DOING IT RIGHT OR DOING THE RIGHT THING?

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners. [Matthew 9:13b (NLT)]

grey catbirdWe recently saw a stage production of Les Miserables (“Les Miz”), a musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel. Set in France in the early 1800s, it tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. When Valjean, known as “Prisoner 24601,” is released, he is issued a “yellow passport” which he’s required to present to the police in any village he passes through. Stating he has been released from prison but listing his crimes, this yellow piece of paper marks him as a criminal forever.

Almost immediately upon his release, Valjean steals from the Bishop of Digne, the only person who shows him any kindness by offering him food and shelter. When the ex-convict is caught by the police, the bishop refuses to accuse him and even gives him more silver. The astonished Valjean then commits his life to virtue and service. Realizing he can’t start life anew as a convict, he breaks parole by tearing up his yellow passport and changing his name.

Valjean becomes a model citizen but, to an unrelenting policeman named Javert, Valjean remains Prisoner 24601 and a criminal. Even after Valjean saves his life, Javert remains wholly dedicated to enforcing the law by arresting Valjean and punishing him for breaking parole. He sings these words about Valjean: “Once a thief, forever a thief. What you want you always steal.”

While hardly a Christian story, Victor Hugo’s tale depicts the way Christian love can transform a person. We see how the bishop’s love and forgiveness affects Vajean and how his new personality positively impacts the lives of others. When we accept Jesus, like Valjean, we become new people and the old is gone. The “yellow passport” identifying us as sinners is torn and tossed and we are new people with a new purpose.

While we identify with Valjean, we also can resemble the unrelenting Javert or the merciful Bishop of Digne. Like Javert, do we ever act as judge and jury and insist that “a man like that can never change”? Are we people who can’t forgive: people who believe justice is more about retribution than mercy? Like Javert, are we more interested in being right or, like the bishop, is our concern doing what’s right? As did the bishop, do we truly believe in redemption, forgiveness, love and mercy? To give someone a new lease on life, would we lie to the police or give even more to a thief? Would we follow the letter of the law or the word of God? When I ponder this question, I think of the advice given to a young man by his minister father: “Don’t just do what is legally right, do what is morally right!” Let us remember that, as Christians, we are not called just to do things right; we are called always to do the right thing!

You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. [Matthew 5:38-42 (NLT)]

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YOU ARE FORGIVEN

So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup. For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honoring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God’s judgment upon yourself. [1 Corinthians 11:28 (NLT)]

Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another. [United Methodist Book of Worship]

ospreyIn the denominational church we attend Saturday nights, we celebrate Communion every week. As part of the liturgy, the congregation is invited to join in a corporate general confession. The pastor then tells the congregation that, in the name of Jesus Christ, they are forgiven. The congregation responds with the words, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” New to this denomination, at first I wondered, “Does the pastor need the entire congregation’s forgiveness?”

With just a little thought I realized we weren’t forgiving the pastor (unless, of course, she’s harmed us in some way); we were forgiving all who have wronged us. Sinning and being sinned against are part of the human condition. If we need God’s forgiveness (and we always do), it’s a sure thing that someone out there needs our forgiveness as much as we need theirs.

Our Lord’s words were “forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us,” [Matthew 6:12] which seems to mean that the way we give forgiveness is the way we’ll receive it. But does that mean we’ll not be forgiven if we don’t forgive? That seems to run contrary to the concept of God’s grace. I’ve read assorted and contradictory commentaries on this and still don’t know the answer to that one. What I do know is that the power to forgive doesn’t come from me; it comes from the Holy Spirit. Perhaps our inability to forgive others has more to do with our relationship with God than with anyone else.

The Apostle Paul tells us to examine ourselves before partaking of the bread and wine which would seem to mean that we should examine our relationship with Christ to determine whether it is sincere and genuine. Harboring condemnation, ire, bitterness, or resentment indicates there’s a problem in our relationship with Jesus as well as with someone else. The message of the gospel, however, is one of reconciliation and forgiveness.

