The time I needed a member to forgive me

I have never before told this story.

Last week’s death of a woman reminded me of the time I exercised perhaps the worst judgment of my entire eighteen years as a pastor.

The set-up to the wonderful conclusion takes a bit, but I am confident that, if you wade through it to the end, you will be glad you did.

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The old joke is that ministers only work one day a week. The actual joke is that they can often go for many weeks without enjoying a full twenty-four day with no church work.

During my eighteen years as a pastor, my own joke was fashioned. Whenever I tried to take a vacation, a church member died. Well, not every vacation, but it happened often enough that I found myself holding my breath whenever a week off was near.

The first occurred a couple of years after I arrived at Port Hope in 2001. An older woman died a few days before deer season. Since 1981, my family had held deer camp on state forest land near my home town of Montague. After I became a minister, this week in November, which I would spend in the woods with my brothers, along with other family and friends, often was the only chance in the year when I could get home.

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St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, Port Hope, Michigan.

The woman’s funeral would be on November 15. Opening Day. Deer camp always began a day or three before the hunting season, and I didn’t want to miss the festivities we had on Opening Day Eve, even if I would have to miss hunting on the first day. I drove to West Michigan on the fourteenth, then, on the fifteenth, hit the road early to make the four-and-a-half-hour drive back for the funeral. After the funeral lunch, I was back on the road to deer camp.

I will not recount every vacation which was interrupted for funerals, such as the deer camp when not one, but two members died, and the year when Julie and I were at her folks’ in Iowa when a member died, then, as we cut short our vacation and were driving home, I received a call from the daughter of a yet another member who had died.

Okay, I just recounted those two disrupted vacations. Here’s one more.

I had not been able to attend a high school class reunion for many years, and I was really looking forward to my thirtieth, in 2005. Julie and I made our way to West Michigan a couple of days before the party. We were enjoying a leisurely afternoon with some shopping when my cell phone rang. It was the funeral home. A beloved woman had died, to whom I had ministered at her home as she could not make it to church. Her funeral would be held the day after my class reunion.

Since I didn’t have a service folder or sermon written, I couldn’t dash home the morning of the funeral, as I did for the Opening Day funeral. Julie and I would have to head back to Port Hope the day before. Saturday evening. During my class reunion.

We went to the reunion and crammed into two hours as many conversations as possible, then headed home. We arrived in Port Hope well into the wee hours. The next day was Sunday. Of course, I had someone lined up to lead worship in my place. It was weird, having the church bells ringing for the 8:00 a.m. service acting as my wake-up call. I arose, did my funeral prep, and then did my job.

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If you are wondering why I came home for funerals, the answer is complex. First, I was the pastor for these folks, and, often, I got to know them very well, so I wanted to be there for them and with them. Second, these folks got to know me, too, and they counted on me to bring them God’s Word. Most churches, which are large enough to have as many funerals as St. John did, have two ministers, or, at least, a regular pastor and a retired one, so a pastor can go on vacation and not have it interrupted by church work. As for smaller congregations, which I served my first five years in Iowa, they have fewer funerals—I had two to four each year—and, thus, fewer chances to coincide with a vacation.

Also—and this had the biggest impact on me, as to why I didn’t enlist the pastor at a nearby congregation when I was out of town—early in my time in Port Hope, one of our church elders commented, “If you are within driving distance, we expect you to interrupt your vacation.” So, I did what was expected of me.

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St. John, from its large, beautiful back yard.

After a decade of rarely being able to enjoy a full week off, I was worn out with the interruptions to the point of being . . . yeah, I gotta admit it: I was angry over how often it happened.  I dreaded the last few days before a vacation, waiting for the phone to ring with the bad news.

November of 2011 arrived, and I was ready to take my week off in the woods. I had a wedding on Saturday, November 12. I would lead worship the next day, then head to Montague after church.

Julie and I returned to the parsonage from the wedding reception and, when I entered my office to put away my stuff, I saw the light on my office phone machine was blinking.

I was afraid to play the message.

I played the message.

The news caused me to drop into my chair and cry. Hard.

A member had died. He was a lovely gentleman. I had ministered much to him and his wife, and to their extended family. There was no way I could see myself telling the son that, hey, I was going on vacation, and couldn’t they please call the pastor in Harbor Beach or Bad Axe to officiate?

