A Potter's Perspective on Life, the Church, and Culture

Missing Tomato Aspic

There’s a funeral tomorrow and grief for another family that will have an empty seat at this year’s Thanksgiving table. This is everyone’s reality: How do you give thanks when someone you dearly loved is missing? This year our unexpected death was Aunt Claire. There were other deaths with Aunt Alva and first cousin Virginia, but Claire’s was a total shock. As much as I disliked the tomato aspic that she dutifully brought to Thanksgiving and Christmas, this year I will sorely miss it because I’ll miss her. One way to handle Thanksgiving when you feel the losses is to add up the blessings that those no longer with us gave us while they were here.

This reminds me of a very poignant Thanksgiving that our family observed 14 years ago. We were at Cindy’s mother’s house and we feasted and reminisced about former days. We deeply missed Mr. Godwin or “Gandaddy,” as the children called him. My Dad’s sudden death just weeks before his was heavily on my mind, too. As I was walking around in the yard before we left I noticed the stump of the old oak tree that had stood for centuries beside the house. After Hugo ripped up another of the ancient giants in the yard and the last ice storm decimated the rest, it seemed a good idea to cut down this hazard that was located so precariously close to the house. All that had been left for several years was a huge stump.

I’m sure the transformation took place gradually, but that Saturday it was undeniably apparent and immediate. The old stump that had once looked weather beaten and forlorn was alive again. It was sprouting new shoots, live branches of hope into the gray sky. They were at least four feet tall and climbing. The serendipity of the find gave me pause to think about life and its changes. We go through lifeless seasons of scarring and barrenness, and then Jesus’ power causes us to sprout again. Even when it seems like life is over, Jesus can resurrect us. There is no damage that Jesus can’t undo!

Another serendipitous occasion over that Thanksgiving holiday was the arrival at my mother-in-law’s of a cute little beagle. Mrs. Godwin had enjoyed her two cats, but she had sorely missed the Boykin spaniel that she and Mr. Godwin mutually adored. Bud was the dog that they loved so much. Bud enjoyed riding in the pickup with Mr. Godwin and lying down at Mrs. Godwin’s feet. He was so old he started to edge closer and closer to death’s door, but, because he was so much a reminder of Mr. Godwin’s life, Mrs. Godwin spared no expense in vet bills to try and keep Bud going, especially after Mr. Godwin’s untimely death. However, one day Bud just disappeared, either he was stolen or instinctually wandered off in order to die away from his “Mother,” as if to spare Mrs. Godwin yet another grief.

Other dogs had come and gone before Bud: Brio, and Britt, to name a couple. You probably noticed that all their names started with the letter “B.” So one’s imagination wouldn’t have to work overtime to figure out what new name this foundling beagle was granted: Barney. Mrs. Godwin, living by herself, had said repeatedly that she wanted another dog, but she didn’t have the desire or physical stamina to train another one for the house. Well, God does work in mysterious ways. Barney just happened to be house-broken already, had quite a menacing bark for a dog with his diminutive size so he could protect Mrs. Godwin, and he quickly learned to use the “dog door” that Mr. Godwin installed some time before his death. Once again, when we least expected it, just like the old tree stump’s new shoots, new life enters our pain and gives us hope.

Advent season can be a similar experience for us frail time-bound human creatures. One recent year our family didn’t even put up a Christmas tree because we were too overwhelmed by personal concerns in the aftermath of Mrs. Godwin’s sudden death and Narcie’s first brain tumor surgery. Every year since, determined to open our hearts to Jesus’ power to bring new life, we have put up our decorations weeks earlier than usual.

Instead of retreating into worry, which is more my problem and not Cindy’s, Advent dares us to move toward God’s in-breaking kingdom, whether it comes in the form of new shoots out of a seemingly dead stump, a new puppy, a new baby like Josh and Karen’s due in February, or the ultimate gift of new life that comes in the Christ Child grown up to be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. May this Advent bring you inspired hope. Yes, we will miss Aunt Claire, Aunt Alva, Cousin Virginia, and the rest of our loved ones who have died this year, but we will look for the signs of hope that they all taught us to see!

tomato aspic


Lessons from Paris

Terrorism and the targeting of civilians is a horror, and every religion has been guilty of this unthinkable action. We must stop using faith as a weapon and overcome the love of power with the power of love. Cheap grace, however, is little solace to grieving families. There must be justice or God’s grace is diminished along with what we call civilization. How do we live in a world where tolerance is expected and repaid with bloodshed?

