MISTAKES HAPPEN

But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. [1 John 1:9 (NLT)]

golden mantled ground squirrel - YellowstoneIt was late Saturday night when one of our pastors glanced at the next day’s church program and saw that Sunday’s sermon was titled “Epithet.” Since he wasn’t speaking about insults on social media but about the way we’ll be remembered when we’re gone, it should have read “Epitaph.” After spending the next hour trying to figure out a way to tie epithets into epitaphs, he realized it made more sense to own up to his spelling error, which he did at all three services.

Life gives us an abundance of opportunities to make mistakes and, sometimes, it seems as if we never miss one! We mishear, misinterpret, misjudge, misread, misspeak, misspell, misunderstand and, yes, we sin. We take wrong turns, say the wrong things, and believe the wrong person. Sometimes, that wrong person is an over-confident self. Overly confident, the pastor didn’t proofread, the builders of the Titanic didn’t provide enough life boats, and Napoleon thought he could successfully invade Russia in the winter.

Like the pastor, as much as we hate to do it, we need to own our mistakes and admit our responsibility for them. Sometimes, we can make the best of them, in which case they cease being mistakes. For example, while 3M’s Patty Sherman was trying to develop a rubber that wouldn’t deteriorate when exposed to jet fuel fumes, she made a mistake and spilled a few drops of one failed test batch on her shoe. Later, seeing that those spots were clean while the rest of her shoe had gotten stained and dirty, she made the most of that mistake with a product we call Scotchguard!

Sometimes, we can fix our mistakes. When KFC discovered their motto “Finger-lickin’ good!” became “Eat your fingers off!” in Chinese, they quickly corrected their clumsy translation. Sometimes, though, we just plow on ahead in the face of our errors. The Leaning Tower of Pisa started to lean five years after construction began but, rather than admit and correct the problem, building continued for another for 192 years. They kept compensating by making the uphill side shorter but, because mistakes don’t correct themselves, the tower kept leaning.

Like that learning tower, many of our mistakes are ones with which we must live. Hopefully, we learn from our errors as I imagine NASA did when they accidentally taped over their video of the moon landing. Rather than dwelling on our mistakes, we have to move out of the land of “what if” into the land of “what is.” This, however, is where we encounter the hardest part of making a mistake: forgiving ourselves.

Consider the mistakes of Judas and Peter: Judas sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver and Peter denied Him three times. Realizing Jesus would die for his betrayal, could Judas have been trying to undo his mistake by giving back the blood money? Filled with remorse and unable to change what had been done, he killed himself. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if only Judas had waited three days. I know Jesus would have forgiven Him. Think of the testimony Judas could have given if he’d forgiven himself and waited as did Peter. Like Judas, Peter betrayed Jesus but, unlike him, he forgave himself, lived with his mistake, and was in the room when Jesus appeared! Think of the powerful testimony Peter did give!

We have a choice about even our most grievous mistakes. Like Peter, we can live with them, forgive ourselves, accept God’s forgiveness, and move on with our lives in service to Him. Or, like Judas, we can hold on to them and refuse to forgive ourselves. Our guilt may not take our lives but it will take our peace, joy, self-confidence, hope, and even our faith in a forgiving God. We’re told we must forgive to be forgiven; it would seem that command means forgiving ourselves as much as it means forgiving others. Let our guilt be washed away!

Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone. [Psalm 32:5 (NLT)]

And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. [Hebrews 10:21-22 (NLT)]

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TOSS ‘EM OUT – It’s a New Year

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable. [Hebrews 4: 13 (NLT)]

Snow in SteamboatExplaining her years of addiction, Alice said, “It’s all because my parents moved from Illinois to Texas while I was in high school.” Was the move a contributing factor to Alice’s drug use? Maybe, but that was more than twenty-five years ago and has nothing to do with her failure to deal with her behavior today. Since high school, she’s abandoned a child, served time in prison, been in and out of a well-known residential rehab so often that she should have her own room, and is still lying, stealing, and using. Like many of us, Alice is simply blame shifting.