The funeral would be the day after Opening Day. I drove to deer camp after worship on Sunday, enjoyed two days there, then drove back the morning of the funeral. I was in my office, an hour or so before the funeral, when my phone rang. I found it odd that it was the funeral director.

“Warren, I’m going to see you in a few minutes. What’s up?”

“Another member of yours just died.”

“But, I’m on vacation! I shouldn’t even be here, today!”

I told him that I didn’t know what I was going to do, but that I might not be sticking around. I needed this vacation, something fierce. I already was hurting over having to interrupt it once, and the years of disturbed vacations was weighing on me. If I were to officiate this funeral, the rest of my week would be lost, and I couldn’t extend it because Thanksgiving was the week after that.

I was fit to be tied.

I loved the man who had just died. I had ministered to him and his wife, in their home, most of the decade I had been in Port Hope. Indeed, I had officiated her funeral only two years earlier. I wanted to be there for the family, all whom I knew well.

Fit to be tied quickly grew into downright miserable. If I didn’t have this time off, I would not be able to get away until I had no idea when. I was mentally pooped. I longed to be with my family, to enjoy the quiet of the woods, to not be the pastor for a week.

I decided that I would not be staying. I mustered my courage and called the daughter. I explained my situation, then I suggested, “You can call the pastor in Harbor Beach, or the one in Bad Axe.” I answered her various questions and gave her this tip and that information, to leave her equipped to do everything that needed to be accomplished.

We hung up, and I tried to convince myself that I had handled it well, and everything would be okay.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

You guessed right. All was not okay.

The rest of the week I was at deer camp, my conscience gnawed at me, but I was convinced that I did what any reasonable person would do, and any reasonable family would understand.

My first day back on the job, I immediately went to the daughter, who was St. John’s church and school secretary. I asked how everything went. I told her how badly I felt for not being there, but how I needed the vacation even more badly. She was quiet in her responses, but didn’t argue with me.  She was her usual, kind self.

Once again, I tried to convince myself that I had handled it well. Sometimes, I can be such a dope.

Within days, that church elder—the man who told me that I was expected to be there for funerals if I were within driving distance—came to the parsonage. He had heard that the family was not happy with me. I didn’t argue with him for long. The Holy Spirit finally kicked me upside the head hard enough that I got it. I was able to recognize that I had made the wrong decision, a monumentally selfish one.

I had not been there when I was needed to do the job for which I was called to St. John.

It was time for me to do what I taught from God’s Word all Christians are to do, and then it would be up to this woman to do the same. Times like these are exactly when we too often do not follow the correct path, because it is hard to admit our sins directly to another person, and it can be just as hard to let go of our hurt and forgive the one who repents. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It was time for us to put our faith to work.

I contacted the daughter.

We sat down together, just the two of us. I went back over everything that had transpired, wanting her to recognize how I got into the rough spot I had found myself. But, now, I didn’t use it as an excuse.  Now, I confessed to her, “None of that matters. I blew it. I did not do right by you. I was so angry that yet another of my vacations was ruined that I wasn’t able to see straight. I wound up making the wrong decision. If I could change it, I would. I am so sorry that I was not there for you. Will you please forgive me?”

She had tears in her eyes. She didn’t speak quickly, but finally she was able to look at me and say those precious words. “I forgive you.”

With my own eyes now welled with tears, I thanked her.

Because she was St. John’s secretary, she and I interacted a lot. I immediately knew that she had truly forgiven me because, the rest of my years in Port Hope, our relationship was as good as before I sinned against her and her family.

Oh, how I wish I could once more return to Port Hope, for her funeral on Friday, to proclaim the Good News of our Lord Jesus for the sake of her eternal life, and for sake of all of those gathered.

I would gladly tell of the time I was the sinner in need of absolution, and Andrea Piotter was Jesus-in-the-flesh for me, forgiving this trespasser as lovingly as the Lord always forgave her.

Thank you, Andrea. I eagerly anticipate our blessed reunion at the throne of our Lord Jesus Christ—the reunion which will never be interrupted.

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What’s missing from the apologies

 

Tell me when you have heard this from anyone, especially the men of late who have finally been revealed for their sexual misconduct:

“I didn’t realize what I was doing. I now know it was wrong. I apologize to anyone who might have been hurt by my actions.”