Rather than face our own atrocities and our own complicity in hurting others, we move along with a simple hope that it, whatever “it” is, doesn’t happen here. We become N.I.M.B.Y’s (Not In My Back Yard) and welcome isolation from those that are different from us. Out of fear we shun the sojourner and nomads among us. What part of John 3:16 is false? Either God did or didn’t love the world. I’m all for high standards towards others, but with ethics. The words of Micah the prophet echo today: “God has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”

Acting justly requires repentance and justice for the offender and the victim. Loving mercy demands that the cycle of violence that seeks an eye for an eye be stopped. Walking humbly with God and with everyone else is a call to self-restraint. My natural tendency is to try to get along with everyone, but pray with one eye open because I’ve been burned by evil before. This, for me, is the crux of the problem in the aftermath of any senseless atrocity: In what ways do I act like Jesus the table-turner who uses a braided whip, or like Jesus who says “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

Which way exhibits a more “radicalized” Christian? Is it more Christian to grab a gun and get revenge or to embrace and seek peace. I daresay that if the world thinks a radicalized Muslim is hell-bent on killing non-Muslims, then the world better think the opposite of us. We are heaven-bent on loving in the ways of Jesus who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God (Matthew 5:9).” I want to be a radicalized Christian.

I understand that there must be the rule of law and civilization, but personal retaliation is ruled out in the Christian ethic. Romans 12:17-21 and 13:1-2ff makes the difference clear between my personal position and the action of God-blessed governing authorities. The first passage says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

This passage is about our personal response to evil and our attempt, “as far as it is possible,” to remain peaceful. The second passage, immediately following says: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” This passage, a few lines later, says about government: “For it is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword for nothing.”

So the twist for me as one who wholeheartedly thinks that radical Islamists need to be punished is to let the rule of law take its just course, and not harbor hatred in my heart that would incite personal revenge. Sooner or later there must be a lesson learned, but it won’t occur if those who uphold Jesus’ ethics stoop to a hateful retaliation. How do we hate the sin and not the sinner? It is so much easier said than done. We defeated fascist Germany and militaristic Japan and then we rebuilt enemies into friends. Perhaps a similar route in the face of Paris is a use of the power of love that disciplines an incorrigible child. To do less is to condone evil. To do more is to become evil.

French Flag


Rock Your Mocs Week

November is National Native American Heritage Month 2015 in the US. November 8-14 is the worldwide “Rock Your Mocs Week” in which Native Peoples stand together in solidarity by wearing their moccasins. Columbus Day has come and gone, but most indigenous First Peoples of the Americas wish that it was gone forever. The sentiment is captured in the t-shirt that pictures First Peoples with the caption, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” We are glad to be called Christian because Jesus walked in our moccasins, but not so much because Native Theology has been underappreciated, squelched, subverted, and persecuted by so-called “Christian” European theological doctrines and the “Doctrine of Discovery,” a papal bull that formed the basis for a series of US court cases that stole Native lands for non-Native use and ownership.

The Washington Redskins are still named as such. Wouldn’t it offend you if they were called the “Black Skins” or the “White Skins?” “Redskins” is so offensive because it is something Native People don’t call themselves. It is a designation by oppressors against their enemies. The Pilgrims better be glad that the First Peoples that took care of them didn’t use their numerical advantage to their benefit. Thanksgiving is just around the corner and the Pilgrims who numbered around 50 should have been thankful that the American Indians at the celebration, numbering over 90, were peaceful. That peace didn’t last long because the Pilgrims in their strict Calvinism felt they were made in God’s Legal Image and were “called” to subdue the land and the Native Peoples. They broke the peace and have been doing it ever since. I am thankful that Wesleyan theology in the United Methodist Church promotes that we are all made in God’s Moral Image and Social Image. These better reflect both the theology and the principles of First Peoples.

God’s Moral Image denotes that God does right and not wrong, and doesn’t break treaties or steal land. United Methodism’s most distinctive doctrine is based on Matthew 5:48’s injunction, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” United Methodists emphasize that God doesn’t save us through Jesus Christ to leave us the way that God found us, but transforms us for the transformation of the world. First Peoples understand full well the need for rules and respect for elders. We know that society works best when we reflect the Creator’s support of reciprocity; i.e., that one cannot expect to live without consequences and interdependence. Respectful give and take is God’s solemn plan for the way that we should live in the world.

