9-20-17 - Not the Boss

As we move through this Sunday's parable, let’s hear how the vineyard manager might tell the story:

Let’s get this straight right off: It was not my decision to pay everyone the same. That was the way the boss wanted it, and I follow orders. To tell you the truth, I felt a little funny about it. I watched how hard those guys that got hired at dawn worked. The ones who came later worked hard too, but there’s a big difference between working for twelve hours and one.

When the boss told me to give out the full daily wage for everybody, I was surprised. I thought maybe he’d add some kind of a bonus for the ones who picked all day. But no. It was like his generosity only went toward the ones who got hired late. More for them than expected; the amount agreed-upon for everyone else. He even paid them first. Fair…and not quite fair. Depends on how you look at it. Depends on who you’re looking at.

I don’t blame the all-day folks for being mad. But here’s what they don’t know: they were already at the top of the pay scale. That daily wage was way above the norm. The boss was paying out everything he was making off that vineyard. The only way to pay those workers more was to pay others less.. and that’s not how he rolls. Not how he thinks. He’s quirky, the boss… hard to understand at times. But I’ll tell you this: he knows what he’s doing. 

Who might the manager in Jesus’ story represent? I think he stands for all who consider ourselves servants of God, who participate in what God is doing, carry out God’s mercy and God’s justice, speak God’s peace, who forgive and heal and love and tend. God’s ways don’t always make sense to us – we take a big leap of faith whenever we walk into the works God has prepared for us.

It can be hard to be God’s rep in the face of grief or crisis, to sit with someone in who feels God is not blessing her as God blesses others. It is a challenge to proclaim God’s love to someone who insists they have never known it, cannot feel it. I often have to resist the impulse to defend God when someone is disappointed or accusing, when something in the Bible or the church causes offense. Then I remember, God doesn’t need me to defend him. God only needs me to be true to what I believe God is telling or showing or leading.

And God needs us to be true to ourselves. We don’t leave ourselves at the door when we work for God - the Spirit of God works with and through us, through our intellect, emotions, history, moods, our circumstances on any given day. God doesn’t want robots – God seems to want us.

Are you willing to be God’s “ managing agent” today? What vineyard have you been called to tend? Are there difficult “orders” to carry out? We don’t have to worry about doing it ourselves. We can simply pray, “Lord, if you want me to do this thing, or have that conversation, please work in me and through me.” And then pay attention to what happens.

I stand on the reminder I once got, that God already loves me the most. There is nothing I can do or have to do to make God love me more, because God is already as delighted in me as can be. I could quit accomplishing and producing right now, and my God-salary would not decrease. I’m already at the top of a really generous pay scale. And so are you.

9-19-17 - I Was Robbed

One way to “hear” parables afresh is to look at them from different angles. Today, let’s see what one of those “all day” workers might have to say:

You think I’m wrong to be resentful? I was up and at the marketplace by 5 o’clock this morning, ready to work. This guy hired me and a bunch of others, told us we’d receive a good day’s pay. It was good pay, better than some. I didn’t mind working all day, knowing I was going to get paid well. I'm a good worker.

Every few hours, a few more joined us – Good, I thought, There’s plenty of work. I was a little surprised when a few more came in at nearly quitting time. Oh well, they’ll get paid for an hour. Enough for a beer. Why not? Even with the extra hands, though, it was a long day, and the sun was hot.

When the foreman finally called time, I was ready. But the boss said those who worked fewer hours should get in front of the line; us all-day guys to the back. Okay, I thought, maybe he doesn’t want them to know our wage. Then I saw they were getting the full day’s pay, even the one-hour folks. Wow, this guy is generous! I couldn’t wait to see what kind of bonus I was going to get.

But I finally got up to the front of the line, and got my pay… and it was exactly the same as everybody else. Exactly the same as we’d been promised at the start. Seemed okay at 5 o’clock this morning, but now, with the sun going down, knowing what everybody else got, I feel stiffed. You bet I do. I worked like a dog today, never looked up, never sat down. Why did I bother, if others get more for less?

A few of us spoke up, but the boss, he just said, “Can’t I do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”

I don’t want his stinking generosity – I want things fair. You work, you get paid. You work longer, you get paid more. Tell you this much, this is the last time I agree to a daily wage. You can just pay me hourly from now on. Then I'm in control.

