Cutting Room Floor: Keep Short Accounts

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IMG_0715 - Version 2On Forgiveness:

Justice, for God’s people, means mercy, forgiveness. If justice is a transaction, forgiveness is the opposite of one. It’s writing off a debt. To forgive is the hardest thing, because to forgive means you absorb the costs that you’re forgiving, it means the loss stays on your books, stays in your heart–until, of course, we take up God’s unending offer of peace and healing, and find it. Forgiveness doesn’t zero things out, right? Do we get this? If I say to you, “All is forgiven.” What I’m saying is, “I’m going to bear the costs of what you did, rather than make you pay me back. The costs are real. But you don’t owe me.” We can’t forgive, can’t show mercy, unless we realize that every act of forgiveness is an act of bearing the costs ourselves, of not demanding payback, whether that’s financial payback, or some meager replacement for the emotional and spiritual costs that we bear.

I’m beating this into the ground because, frankly, for me this was incredibly empowering to own. To forgive means that I bear the costs of your sin against me. I take on the costs, not you. To pray either, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” or “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” is to pray dangerously, because it invites God to use our standards and behavior as his own in dealing with us.

Post Written by Pastor Rich Hagopian

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Cutting Room Floor: “Let me talk about guilt, here”

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IMG_0715 - Version 2Sometimes the most dutiful among us are the most guilty-feeling, no matter what’s going on: We feel like we should be doing more, we feel like we should be better than we are, we feel guilty about something, and until we’re sure of what it is, we’ll let that sense of guilt motivate our behavior in all sorts of ways. The Church, any congregation, is codependent in this, too, unfortunately, because guilty people make good volunteers, so, hey, come work it off.

Repentance realizes that our sin has cost us relationships. Feeling guilty is just as often wrapped up in our relationships, too. It’s wrapped up in our relationships in two very different ways, although they end in the same place for we guilty-feeling people. In one case, we’re the actor, the agent, the do-er; in the other, victim, the one acted upon.

In the first case, repentance is “feeling guilty’s” opposite, because repentance takes seriously a situation, a behavioral choice, and the relationship it has affected, and seeks to not do it again because the relationship is just so important to us. Feeling guilty lingers, unattached to any particular thing but affecting everything. If we are people who feel guilty all the time, and we know that it’s related to something we ourselves have done, part of my advice would be to be as specific as possible with your feelings; What is it in our past or our present that we have done that could really use the emotional house-cleaning work of repentance? Do our feelings of guilt have to do with some break in our relationship with God? Or are they related to some alienation we feel toward some other person, even toward ourselves?

“Feeling guilt” is often tied, though, to things we ourselves have never done. We are victims, whether evilly victimized by others, or victims of the capriciousness of the world, of an accident or force of nature. And we can deal with the nature thing, usually; it doesn’t leave us feeling guilty, but to be a victim of another person, to be sinned against, is a difficult, terrible thing. Because we recognize that the relationship was broken; but it wasn’t broken by us. People do come to places of forgiveness, discover in the peace of God and security of self an ability to not hold liable the one who hurt them, because the person can’t pay back what their sin cost anyway. And that forgiveness–which is not reconciliation, a thing that may not be called for at all in the situation–is both enough and basically a miracle. But many of us only inch and creep forward toward a place like that. And for those of us who have had another person hurt us, it is often the case that one of the marks of their hurt is the lie that we ourselves are responsible for it. Yet we aren’t; we can’t fix a relationship we ourselves had no part in breaking. And that lingering regret, that lingering disempowerment, can haunt us with guilty feelings for a very long time, until we come to a place where we can reject the lie that we have done anything wrong at all.

Feeling guilty, remember, is nothing like repentance. We probably think of them as similar, you know, “feeling repentful” and “feeling guilty”, but they aren’t. Guilt is a legal declaration; You’ve broken a law. You deserve to be punished. Feeling as if we’re waiting for punishment is a terrible way to live; feeling as if we’re working of a debt we can’t pay is a terrible way to live, particularly when we have been forgiven, when our debt has been written off. Being made to feel guilty for actions that we ourselves have no responsibility for is a work of the devil, and an evil that can bind us so tightly that we forget we’ve been forgiven at all.