When I say those words of forgiveness during Saturday worship, I am reminded that Jesus placed the burden of forgiveness and reconciliation on me. It doesn’t matter who is at fault, who should be the one to apologize, or whether the person who offended us is repentant or not. We can’t ask for the blessings found in the Lord’s Supper if we’re unwilling to share those blessings with friend and enemy alike. There is no room for anger and unforgiveness at the Lord’s table; His table is one of love and forgiveness.

‘Forgive our sins as we forgive,’ you taught us, Lord, to pray,
but you alone can grant us grace to live the words we say…
In blazing light your cross reveals the truth we dimly knew:
what trivial debts are owed to us, how great our debt to you!
[“Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive” by Rosamond E. Herklots]

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. [Colossians 3:13 (NLT)]

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BITTERROOT AND BINDWEED

Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many. [Hebrews 12:15 (NLT)]

bitterroot - hedge bindweedThe bitterroot plant was a staple in the Native American diet; just a few ounces of the dried root provided enough nourishment for a meal. Bitterroot could also settle an upset stomach, relieve the itch from poison ivy, and numb the pain of a sore throat. Unlike the bitterroot, however, the root of bitterness is anything but life-sustaining or healing.

With its large pink flowers, the bitterroot is lovely and welcome; the root of bitterness is not. Bitterness is more like bindweed, a wild relative of the morning-glory. Both look harmless enough at first but, before you know it, they take root. Bindweed wraps itself around every plant nearby and bitterness wraps itself around our hearts. The roots of both bindweed and bitterness can reach deep and spread wide. Gardeners often call bindweed the “zombie plant” because it’s nearly impossible to kill; the same goes for bitterness. Without continual effort to keep cutting down bindweed and cutting out bitterness, both may be here to stay.

It’s hard to avoid bindweed, and the same goes for bitterness. We’ve all had people who’ve hurt us in seemingly unforgiveable ways. When bitterness rears its ugly head, we may find ourselves wishing ill upon them or taking secret joy if adversity hits them. Their inexcusable behavior makes us feel justified in allowing this bitter root to grow. The longer bitterness and bindweed are allowed to grow, the deeper their roots go and the more they destroy the garden or life hosting them.

Forgiveness is the only way to eradicate the root of bitterness and it doesn’t come easily. A desire for justice, revenge, and retribution is the natural response to injury. While we think that someone should pay for the harm that’s been done to us, we forget that Jesus has already paid that debt. If we ask how we possibly can forgive those who’ve hurt us, we must also ask how God possibly can forgive us. When Jesus saved us from God’s condemnation, we lost any right to condemn other people; we are no less a sinner than anyone else.

It takes patience, perseverance, and determination to rid a garden of bindweed and the same goes for ridding our lives of bitterness. As with bindweed, whenever we spot bitterness sprouting in our souls, we need to prune it back to weaken its roots. Praying for our enemies kills bitterness in much the same way herbicide kills bindweed. We should improve our soil with God’s word and consider cultivating new friends—ones who won’t share our bitterness, feed our resentment, encourage our hostility, listen to our complaints, or tolerate our anger. It can take three to five years of concentrated effort to eradicate bindweed from a garden; ridding ourselves of bitterness doesn’t happen overnight either.

There is one similarity between the root of bitterness and the bitterroot plant. Bitterroot’s scientific name is Lewisii (in honor of Meriwether Lewis) and rediviva (meaning “reviving from a dry state”) because of its root’s ability to grow again after being dug up, dried whole, and stored for several months. Like the bitterroot, the root of bitterness often can find a way to revive when we think it’s dead and gone. Then again, we must remember that both bitterroot and the root of bitterness can only revive if we replant and water them.