Yes, our experiences influence us but, as Christians, our past determines neither our present nor our future. By blaming our genes, nationality, appearance, or our over-indulgent or too strict parents, we abandon ownership of our failures and sins. We say we had too little or were given too much, that the spouse was inattentive, the judge was prejudiced, the teacher was inept, or we shouldn’t have moved. I’ve heard people blame their rudeness, stinginess, drinking, and tempers on their upbringing when they alone are responsible for their conduct today. Blaming other people or things implies that we aren’t accountable for our actions and leads us to think we aren’t responsible for changing that behavior.

Contributing factors, extenuating circumstances, and difficult childhoods may be of interest to a therapist but not to God. We may be able to deceive ourselves and others, but our excuses will never deceive Him! There will come a day when each one of us will be held responsible for our thoughts, words, and deeds and any excuses we use to justify our sins will disappear.

For both the non-believer and believer, there is judgment. No matter what the excuse, the person who has rejected Christ is doomed. When Alice meets God face to face, He will see into her and hold her accountable for her sins: the way she denied Him and wasted the precious life he gave her. While believers are saved by faith alone, they too will be judged. At the Judgment Seat of Christ, they’ll be asked to give an accounting of their lives in service to Him. When Alice’s parents (both believers) stand before God, He won’t hold them accountable for their move to Texas but He may well hold them accountable for the way they continually enabled their daughter to squander her life.

Excuses may not be outright lies but they keep us from facing the truth and, without facing the truth about ourselves, we won’t change. Our goal in life is to become more like Christ and we can’t do that by rationalizing our failings. This is a new year and a perfect time to do some serious self-examination. Are we victims of circumstance or victors in Christ? Are there any excuses we should toss out with the holiday trash?

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-24 (NLT)]

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THE OLIVE BRANCH

Forget about the wrong things people do to you, and do not try to get even. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. [Leviticus 19:18 (NCV)]

Humility has such power. Apologies can disarm arguments. Contrition can defuse rage. Olive branches do more good than battle axes ever will. [Max Lucado]

mourning doveIn a “Baby Blues” comic strip, Zoe, the big sister approaches her brother and tells him, “About that fight we had a while ago…I would like to extend an olive branch.” With a panicked look on his face, the little brother screams, “MOM!!! Zoe’s threatening me with a stick!” Having had an older brother who delighted in tormenting me, I completely sympathized with the little boy. There were times when my brother just had to come near me and I would frantically call out, “Mom, Steve’s hitting me again!” I wanted to avoid another painful punch but, who knows, maybe one of those times he, like Zoe, was just offering an olive branch.

Long before the ancient Greeks and Romans used the olive branch as a symbol for victory and peace, the story of Noah recorded that a dove brought an olive branch back to the ark which meant the end of the flood and the earth’s rebirth. Symbolizing peace and reconciliation, the olive branch requires two things: someone to extend it and someone else to accept it. An apology and its acceptance are two sides of the same coin, as are the asking of forgiveness and the granting of it. Both are necessary for peace in our lives.

I have been like Zoe, the one extending the olive branch; I admitted my offense, apologized, and asked forgiveness but was rebuffed. Unfortunately, there are people who will never accept an apology, no matter how humbly or amiably it is offered. All we can do is keep the olive branch extended, pray that God will open their hearts, and continue to love.

Like Zoe’s little brother, however, it’s not always easy to accept that olive branch. Wanting to protect ourselves from further hurt or disappointment, we may prefer suspicion, aloofness, hostility, or anger. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we have to trust people who are untrustworthy or believe those who are dishonest. An act of love, mercy and grace, forgiveness is releasing the offense and offender to God; it is giving up our right to hurt those who’ve hurt us. Being the wronged party never gives us permission to continue the wrong with unforgiveness.

Along with an olive branch, the handshake is a gesture of peace. In ancient Greece, hands were grasped to demonstrate that neither person held a weapon. In Rome, the grasp became more of an arm grab as a way of seeing whether any weapons were hidden in someone’s sleeves. The shaking part is said to come from medieval England when knights would shake hands in an attempt to shake loose any concealed weapons.