So if we are people prone to feeling guilty, or people who always feel guilty, I would suggest that there’s soul work that needs done in our lives, some work that in our inner being that we need to take up. It may be simply that we need repentance’s specificity, and the release that comes of it; it may mean we have a long road to walk toward healing. If we do, let’s walk it with people wiser than us who we can trust.

~Post written by Rich Hagopian

A Public Faith(fulness)

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As Bob Trube noted in his blog entry yesterday, last Sunday he preached about the parable in Luke 18:1-8 that Jesus tells in order to encourage his disciples to be persistent in prayer—especially prayer for justice. Bob commented on recent events in which African American men were killed by white police officers and suggested that we not give up praying and acting for racial justice and reconciliation.

Brenda Account PictureI have long wondered why it is that African American Christians and white American Christians see things so differently. We’re all followers of the same Jesus, but our theologies have different emphases and we tend to belong to different political parties. (I’m making broad generalizations, of course, but there are observable tendencies here, at least among evangelicals.) I’ve learned a lot by listening to my African American students. I’ve also had my eyes opened by a book called Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith (Oxford, 2000).

Emerson and Smith argue that white American evangelicals have an “accountable freewill individualist perspective” on how the world works: things happen because individuals make free choices, for which they are held accountable by God. This perspective shapes the toolbox with which we engage the world: individualism, relationalism and anti-structuralism. I don’t know about you, but in my experience this is pretty much on-target. Evangelicals (my own context) believe that God deals directly with individuals, because God wants to form a personal relationship with each individual. Conversion is an event between the individual and God; church is a helpful but non-essential add-on. This view may be one reason why the number of people who identify as Christians but have no church connection is growing.

This “personal” (individual) perspective means that white Christians tend to be blind to structural sins like racism. Emerson and Smith define racism as “the collective misuse of power that results in diminished life opportunities for some racial groups.” If the topic of racism comes up, we inventory ourselves and decide that we aren’t racist. We harbor no ill will toward persons of another race; some of them may even be our friends. Our responsibility ends there. If other individuals are racist, they should repent of that, and everything will be fine.

This approach ignores the fact that sinful social structures take on a life of their own. America’s history of slavery is a case in point. People on both sides of that debate were Christians, and they argued from the Bible to prove their case. Most Christian slaveholders made no connection between their faith and freeing their slaves, because slavery was a socially accepted institution. The only reason the institution was eventually abolished was because society changed—in this case, through civil war.

Similarly, many people involved in the 1994 tribal genocide in Rwanda were Christians. Some of them were even pastors. One at least one occasion, a pastor offered sanctuary to members of the other tribe and then locked the refugees in the church and burned it down. These Christian murderers had accepted the validity of their faith for their personal lives but didn’t let it transform the tribal hatreds in their society.

When we hear about events like the shooting of an African American man by a white police officer, do we think of it only as an event between two individuals? Or do we reflect on the social context of the event, asking why there are still racial tensions in that community—or in ours? Do we jump in to defend one side or the other, or do we ask ourselves how we might contribute to reconciliation instead of division?

Prayer for justice is certainly one of our responsibilities in situations like that. But as Bob suggested, we should also consider what role the church should have—and what actions the church should take—in addressing the social realities that give rise to such situations. We should never accept the suggestion that our faith is valid only for our personal lives. Jesus is Lord of all, and he plans to extend his rule into all areas of life (1 Corinthians 15:22-28). He wants to renew the world and fix everything that’s broken (Romans 8:18-21; Revelation 21:1-5). What might he want us to do in his name? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that Christians listening to one another would be a good start.

Forgiveness for Ourselves

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I was listening to the live stream of This American Life this morning and happened to run across an old show from its first year “Anger and Forgiveness” which I think has relevance both to our current societal moment, and the passage from Matthew 18:23-34.

Ben TrubeI’d been thinking this week about the boundaries we place on forgiveness. All of us I think have some crime or some action that is our dividing line for forgiveness. We may be able to forgive someone who does drugs or robs a liquor store, but we can’t forgive someone who abuses children or commits murder. This line is in different spot for each of us, based on our own personal experiences, views and biases.