This guy represents the religious rulers that Jesus was always tussling with, the ones who thought God’s rewards were only for those who kept the law like they did. They show up in a lot of Jesus’ parables – the older brother in the Prodigal Son story is another example. They want to control the terms. And Jesus keeps saying, “No, God controls the terms. And God can welcome whomever God wants.”

Do you know anyone like this? Have you ever been someone like this, resentful when someone else gets rewarded? How are you at asking for help? Do you prefer to give gifts, or receive them? These are some of the ways we know how open we are to the generosity of God.

A prayer for today: Lord, open my spirit to receive your gifts. Open my heart to rejoice in the blessings given to the people around me, whether or not they’ve earned them. Open my eyes to see who wants to give me time or help today. Open my ears to those who want to share themselves with me. Open my hands to give and receive, in love and humility and gratitude. Amen.

There’s a lot to be said for getting paid hourly… but what Jesus offers is daily bread. Enough for the day. Take it.

9-18-17 - No Fair!

Now we come to one of my favorite parables – the workers in the vineyard. No blood or violence in this one, just grace beyond measure. And boy, does that make some people mad!

You can read the whole story for yourself – Here’s the “nutshell” version. A landowner hires day laborers for his vineyard, agreeing to a standard wage. They’re happy, he’s happy. As the day progresses, he goes back out to the marketplace at intervals and hires more workers, even at 5 in the afternoon, when the workday is nearly done. At quitting time, he instructs his manager to pay everyone a full day’s wage. Everyone gets the same – what could be more fair than that? But the ones who worked the whole day feel they should get more than those who worked less time.

"And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’"

Now, maybe their workload grew lighter as more workers were added to the vineyard… but even so, they have a point, don’t they? We almost always have a legitimate grievance when we compare ourselves to other people. When we stand before God’s grace alone, though, we're more apt to be in awe of the abundance of mercy extended to us.

Like many of Jesus’ parables, this one is aimed at those who believe they are “in” in God’s realm by virtue of their hard work and righteousness. If we all get the same reward no matter how hard we work, what’s the point of working hard? Precisely! The Kingdom of Heaven is not for strivers – it is for what we become when we’ve finally reached the end of our striving and give up. Give in.

The currency of the Kingdom of Heaven is grace, unmerited love and forgiveness in abundance. Grace goes beyond contract. By its very nature, it is “unfair.” We cannot earn it. It is totally up to God to give, to whomever God wants, no matter how much or how little we try to please God.

How does that sit with you? On our best days, we say, “Whew!” because we know we get a pass. On our worse days, we say, “Hey! How come that one got a break?” Are you having a “thank God for grace” day or a “I want them to get what’s comin’ to them” day? If you’re in the former position, amen! You are in in the Life of God. Spend some time in prayer today giving thanks for all the ways you see and pass on God's grace.

If the idea of mercy for another – even a heinous monster – is troubling you, that’s fine too. We feel what we feel. With those feelings we can pray for those undeserving people. Pray that they might come within reach of God’s true blessing. That’s the only force I know of that can transform the blackest heart. It's happened before...

A few years ago, I-Tunes users received a free gift of the new U2 album, whether or not they wanted it. Many in fact resented it. But In honor of that gift, let’s end with an old song of theirs, “Grace,” especially these lyrics:

What once was hurt / What once was friction / What left a mark / No longer stings /
Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things

Litany of Forgiveness

Litany of Forgiveness 
Compiled by Kate Heichler

“Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:37-38)

Lord, release in us forgiveness for our enemies in the world. 
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28)

For those who hate us for who we are – and those whom we disdain;
for those who use violence to gain their ends – and for the times we do the same;
for those who seek vengeance, not peace – and for us, when we do the same;
Help us to forgive those enemies we name before you now, especially…
Forgive us, Lord, and help us to forgive.

Lord, please release in us forgiveness for ourselves. 
“Jesus said, ‘But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to the woman, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’” (Luke 7:47b-48)

For the ways we have disappointed ourselves;
for the things we have said that we cannot un-say;
for the things we have done that we cannot undo;
for the opportunities we have let go by;
for the hurts we have inflicted on those whom we love:
Help us to forgive ourselves for those things we name before you now, especially…
Forgive us, Lord, and help us to forgive.

Lord, please release in us forgiveness for people who have hurt us. 
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)

For grudges we have held and bitterness we have fed;
for the people who have hurt us by what they’ve said to us or about us;
for the people who have hurt us by not valuing us;
for those who have taken from us and not given back;
for those who have abused our trust – and even those who have abused us
Help us to forgive those people we name before you now, especially…
Forgive us, Lord, and help us to forgive.

