Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Invitation of Forgiven-ness

Image by Jessica Key, shared on this blogpost
with some beautiful insights and stories on forgiveness.

When I was a kid, I was dragged, willingly, I should add, to camps and church events, where my dad would speak to the grown ups and my mom would lead “creative dramatics” with the kids, which was, essentially, acting out bible stories from a set of rhyming storybooks.  Tonight’s parable is one that I acted out so many times as a kid, that I can still remember the lines that got me kicked out of the room when I blurted them out at the top of my lungs as my mom was calmly reading the story to everyone else… “TEN THOUSAND!” the treasurer’s answer was loud! “Ten thousand!? Exclaimed everyone in the crowd…”

This story is known as “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant,” a title that makes it more palatable, because we can label and judge the guy who got it wrong in the story, and turn it into a morality tale about how we should act.  Then we either feel mildly convicted about our own ingratitude or smug that we’re not like him.  These were the two emotions it always elicited in me growing up, at least.
But the parable is part of a whole chunk of teaching about forgiveness.  About reconciliation and letting go in community, about not keeping track of how many times we forgive, but doing it over and over and over again.  The parable is meant to show us something about forgiveness.

 “The kingdom of heaven is like…”
...a king forgiving the slave more than he could ever possibly repay (the equivalent of 200,000 days wages!). In order to forgive the servant, the king has to really see him, his person, trapped under unfathomable debt with no future ahead. The king must have empathy, must feel his way into the servant’s place, and show him mercy. 
And everything changes for the servant when he does.  Craig Koester says it nicely, “Forgiveness opens up a future that the past has closed off.” (Sermon Brainwave) and the servant is beckoned into this future.  The mercy of the king is an invitation to live into a different system of accounting, one based on grace, unearned, undeserved, simply given. A way of life that is rooted in generosity and care for one another.  The servant is invited to live in the freedom of forgiven-ness.  

But the way of fear is so ingrained, that choosing to live in the alternative is extremely hard to do. And so, the parable goes, the servant goes out and grabs the first guy he sees that owes him money, about 100 days wages, and demands he pay up immediately.  It’s like celebrating sobriety with a drink, like running back into the burning building you were just rescued from, like scrapping the Ten Commandments for the golden calf and pining for the slavery of Egypt.  He sticks with his old identity instead of the new one offered him by the king - he chooses the way of fear instead of the way of forgiveness.

To live in the way of forgiveness means to find our identity first in our belovedness, rather than our woundedness.  Henri Nouwen shares:
"I am struck by how I cling to my own wounded self. Why do I think so much about the people who have offended or hurt me?  Why do I allow them to have so much power over my feelings and emotions? Why can’t I simply be grateful for the good they did and forget about their failures and mistakes? It seems that in order to find my place in life I need to be angry, resentful, or hurt. It even seems that these people gave me my identity by the very ways in which they wounded me.  Part of me is “the wounded one.” It is hard to know who I am when I can no longer point my finger at someone who is the cause of my pain!
[But] what if we are the Beloved long before any person accepted or rejected us? What if our true name is not the name given to us by those whose love was so limited that they could not avoid hurting us? What if our true home is not the house we live in but the sacred place in the unconditional love of the One whose being is pure love? Would there be any reason to cling to our negative feelings? Wouldn’t they disappear like snow in the sun? Wouldn’t forgiveness be the most spontaneous and even the easiest response?" (Weavings)

There are always illustrations of this kind of living all around us. If we paid attention and watched for them we'd see, every day, people making choices that are not necessarily easy or spontaneous, often far from it, but which come from at least enough perspective and groundedness in God’s way to be able to live an alternative to the way of fear – like the wife of the slain police Officer Patrick who prayed blessings on her husband’s killer at his sentencing. “God bless Fitch.” She said.  Speaking slowly and between sobs, she continued: “I hope he can come to a realization of what he has done. He has taken so much from us. He didn’t need to. I just want to bless him and hope that he realizes what he has done. Amen to him.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune)  And in the midst of people booing, hissing and throwing insults at this murderer, she restored his personhood – both to him and to others, and also restored her husband’s and her own personhood, by praying for him in this way that demanded he see her and be seen.

