Too Late To Forgive

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The Unmerciful Servant, Eugene Burnard (1850-1921)

I like to think I’m pretty good at forgiveness—giving it, that is. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt most of the time and I try not to hold grudges. Even if people don’t desire my forgiveness, I still try to give it—at least in my own mind.

After this past weekend’s sermon on forgiveness, one of my parishioners asked what you should do when the person you needed to forgive died before you could do so. It was an excellent and profoundly honest question.

I have had such an event in my own life. A friend and mentor turned out to be something other than I had thought and I felt he had betrayed me and the organization for whom we worked. Some years later when speaking with another former employee of that organization, I learned that my old mentor had died several months before. My reaction was “How dare he? I’m still mad! I can’t be mad at a dead person!” Silly, eh?

The truth is that I hadn’t wanted to forgive my mentor. In my mind, he was in the wrong (he was) and by not forgiving him, I was holding the moral high ground. In truth, I was wallowing in self-righteousness and there was very little that was “moral” or “high” about it. I was simply angry. Holding onto that anger felt good and righteous and I did not want to relinquish that feeling.

When I learned he had died without my ever confronting him or forgiving him, I felt robbed. Robbed of my self-righteousness and robbed of the chance to be magnanimous by forgiving him. Did you hear that? I felt robbed because I would not have the chance to demonstrate what a wonderful person I am by forgiving him. Talk about wrong-headed thinking!

When I realized the source of my disquiet, I did some serious self-reflection and talked honestly with my spiritual director. I concluded that I needed to ask God for forgiveness for my attitude and for failing to forgive my mentor as Christ has forgiven me.

Forgiving others (or not) puts us in a place of power—at least in our own minds. We all are prone to the abuse of power that we have. When we deliberately choose NOT to forgive, we not only retain that power over another, we get to feel morally superior and righteous. We get to feel better than the other person. That is always an intoxicating feeling.

In Jesus, we have our example. He forgave people who didn’t ask for forgiveness, who didn’t deserve forgiveness, and who kept on sinning. He never abused the power entrusted to him and he was not afraid of putting himself in the position of powerlessness. For it is only when we are willing to be powerless over others that we gain true freedom and true power in our own life.

My former mentor no longer needs my forgiveness. He is at peace in the presence of the God who loved him even when I did not. And while I know myself also forgiven by God, I still regret my failure to love my mentor as myself.

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The Wrath of God

It’s been a while since I’ve written. I could plead busyness and would be accurate, but I’m always busy, as are you, and I simply did not make the time. So now that I’m still busy with the resumption of all the fall activities, I decided to find the time. Go figure.

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So let’s talk hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes–oh my!

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, televangelist Pat Robertson declared that it was God’s punishment on a city known for its relaxed morality. Specifically, he said that legal abortion was the source of God’s wrath on the citizens of that city. He repeated his mantra when the devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010 and declared the Haiti had made a “pact with the devil.” He also claimed that September 11 was the result of legalized abortion and the growing acceptance of homosexuality. Even though the September 11 terrorist attacks were not “acts of God,” Robertson said God permitted those events as retribution. Robertson also claimed that gay tourists at Disney World would lead to a meteorite strike and that natural disasters in the U.S. were caused by political pressure on Israel to seek peace with the Palestinian people.

Robertson is not the first, nor will he be the last of his kind: people who think they know the mind of God. Here are a few recent remarks from conservative Christian leaders in reference Hurricanes Harvey & Irma:

  • “This flood is from God as punishment for the former mayor of Houston attempting to subpoena ministers’ sermons.” (Jim Bakker)
  • “The path of Hurricane Irma would be altered by God if the Supreme Court quickly made abortion and gay marriage illegal, before Irma does her damage,” (Kevin Swanson).
  • Houston is underwater because it “boasted of its LGBT devotion.” (Rick Wiles)

To be fair, I have also read some tongue-in-cheek articles which suggest that Irma and Harvey are punishment for the pending revocation of DACA or President Trump’s efforts to remove transgendered people from the military or Congress’ attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  I did not find any credible source which genuinely advocated such a view, just several who were being satirical.

The arrogance and hatefulness of claims that God causes disasters as punishment for human sin stagger me. Regardless of your position on abortion or homosexuality, the concept of a wrathful God killing innocent people and wreaking wholesale destruction on random cities is unimaginable to me. Who could love or worship a God who indiscriminately sweeps away the lives of supposedly beloved children?