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (II Cor 5:18-19)


© Katherine Anne Heichler, 2008; use by permission only

9-15-17 - Forgiveness for Freedom

Lest we think this story Jesus told was hopelessly out of date, we should remember that we still have debtors’ prisons in this country. The Southern Poverty Law Center got one in Alabama closed down a few years ago. Threatening punishment for those who cannot pay is an old strategy. Jesus even seems to employ it in the end to his parable:  “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” 

Forgive, or else, is that Jesus’ message? I hope this is another of his hyperbolic turns, where he drives home a point by exaggerating it. However, whether motivated by fear or love, the call to Christ followers to excel at forgiving others is clear. In fact, it is necessary if that living water of God’s transforming power and love are going to flow through us unimpeded. Unforgiveness creates blockages, debris that can – like plaque in our blood vessels – create clots. This is why forgiveness and healing are so intertwined.

I was privileged to know Canon Jim Glennon, an Anglican clergyman from Australia who had an extraordinary gift and ministry of healing. His notion of God’s healing was simple: It is God’s desire that we be whole, so we pray, planting the seed of faith in Christ; give thanks for God’s activity, even before you see it, and don’t be afraid to test it. Jim and I corresponded quite a bit before he died, and he came to New York to lead a healing mission I organized at my church.

He did some teaching and then, to demonstrate, he asked if someone with severe back pain would come up for prayer. A man did. He’d been injured at his workplace 15 years earlier, and his pain was incessant. Jim prayed for him awhile, and then stopped and asked what the man was feeling or sensing. The man said, “It’s weird – ever since you began praying, I’ve had my old boss’s face in my mind.” This boss had denied him worker’s comp benefits he should have received, and the man bitterly resented him. Jim said, “Are you willing to forgive him?” He didn’t push, just invited. The man said, “Yes, I am,” and then began to sob and sob. After some more prayer, Jim asked him how his pain was now, and he said, “It’s gone! It’s been with me for 15 years, and it’s gone!”

If you have a sense of blessings blocked, either coming to you, or from you to others, ask God to show you if you’re holding onto anger or resentment toward someone. And release that debt as well as you’re able, asking the Spirit to do for you what you’re unable to do for yourself. And then test out your freedom, the way Jim asked the man to test his absence of pain by twisting around and moving. Pray for the person who hurt you. Go out and give to someone else. See what has changed. (If you’d like to pray a Litany of Forgiveness I developed, you can find it here.)

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Paul wrote. (Galatians 5:1). Let’s spread it around.

9-14-17 - Communities of Forgiveness

This week’s Jesus story still isn’t over – there is another turn to it. (You know, Jesus’ story is never really over!) The injustice wrought by the newly forgiven slave is not the last word. After he refuses to release his fellow-slave from his debt, the other servants turn the mean guy in:

“When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”

Okay, I’m pretty sure God is not in the torture business – though we do endure a kind of spiritual pain when we withhold forgiveness. (Is that what hell is?) But here Jesus explicitly links forgiveness in and forgiveness out, as he does in other teachings on prayer. We can’t get away from it. We can’t fully experience God’s love if we can’t forgive ourselves and others.

What I like in this story is the way the community watches the situation, and calls out the injustice. Having witnessed the great mercy shown this slave, they were not about to let him get away with holding someone else to harsh terms.

Injustice can be perpetrated and perpetuated in communities, and misdeeds swept under the carpet. But in healthy communities, a light is always on and members are accountable to each other. When someone acts in a destructive or prideful way, a healthy community has people of integrity who can remind her of the mercy she has received, and invite her to align her values with those of the community. In Christian communities, that means the values Jesus taught and lived.

Think of how our police departments and military units and financial institutions might function if they were communities of accountability and justice. Many recent news stories would have been non-events.

Have you ever been called on your behavior or treatment of another? Was the message delivered in a way that you could receive it? How did you respond?

Have you ever addressed someone about the way they were acting or speaking? Perhaps a notorious gossip or someone who routinely sows discord? Those are hard conversations to have. But when we put the health of the community and of each person in it – including the one who’s being destructive – above our social discomfort, we can move forward. And if we pray it through beforehand, and during, those conversations often go much better than we anticipate.

If someone you know is damaging the community, you may need to deal with it. Pray for that person for a time before having the conversation – it gives us more peace and gives the Spirit a chance to prepare the ground. And if, as you speak, you can cite times you have been less than wonderful, and speak with humility, it might keep the walls from going up. And if you’re able to pray with the person you’re having the conversation with, so much the better.