Interdependence is held in common as a core belief of all Native Peoples. This is truly an acceptance of the United Methodist belief that all humans being are made in God’s Social Image. If God exists in the community that we call the Trinity, so should we live in harmony. First Peoples also know that it doesn’t just mean that we should work together as humans, but also in harmony with all of creation: two-leggeds, four-leggeds, and no-leggeds. Conference, which is such a keen word in United Methodist polity, is a distinctly Native value and custom. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we embraced the values of doing what is best for everything and work together for the common good?

We find that these values permeate the Bible. In Genesis 1 the creation poem is a wonderful way to teach interdependence and reciprocity. Day One with the creation of light and darkness corresponds with the two things made on Day Four that have stewardship over the light and darkness: the sun and moon. Day Two gives us the creation of sky and water and Day Five reveals the creation of the birds and fish that have stewardship over the sky and water. Day Three is the creation of land and vegetation, and Day Six has animals and humans as stewards over those. Day Seven’s Sabbath rest for God shows that Creator God has stewardship over everything. It is a beautiful poem of interdependent relationships that should promote harmony and value among all of creation. Native Peoples are not pantheists that believe God is everything, but we are people that are panentheists who believe God is in everything.

Interesting, isn’t it, when Satan tempted Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, he offered Jesus the “kingdoms of the world and their glory (Matthew 4:8).” This presupposes that there is innate glory among the nations, all nations. There’s also glory among all people and all things and we should treat them so. What this means to me, as I celebrate National Native American Heritage Month, is that I need to do everything that I can to appreciate God’s glory and image in everything. If God’s glory is to be unveiled in society, I need to do my part in doing the unveiling.

We need to unveil the glory of God in our churches, schools, arts, entertainment – in every social structure known to humanity. The students of the University of Missouri have taught us a lesson this week, and so have First Peoples. Let’s work together and see God’s glory everywhere. Where it is marred, let’s clean it up. Where it is lacking, let’s recreate it and unveil it. Jesus came to walk in our moccasins to do this very thing, the Incarnation leads to Redemption and to Entire Sanctification!

Mocs Image

As a potter I hope that my pieces communicate something. The preference is that they communicate function over form, but I do like to dabble in creative risk-taking shapes sometimes. Form should follow function whether in pottery or the church. First you figure out what you think God wants you do, and then you figure out the means, structure, or whatever you need to accomplish it. If we can figure out our function first then our forms and the shape of our vessels should surely follow!

I prefer 19th century pottery forms because they got this point exactly right. The potters or “turners,” as they were called back then, didn’t go for the fancy stuff that’s more artsy than utilitarian. They made crocks, jugs, and storage jars, things you were going to use. Sure, they decorated the ware every now and then, but, for the most part, it was all about function first. I wonder sometimes if churches are first geared to perform our function, or do we prioritize our outdated and poorly purposed forms, means of worship and facilities. Do our forms follow our function to make disciples of Jesus Christ? What do we communicate?

St. John’s Apple Fest is this coming Saturday and I will be donating quite a few pieces of pottery since the proceeds support missions. I’ll be using a South Carolina theme where I use a sgraffito method and free-hand draw the palmetto and crescent symbols of our state on the wet clay. South Carolina has been through a lot this year, from massacre to mud, Charleston Nine to the Flood. Thus I want my work to communicate a love of our state and support ways that we can help alleviate some of the suffering that people have endured.

Forms communicate function and what we value. Fred Craddock, best preacher ever in my mind, has a great story, one of many, that speaks about the communication of values. He tells about when he was a youngster going to church with his mother. The story goes like this: “The minister would speak to my mother, ‘How’re you, Miz Craddock?’ and the five of us kids would go along like little ducks waddling after our mother. ‘How’re you, sonny? How’re you, honey? How’re you, sonny? How’re you, honey?’”

He goes on to say, “But I remember when another minister came to our church, and about his fifth or sixth Sunday when I went along there, he said, ‘Fred, how’re you doing?’ He was the best minister that ever was at that church, because there’s a big difference between ‘sonny’ and ‘Fred.’” Amen. The personal touch, with pottery and people, communicates something, doesn’t it? It makes all the difference, in my opinion. A church that communicates personal care and nurture is a boon to society as a whole, and to individual lives as well. What do people hear from us? Do they hear a well-intentioned, but impersonal, “sonny,” or “honey,” or do they hear the specific love of God that is tailor-made for them, as if it were only theirs to hear?