And without lapsing into a climate change argument, I find the only plausible explanation of such events is this: God has created a world that is constantly re-creating and re-forming itself. The earth does this in fairly random ways and without malice or forethought. What we call “disasters” are only the earth in the process of re-formation. After all, if there were no people living where an earthquake or tornado or hurricane occurred, there would be no disaster! There would be some trees blown down, flooding that would eventually subside, and the earth would recover and re-create. It is the loss of human lives and our habitats that are the source of the perceived disaster.

So Mr. Robertson, Mr. Bakker, Mr. Swanson and Mr. Wiles, you do not speak for me. My God is more gracious, loving and merciful than the God in whom you seem to believe. To quote an anonymous mantra: “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in: maybe I don’t believe in that God either.” I don’t believe in your God, gentlemen. I believe in the God of Jesus Christ, the God who gave all for the sake of a restored humanity, the God who shows mercy even to the most undeserving. I believe that this God will show mercy even to those who have the unmitigated nerve to claim that they know the mind of the inscrutable, mysterious, eternal and infinite God.

Want to give to hurricane relief? Lutheran Disaster Response is your best bet.

Book Purging

IMG_1917I’m thinking about ditching some of my books. It’s a surprisingly painful idea.

You see, I love books. I’ve always loved books. When I was growing up and things got crowded in our little house, I would take some snacks, a drink and a book and escape to the car where I would sit in blessed silence and read for hours. It is a fond memory for me.

My mother was a reader. She subscribed to the Reader’s Digest condensed book series and every month, a new book would arrive. (Let it be known now—I am not a fan of condensed books.) She also subscribed to a monthly classic books series for us kids. So I grew up on Charles Dickens and Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Bronte. I also checked out lots of books from the school library and begged my mom to order from the Scholastic Book Club when we were give order forms. I remember the day when the box of books would arrive at school and the excited anticipation I felt at getting new books to take home—and the sadness I felt when we had not been afford to order books that time.

As a general rule, pastors are bibliophiles. We collect books like other people collect stamps or coins or antique cars. At every conference, assembly, or continuing education event where there are pastors present, there are book displays and we buy and buy and buy.

IMG_1918I actually have fewer books than many pastors. I’m told Pastor Fred’s library filled every shelf in my (his) office and sometimes they overflowed. The shelves in my office are only about half filled with books. As I was perusing the shelves for books on Lutheran heritage, I realized that many of these books were more than 20 years old and that it was unlikely I would ever read them again. Some of them I’ve had for years and have never even opened. Others are from continuing education activities that are long finished. Some are textbooks from seminary that I am quite unlikely to need. I cannot remember the last time I have used An Introduction of Grammar for New Testament Greek (Kaufman, 1982) which I bought used. Nowadays if I need to do some Greek work in preparation for a sermon, I simply use the many fine free Greek resources on the internet. Likewise the internet has become an excellent resource for professional commentaries on the scripture, Bible studies, and articles on any ministry topic you can imagine. Such resources are mostly free and easy to find. My physical books are increasingly irrelevant to the way I do ministry.

Plus, many books can be downloaded electronically either though the library or a bookseller. E-books are cheaper, do not require the use of trees, and stay on your “shelf” forever without gathering a speck of dust. I have recently purchased several e-books on ministry and find the reading to be little different from a paper copy. I also do almost all my recreational reading on my tablet.

I’ve heard the argument: “But I like the FEEL of a book.” I do too. But even as a lifelong bibliophile who has—until recently—only used “real” books, I must admit that e-books contain the same information, are more easily searchable, and one still “holds” the book. Plus I can change the font, make the print any size, and make the page as bright or as dim as I like. I have become a convert to e-books. I do still love to wander though a bookstore and look at the books. However, now I am more likely to take a photo of a book cover that interests me and then see if I can download it from the library than I am to purchase it.

Still, as I think about doing a purge on my library, I am feeling the emotional impact of giving or throwing away these lovely books. Pastors who retire have faced this for years and most church libraries are replete with books donated by their former pastors who simply could not bear to throw away a perfectly good book. Someone might need it someday, they think. Mostly that turns out not to be true. Church libraries are the least used resource that most churches have. But it made the pastors feel good to imagine someone using their treasures.