Ahasan Zahid, the assistant Imam of the Quba Islamic Institute in Houston which was burned in an act of arson, accepted the arsonist’s explanation that it was not a hate crime by saying, “We feel that this world has enough hate, and we have to have love and harmony and solidarity.”  Yesterday it was announced that they’ve asked that the charges against the homeless man who started the fire be dropped.  "We always preach forgiveness," said Zahid, "Our God is forgiving. Our prophet was always forgiving, and God tells us we should do as we expected to be treated by others. We should forgive, and that is the request we made." (Houston Chronicle)
 And all week he has gone on to illustrate this, by answering every social media message of hate and fear and spite with words of solidarity and love, to the point that it has become delightful to watch.  For example, when one person commented, “I can donate some bacon sandwiches and a bible if you all want!” Zahid accepted the offer: “We would gladly take you donation. Knowledge is something we can never have enough of. And we may feed the homeless in our area with the sandwiches. You are such a thoughtful human being!”  Comment after comment, he answers back with kindness and grace, upholding his own personhood and that of the one making hateful comments as well, and people are responding to him in droves with gratitude and awe.

CNN reported today, that “A Coptic bishop says he is willing to forgive the Islamic State affiliates who boasted of brutally killing 21 of his fellow Egyptian Christians in Libya.  “This crime is not just a crime against Coptic Christians,” Bishop Angaelos said. “It is a crime against humanity, and if there's anything we should stand for as human beings, first and foremost it's the sanctity of all human life.”
…He says forgiveness is his responsibility as a Christian minister.
“We don't forgive the act because the act is heinous. But we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.”  (Huffington Post)
And so he lives from the alternate reality of God’s way in the face of great evil and suffering that would seek to dehumanize each other and trap us in the way of fear.

And it isn’t just big things or global situations.  The way of forgiveness calls out to us in families, churches, neighborhoods. How do we live in this way of forgiveness with those we bump up against regularly, those we’re related to, live next door to, or work alongside?  What about conflicts that seem to go on and on, deep hurt or misunderstanding that festers unresolved? What about when attempts at reconciliation have been fruitless?

When Jesus talks about conflict and division in a community and the steps to take to be reconciled, he says, of those with whom reconciliation is not happening, that they become "as Gentiles and tax collectors." This has often been understood as being cast out, rejected from the community. Oh well. We tried and it didn’t work. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Cut your losses and move on.
But think about how Jesus saw sinners and tax collectors (of which Matthew himself was one, by the way) - they are the ones for whom Jesus came. And, to the constant dismay of the religious establishment, he always shows them, always, respect, honor, compassion, and welcome.

When, for whatever reason, attempts at reconciliation are fruitless - when someone is not willing to work things out - they have chosen to separate themselves from being in a community of mutuality and trust with you.  And it is not honoring, to them or to the community, to continue treating them as though they are still committed/inside such a community.  But instead, it becomes the community's responsibility to treat them with the respect, honor, compassion and welcome with which Jesus treats Gentiles and tax collectors.

In other words, this puts the onus on you – you are to treat them with compassion and respect, but not to expect the same in return from them. They will live how they will live - in relation to you and otherwise - and you are bound to honor them the way Jesus does. But you can no longer expect from them something they are unwilling/unable to give - that isn't fair to them or to you. Because you are no longer together on the inside of a community with agreed-upon values; there is no premise for a kind of vulnerability or sharing that exists in mutual community.

The people you have a mutual commitment to trust and honesty with are your community, the ones who can confront you when you do something that hurts them, and vice versa.  
But it can be an incredibly freeing insight to realize that is not how you can relate with this person anymore, even as they remain in your life.  
Forgiveness, in this case, is release, for them and for you, from being trapped in unachievable expectations, expectations that continue creating unsafe relating, and it is a call on your part to consistently seek to treat them with respect, honor, compassion and welcome. 

This has been such a significant realization to me in a painful and unresolved relationship in my life. I want to live in the alternative way, in the big picture, the kingdom of God, instead of the way of fear. I want to live in forgiven-ness and forgiveness.  I want to be held by grace, part of God’s generosity and life, instead of clinging to being right and fighting off death.  And I am learning that there is a big difference between, “I can’t forgive…” and “I want to forgive…” 
The way to forgiveness is not to muscle through. Just to try harder.  In reality, sometimes the first step is the very tiny but really huge, “I want to want to forgive…”  And I have taken the first step.  May God help me keep going.