Another Craddock story expresses a need for better communication of our values: “I was in a church gathering in Ponca City, Oklahoma, and somebody asked me during the question-and-answer period what I thought about somebody’s view of the Bible that had just been published and they had all read about. I discussed it, and I said, “There’s a lot of thought there, and I’m sure this is a very sincere person, but his view of the Bible is not adequate for me. I think he puts too much water in the wine.”

Then he continued, “Afterward a woman came up to me and gave me two tickets to the state Women’s Christian Temperance Union banquet, a fine organization opposed to the use of spirituous liquors. She wanted my wife and me to go, and I said, ‘But why this?’ And she said, ‘We just don’t have enough ministers speaking out against drink, and I appreciated what you said.’ Now, what did I say, and what did she hear?”

These are the two questions that we must absolutely answer with every verbal interaction, sermon, and church service or program: “What did I/we say?” and “What did she/he hear?” If we ask those two questions and understand the answers we will have come a long way in adequately offering Jesus to a needy world. Our function is to offer Christ and our words and actions are the form, the vessel for the content of the Gospel. Answering “What did I say?” and “What was heard?” creates better communication, and proves that our forms FOLLOW our function!

>Throw Your Life Away: Be a Potter!



I have great memories of Halloween! My Mother was the Queen of the best candy routes and had a waiting list of people who wanted to accompany us trick-or-treating. She’s very much on my mind as we approach Halloween. All Saints’ Day is a reminder that she is yet alive and that her influence lives on and inspires me. When Mother died in January of 1983 I was in my middle 30’s and since that time one of the most important lines of the Apostles’ Creed has been, “I believe in the Communion of Saints.” Yes, I do!

On some days, my mind goes back to recollections of Mother and it poignantly cheers me, affirms me, and gives me hope. I can see her hoeing the garden, and her love of flowers. I can recall her huge heart that looked out for the unfortunate. I remember her hearty laugh and her travails through the “sloughs of despond,” a la John Bunyan. She embraced life, loved Jesus, and put her faith into action. I miss her, but I know where she is. All Saints’ Day reminds me.

I remember that it was this time of year not long after her death when I went to the hardware store/gift shop, a wonderful place of implements and plants along with china and gift-type items. I saw this pansy-decorated planter and thought it would be a great gift for Cindy. When she got home from work and I presented the gift, I was reminded that we had three teenagers, money was tight, and she didn’t even like pansies, and that I should have known that in no uncertain terms!

Being the good guidance counselor, she helped me process why I got so angry at the rebuffing of my gift. You’ve probably already guessed it. I didn’t buy the pansy-painted planter for her. I bought it for my dead Mother. My anger was grief. She understood, and so did I. I returned the gift and bought 4 flats of pansies and planted them. Every year, right about now, I do the same thing because my Mother loved pansies. Of course, she preferred ones with “faces” and Cindy likes them without. I compromise and get both! This year I’m even trying violas for the first time.

All Saints’ Day reminds us that unresolved grief needs to be admitted, worked through, dealt with, and grace given to oneself, others, and especially the deceased. Just as they cannot see the bad things that we do, or it wouldn’t be heaven, we need to focus on good memories and ponder those. I’m not saying that we need to gloss over childhood abuse or neglect and forget the bad things, but we do need to forgive and believe in redemption.

All Saints’ Day redemption includes all of us, seen and unseen. We’re not perfect and neither were our loved ones, however much we cherish and sometimes overstate our experiences of them. Every Christian, dead or alive, is going on to perfection in Wesleyan terms. John Wesley believed so much in Sanctification/Christian Perfection that he bordered on an endorsement of purgatory; i.e., we continue to be made more and more like Christ even in heaven. So on All Saints’ we do our best to recall our loved ones and fellow church members and let go of that which we need to let go, and hold onto the best. We remember where they sat in the sanctuary, their work with missions through the UMW or UMM, their beloved pound cakes, harvest festival crafts, and so much more.

We remember! Another word for what happens in Holy Communion is “anamnesis,” also known as “to remember,” and the opposite of amnesia’s “forgetfulness.” Anamnesis is inspired by Jesus’ words that are carved on the front of most altar tables: “Do this in remembrance of me.” When we gather at Table this coming Sunday we will be surrounded by Jesus, the heavenly host from every nation, tribe and language, and our deceased believing loved ones will be as close as our breath. Think of it as God’s Trick AND Treat for you and me. He beat death and the treat is eternal life.