So I have decided that, if I am to downsize my library, I will have to view it as a spiritual exercise:  a removing of that which is no longer useful and which is unlikely to be used again. I will try to see it as sending my  books to that eternal bookshelf in the sky where there is no dust, no crowded shelves and where readers avidly consume the wisdom contained therein. I do believer that my books will be much happier there than sitting ignored on my shelves.

Savannah-Part 3

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Savannah’s head bump

This is the last of my three-part series on “Things I Learn From My Dog.”

As I mentioned a couple of entries ago, Savannah is a mutt. When I got her, she had what we thought was a little scar on the top of her head. The folks at the Humane Society thought that it was from a puppy scuffle. It was sort of cute, as it made the fur on the top of her head stand up in a miniature mohawk.

But in the months since then, the “scar” has grown into a large bumpy area. It is devoid of any fur, so that her gray skin shows and quite frankly, it’s not very attractive. And because it was growing, I got worried, thinking it was a tumor. When I asked the vet about it last year, he said that it was a deformity that she probably was born with, that it seemed healthy, and that it shouldn’t cause any problems for her. Whew! He said he’d had another patient with the same birth defect and that it never affected that dog’s functioning. That was good to know. He said he could surgically remove it, but there would still be scar and that he didn’t think it was necessary. I agreed. He also said that I should think of it as an identifying mark should Savannah ever get lost. Good point. She’s unique, he said. She is, at that.

Savannah’s bump continued to expand for several more months but now seems to have stopped growing. The bump doesn’t appear to hurt her, although when it was still growing, she sometimes rubbed it on the carpet until it bled a little. And then of course the scab that formed also itched until it fell off. That has not happened in a while, so I think that both Savannah and the bump may be done with their growing. Still, she likes to have me scratch the bump. It might still itch a little.

I confess there are times when I think about getting the bump removed. Savannah is a beautiful dog and the bump mars her cuteness. But I see no reason to put her through the pain of surgery just to satisfy my shallow perception of beauty. Plus she would have a scar from the surgery anyhow. And with any surgery comes health risks and it’s not worth that. So I scratch her itchy head bump and am grateful to have such a smart, affectionate, gentle dog.

So here are the human lessons from this particular dog scenario:

  1. Perfection is not all that important.
  2. Beauty takes many different forms and I need to work on my sense of the beautiful.
  3. Uniqueness should be embraced, provided that it causes no harm to self or others.
  4. Be grateful for what you have.

Are we not all grateful that God understands all this already?

Savannah-Part 2

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Savannah is not happy with her reindeer antlers.

Okay, so here’s one of Savannah’s less endearing traits.

As a scent hound, Savannah’s instinct it to hunt prey. Her instincts tell her to follow a scent to its source so that her human (the hunter) can find/bag/kill it.

Sometimes as we are walking Savannah on the trail in the woods near our home, we let her off the lead to run around and smell to her heart’s content. She runs ahead, chases birds, and explores the edges of the trail. She never wanders too far away—although she does wander much farther than does Dakota, our German shepherd, whose instinct is to keep us all together.

On several occasions, Savannah will find an intoxicating odor and promptly roll around in it. It is almost inevitably urine or scat. Even though we yell at her for doing this, she is usually most pleased with herself and trots back to us, stinking like an outhouse. The only way to remove the smell is to give her bath when we get home—and sometimes the bath is not completely effective.

I did some research as to why Savannah does this. The Internet—repository of all wisdom—had numerous articles that all said the same thing. Scent dogs often roll in the scat or urine of their prey in order to smell like the prey instead of like themselves. In this way, the prey is less likely to smell the dog as it approaches because the scent of the prey’s own kind covers the dog’s scent.

Understanding why Savannah engages in this disgusting behavior does not in any way mitigate its nastiness.  We now watch her very carefully when she is off lead in the woods and are ready to correct any sniffing behavior that looks like it may descend into a roll in excrement. We are not always successful: Savannah can be very fast.

So here are the human life parallels that I have drawn from this particular dog scenario:

  1. I cannot always control what others do, no matter how much I try and no matter how much I want to do so. (This is a lesson I keep learning over and over and over.)
  2. People do disgusting things, often with good reason, or so they may think.
  3. Sometimes the “stink” of those disgusting things, clings to them—and sometimes to us—for a long time.
  4. Sometimes deception is very effective even though I might wish it otherwise.
  5. Things can sometimes happen too quickly for me to respond well.