Hopefully, we don’t need to worry about lethal weapons hiding in sleeves when we shake hands this holiday season. Nevertheless, we need to put aside the invisible weapons we carry: things like anger, gossip, blame, intolerance, pettiness, jealousy, resentment, and disrespect. Let’s extend any olive branches that need to be extended and accept any that are offered. If there can’t be peace throughout the world this holiday season (and from the news that looks unlikely), let there at least be peace and reconciliation in our homes and families.

To be forgiven is such sweetness that honey is tasteless in comparison with it. But yet there is one thing sweeter still, and that is to forgive. As it is more blessed to give than to receive, so to forgive rises a stage higher in experience than to be forgiven. [Charles Spurgeon]

When you are praying, if you are angry with someone, forgive him so that your Father in heaven will also forgive your sins. But if you don’t forgive other people, then your Father in heaven will not forgive your sins. [Mark 11:25-26 (NCV)]

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A HEAVY LOAD

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

When troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. [James 1:3b-3 (NLT)]

viceroy butterfly“He will deliver us from our troubles or carry us through them. Either way, we will be free of them eventually.” How easily these words can be uttered until, of course, those troubles apply to us. Had Job’s friends been Christian and said those words, I don’t think they would have been any more comforting than what was said. While true, they won’t bring back the amputated limb or cancerous breast, pay the staggering medical bills, tuck the motherless child in bed at night, change the diagnosis of Parkinson’s or schizophrenia, or bring back an abused child’s innocence. While true, those words can’t wipe the tears of a mother holding her stillborn baby, the husband watching his wife vanish into dementia, or the man whose body is in mutiny because of ALS.

The valleys I have traversed have been neither as deep nor as dark as those others are traveling. I’ve never climbed mountains as steep as the mountains they face daily. The storms that battered my soul pale in comparison to the tempests others endure. They grow weary from carrying burdens heavier that I can imagine. It’s not just the victims of life’s afflictions and misfortune that bear a burden. Everyone who loves and cares for them becomes part of their arduous journey; they shoulder heavy loads, as well. I cannot fathom the emotional and physical weight they carry nor the exhaustion they must experience on a daily basis.

I know enough not to say, “I know what you’re going through,” because I truly don’t. Even with the same diagnosis, no two people share the same circumstances. Reminding someone that God works all things for good or that we grow through suffering may be of little comfort to those who are in anguish and pain. Suffering isn’t a riddle that needs to be solved and it won’t end once we know what it is God is teaching us or what good will come from it. No matter how well meant our words may be, they can sound trite and hollow.

The kindest thing Job’s friends did was sit quietly with him for seven days; perhaps, we should follow their example. Rather than words, we can offer love: our presence, support, sympathy, compassion, patience, encouragement, ears, or even food. Rather than telling people to rejoice in all circumstances, we could find ways to bring joy into their lives. Most of all, we can offer our faithful and heartfelt prayers.

Lord, we offer prayers for the ill and infirm, the troubled, weak and helpless and for those brave souls who love, comfort and care for them. Reassure them of your loving presence. Endow them with courage and faith as they pass through dark valleys, scale steep mountains, and endure powerful squalls. Strengthen them and give them hope. Give us wisdom and show us how to lighten their burdens, lift their spirits, relieve their pain, and ease their fears. Let us know when to remain silent and what to say when we should speak.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares. [Henri Nouwen]

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. [Galatians 6:2 (NLT)]

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. [1 Timothy 2:1 (NLT)]

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NO WORDS OF COMFORT

Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. [John 14:1-3 (NLT)]

snowy egretTomorrow would have been Sally’s wedding anniversary but there will be no celebration because tomorrow is the six month anniversary of her husband’s death. Instead of flowers, dinner, and romance, there will be tears. This morning, Sally called her step-mother, Sue, to share her dread of tomorrow. When telling me this, the older woman admitted to being at a loss for words of consolation. This woman of faith, a pastor, had difficulty finding comforting words for a very simple reason: her step-daughter is Jewish. When Sue married Sally’s Jewish father, she respected her new family’s faith just as they respected hers. They know her beliefs and what she does for a living. Sue gladly answers their questions but she chooses her words carefully when speaking of God and, while tempted, never evangelizes. Although her words this morning were as reassuring as they could be without speaking of Jesus, Sue knew they were nowhere near as comforting as they could have been.