One of the best summations of all this comes from the PBS series on the Civil War by Ken Burns. It’s about Major Sullivan Ballou’s last letter to his dear wife Sarah on the eve of his death in battle. Read carefully his words and remember your loved ones as I remember mine:

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables, that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistibly on with all those chains, to the battle field.

The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you, come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and you that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our boys grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me — perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears, every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortunes of this world to shield you, and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the Spirit-land and hover near you, while you buffet the storm, with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience, till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah! if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladest days and the darkest nights, advised to your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours, always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, or the cool air cools your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

All Saints' Day Pic

Saving the Children

Have you ever been in a restaurant or store and overheard or watched a child being reprimanded by a parent or another adult? Most of us are intuitively aware when things have crossed the line into child abuse, but we usually remain silent and walk away. Children are a gift, and we shirk our responsibility as a society every time we remain silent when one of God’s own gets hurt.

I had a professor in seminary, Dr. Gary Pratico, who had done archaeological work near Carthage in North Africa. He studied the same Phoenician culture that produced atrocities against children by the Israelites in the period before the Exile. Contrary to God’s value for children, the Israelites sacrificed their children to the gods Molech or Baal, fertility gods of the ancient Middle East.

I’ll never forget the day that Dr. Pratico brought a small urn that had a cover to class and poured out its contents on his desk. There were multiple small charred bones. They were the bones of a child 0-3 years of age that had been bound over a stack of wood, throat slit, then set on fire and burned to death. He said they found thousands of similar urns in the area around Carthage in North Africa. The Jewish people of the same period buried their urns in the valley of Ben Hinnom outside of Jerusalem in a place called Tophet, a word meaning “burning,” or “hell” – a place where they burned their children to death.

Why did the Israelites do such a thing? Like all people who want to get rich, they worshipped fertility gods and made sacrifices to them, including their children, so that they would be rewarded with more children, more cattle, more sheep, more crops, more land, and more, more, more of everything. They wanted these fertility gods to be happy and, in return, make them happy, healthy, and prosperous. Too bad they didn’t just trust the Lord.

Children’s Sabbath in the life of most of our churches has just come and gone where we focus on children and their welfare, but our society’s violence against children persists, and we must do something to stop it! Maybe you’ve heard the story of the people who were standing by a river and they noticed a baby floating down the river. People jumped into the water and rescued the baby. A short time later they saw another baby thrashing in the water and more people jumped in to rescue the child. This went on and on and everyone was pressed into rescue service. Finally, one man who had been part of the bucket-like baby brigade walked away. Everyone yelled at him and asked where he was going and pleaded with him to stay and help rescue all the babies. His reply was, “I’m going upstream and stop whoever is throwing all these babies into the water!” Amen!

That’s our situation, too. Children all around us are being harmed, neglected, abused, killed, and we’ve got to do more than just wait until they float downstream into our grasp. We need to find the source of the evil, and stop it. The United Methodist “Nothing But Nets” anti-malaria campaign is one way. Another is our Orangeburg District campaign to help children in a remote village in Ghana get the educational opportunities that will mean the difference between life and death for them. Our church hugely supports the “Life for Children’s Ministry” for AID’s orphaned children in Kenya. There are so many things that we can do. There are more things that we must do!

For instance, South Carolina’s school districts that are underfunded must be better funded. The State Supreme Court mandated a year ago that the legislature has to do more than provide a “minimally adequate” education as dictated by our state constitution. Nothing has been done yet, and that is appalling. Children are being thrown into the river; into life’s deluges and we’re not even rescuing them, much less trying to stop the inequities that exist.

I am not a socialist, but I am a Christian, and my faith tells me that I should do something to protect and provide for the “least of these.” Jesus said about children that “of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 18:16). The time has come, in my mind, for us to do more than pick a Sunday and call it “Children’s Sabbath.” We need a lifestyle that protects children, supports them, and sacrifices for them!

I remember hearing of a preacher traveling from Atlanta to a conference at Clemson University in South Carolina. A young woman was to give the evening devotional and walked up with her legal-size yellow pad. Everyone was expecting something long, ill-prepared, and perhaps awkwardly painful. Her voice was low and she spoke in a language that wasn’t English. Then she spoke in another language that wasn’t English, then again, then again, and then again. According to the preacher that was listening, she then said something that sounded like German and he thought that he recognized it. Then it was in French and it was more recognizable. Finally, she said the same thing that she had been saying the whole time in English: “Mommy, I’m hungry.” Then she sat down, and it was awkwardly painful, and it was needed!