Sure, lots of other things are usually said. I only wanted to hit the key, common themes. I find astonishing what usually is only an indirect admission of guilt, usually spoken to the public, rarely directly to the women. And, as in the final sentence, this is how it is said, “If anyone was hurt,” as if it’s not on these men for what they did, but on the women for not receiving it well.

Can you imagine this: “If you were killed by the bullet I shot into your heart, I’m sorry.” What’s the difference between that and “I apologize to anyone who might have been hurt by my actions”?

Now, tell me when you have heard this from anyone, especially the men of late who have finally been revealed for their sexual misconduct:

“I did a terrible thing. I knew better. I knew I was crossing a line. I knew this was not the same as dating, and romantically falling for each other, and giving ourselves to each other. Quite the opposite, I was no better than and no different from a rapist. I know that it was my actions which hurt these women, which hurt you (uses their names). I was not sorry at the time, and I sure hoped this would never come to light. Now that these women have spoken, and I hear the pain in their voices, and recognize in their words the offense I perpetrated upon them, I finally and fully realize what I did, how I used my position to my advantage and their disadvantage, how I put them into this spot of remaining silent for so long.”

That’s a lot, and oh how I would love to hear such direct admissions of guilt, but those words should not be the end. A key thing—perhaps THE key thing—remains missing. Here it is:

“Now, I dare to ask for their forgiveness. Please, (using their names), forgive me. No, I do not deserve it, but now that I am actually owning up to what I did, I am a broken man for it. Thus, I find that I really need your forgiveness. I am truly sorry for what easily were my unforgivable actions, Finally, I have opened my eyes. With your forgiveness, I hope to heal in such a way that, frankly, I can grow up and be the man that I always should have been. I am filled with remorse. I regret my actions. I repent of them. Please, forgive me.”

There it is. That’s what’s always missing, a direct, no wiggle room allowed, remorse and regret and repentance. Finally, and ultimately, the request to be forgiven—with a humility-filled “please”—so that the women and the world can believe you, is always missing. And it is vital to the entire process, to the mending of relationships, even if relationships might not, or cannot be resumed.

And, please, don’t tell me, “They might have been advised by their lawyers not to go that far.” If they are going to admit guilt, then admit guilt. If they are going to own up to their actions, then go all the way. If they want the women and us to see that they truly have been knocked to their knees by their ugly, vile—yes, let’s even call them sinful and criminal—actions, then go so far as to beg forgiveness.

Yeah, beg. Put some weight and emotion into that “please” which needs to come before the “forgive me.” And don’t manufacture it. We’ll see it, if it’s not genuine. You will be raked over the coals, and rightly so, if we think that you slammed your hand in a door in order to produce those tears.

Choke up. Break down. Fall apart. That’s what you did to the women, you punks. The equal and opposite reaction would be for you to do the same.

Let’s have all of these:

  • Remorse
  • Regret
  • Repentance
  • Begging for forgiveness

Do you deserve anyone’s forgiveness? Of course not. No one, who has done a terrible thing, deserves to be forgiven. Forgiveness is not about deserving or earning or clearing the air.

Forgiveness is a gift.

This is not the stuff of the courts, of guilty and not guilty and meting out punishment. This is about human relationships. Forgiveness is about healing human relationships.

If a relationship can be healed so that it can resume, then the reconciliation will be marvelous proof of the guilty party’s regret and the offended party’s generosity.

If it is impossible for the relationship to be resumed—and the hurt party need not feel it is their obligation to put themselves back into this person’s life—then they will have done all they could do, the offender repenting and the offended forgiving. As for the courts or lawsuits, they are completely separate things.

Apologizing and repenting are not the same thing. The word, apologize, originally meant to make a defense, to explain oneself for the purpose of being understood, a person making his case. Over time, it morphed into meaning sorrow for our actions and repentance.

The origin of repent is to turn one’s mind around, as in “I used to think it was okay to do this, but now I know I was wrong.” To imagine it vividly:

  • To stop looking at the person who is causing you to lust for him or her.
  • To take your eyes off the thing you cannot afford to buy so that you don’t covet it and spend money that you don’t have.
  • To not enter the casino where you know your gambling habit is going to bite you once more.

While my having been a Christian minister has me especially attuned to this, know that Christians do not have a corner on it. This is the language of all religions. Frankly, religion need have nothing to do with it; it’s common to all human beings, to every type of relationship.