In the first act of the This American Life episode they detail a crime where a young woman drowns her two children in her car so she can stay with a rich man who doesn’t want children. She blames their disappearance on some “black man” taking them away, and uses as a defense a history of abuse by her step-father to explain her actions when discovered. This crime had outraged her community, and in fact the whole country (and at a time without social media). They wanted justice and punishment, and they wanted to stay angry.

And that anger might seem righteous. This was a terrible crime, and no matter the life that came before, it doesn’t negate the need for punishment. But Jack Hitt, frequent early contributer to TAL, wrote a piece at the time outlining the need for forgiveness, to gain some understanding of the person who committed the act, and to let go of anger. The piece itself sparked a good deal of anger, and later in the broadcast one of Hitt’s detractors argued the point that there are times where it is appropriate to stay angry, and that liberals are too quick to blame mitigating circumstances. Hitt in turn cites Christianity and the idea of forgiveness, though in a more secular way.

Our modern idea of forgiveness is less about forgiving what the person did, and more about letting go for own sake. Anger can be a destructive force in our lives and it can be unproductive to hold onto that anger. But in society we do not even question the need for punishment for a crime. We can forgive, but we do not absolve.

But Jesus’ parable goes further. Even though we have racked up a debt of sin we could never repay, God is willing to forgive us, but only if we forgive those who have wronged us. And in this case it doesn’t necessarily mean punish but feel less anger toward the person. It means allowing the person who wronged us to atone and to be redeemed.

Now I’m not saying we should rewrite our entire criminal justice system, but I do think we need to evaluate how much we lean on punitive measures as a means for justice and for restoration. A great deal of outrage this week has surrounded the lack of punishment or charges being brought against a man who depending on how you look at it either defended himself, or shot an unarmed 18 year old black man. This is a situation where holding onto anger can be nothing but destructive. Regardless of the final legal consequences, this is a situation that calls for true forgiveness.

Because if we allow ourselves to draw a line beyond which we cannot be forgiven, then none of us will be saved.

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By the way, I found a handy resource for all of Jesus’ parables online here.

Failure and Forgiveness

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In discussing friendship and play in his sermon this week, Rich observed that developing skill in either requires failing a lot. So in learning how to play well or make friends well, we have to learn how to fail well. That idea has been in my mind this week. What would it mean to fail well?

Brenda Account PictureFor some of us perfectionists, putting “fail” and “well” in the same sentence doesn’t make sense. I know that I have a hard time coming to terms with failure. I’m much more tolerant of other people’s failures than I am of my own. Once when I was confiding to my husband that I thought I had failed in relating to a friend, he said, “Sometimes you find out where the boundaries are by crossing them. You’ll know next time.” Learn from your mistakes…what a concept!

I’d say that learning from your mistakes is the second principle of failing well.

The first principle, I think, is letting yourself fail in the first place. For some of us, failure feels so terminal that we do all we can to avoid it—including refusing to take risks, avoiding close relationships, or lying to ourselves and others.

As Rich said, friendships in Jesus’ day meant mutual obligation. I’d make this a general rule: there is no intimacy without obligation. The kind of obligation depends on the kind of relationship. But if you take the risk of really knowing someone and letting them know you, you take on some responsibility for the trust that they’ve placed in you. And wherever there are responsibilities or obligations, there’s the possibility of failure.

If we want to have friendships that are more than superficial and disposable, we need to deal with our failures. So here are a few more thoughts on how to fail well.

Create a “culture” in which it’s okay to fail. If we don’t start off by trying to impress a new friend or pretending we’ve got it all together, it will be easier to deal with the failures when they happen. The church really ought to be a “friend network” where it’s okay to fail, and where we can teach one another how to do it well.

Own up. We should be willing to admit when we’ve screwed up. This is hard, but it’s the only way to have authentic friendships. Once we’ve done it a time or two, maybe failure won’t feel so terminal.