God set us into communities, starting with families, classrooms, workplaces, memberships. Community can be one of the hardest aspects of human life, and one of the richest. This story Jesus tells invites us to be active in keeping our communities as healthy and life-giving as we can. That includes speaking the truth in love.

9-13-17 - Mercy Strained

What a heart-warming story we hear in Jesus’ parable about debt forgiveness. The king had pity on his poor slave and forgave his debt, all 10,000 talents of it. In fact, Jesus says, “he released him and forgave him the debt,” suggesting perhaps he was even set free from his servitude. It must have been a good day for that debtor. We'd like to think he continued the chain of mercy. Ah, but the story was not finished. Plot twist – the debtor was also a creditor:

“But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.”

So the one who, in effect, just gained 10,000 talents he no longer has to repay, refuses to even extend the collection period on a mere 100-denarii loan. Liberals like me tend to think, “Oh, if everyone just received merciful treatment, they’d treat others that way.” This parable suggests it’s not automatic. I’ve preached to guys on the street who I’m pretty sure have called for major forgiveness in life – and some of them did not approve of the parable of the prodigal son. They prefer justice to mercy, hard as it is.

In this story Jesus suggests that, when we refuse to forgive our fellow human beings for the offenses they have committed, we are being exactly like that wicked slave – because the forgiveness we have received from God is so much greater than anything asked of us. Do you buy that? We need to accept at least two conditions for it to make sense:
  1. That we are sinners in need for forgiveness by God, and have received God’s grace.
  2. That, no matter how serious another’s offense against us is, it pales in comparison to humankind’s offenses against our Creator.
At the time we are wounded or insulted in some way, it’s hard to see anything but our pain and righteous anger. We’ll talk about it to anyone who will listen – often to anyone except the perpetrator. The idea that in God’s Big Picture our betrayals and shortcomings may be just as serious, or more, seems inconceivable in that moment. We lose perspective.

I will not try to persuade you which forgiveness is bigger. I’ll just invite us to put ourselves in the shoes of the first debtor, the one whose huge debt is removed, who has been set free. I believe that the more fully we integrate that spiritual gift, the better able we are to keep perspective when we are sinned against. When we really “get” how blissfully off the hook we are, we might just be more inclined to want other people to enjoy that feeling, even those who’ve hurt us most. Especially them.

Yesterday, I suggested some confession. Today, let’s think about people we still need to forgive for hurting us, letting us down, lying about us. Bear in mind the person you’re keeping on the hook might be yourself. It might be God. What would it feel like to release that person?

It can take a lifetime to accept God’s forgiveness and freedom, to live into the change in status conferred upon us in Christ: no longer a slave, no longer a debtor; now a daughter, a son, free. But what a life we can have if we accept that gift right now.

9-12-17 - Mercy Unlimited

Jesus said there is no limit to the number of times we must be prepared to forgive someone. Then, to illustrate the point, he told one of his trademark stories. This is a longer parable, with multiple characters and scenes. As is often the case in how Matthew relates Jesus’ stories, this one has a violent cast to it. The story in a nutshell goes like this:

A king is settling his accounts with his slaves. Apparently this king not only owns slaves, but is like their loan-shark. The terms of non-payment are pretty severe – you’re sold off, along with your wife and children, and have to sell all your belongings, with the proceeds going to service your debt. Nice. One guy owes ten thousand talents. He begs the king to forgive his debt – and he does. Wow! That was unexpected, right? What he does in response to having his massive debt forgiven we’ll talk about tomorrow. Today, let’s focus on this ruthless king who is capable of such mercy.

Jesus starts the story by saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” Is he saying that GOD is like such a king? Not necessarily – he says the realm of God may be so compared. At the very least, we surmise that in the economy of God’s realm, the servants owe the king quite a bit, and that settling these accounts is a normative occurrence.

Do we owe debts to God? Some theologians, like Anselm of Canterbury, argued that every sin we commit is akin to stealing from God. If God is perfect and has given us perfect life in his image, then every blemish on that perfection is an offense against the creator, an offense for which we must make restitution. That’s one way to look at it.

Or we might try the language of stewardship, which asserts that everything we have in this world, including our life, our gifts and resources, our relationships, our abilities, is on loan from our heavenly father, for us to use and enjoy and to nurture into growth. In this sense, every time we claim something as ours, whether money or credit for things we’ve done, we are grabbing at what was freely offered us to use. There is no “mine” in this view – we are always to be ready to account for our use of God’s gifts.