The servant in our parable is forgiven more than we can begin to fathom, but he doesn’t receive the invitation into a different way of living.  He is unable or unwilling to do the risky thing of extending mercy to his fellow servant. All he sees is his own position - his own woundedness, the other’s indebtedness to him.  There no solidarity or shared humanity, no personhood or mercy, only transaction and owing, competition and self-protection. 
And so the story goes, upon hearing of his actions, the king gives the servant the way of life he chooses- and saddles him with his entire debt and the consequences of non-payment, and then Jesus tacks onto the story that if we choose the way of fear and self-protection over the way of life and forgiven-ness, we too will receive what we’ve chosen, when he says, “so my heavenly father will do to you of you don’t forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”  Choose, then, which currency you wish to live in, which way you want to define you.

 “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly, says Henri Nouwen. The hard truth is that all of us love poorly. We do not even know what we are doing when we hurt others.  We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour – unceasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family."

We are the fellowship of the weak. We are people who love poorly. We are but dust. 
We are the community of the forgiven. We are people who are responsible to treat others with respect, honor, compassion and welcome. We are beloved children of God.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Magnetized and Listening

I recently led a class on the Holy Spirit.  And I began with the assumption that every single one of us has had at least one inexplicable experience, at least one moment in life where we were pulled outside of ourselves, where we experienced something beyond, something transformative and extraordinary, something we would call God, the Holy Spirit.
I began with the recognition that every single person in the room had, in some way, at some time, tasted transcendence.  And then I invited people to share a story. When was a time you felt God? A time you knew God was with you? An experience that touched you that you can’t explain? A moment that shifted things for you?
And then the stories began to come out. Mysterious, moving, some both ordinary and miraculous at the same time, some downright astounding. Experiences that people couldn’t quite explain were shared, and the most common and appropriate response was simply, “Wow”. 

And we long for these – as human beings we crave these tastes of the beyond. Moments where the space between what is and what will be thins out, when the gap between earth and heaven becomes narrow - the thin places where God feels close. There is more to reality than we can see or understand; and we long for these glimpses that life is more fraught with splendor than it often feels.

The disciples, Peter James and John, get one of those moments today.  But talk about juxtaposition. Six days earlier Jesus gives them a big speech about how he will suffer and die, about how those who strive to save their lives will lose them, and only those who surrender their lives to God will find their true selves, and bewilderingly, about how they’ll have to take up a cross and follow him.

And then he leads them up a mountain.

This is the halfway point of Matthew; it’s hump day, as it were. It’s all downhill from here. The first half of the book and the season after Christmas that we’ve been in, Epiphany, has been about revealing who Jesus is, what the kingdom of God is about, making it all known.  But now a shift is happening, a turning point, and it pivots on the mountain.

Much of the first half has been set on a mountain as well, like Moses going up to meet God and receive the commandments, the description of life together with God, we’ve spent the first part of Matthew on the mountain with Jesus, in the “sermon on the mount,” direct teaching about the kingdom of God and what life looks like when it’s lived in God’s way of love and trust and connection instead of in the way of fear, self-protection, competition. 

And now they’re heading back up a mountain. But this time, they are distinctly not there for teaching or explanation. They are not getting a round two of a sermon, some truth about God, some challenge to chew on and apply to their lives. This time it’s an experience they can’t quite believe and don’t really know what to do with. 
Today they stand around like awkward evesdroppers with all the senses alert, watching Jesus suddenly take on glowing white robes and a face shining like the sun, convening with the forefathers of faith, these representatives of relationship with God milling around in conversation together like guests at some classy, celestial dinner party, and Jesus right at home among them, chatting away, and ignoring the three who’ve trudged up with him, like they aren’t even there, thunderstruck, watching this scene unfold.

It’s a moment of transcendence, of keen insight, a flash of recognition, things fitting together somehow – Moses, Elijah, Jesus, God, future, past, cosmos, meaning – it’s some kind of thrilling wakefulness and yet fantastic, removed and frightening.

And Peter does what anyone might, (but perhaps a bit more brazenly than you or I), he tries to make sense of it, to capture it, to bottle the mystery, to wrap it in logic and lesson, he INTERUPTS MOSES AND MESSIAH MID-SENTENCE, to blurt out, Hey Jesus, sorry to, you know, intrude, but I’ve just had the most perfect idea! I know just what we can do! Let’s build some tents right here, and you and Elijah and Moses can stay here forever, and we will too, and... 
But before he’s even finished getting the breathless suggestion out, a paradoxical “bright cloud overshadows them” and a loud voice announces, “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased! Listen to him!”
The three onlookers fall to the ground in terror, arms over their heads like a tornado drill got real, every nerve ending vigilant, feeling, I imagine, like they might just die from the power and magnificent tremor of it all, and then, they lift their heads and it is only Jesus, standing there, alone.
When the dust settles all that is left is Jesus.
And He touches them, and tells them not to be afraid.

