communicated. These particular “unwritten rules” are not oppressive or bad; they are simply part of the fabric of this particular church and are well-known to the long-time members of the congregation. 

A simple solution would be to write down the expectations so all members and attendees are aware of potential land mines that could cause unnecessary and unintended offense and frustration.

Or maybe, individuals have expressed concern that the church leadership seems to need exercise a lot of control over every aspect of church ministry. Perhaps communication from the senior choir director to the children’s choir director must be filtered through the pastor when it would be simpler for the two directors to speak directly to each other without a go-between.

Since a pastor is an over-seer, he could allow the music ministers to do their jobs and simply require them to submit final plans for the services to him. There is no real need for the pastor to be privy to every detail of the decision-making processes of the music ministers as they plan for choir rehearsals and church services. By reviewing the final plans, the pastor would still be involved and apprised, without being controlling.

But what if you’ve unintentionally offended someone? What if their communications with you in person are polite, but stilted? What if communication outside of church has completely ceased? What if you’ve asked for an explanation and apologized for any offense caused (and also asked to be told the offense), only to receive a terse, “Thank you for your communication.” or no response at all? What if you’ve sought reconciliation through the pastor, and the pastor (after having spoken to the other party) insists no one has issues with you and refuses to arrange or sit in on a meeting between you and the other person?

What then?

Ordinarily, I would advise continuing to go to church as usual. If the other party insists nothing is wrong and no offense has occurred, all you can do is take him at his word. Treat this individual the way you always have, with love and kindness and honesty. It could be this person has something else going on in his life that is effecting all his relationships. It is quite possible you have indeed done nothing to offend, and this individual is simply distancing himself for an unrelated reason.

But what if, after you’ve attempted reconciliation and have been told no one has cause for offense, you are invited by your church leadership to visit other churches?

What then?

I suggest accepting their invitation, hurt though you may be, and seek fellowship elsewhere. It is hard (nigh impossible) not to take such a situation personally, but do try to assume positive intent on the part of the church. Perhaps they believe that they are failing in ministering effectively to you and have concluded that a church with different resources may better meet your needs. Perhaps they see that you and they have different spiritual goals for the church and believe you would be more comfortable in a church that has goals more in line with your own. Perhaps the pastor believes what you intended as constructive criticism is a sign of your discontent or your asking “permission” to be released from membership. Perhaps the leadership believes your theology is divergent enough that in time, there could be a large, painful rift between you and they are seeking to prevent a potential church split.

It would be nice if the church leadership would assume positive intent on your part as well, but you are in control only of yourself and your decisions in this case. If the leadership sees you as either a liability or a threat when your intentions are merely to further the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ through improvement of church ministry, there is, sadly, not much more you can do.

Remember, too, that “church” doesn’t have to look like what you are familiar with. God has promised “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” Church can happen while folding laundry with your children and speaking of God’s goodness, or while having coffee with a friend for informal Bible study. Church can happen when conversing with a stranger who is a believer in the DMV line. Church is not confined to brick walls and stained glass, a routine of singing followed by four (alliterated) points and a poem, or the daily liturgy.

Church is meeting with God, and since God is omnipresent, church can (and should) happen everywhere. I advise finding a church (in whatever form) full of broken people who not only acknowledge their own brokenness, but delight in welcoming and worshipping with other broken people. After all, Christ shines brightest through the broken places.