Once again, it is choose-your-own-lesson. Or maybe you “hear” something else here. If so, feel free to add it in the comments.

 

Savannah-Part 1

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Savannah, my present dog

I have not written about my dog in some time, so I thought maybe I should tell you what new things I have learned from her.

For my newer readers, I have discovered great wisdom in the behavior, care and owning of a dog. My former dog, Layla, was beautiful and smart, but she was a handful. Layla taught me often about patience, intensity, prejudice, and distractedness.

My present dog, Savannah, is a fish of a different kettle—or rather, a dog of a different breed. Savannah is a mutt. I got her from the Huron County Humane Society 20 months ago when she was about four months old. She’s a hound mix with some beagle, German short-haired pointer, and German Shepherd, along with a mish-mash of unrecognizable DNA, according to the test I gave her.

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Layla, my former dog

Previously we have had Labrador retrievers and German shepherds. We’ve never had a hound. Hounds are different. While very alert (like a shepherd) and very affectionate (like a Lab), she is a scent hound. I will be throwing the ball for her and on her way out to get the ball or to return it to me, she will suddenly stop and start sniffing the ground. That hound nose caught a scent and she’s off to explore it.

In these situations, it can be very difficult to get Savannah to finish her task of getting or returning the ball. We have worked with her on obeying our commands, so eventually she will come back to me. But there have been a few times when the scent was so alluring or unusual that I must physically go out to Savannah to recapture her attention. Then if I’m smart, I will throw the ball in another direction.

Sometimes I let Savannah follow her nose, even though she is ignoring my command to “come.” That’s not good dog training, but I do think that, as a scent hound, she ought to be encouraged to use her nose so that she does not lose her skills. As long as she doesn’t wander too far away, I do, from time to time, indulge her “nosiness.”

I have drawn two human life parallels from this particular dog scenario.

On the one hand, Savannah is a good example of how I, too, can get distracted by things that are not all that important although they may seem so at the time. All too often, I spend time thinking about, worrying about or preparing for something that ultimately makes no difference in the world and I lose focus on what really is important.

On the other hand, I could say that Savannah is a good example of how I get into a rut of doing the same thing over and over (like chasing the ball) until something truly important catches my attention. It is only then that I am able to stop my running and appreciate the important thing.

So the lesson for today: Keep your eye on the prize and/or Don’t get in a rut. You choose what works for you.

 

 

 

 

Beggars Are We

2145846-close-up-shot-of-open-palms-of-old-woman-shallow-dof.jpgOne of the greatest privileges I have as a pastor is to preside at the communion table. But my favorite part of the communion liturgy is distributing the bread—the body of Christ. To look into the eyes of the believers, to see their hopes and sorrows and faith can be a deeply moving experience.

This past weekend, I was particularly moved when one of our oldest members came forward. She moved slowly, as befitted one of her years, and she put out cupped hands in supplication, ready to receive the gift of Christ. I looked at her gnarled, wrinkled hands and imagined all the things those hands had done in nearly 90 years of life. Those knobby, arthritic hands had held her babies and grandbabies, prepared food for those she loved, worked the soil of her garden, made quilts for people in faraway lands, touched with love those who were close to her, placed her offerings into the plate, helped little children in Sunday school class, and performed only God knows how many other tasks of loving service. All this flashed through my mind in an instant as I placed into her open hands the body of Christ.

And then I looked into her eyes and saw the trust she had that the words I was speaking—This is the body of Christ given for you—were real. I saw in her eyes nearly 90 years of faithfulness and patient waiting on the Lord. I saw in eyes a depth of faith that I can only hope to attain in my lifetime.

And then she moved on to hear from another believer equally powerful words: This is the blood of Christ, shed for you.

Sometimes serving at the communion table is rote and my mind is not as focused as it should be. But oh those times when I am truly present! I am overwhelmed by the honor of hosting Christ’s table and feeding his people with the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.

It is rumored that Martin Luther’s final words were “We are all beggars,” and it is true. In receiving Holy Communion, we enact this profound theological belief by shaping our hands into those of beggars, open to receive the astonishing gift of God’s very self into our being, to be fed and nourished on the very essence of Christ our Lord.