If you blew it, admit it.  Let us see remorse.  Let us hear regret.  Let us reckon your repentance. Directly tell the person you hurt, mincing no words. With a humble “please,” ask for her or his forgiveness.

If you are the hurt one, recognize the sorrow. Realize that you are prone to falling short with others and have wanted their forgiveness so many times, and always were so glad to be forgiven, so you don’t want to do to them what you want no one to do to you. Regardless of whether or not you can restart a relationship with this person, melt your heart so that it is not hard. Forgive the person. Then, move on.

When these public figures, many of whom I have either appreciated or admired their work, some of whom I have really liked, who brought joy and laughs and fun into my life, actually show remorse, regret, and repentance, and then go so far as to humbly beg forgiveness, then—and only then—will the offense which they gave me be removed. Until then, they have lost my respect, and any affection I might have had for them.

I always have forgiveness in my heart, ready to give it to those who are sorrowful, and oh how I want to give it away as freely and immediately as the Lord does for me.  But, it has to be requested.  People need to own up, confess, and humbly ask.

Harvey and Kevin and Louis and Charlie and Matt and all of you men, if you are guilty, admit it to yourself and then admit it to the world. Repent. Beg forgiveness. Give the women, and give all of us, the chance to finally see your sorrow, perhaps even to respect you for your honest humility, and forgive you.

Perhaps—and I so pray it for the sake of the women whom you offended, and hurt, even brutalized—they can begin to move on.  To be healed—oh, to be healed!

Hopefully, all of us can move on and, dare I hope it, become better people in all of our relationships.

Christmas 2016

Christmas 2016

Who’s afraid of a baby?

Many people are afraid of God, quake at the notion of standing before almighty God, have a picture of God in which He is a command-giving, lightening-bolt-throwing, sinner-zapping, hell-delivering, wrathful tyrant of a God.

Who would love a God like that? I sure wouldn’t. Who would want to worship Him? Not me. Who would even give a moment of his life to trust in Him? Not this one.

What kind of a god would want to scare his creation into submission? Oh, there are gods like this—gods which men have created for themselves, like the many gods of Greek and Roman and Norse legends. But is the true God like this—a demanding, fear-invoking, abusive God?

How do you know that the true God is not a wrathful tyrant? You know He is not, because you know all about Christmas.

Think about it: Who’s afraid of a baby? What harm can a baby do? At whom can a baby throw lightening bolts? How can a baby scare anyone?

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Quite the opposite, a baby is an invitation to cooing at him, holding him, smelling his newborn sweetness, feeding and caring for him, singing to him and rocking him to sleep.

A baby does not call down orders, demand favor, or seek worship. A baby is completely at the mercy of his parents. He cannot command; he can only receive. He cannot seek; he can only accept.

We know that God’s Son was born of a woman, in the same manner in which we all came into this world, and that God intended to save the world through the sacrifice of His Son. Yet, there is so much more to see in the person of Jesus, who is Immanuel, God with us in our own flesh.

What we see is a wonderful picture of God’s character.

If love and gentleness and joyfulness were not God’s true nature, He never would have been born of a woman. If God the Father did not possess a spirit of helpfulness, the Son of God would not have put Himself into our flesh, where it would now be His job to fulfill all which His Father commands. If all the Father wanted to do were to throw lightening bolts into our lives, His Son would have stayed in heaven and made sure His quiver were always loaded.

But who’s afraid of a baby? And in the baby Jesus, God is saying, “Fear not. Come close. See your salvation lying in a manger, swaddled tightly, nursing at His mother’s breast, coming into your world in a most harmless, humble manner.”

Jesus grew to be a man. He didn’t go off and get married, but stayed home, perhaps because Joseph by now had died, and as the first-born of His mother Jesus had a responsibility. He followed in the family business.

Who’s afraid of a stay-at-home, mother-obeying carpenter?

When the time had come, at the age of thirty, Jesus was pressed into the job for which He had been born. He went to John to be baptized.

Who’s afraid of a man, who’s not even a sinner, humbling Himself at the feet of a baptizer?

From there, Jesus went into the wilderness. For forty days, He fasted. For forty days, He was alone. For forty days, Satan tested and tempted Him. Surely, Jesus was starved and shriveled, a sorry sight.

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I ask you: Just who is afraid of a man like that?