Be willing to apologize. Once we’ve figured out which failures are ours, we should apologize for them. We don’t necessarily need to shoulder all the blame, but we also can’t hide behind the fact that our friend hasn’t apologized. The only actions we can control are our own. It’s amazing how an apology can create space for a conversation that seemed impossible.

Fix what can be fixed.  Sometimes we need to do more than apologize.  Maybe we need to repair or replace something we damaged.  Maybe we need to repair some damaged trust.  If something can be put right, we should do it.

Keep short accounts. We shouldn’t let failures build up to the point that both sides are approaching the nuclear option. It’s a lot easier to sort out a small issue than it is to defuse a much bigger one later on. It’s also a lot easier to arrange to deal with a small issue. The big issues have a tendency to explode when we’re not ready.

Learn how to give and receive forgiveness. As forgiven people, we Christians ought to have this down, but we don’t. Some of us have trouble forgiving, and some of us have trouble accepting forgiveness. Or maybe all of us have trouble with both. Forgiving someone means letting them off the hook for the hurt they’ve inflicted. We don’t pretend it never happened, or that it wasn’t that bad, but we deliberately choose to bear the pain ourselves and not to make the other person suffer for what they’ve done. This is what Jesus did for us, after all. To receive forgiveness, we have to admit that we did wrong and commit to doing better. This is what we do when we repent of our sins. Neither side is easy, but both are necessary for true reconciliation to take place. When this happens, a friendship can come out stronger than it was before.

So that’s where this week’s reflections have led me. What do you think? How can we fail well?

Forgiveness, grace and garage doors

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This week Pastor Rudy Bocanegra spoke on the importance of family.  He used 1 John 3:11-24 and 1 Timothy 5:1-8 at his main passages.  I really enjoyed what he had to say.  I felt that he did a fantastic job of describing how the family unit looks very different today than what it may have looked like just a short 20-30 years ago.

There are a lot of factors that play into this.  The concept of the “blended” family, due to divorce, remarriage, adoption, sexual orientation, ect has become a cultural norm for today.  Some of these things are good and some are bad.  Yet whatever your family unit looks like; blended or not, it still hopefully has some principles that are solid rules for living.  I think that this is true even more so if we are Christian.

These are things that I have known and also am experiencing in new ways due to the new family unit I am now apart of.  I am now living with a friend, to save some money on rent and also help him with some of his own living expenses.   In some respects it could be like college all over again.  Yet what makes this situation even more interesting though is that he has an 8-year old daughter living with us a few days a week and alternating weekends.

As I was sitting and listening to Rudy’s sermon, and he was talking of what the Christian family looks like today in our homes, this picture of my “new” family unit kept coming to mind.  What does my life look like to this young girl who is beginning to form concepts and ideas of what a Christian looks like? Based on those adults she encounters on a daily basis, is she seeing what love, grace, kindness and forgiveness looks like?

So now, I suppose even more so, I have to watch how I live and act on an everyday basis because someone else is watching.   I need to also be prepared to give an answer to every question that may arise.  Hopefully, if I mess up, there is some grace and forgiveness there not only from her; but from my roommate as well.

For example, last night, I needed some forgiveness and grace shown.   I went outside to move my car from the street back into our driveway after a friend had left.  I went out with no shoes.  As I began moving my car into its spot, my foot slipped on the gas pedal and instead of slowing down, it sped up and hit the garage door.  I am fine. The car is fine other than a bit of paint and a small dent.  The garage door however…not so much.  It will need replaced.  It suffered the worst damage, along with my pride.  I needed forgiveness and grace and needed it now.  I felt stupid, yet my roommate was very cool about it.  Despite damaging an aspect of his house he showed tons of grace and forgiveness. I owned up to my mistake, told him I was sorry, and will pay for the damages.  He forgave me and showed tons of kindness and support.

My roomate is a Christian and so am I.  He was able to demonstrate without a second thought what a Christ would do.  Hopefully I did as well.  As Pastor Rudy stated in his sermon and my roommate demonstrated, we must act with love, kindness, grace, forgiveness and the like.  The world tells may tell us different.  Yet that is why the concept of a family that holds to Christian values is so needed today.  With that type of character displayed in the story I described, it is much easier to repair a garage door and even the brokenness of our world as well.