That's a way of seeing the process of repentance and confession – a daily settling of our accounts with God. Do you make a regular practice of confession? We do it in church, with or without much thought. Some people do it in their own prayer times. Others visit a confessor for the sacrament of reconciliation. To be honest before another person and hear the words of God’s forgiveness is a powerful grace.

We can do an inventory, thinking through our relationships, our work and activities, our use of our gifts. Incidents of self-centeredness or wounding of self or others might come to mind as we do this, and we can offer them to Jesus for forgiveness. Or read through a Prayer Book litany like the one for Ash Wednesday – that’ll stir up some penitence.

When we find we’ve taken more out of the kitty than we can replace, when we have committed too serious an offense to repay – which might be all of them – we fall on God’s great mercy. If it’s anything like the king’s in this story, though the consequences could be extremely dire, we get to walk away with our books balanced, nothing hanging over our heads. That what “whose service is perfect freedom” means.

9-11-17 - Forgiveness Without End

In last week’s gospel passage, we explored what happens when one member of the community is wounded by another. Jesus laid out a process of confrontation leading to resolution, either reconciliation or separation. Peter must have been thinking ahead, for he realized it wasn’t enough to be able to address conflict… if what Jesus had been saying all along meant anything, reconciliation would have to include forgiveness. How far was that supposed to go?

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Here is this week's gospel passage.)

Sometimes it’s translated “seventy times seven.” I once wrote a short story called “The 489th Wrong,” about a religious woman who finally reaches that number of times she feels she’s forgiven her husband, and thinks she can stop (wrong!). But it’s not about the math. Seven is one of those infinite numbers, so Jesus is basically saying, “As many times as needed.” There is no end to the number of times Christ-followers are called to forgive.

The deeper the wound, the more forgiveness costs us. I see forgiveness as “giving for.” Someone has taken something from you; they owe it, and you pay yourself for them – in effect, you lose twice. Why do that? Because it cancels the debt, clears the field, resets the clock, frees you and the other person. That’s one reason.

The other, as we’ll see from the parable Jesus uses to illustrate his point, is that while we’re busy trying to decide whether or not to forgive someone, somebody else may be wrestling with forgiving us. And even if we’ve offended no one on earth, chances are we’ve done, said or thought something that makes us less than who God intended us to be, and therefore we need God’s forgiveness. When we think about how many times we ask God to forgive us, often for the same darn thing, we’re more inclined to cut each other some slack, as the great hymn “Forgive our sins” reminds us.

Is there someone whom you have been unable to forgive?
A resentment that sits there within you? Chances are that wound remains unhealed, and gets reopened periodically, either by that person or by similar feelings.
What feelings come up when you think about forgiving that person, releasing that debt?

If you don’t yet feel ready to forgive, might you be willing to let God do it? That’s one way to pray toward forgiveness, by praying, “Lord, I can’t forgive this person… but if you want to, I guess it’s okay.” Just praying that will shift the landscape a bit, generate some space, and the Holy Spirit will work with whatever space we give. If you're willing to go a little further, pray, "And if you want me to, please give me a desire to forgive..." That's another opening.

Our “forgiveness muscles” need to be exercised just like everything else in us. On this anniversary of one of the worst wounds inflicted upon our nation in recent times, we have yet another opportunity to flex those muscles. No one is beyond the reach of God's forgiveness, and as we grow in faith, we are able, by his power, to forgive even terrorists. 

9-8-17 - Jesus Here Now

Sometimes I wish Jesus would show up and set a few things straight in this messed up world of ours – if people would pay more attention than they did the first time around. But that idle wish misses a big ol’ point: He is here. He said he would be. It’s up to us to discern him and to make him known.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” is a promise. A promise of presence. To unfold that promise, though, requires a few actions from us.

First, we have to be able to distinguish between flesh and spirit. Jesus said that fleshly reality was limited, and that spiritual reality was never-ending. Jesus’ enfleshed presence was time-and-space-limited, 33 years or so, give or take, in one region of the world. His presence in a resurrection body lasted about 40 days. His spiritual presence is eternal, and still going strong among those who believe in his promise.