After Jesus passed this terrible test, He rejoined society. He took up preaching and healing and helping. True, Jesus had stern sermons for those who did not do His Father’s will to love others as they love themselves, but mostly He spoke words of forgiveness to the outcasts of society, He fed the hungry who followed Him cross-country, He calmed the fears of His friends by calming the storm.

Jesus gave help to the helpless, hope to the hopeless, and a smile to those at whom society only frowned.

I ask you: Who is afraid of a man like this? Who is afraid of those who are tender and caring and humble?

If you are not yet convinced that God in heaven does not want you afraid of Him, but to trust Him to love you, and to shower you with mercy, and to help you in your every need, then, please, continue to ponder His Son, the One who came as a baby, whose newborn back was laid on the wood of a manger, who grew up to be the man whose whip-torn back was nailed to the wood of a cross.

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Who, I ask you, is afraid of a man who is nailed to a cross? Why, He is as helpless as a baby in a crib.

Who is offended by a man who, while having His life unfairly taken from Him, asks God to forgive His murderers?

Who is scared off by a Son who, as He anticipates His last breath, looks out for the welfare of His mother by appointing a friend to watch over her?

Akin to a newborn child is Jesus on the cross. Who does not want to wash His wounds? Who does not want to hold His hand and comfort Him? Who does not want to speak words of encouragement to Him?

Who is timid toward a man who invites:

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Who is afraid of a Savior who invites you to be washed in a baptism of His holiness for the forgiveness of all sins?

Who is scared off by a Lord who calls you to His table, to eat and drink of His saving flesh and blood for the strengthening of faith?

Who is not drawn to a King whose greatest love is to declare that you are saved to be children of His Father—indeed, because He is the One who worked for your salvation?

Who’s afraid of a baby?

Who’s afraid of Jesus?

Not me.

And, I pray, not you, as you consider His lovely face, His acts of grace.

Amen.

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Is God punishing LGBTs?

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I began work on this piece on Monday, then let it sit. At that time I had written these two paragraphs:

I am amazed that I have heard no conservative Christian leader declaring that the massacre at Pulse in Orlando was God’s punishment upon LGBT people. Indeed, so expectant was it that I even did an Internet search in a hunt for it.

The reason I expected it is because of the number of times it has happened. The one that always stands out is hurricane Katrina. That it hit New Orleans, some Christian leaders said, was God’s judgment on the city because it had become a den of iniquity.

I stopped there, deciding I did not want to write about something that, hopefully, would be a non-issue. Sadly, it became an issue.

After the magnanimous minister, Mark Wingfield, with his “Seven Things I am Learning about Transgender People” gave a good name to Baptists, a prig of a pastor, Roger Jimenez, has done his best to besmirch the same name. In a sermon, which has now been removed from YouTube because of, well, you’ll see, he said, “Are you sad that fifty pedophiles were killed today? Um, no. I think that’s great. I think that helps society. I think Orlando, Florida, is a little safer tonight. The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die. The tragedy is I’m kind of upset he didn’t finish the job, because these people are predators. They are abusers.”

Wow, nice job there, Pastor, of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ and perfectly describing the people who were killed.

Um, no. You were a miserably mistaken oh for two, and when we look at your theology you will drop to oh for three.

It will come as no surprise that Jimenez would next say the thing that I had been waiting for some religious bigot to promulgate: “You don’t mourn the death of them. They deserve what they got. You reap what you sow.”

There it is: “They deserve what they got.” It’s another way of saying, “God was punishing them.”

Did these forty-nine people deserve to be gunned down? According to the Word of God, every person who dies “deserves what he gets.”

• “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die (Genesis 2:17).”
• “The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).”
• “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).”

Were those forty-nine people sinners, whose lives were unjustly taken from them? Yes. They were sinners because they were humans.

Here is correct theology: We all are in the same boat. No one conceived from sperm and egg is able to cast the first stone, because no one is without sin. If God were in the business of punishing sinners, none of us would be here. He would have smite us at the first chance.

The only One who could have cast the first stone, because He was without sin, chose not to throw stones but to freely lay down His life so that we might possess the forgiveness of all of our sins, the gift of eternal life, and salvation from death, devil, and damnation.