Love keeps no record of wrongs, but bitterness keeps detailed accounts. (Craig Groeschel)

Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. [Luke 6:28 (NLT)]

Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. [Ephesians 4:31-32 (NLT)]

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FACING THE MUSIC (Philemon)

Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living. [Romans 6:18 (NLT)]

swamp milkweedPhilemon was a wealthy member and leader of the church in Colossae and Onesimus was his slave. Apparently after stealing from his master, Onesimus ran away and ended up in Rome. After finding his way to the Apostle Paul, who was under house arrest at the time, Onesimus became a Christian. The one page book of Philemon is simply a personal letter to the runaway slave’s owner pleading the man’s case.

Although Onesimus had become a new man in Christ, both he and Paul knew that, before the runaway slave could begin his new life as a Christian, he had to finish his old one with Philemon. As a fugitive slave, he’d always be looking over his shoulder wondering if and when he might be caught. He wouldn’t even be at liberty to openly share his new faith or be active in the church for fear that Philemon would learn of his whereabouts. Paul sent the remorseful slave back to Philemon with a letter asking his forgiveness and offering to make any financial restitution necessary.

I can’t help but think of steps eight and nine in many twelve step programs. Step eight is to make a list of the people who have been harmed and be willing to make amends and step nine is to make direct amends wherever possible, except when doing so would harm them or others. Making amends is a delicate process; sometimes it can be done directly, such as repaying a debt or making a repair. Sometimes, however, direct amends are impossible; neither lost lives nor stolen innocence can ever be returned. Moreover, there are times direct amends are unwise—some secrets are meant to be kept and one’s conscience should never be cleared at the expense of others. When direct amends can’t be made, then indirect amends are. Nevertheless, in all cases, part of making amends is facing the consequences for our behavior. The consequences facing Onesimus were serious: a thieving runaway slave could have been killed. Nevertheless, trusting in God (and Paul’s letter), Onesimus returned to Philemon to “face the music” and make amends. It certainly couldn’t have been an easy choice for him.

Onesimus’ story reminds me of news stories I’ve seen over the years of individuals who failed to resolve their past before starting new lives. Perhaps they arrived here illegally, evaded arrest, jumped bail, escaped jail, or remarried without benefit of divorce and managed to go undiscovered for many years. In some cases, they became productive citizens and may have married and had families. Then, through a routine traffic stop, a picture posted on line, or a chance meeting, their lives come tumbling down around them. Their past is discovered and they end up deported, in legal difficulties, or even in prison.

Unfinished business can plague us all; not living in the past doesn’t mean ignoring it. When we don’t deal with yesterday’s unresolved issues, the past can end up defining us. Without returning to Philemon, in spite of his new found faith, Onesimus would always be a runaway slave. We’re not runaway slaves but could we be slaves to the past? Are there problems we have escaped but not really resolved? Are there any loose ends that need tying up or amends to be made? Are there people we need to face or issues that need to be sorted out before we can truly be free of yesterday? We will continue to be troubled by the past until we face it; only then will we be able to live our new lives as free men and women.

Make peace with your past so it doesn’t screw up the present. [From “God Never Blinks” by Regina Brett]

My guilt overwhelms me—it is a burden too heavy to bear. [Psalm 38:4 (NLT)]

Fools make fun of guilt, but the godly acknowledge it and seek reconciliation. [Proverbs 14:9 (NLT)]

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THE CROWN OF MARTYRDOM

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. [1 Corinthians 13:3 (MSG)]

yellow-crowned night heronWe all know drama queens (and kings) who don the crown of martyrdom. On occasion, we even may have worn that crown ourselves. Along with the crown, we put on a robe of selfishness and self-righteousness. Dressed for the part, we see outer circumstance only in the light of how they negatively affect our lives (ignoring how they may be affecting those around us). Rather than asking, “What can I learn from this?” we protest, “I don’t deserve this!” as if anyone else does! Forgetting that God only wants our best and there is purpose in our pain, we find our troubles the perfect excuse for resentment, complaints, bitterness, and an all-out pity party.