And then, I suppose, they stand up and head back down the mountain. 
I picture them shaken, subdued, not quite sure what to say, not knowing what to do with their hands, their thoughts, stealing glances now and again at Jesus’s weathered brown face and dusty, worn robes, and wondering if they’d imagined it all. On the way down the mountain he tells them not to tell anyone what happened up there. 
As if they would
Who in the world would believe them? 
What would they even say?

But something has changed. Something has irreversibly has shifted them, I bet. Magnetized them, in a way. Oriented them, pivoted them to him in a new way. They’ve glimpsed beyond. They’ve gotten a peek at something they can’t explain but which feels more true and real than anything they’ve ever known, for which the appropriate response may simply be, “Wow”. 

Why, I wonder, has he asked them to come along, Peter, James and John? His followers, his friends; why did he bring them? 
For their sake? For his own?
Come with me! He says, And like kids tagging along with mom to an appointment, they came, and stood on the sidelines watching the unfathomable, glowing Jesus chatting with Moses and Elijah. About what? What were they saying to him? Giving him advice? Asking questions? A pep talk?  
Whatever it was clearly not about the three of them, not really even for the three of them. They were onlookers to the scene, participant observers in Jesus’ reality as he plugs in, as it were, to his source, the absolute affirmation of his divine purpose and place, even if just for a moment. 

The first half of Jesus’ ministry began with the voice of God, claiming Jesus as the beloved, the son, in whom God is well pleased. It is the core, the thread that holds him to his identity and purpose through the harsh wilderness and the miracles and teachings that follow.  And now he hears it again, as he sets his face toward the cross and the deliberate journey into suffering, misunderstanding, hatred and death, This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased. 

In a short while he will invite them again, Come with me, and he’ll go to the garden to pray; he’ll endure such anguish that he will sweat blood, and wish desperately that he could skip out on the horror he’s about to endure, and he’ll surrender himself to God, and to what is ahead of him.  They will watch and wonder, will fall asleep alongside him and wake up, and struggle to make sense of that experience as well.

Right after the disciples witness Jesus’ strange and momentary transformation and head back down the mountain, they are confronted immediately by the father of a tortured kid they couldn’t heal – and it comes up this way, by the way, in this order- these two parts of the story, back to back, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, like they belong together, like you can’t have the one without the other.

In every telling of the transfiguration the disciples go from this terrifying, exhilarating experience of limitlessness immediately to this troubling, frustrating and humiliating experience of helplessness.  They swing from great euphoric insight and conviction, to utter impotence and impossibility, confronted by the ministry they could not do and tagging along after a Messiah who is headed for a cross.  And Jesus heals the boy, and blesses the father, and calls the disciples again to follow.

But despite the fact that the only command, the only concrete thing they can take away from their moment of transcendence, their experience on the mountaintop is the very direct order: LISTEN TO HIM, they struggle to hear him, they resist what he has to say. 
No matter how much he tells them the cross is coming –and it is, the whole second half of Matthew is heading there –no matter how much he says he is not here to take them out of the world but to come into it, not here to prevent suffering but to share it, and that we too must follow him there, they can’t quite wrap their heads around this.  It continues to elude them.  Perhaps until that moment in the garden. Or perhaps not until the cross itself.  Or maybe, they don’t ever really hear it until the resurrection.

Maybe it’s then that it comes back to them, a flash of recognition, things fitting together somehow – Moses, Elijah, Jesus, God, future, past, cosmos, meaning – the thrilling wakefulness, the touch of Jesus, maybe it’s then that they finally hear his words on the mountaintop, Do not be afraid.

As we walk into Lent, and into Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ cryptic parables, we will seek to listen to Jesus. Jesus, who faced all the temptations and struggles of being human from the core of his belovedness in God. Jesus who says, Come with me, and Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it, and Do not be afraid.

Lent invites us to go deeper, to be open to God with us who both comes to us in mystery, and meets us in our messiness. Who gives us the inexplicable gift of momentary glimpses beyond, and ceaselessly stands with us in our impossibility and helplessness. 
This Lent, may we be oriented to Jesus in a new way.  May something shift within us that draws us ever into deeper faithfulness and trust.