Years ago, New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce wrote a book called, "Hard Sayings of Jesus." It’s been a long time since I read the book, and so I don’t remember all the “hard sayings” Bruce discusses; but one that’s on my own list is some words of Jesus found in the 6th chapter of Matthew. They come in the context of Jesus’ teaching about prayer. Matthew tells us that Jesus taught against praying just to be “seen” by others, and against heaping up empty phrases in our prayers. Matthew then gives us his rendering of what would come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer:
"Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily
bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one."
Matthew 6:9b-13, NRSV
And then, Matthew tells us that Jesus spoke these words: "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." If ever there was a “hard saying” of Jesus, this is certainly one of them. How many of us harbor ill feelings against another person? How many of us live with resentment toward someone we feel has wronged us, or who has wronged a person we love? Often, the unforgiveness we carry around inside of us is toward an individual we don’t even know, or perhaps even toward a group of people. Sometimes, the grudge we bear may even be against God, over things we feel God could have done, but didn’t.
Forgiveness is a delicate thing. It can’t be forced. It’s not honest to say that we’ve forgiven someone, if we actually haven’t. Saying we’ve forgiven someone when we haven’t done so seems to fall in that same category of praying to be seen, and heaping up empty phrases, that Jesus speaks against in regard to prayer. So, what are we to do with the grudges and resentments that are like weights that we carry?
I see forgiveness as an ongoing process in our lives. I believe that it’s truly only God’s empowerment through the Holy Spirit that enables us to forgive. The more we are able to understand ourselves as beloved by God, the more we are able to see others in the same way, even those who have hurt us. I’ve come to understand Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:14 as a layered process, maybe even as a dance of sorts, in which we continually seek to forgive others as we continually seek forgiveness from God.
The truth is, I have an “aspirational forgiveness list.” It’s not terribly long, but it is persistent. I have to keep putting these people before God, asking God to help me love them, and pray for them, and yes, to forgive them. I trust that by acknowledging to God my need to forgive – by getting up out of my chair to dance, if you will – I will experience God’s forgiveness of my own trespasses and be empowered to forgive others.
With prayers for your journey,
“God hold you in this turning, Christ warm you through this night,
Spirit breathe its ancient rhythm, Peace give your sorrows flight.”
Richard Morgan uses this snippet of poetry by Jan Richardson to open the first chapter of his book, Remembering Your Story: Creating Your Own Spiritual Autobiography. Morgan’s book has helped many over the years who’ve wanted to connect-the-dots of the events of their lives in order to see patterns of God’s artistry in their spiritual journeys. Morgan believes the need to collect and remember our stories is more urgent than ever:
“American life and culture are changing so fast that older people realize that their grandchildren have no idea of the events that shaped their lives. And more and more mid-lifers are realizing that with the increased mobility of modern life, family stories that once were passed down orally will be lost if not preserved.”
Morgan helps the reader think of his or her life as a river, recognizing the “tributaries” that have fed us, and noting times when the river of our life has helped to nourish others. When has your “river” been fast and turbulent? When has it been slow and meandering? When has it been quiet and deep? And in every part of the “river” of your life, where have you recognized God’s grace? Morgan helps us to claim our “stories” and to see how they interconnec to form the larger story of our human life.
It’s been said that “the greatest story ever told” is that of Jesus Christ, as related to us in the four Gospels of our New Testament. The story of Jesus is truly “great” because of what God accomplished through it; coming into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, teaching us and showing us love, and dying a death for our sinfulness that grants us the hope of forgiveness and eternal life.
During the remainder of the Lenten season leading up to Easter, we’ll be telling that story again at Hebron Church. Beginning on Palm Sunday and continuing through Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday, we’ll remember again the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and we’ll celebrate once again God’s glorious resurrection of Jesus when his friends and family and followers thought his story had ended. The good news for the story of your life is that no matter how deep or dark certain stretches of your “river” have been, you’ve never been truly alone; and when we place ourselves in the hands of the great Navigator, we find that our Lord is trustworthy not only to bring us safely through, but to give meaning to our hardest times.
With prayers for your journey,
Do you ever get a song stuck in your head? Most of us do, at one time or another. Colloquially, this is sometimes referred to as “having an earworm.” More scientifically, it’s described as involuntary musical imagery; the experience of having lines of music come spontaneously to mind and repeating without conscious control. If you’ve ever had this happen, you know how random it can feel (why that song?) and how hard it can be to get an unwanted tune out of your head. Sometimes the music and lyrics that show up in our heads can be comforting and encouraging; other times, they can simply be annoying.