In the Hebrew Bible, Sheol is mentioned as the place of the dead and the idea of a resurrection appears in Daniel and Isaiah. The Talmud contains references to heaven (Gan Eden), hell (Gehinnom), and the World to Come. Unfortunately, the who, when, what, how and where details are missing and Judaism is ambiguous (and often contradictory) about what happens when one dies. Sue said she listened carefully during her son-in-law’s funeral and interment for words of comfort but heard none at all. After reading the funeral prayer El Maleh Rachamin and the Mourner’s Kaddish, I had to agree.

Had Sally been a believer, Sue might have told her daughter-in-law that she was not alone in distress and reminded her of the time Jesus walked on water and stilled the storm. We have a God who knows when we’re in trouble, is willing walk on water to reach us, and will bring us peace in the middle of the tempest! Sue would have told Sally how much God loves her—so much so that He gave His one and only son so that all who believe would not perish but have eternal life. She would have comforted her with the story of Lazarus and Jesus’s words to Martha that He was the resurrection and life and that anyone who believed in Him would live even after dying. Then again, maybe the widow would have found Revelation’s promise that He will wipe every tear and there will be no more tears, mourning or death comforting. Sadly, those words are of little cheer to a non-believer.

No words can take away the sorrow of a young woman suddenly losing her beloved husband, the father of her three small children, but there is much in our faith that can ease that pain. No Christian is left to face sorrow alone; we have a Savior, a Comforter, and the reassuring and powerful words of Scripture. Thank you, Jesus.

I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. [John 14:27 (NLT)]

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NOT REMEMBERING

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. [Matthew 18:21-22 (RSV)]

Several authors tell the story of a friend of Clara Barton who reminded the nursing pioneer and Red Cross founder of a spiteful act someone had done to her years earlier. When Barton acted as if it had never happened, her friend asked, “Don’t you remember it?” She vehemently replied, “No! I distinctly remember forgetting it.” Forgiveness isn’t easy and it requires real (and continued) determination on our part. Sadly, without our deliberate effort to put the offense aside, it’s easy for past hurts to weasel their way right back into our hearts and minds.

When Moravian missionaries first came to the Arctic, they found no word in the Inuit language that properly captured the Christian concept of forgiveness. Using Inuit words, they came up with issumagijoujunnainermik meaning “not-being-able-to-think-about-it-anymore.” That’s what forgiveness is; it’s choosing not to let the thoughts of that harmful person or their harmful deeds consume our thinking. Forgiveness isn’t forgetting; it’s deciding not to remember.

In writing about forgiveness today, I came across another interesting word: ilunga.  Found in the Tshiluba language spoken by the Bantu of the Congo, it is considered by linguists to be the most difficult word to translate. Ilunga describes a person who is ready to forgive and forget any first offense, will tolerate it a second time, but will neither forgive nor tolerate it a third time. It’s a three-strikes-and-you’re-out kind of person whose attitude changes with each offense. Jesus, however, didn’t tell us to forgive only once; He said to forgive seventy times seven times (or endlessly)!

When asked if she was ever troubled by past offenses, either hers of those of others, an elderly Christian lady is said to have replied, “Never!” She explained that if Satan troubled her about her sins or other people’s offenses, she simply sent him east. If he returned, she sent him to the west. Recalling the psalmist’s words that God “has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west,” [103:12] she explained that by sending Satan back and forth, from east to west and back again, she never allowed him to stop at her house.

The choice is ours. Will we choose to be like an ilunga or like that Christian lady and Clara Barton, people who practice issumagijoujunnainermik?

Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future. [Lewis B. Smedes]

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. [Ephesians 4:31-32 (RSV)]

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