If anyone had the right to play the martyr; it was Jesus. He was born in a stable and slept in a feed trough! His parents couldn’t afford a proper offering at the purification ceremony and his family had to flee to Egypt for several years. Once they arrived in Nazareth, there probably were whispers among the neighbors. “That’s Jesus; he’s not really Joseph’s son, you know! That shameful Mary was already pregnant.” Jesus knew He was a king, but He didn’t live like royalty; instead, he lived and worked as an ordinary man. Rather than riding in a chariot, he walked the dusty roads. There was no bed in a palace for this Prince of Peace; he rested wherever he could lay his head. People pursued Him wanting miracles but forgot to thank Him for his healing. Angry crowds reviled Him and the religious leaders of His own town wanted to toss Him down a hill! He gave and taught, healed, blessed and loved, fully knowing where it would all end—on a cross at Calvary. He knew He would be martyred, yet he never complained; He never once said, “Pity me!” Brutally beaten and humiliated, Jesus wore his crown of thorns without complaint. Then, instead of being angry about His torture on the cross, He lovingly asked God’s forgiveness for those who were killing Him.

A few years later, Stephen, who is believed to be the first Christian martyr, followed Jesus’s example when, as the rocks rained down on him, he used his last few breaths to pray for his slayers’ forgiveness. Jesus and Stephen were real martyrs and no anguish we endure will equal theirs. Yet, rather than the crown of martyrdom, they wore the crown of love and forgiveness!

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. … Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life. [James 1:1,12 (MSG)]

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FAITH AND OBEDIENCE

Trust in the Lord always, for the Lord God is the eternal Rock. [Isaiah 12:4 (NLT)]

wild geraniumAbraham and Sarah waited twenty-five years for their promised son, Isaac, but then God demands that Abraham sacrifice his long-awaited child as a burnt offering. Abraham takes Isaac off to the mountain and to what he believes is his son’s death. Abraham’s knife is drawn and he’s ready to kill Isaac when God intervenes. After an angel tells him not to lay a hand on his son, Abraham looks up to see a ram caught in the brush. With God’s blessing, he sacrifices it in place of Isaac.

This story is troubling and we wonder at God’s purpose in making such a horrifying demand and then retracting it. Does God play cruel pranks on people? While it certainly shows that God will not tolerate the sacrifice of children, that seems a thoughtless and brutal way to make such a point. The torment that Abraham must have suffered thinking he had to kill his own son is unimaginable. This story, however, is not about sacrifice and cruelty; it is about obedience and faith. It is about the fact that God demands our absolute obedience and our complete and unwavering faith.

Abraham truly didn’t know what was going to happen on the mountain, but he did as he was told. He had an unquestioning faith in God, a God who knows and does what is best. If Abraham had known that God wouldn’t allow Isaac’s death, he would simply have been obedient to God as he prepared the altar and placed the wood on it. But, when Abraham tied his son’s hands, laid him on the altar and brought the knife blade to his throat, he didn’t know that God would intervene; that was both obedience and faith!

If the widow had dropped her last two coins into the collection box knowing she’d get two more the following week, if Mary had known for sure that Joseph wouldn’t abandon her, if Daniel had been sure the lion’s mouths would remain closed, or if Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had known they wouldn’t be incinerated in the furnace, they would simply have been obedient to God when they submitted to His will. Instead, like Abraham, they showed faith even though they didn’t know how their stories would finish. They didn’t ignore the difficult circumstances; they simply knew that God is bigger than any circumstance.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” It‘s merely obedience when we can see all the way to the end of the stairs. Faith doesn’t know the outcome; faith is obedience even when we don’t know where the staircase leads or how long and steep it is.

Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe. [Saint Augustine]

Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” He was even called the friend of God. [James 2:21-23 (NLT)]

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