Years ago, I started taking note of the hymns that come unbidden to my mind. I figure there’s a reason those hymns come to mind, even if I’m not consciously aware of what the reason may be. If I don’t know all the words, I go look them up, to see what the words say. If it’s a familiar hymn, I figure the words must be in my memory somewhere, and something (the Holy Spirit?) is trying to call them forth.
A few days ago, the hymn that just wouldn’t leave my head ended with “Jesus doeth all things well.” I could hum the whole hymn, but those were the only words I could remember; “Jesus doeth all things well.” I had to look it up online to learn the title. The name of the hymn is, “All the Way My Savior Leads Me.” Because I keep old hymnals, I was able to find it in both the hymnbooks I grew up with, so it’s likely that I heard this as a child and a teen, growing up.
Perhaps it’s for you, today. Perhaps, it’s for all of us.
All the Way My Savior Leads Me
All the way my Savior leads me; what have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy, who through life has been my guide?
Heavenly peace, divinest comfort, here by faith in Him to dwell!
For I know whate’er befall me, Jesus doeth all things well;
For I know whate’er befall me, Jesus doeth all things well.
All the way my Savior leads me; cheers each winding path I tread,
Gives me grace for every trial, feeds me with the living bread:
Though my weary steps may falter, and my soul athirst may be,
Gushing from the Rock before me, Lo! a spring of joy I see;
Gushing from the Rock before me, Lo! a spring of joy I see.
All the way my Savior leads me; oh, the fullness of His love!
Perfect rest to me is promised in my Father’s house above:
When my spirit, clothed immortal, wings its flight to realms of day,
This my song through endless ages: Jesus led me all the way;
This my song through endless ages: Jesus led me all the way.
With prayers for your journey,
As I write this, I’m in the midst of doctoral classes at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. One of our assigned readings for this term is a book by James K.A. Smith called, You Are What You Love. Perhaps you’ve read this book, or at least heard of it. Smith is a philosophy professor at Calvin College in Michigan. He has authored a series of books about Christians in culture, but this particular book is about the power of habit in shaping what we love. A basic premise of Smith’s book is that our rituals – our habits – both shape, and reflect, what is most important to us. Smith’s simple assertion is that if we examine what we aim for in life, and how we spend our time, we might realize that we don’t actually love what we think we love.
Smith’s book got me to thinking about what I’ll call “essential relationships.” By that I mean the relationships you or I might identify as most important in our lives. If I were to ask you what are your most important relationships, what would you say? You might say it is with your parents or your children, or with your spouse or your siblings. If you’re a person of Christian faith, you’d probably say that your relationship with God is your most important relationship. If pressed a little further, you might even say that your relationship with a favorite household pet (or horse!) is among your most important.
Nobody is going to argue with you about the primacy of these relationships in your life. But a question to ask is, “Do my habits – the way I spend my time and my thoughts – actually reflect what I believe are my most important relationships?” How would you answer that question? If I say that I love my spouse, do my time and thoughts actually bear that out? If I say that my relationships with my children are among my most important, is that actually reflected in what I think about and in how I spend my time? If I claim to love God above all, how do I actually make time and space for that relationship?
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s often tough to correlate the use of our time and our mental energy with the things and the people we claim to love the most. The practical aspects of living place demands on our time and our thoughts. We work in order to support those we love; or, so that those we love won’t have to support us! We give of our time and energy to those outside our immediate circles of concern because this is what Christ calls us to do. We do as much as we think we can to strengthen our relationship with God, but we often feel that it’s not enough. Sometimes just getting to Sunday worship feels like an accomplishment!
Smith says in his book that when we worship in meaningful ways, it restores our loves. Isn’t that a beautiful way to think about worship? Worship should reorient us to our essential relationships; our relationship with God in Christ, and all our other relationships that flow from that primary relationship with our Creator, through our Savior. When we make our relationship with God our top priority – with time and thought devoted to the reading of Scripture, and to prayer and worship – God helps order our habits so we can truly love what and whom we say we love. When Jesus said in Matthew's gospel, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be, also;” he was talking about more than money. He was talking about the way we are to order our lives, so that we can build our “treasure” where it really matters.
With prayers for your journey,