The other article of faith we need to affirm is the idea of Jesus living in us. I take the promises of baptism at face value - the promise is that we are united with Christ, made a new creation, given a new heart and a new spirit – his spirit. So Paul wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” This filling with his spirit is not an “invasion of the body snatchers” thing. Rather, his spirit joined with mine brings forth a new person, that most true “Kate” (fill in your name) that can possibly be.

If Christ dwells in us, abides in us, then he is real in us. And when we gather with others in whom Christ lives, his presence becomes even stronger and more real. By believing and joining together, we make Christ present in our world, not just a suggestion of presence, but fully here, spiritually speaking. (We supply the flesh and blood.)

How might it change our lives and ministries if we brought this reality more fully to our consciousness? If, when we gathered together, we knew Jesus was among us, and we spoke and acted and prayed like we knew we were in the presence of the all-powerful God? If, when we went out in ministry, we made sure we went in teams of at least two, so that the power of Christ’s presence would fill and empower our work in his name? Don’t get me wrong – Christ is present in us when we’re alone. But he said when two or three of us – our more – gathered in his name, he would be in our midst.

Where do you think it would be great if Jesus showed up this weekend? What place, person, situation? Do you have any idea how you might bring him there, with a few others?

Going deeper… where do you think he might want to go? You might get quiet in prayer and ask him: “Jesus, where do you want me to take you today, to make you known?”

I can’t wait to hear how those prayers turn out. I do know the world needs a lot more Jesus, and we’re just the ones to help make that happen.

9-7-17 - Pre-Blessed Prayers

Some promises are dangerous, offering more than can seemingly be delivered. This statement of Jesus’ strikes me that way: “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” Anything? If even just two of us agree?

Is this a promise with a back-door clause – is it so unlikely that two people on earth would ever fully agree about any request, God has an automatic out? No, let’s assume Jesus was being straightforward. That might leave us doubting God, knowing that we have prayed for outcomes with many people in whole-hearted agreement as to their desirability, without seeing them come to pass. Exhibit A are prayers for healing that are not visibly answered.

This is one of those bible verses that cannot be separated from the one that follows. It only accords with both faith and experience when seen in tandem with this: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (This Sunday's gospel is here.)

Ah, now we’re not only talking about human agreement. We’re talking about being gathered as the Body of Christ, in his very presence. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray as Christ; to pray from inside, as it were; to invoke the power that his very name makes known. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray in agreement with him, and thus to pray with perfect faith. Our own is far from perfect, but Jesus’ is 100%. When we pray with Jesus, not only to Jesus, we have all the faith we need.

So why are some of our prayers not answered as we desire? Perhaps we weren’t quite praying in Christ. Maybe we were bringing forward our desires and seeking God's blessing upon them, like a pie at the county fair. “Here, isn’t this one pretty?” Sometimes that yields answers we recognize. But our prayers feel more effective when we pray what Jesus is already praying for; his prayers come pre-blessed.

What are some of those “unanswered prayers” in your life? I think most of us have some, and they often put distance between us and God. Call one to mind today.
Have you ever asked God what God thinks about that prayer? Ever discussed it with Jesus? Ever paid attention to the Spirit in you when you pray about that?

We might even try asking God: "What is your desire for me in this area?" We might be surprised at how God answers us. We might have to stay still for a time, and attend to what words or images or songs arise in us, now or later.

Prayer isn’t about getting what we want; it’s about deepening a relationship, one that will last forever. We need to speak our desires - that's just good communicating, being real. But the more we cultivate intimacy with Jesus, the more we’ll find ourselves truly praying in his name, his will, his mind, his heart.

And sometimes, as Garth Brooks reminds us, there are reasons we only discover later for what feel like Unanswered Prayers.

9-6-17 - Free To Set Free

Do we want this much power? Several times Jesus sets the authority to offer or withhold forgiveness into a cosmic framework, saying that what we do in this world is mirrored in the heavenly realm. 
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Yikes.

Maybe Jesus teaches this process of confrontation and reconciliation because there are such cosmic consequences to ignoring conflict and pain. When we bury our hurts, sweep our conflicts under the rug, not only do we stay bound, we keep the perpetrators of hurts bound to us. No one is free.

I believe that what God wants most for us is freedom. I have seen the process of healing and forgiving result in amazing freedom for people, huge releasing of energy and giftedness, new ability to see, to hope, to live. As I reflect on this, I keep thinking of stories of survivors of sexual abuse and trauma. (The next two paragraphs contain nothing explicit, but if this is a sensitive area for you, read with care.)