The preacher thought about what she said over and over again as he traveled back to Georgia, and as he entered the outskirts of Atlanta he saw a billboard that said this: “All You Can Eat $5.99.” All you can eat $5.99, a real good deal, but in his head all he could think was: “Mommy, I’m hungry.” God help us to quit sacrificing our children on the pyres of greed and indifference. Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my lambs.” Food for stomachs, minds, hearts – food for thought, isn’t it? How many children can we feed for $5.99?

School Children Hands


Gin and Jesus

We all deal with repeat-offenders that seem to have a knack of getting on our last nerve and then challenge us to forgive them. My best buddy has a saying that is so perfect in this kind of situation, “There’s no lesson learned from the second kick of a mule.” How do we know when to cut our losses, move on, or disassociate from the hacks? Do we act like Jesus who compassionately dared to call Judas his “friend” in Matthew 26:50, or do we use Christ’s method of cleaning house at the Temple with a whip (John 2:15-16)? Do we respond to repeat-offenders by emulating “Buddy” Jesus from the movie “Dogma,” or the tough Jesus who said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me…” (Matthew 16:23)?

This is so difficult. Our choices run the gamut of engagement, disengagement, retaliation, turning the other cheek, righteous indignation, going nuclear with mutually assured destruction, radical forgiveness, or cautious pleasantries. What I wonder about my own need to forgive is whether it’s so hard because the same people do the same or similar things over and over again – the second, third, fourth…kick of the mule. I find it a little more doable to forgive someone’s one-time misbehavior.

If it or something like it keeps happening, it’s more difficult. The Lord, however, put an indefinite number on the times we should forgive (Matthew 18:21-22). In answering Peter’s question about the subject, his reply was a whopping “seventy times seven.” Most of us would have a hard time doing what the families of the Charleston Nine did in forgiving their killer. I can much more easily forgive someone if they do something to me, but it’s a whole other story if they hurt one of my children, grandchildren, or spouse. “Seventy times seven” is more kicks from a mule than I want, but I am shocked by God’s radical forgiveness for those who crucified his Son.

Jesus himself practiced extraordinary forgiveness – unilateral forgiveness, a one-sided forgiveness that didn’t depend on the offender’s repentance or even their stated desire to be forgiven. There’s not one instance in all the Gospels where anyone ever asked Jesus to forgive them, but he did. The paralyzed guy let down through the roof by his four friends didn’t ask to be forgiven, but Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven; take up your mat and walk.” The woman with a shady past who poured expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet didn’t ask to be forgiven, but Jesus said, “Daughter, your sins are forgiven; go and sin no more.” More amazing was when Jesus was hanging on the cross. There’s no evidence at all that anyone in that crowd asked to be forgiven, but Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” So, I’m convicted and convinced that if I want to be like Jesus then I’ve got to forgive. If I want to be forgiven then the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us,” must come true in my life.

Anne Lamott is a wonderful author whose wit and pen flare with zingers. Her book, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, combines a spiritual sincerity with a refreshing authenticity. A lot of it won’t ever make the hit-parade of sermon quotes because it’s more than a little ribald, but it’s so real. The third chapter is titled, “Forgiven,” and it is loaded with her self-exposure in harboring resentment at the seemingly perfect mom of her young son’s best friend. Her angst at this woman hits a fever pitch when this well-intentioned mom offers unwanted help. Anne Lamott’s words resonate, “I smiled back at her. I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

It is so pithy and well-written! Another section goes like this: “I tried to will myself into forgiving various people who had harmed me directly or indirectly over the years – four former ——— presidents, three relatives, two old boyfriends, and one teacher in a pear tree – it was “The Twelve Days of Christmas” meets Taxi Driver. But in the end I could only pretend that I had forgiven them. I decided I was starting off with my sights aimed too high. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, ‘If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.’”

Her easier person, her son’s friend’s mom, turned out to be harder to forgive than expected, but she finally gets there, and gives a glimpse of hope for all of us who have a difficult time with this. She finally sees things from the other person’s perspective and understands. It didn’t mean that they became best buds like their sons, or even that she liked her all that much. Simply put, her epiphany was that she needed to work on herself more than someone else, and all the energy she spent raining on someone else’s parade was causing a flood on hers.

Seems like Jesus said something like it with these words in Matthew 7:3, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own?” As a matter of fact, reading the whole Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is a pretty good remedy for anger and unforgiveness – life in general. I guess we’re people of the second, third, fourth, ad infinitum chance. I’m counting on it. You?

MLK on Forgiveness


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