Matthew 18

“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

-Jesus, Matthew 18:22

reconciliation_webHow often should I forgive a Christian brother or sister when they wrong me?  A lot, it seems.  As we’ve seemingly been taught just about every time this passage is read, “seventy-seven” or “seventy times seven” is not Jesus being overly picayune about numbers.  Rather, it is Him using an exaggerated figure to let us know that we need to keep on forgiving people.  We’re not just supposed to stop on the 78th or 491st offense, in other words.  Such forgiveness is yet another hallmark of the Kingdom of God that runs counter to many “common sense” aspects of our broken world.  It seems neither fair nor safe, we say…and yet there it is.

The principle inherent in what Christ shares is a powerful one, and reminds us once again of the humility and grace that He embodies and to which Christians are called.  But as I am thinking about Jesus’ words, I wonder if a little “spiritual experiment” would help bring such forgiveness into sharper relief.  While perpetual forgiveness is a powerful thing, it can often just fade into to background in a general principle–lofty but inexact.

What if, instead, I actually decide to forgive a fellow Christian seventy-seven times?  Keep track of it all, consciously choose to forgive, and move through each and every one of the nearly eighty sins and wounds this person might inflict on me?  I realize, of course, that love “keeps no record of wrongs” (I Corinthians 13:5).  I wouldn’t be remembering these moments in order to angrily hold onto the pain and hurt.  Rather, I would do so in order to consider the way forgiveness really worked.56382620

Thinking about forgiving a person that many times–even the modest number of 77–seems daunting. Especially if the sins to forgive are weighty.  I recall one such instance in my life, and how hard it was to move on.  Seventy-six more of those?  That’s hard.  The concreteness of that number is stark, and it doesn’t allow us room to wiggle out of it.  And yet we know, deep down, that this kind of grace, mercy, and humility is exactly what Christ seeks to accomplish in and through us.

May we pray to be people of such forgiveness, both in moments one to seventy-seven as well as following that 78th sin.

Matthew 5, Part II

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

-Jesus, Matthew 5:44

Who is Isis?The news from the Middle East is not encouraging.  Yesterday we received word by means of a video that a second American has been beheaded by the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL).  His name was Steven Sotloff.

Sotloff sadly joins an ever-growing number of those killed, tortured, abducted, raped, attacked, persecuted, and displaced by this vicious and recalcitrant regime.  Something more needs to be done to stop their dastardly efforts…and soon.

As I think about the heartbreaking state of affairs in Iraq and Syria, I’m reminded that this may be one of those times when Jesus’ words are put to their greatest test.  Can I pray for ISIS? Can I love them?

I want to make the obvious very clear before answering: they are not my enemy directly.  They have not persecuted me.  I do not live in territory under their control.  But they have been clear about their persecution of Christians in the Middle East.  These are my brothers and sisters in Christ.  They have displaced others and attacked non-Christian religious minorities with whom I share a common humanity.article-sotloff-0902  Though I cannot know what it is like to be their enemy in the same way as their victims, I still know that they are my enemy too.

Quite literally, ISIS is an enemy of the human race.  Like Hitler, Stalin, and their ilk, they are fairly easy to hate.

And yet, for the Christian, hatred is not an option.  Jesus says we must love them.  That seems like nonsense, of course.  But it is Jesus, so I have to grapple with it.

What does it mean to pray for ISIS?  Well, it doesn’t mean praying for their military or jihadi success.  It doesn’t mean praying that they’ll prosper in their efforts.  That kind of prayer would be akin to asking that we would be delivered from the Kingdom into evil.  It would be devastating to so many and, ultimately, destructive to the hardened hearts of ISIS themselves.

Jesus_Falls_Carrying_the_CrossInterceding for ISIS, I think, is about praying that they would see the sadly misguided path they have walked upon and be healed.  While they may have some legitimate reasons for feeling the way they do, organizing those feelings in the destructive and life-denying ways they have has only set them and those around them on a very dark path.  Praying for ISIS, caring for their souls means wanting them to stop all this–for their sakes before even ours.

This “praying for your enemies thing” is–like many of Jesus’ teachings–a fine notion when considered in abstraction.  But up close and personal, it is much harder to bear.  Praying for a group that has shown itself to embrace evil is a hard task.  I mean, honestly, do I really want to pray for them?  Watching one of those beheading videos (which I have not) would disincline me to choose that from among my options.  After all, we don’t think they deserve it.  We don’t think they deserve love.  We don’t think they deserve forgiveness.

And you know what?  They don’t.  But for God.

As usual, our Lord is trying to tell us something here…about ISIS and ourselves.  At times like this, though, it can be hard to hear.

It Has Been Too Long Since My Last Confession

At this point just about all Americans are aware of the rather unfortunate story of former General David Petraeus.  Highly decorated and revered, he recently resigned from his position as CIA Director after revealing he had an affair with his female biographer.  It is, among other things, a sad ending to a storied career.

While I’m not privy to all of the details involved, the picture we get is of a lonely and perhaps isolated man who in his time of need let another woman get too close.  His was a mistake, no doubt…and one far too many have made.

Rarely, I think, does someone wake up in the morning and say out of the blue, “Well, TODAY I’m going to cheat on my wife.”  The path from A to B normally runs a lot longer than that, with many stops along the way.  That’s the way it is with a lot of tragic decisions we make.  A slow degradation, never arrested or corrected, can result in serious compromise.  Would that there was something natural and regularly constituent to our lives that would bring these shadowy things into the light before they consume us.

When it comes to spiritual disciplines, I’ve long been a fan of confession.  It is something that I have made use of in my life; I encourage others to do the same.  It makes sense biblically (James 5:16), theologically, and practically.  Carrying our flaws and mistakes inside of us may seem brave in our heads, but is really rather dangerous.  Like cancer cells left untreated, they will eat us alive.  Confession, by contrast, is the beginning of the cure.  Bringing another person into the fold and laying down our burdens together with them is a powerful experience…and one I recommend.

I have a friend who is a part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and I’ve had some conversations with him about their practices of confession.  I envy him and my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters for the structural feature that is available and regular confession.  For us Protestants who long ago threw out the baby with the bathwater, the logistics of confession can be tough.  Our individualizing of faith, while helpful in some areas, has nevertheless had some very detrimental effects in this area.

The truth is we don’t talk about our sins nearly enough, or at all.  At least not until it is too late.  And that’s a problem.

It has been a while since I’ve “confessed” as I used to, and I was just talking with my wife last night about how I feel I need a “confessor” in my life.  I think we all do.  Not necessarily a counselor or friend, but definitely a mature fellow believer who can hear our words and deeds, point us to the Scripture, and aid us in the process of working through the call of God on our lives.  Why?  Because we all falter, we all stumble, and we all need to know that we need not walk in that way alone.

I’m starting to feel that rumblings of a “confession” project within me: perhaps integrated into a course here at Northwest University, a personal experiment, personal research, and/or the design of something I’ve long wanted to do: a youth retreat weekend based entirely around the teaching and experience of confession.  Stay tuned in coming weeks for more.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts concerning your experiences with confession, suggestions for practical implementation, or suggestions about the best kind of confessor for someone like me (and many others): the ordained minister.