I once prayed for months with a woman who had endured sexual abuse throughout her life – people who have been victimized as children often suffer similar abuse in adulthood. This woman saw herself more as victim than survivor, and harmed herself as well. One time I said something about moving toward forgiveness. She turned on me in fury and said, “They told me in my support group that I don’t ever have to forgive!” I backed down, thinking, “That is true – but then will you ever be free?” Forgiveness cannot be rushed, but to close ourselves to it leaves us bound to people who have hurt us.

Years later I met another woman. She and her two sisters had been sexually abused throughout childhood by her father and grandfather, who were still alive and in the family. She had done the excruciating work of addressing those wounds and moving toward healing, and had come to forgive her abusers. She did not trust or get close to them, and worked to ensure the safety of children in the family system, but over time she released the awful burden of their crimes. And then she was no longer psychically connected to them – forgiveness meant freedom from them. Her sisters refused to do this work; one was deeply alcoholic and the other suicidal. As brutal as it is to work at healing from trauma, it is a movement toward freedom, and life.

Many of us have not experienced trauma this severe – but we might feel bound in some way by a hurt we have suffered or anger we continue to hold. Usually the anger is justified; it can still be corrosive over time. Today, we might let some of those stuck places come up in our mind, and pray about forgiving people who have hurt us, or ask forgiveness of those whom we have hurt. If we ask the Spirit to show us those things, they often emerge from the muck.

Inner healing is a powerful process of bringing the love of God to bear on our emotional wounds. I have witnessed tremendous transformation result from the healing of memories and specific areas of woundedness. (If you want to know more about this process, please contact me.)

As we release that healing stream of God’s love and power to soak into hidden wounds and resentments, life returns to parched places, and old knots become unwound so that peace can flood in. “It is for freedom that Christ has made us free,” Paul wrote. Jesus has won for us freedom to release ourselves and others. Let’s set the captives free.

9-5-17 - Exclusion?

We love to talk about how inclusive church should be. But In our gospel passage this week, Jesus suggests conditions for exclusion. He lays out a process for dealing with conflict in the community of faith, by which someone who has inflicted hurt might participate in repentance and reconciliation. He also provides a contingency for those occasions when the offending party is unable or unwilling to be reconciled: “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

On the face of it, this approach seems realistic, if harsh. If trust has been breached in the community, and attempts at repair have failed, perhaps wholeness can only be gained by isolating the offender. No doubt this teaching gave rise to the practice of shunning and excommunication in some Christian groups. Separating an offender from the community at large can be an act of punishment or protection, or both. It is also an act of aggression, even if warranted, as in the case of an abusive spouse or parent whose presence in the community would make it impossible for the survivor to feel safe.

I wonder, though, if Jesus meant something else entirely. The way Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors was to eat with them and heal them, invite them to repent and to join his community. The people he seemed to have no desire to be in relationship with were the "holy men," the religious leaders. Is Jesus inviting us to go deeper into reconciliation than is comfortable? Is he suggesting we open ourselves to the Other who has hurt us, to see her wounds and distorted perceptions, reach across the divide with love that has the power to transform?

That is an intriguing read of this passage. As a strategy, it leaves room for growth, where distancing and isolating offenders does not. I knew a church in which a seeker was found to have been viewing internet pornography involving minors. He complied with law enforcement when discovered, entering willingly into the justice process and into therapy, hoping to find deliverance from this compulsive behavior. But people in the church were unwilling to have him around, except under very stringent guidelines – rules which ensured he could never become part of that otherwise loving community in which he might have found healing and transformation. I believe safety for all could have been ensured without this degree of exclusion – but we’ll never know. He did not stay long under these strictures, and neither he nor his wife continued their exploration of the Christian life. And some members of that church missed an opportunity to expand their capacity to love the sinner – and so to experience God’s love more fully.

Of course, each situation demands its own discernment. Reaching out must be accompanied by true honesty, within safe boundaries for those hurt. I think of the Truth Commissions set up in South Africa during the dismantling of apartheid. Reconciliation was forged not by burying grievances, but by bringing them into the light, speaking them in truth and clarity, with the perpetrators there to hear the effects of their actions and invited to repent. Healing for victims can happen without the repentance of perpetrators, but when you have both, there is ground for deeper engagement, deeper community.

Think of someone you have shut out of your life or community because of harm they have caused.
Can you imagine reconciliation on any level? If so, pray for a vision of how. If not, can you pray for that person to be healed and even blessed? When someone is blessed, she is much less able to hurt.

None of this is easy, nor simple. But I believe it is the Good News which we are called to live.

9-4-17 - Conflict

Conflict is a fact of life – or at least a fact of human nature. Wherever two or three are gathered, there are likely to be four or five competing desires (sometimes within one person.) We don’t all see things the same way; each has her own lens borne of her own history and circumstances and brain chemistry. We don’t all want or feel we need the same things; inevitably one person’s want gets in the way of some other good, as, say, a desire for untrammeled speed will compromise the safety of others.

Christian communities are not immune to conflict. In fact, they are often conflict incubators, since people come to them hoping for the idyllic family they never had, dragging along their thwarted, dysfunctional baggage. Conflict within a church family is a given. It’s what we do with it that makes the difference. As my friend Peter likes to say, “Conflict doesn’t kill churches. Suppressed conflict kills churches.”

Jesus knew that the community of his followers would include hurt and conflict – witness the infighting among his disciples while he was yet with them. So he laid out a process for dealing with it: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”

Jesus’ teaching makes great psychological sense. First, we are to show the courage and respect to speak privately to the person who’s hurt us. Don’t triangulate conflicts by talking to a third person before sharing your feelings honestly with the first. How many conflicts could be quickly deflated by this simple step – and yet, many of us have been conditioned not to confront people, so we let it escalate.

If that conversation goes nowhere because the other person isn’t open to hearing how you feel, bring in that third or fourth person – but in the presence of the one who’s hurt you, not behind his back. Now it becomes a community issue, and out in the light. And if that doesn’t work, Jesus says to bring your grievance before the whole community. What happens when we do that? We model openness and vulnerability and transparency. We’ve invited prayer for ourselves and the person who has hurt us. We’ve offered our wound for healing, and opened ourselves to the transforming power of love. Can this get messy? Sure it can. But it’s not nearly as toxic as a conflict that is allowed to fester.

Can you think of a time when you were hurt by someone in your community of faith? Were you able to articulate it? Did you speak of it to others before you spoke to that person? Did you distance yourself from that person or the community? Have you forgiven?

If the memory is still painful, that's a sign that it remains unhealed – and that is something to invite the Holy Spirit into. It’s never too late to forgive and be set free, even if the person who hurt you is no longer in your life.

This teaching assumes relationship and intimacy within the Body of Christ. Many of our congregations are far from that. Maybe that’s where we start – by getting close enough that hurts can happen. And loving enough to forgive and heal.

9-1-17 - Checkin' It Twice

I lean toward the “grace and love” aspects of God as the Scriptures and Jesus describe God’s Realm. Give me eight “parables of the prodigal” for any one “be warned, judgment is coming” passage. Yet, as much as Jesus described God’s Kingdom as a place of unexpected mercy and reordered rankings, he did not shy away from the judgment to come. So he ends this teaching about taking up your cross with the reminder that there will be a reckoning:

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done."

That "repay everyone for what has been done” bit sounds ominous to me. I tend to assume, mostly for neurotic reasons, that the Judgment will go badly for me. Maybe you share that instinct; it is what I call “original shame.” It drives Santa Claus theology – “He’s makin’ a list, checkin’ it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…”

Only it’s not Santa who’s coming to town, but the Son of Man with his angels in the glory of his Father. Who of us can stand before such a entourage? Saint Paul didn’t think he could. 
“Wretched man that I am,” he wrote in Romans, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
And then he answered his own question: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

The great, audacious claim of Christian faith is that the One who comes to judge is the same One who has delivered us from the power of sin and shame. United with Christ, we need fear no reckoning. As Paul goes on to say, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Wow.

No condemnation. And as we breathe that in, and allow this union with Christ to be realized in us, we find ourselves making God-ward choices, moving with the power and love of the Holy Spirit. And then we start to be able to see where Christ is in the world around us.

Our passage ends on a cryptic note. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
No one quite knows what that means – the next event in Matthew’s Gospel is the Transfiguration, where Peter, James and John see Jesus in his divine glory for a moment. Is that what he meant? Or did he mean the spiritual vision that allows us to see the Son of Man coming all the time?

How does that sentence, “He will repay everyone for what has been done” sit with you?
Do you assume blessing? Then you are already blessed.
Do you assume condemnation or trial? Then spend some time today with Paul’s promise of grace and love, let it work in.

And pray to be so filled with the Holy Spirit that you have the spiritual vision to see what the world does not: the Son of Man coming in his glorious reign, once upon a time, for all time - and right now.