How do I know—how can I be bold to insist—that I am positive that God was not punishing those who were killed at Pulse, or those who died in Katrina, or any other situation that might arise? The Bible tells me so. (Emphases are mine.)
• “God was reconciling THE WORLD to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them (2 Corinthians 5:19).”
• “[Christ] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of THE WHOLE WORLD (1 John 2:2).”
• “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. ALL we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—EVERY ONE—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us ALL (Isaiah 53:4-6).”

These facts inform me that when God says that He “wants all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4),” He is telling the truth. The only crazy thing about the Lord is that “He has committed to us His message of reconciliation (the sentence which follows what I previously quoted from 2 Corinthians 5:19).”

None of this conversation is to ignore any behavior which the Lord condemns.  Rather, it is to acknowledge that every one of us has behaviors which the Lord condemns.  ALL humans sin in thought, word, and deed. We all have ways of justifying our behavior, creating a ten commandments which suits us. None of us can deny it.  Thus, if our manner of proclaiming God’s Word is going to be one of condemning sinners, the place to begin is at home.

With the black-and-white-ness of all of this—that all are sinners who deserve God’s wrath, and that Christ took all of God’s wrath on behalf of us sinners—how shall we live?

Instead of using our mouths to condemn, let us employ them to encourage.

Instead of pointing fingers, let us use our hands to embrace our fellow man.

Instead of declaring things that God Himself does not declare, let us proclaim the thing that the Lord Jesus Christ Himself declared: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him (John 3:16-17).”

Too hard to forgive?

The weekend’s terrible events gave us two new people whom it would be so easy to hate. But they’re dead, so why waste the energy? Concentrating on the living, let’s go back to last week and the now infamous, privileged Stanford University swimmer-cum-rapist.

We heard about Brock Turner’s receiving of a paltry six months in prison for brutally raping Emily Doe (her assumed name, to protect her anonymity).

As this case made the news, twin reports came with it. First was Turner’s father’s appeal to the judge for a light sentence, that his son not be penalized for twenty minutes of bad behavior. Second was Emily’s twelve page letter in which she eloquently wrote of the devastating effects of this sexual assault, in which she says, “I learned that my ass and vagina were completely exposed outside, my breasts had been groped, fingers had been jabbed inside me along with pine needles and debris,” resulting in her reaction, “I wanted to take off my body like a jacket and leave it at the hospital with everything else.”

I cannot even begin to imagine.

And many cannot even begin to imagine what she said next to this criminal. “The world is huge . . . and you will make a space for yourself in it where you can be useful and happy. . . . I fully support your journey to healing, to rebuilding your life, because that is the only way you’ll begin to help others.”

And our jaws dropped at her crazy-huge ability to both possess and display a forgiving heart toward the man who devastated her.

You can cite as many cases as I in which people have forgiven a la Emily, who returned forgiveness for deep offense, for brutality, for lives unjustly taken, so I will let you reflect on those as I turn in the other direction.

As a pastor, I dealt with many people who were not able to forgive. I learned quickly that being a Christian did not mean you necessarily understood, were able, or even interested in forgiving.

“Pastor, Dad had a heart attack. He’s doing okay, but I need you to know something that I hope you can talk to him about.” Thus began a revelation which was one of the more dramatic cases of grudge-holding with which I would deal.

The interesting thing about the man, whom I’ll call John, was his age. He was 92. When the daughter told me, “I think it’s time Dad dealt with the grudge he’s been holding since the 1940s, when he felt he was not given a fair share of the family farm,” I marveled at the fact that NOW it was time—when he was in his NINETIES?

I entered John’s hospital room. Sitting on the edge of his bed as he ate lunch, John greeted me with a big smile. We covered the necessary ground, discussing his heart attack and prognosis, then I wasted no time. “When your daughter called, she told me about the deal with the farm and the hard feelings you’ve always carried.” John was unable to keep tears from welling in his eyes.

He detailed what had happened. If John were being accurate, it certainly was possible that he had been unfairly treated. I didn’t care. I proceeded to ask John all of the “so what” questions I could conjure: “So what resulted for you? Did it ruin your life? Did you have a lousy life? Did those who got the land have a better life, prosper more, or enjoy more blessings?” John didn’t have a single good answer, so I asked, “What have you gained by holding onto this grudge?” Now, he really cried. I never thought I would see THIS man cry, and certainly not like this.

I now led John to the Lord’s gift of forgiveness for him, hoping it would lead him to forgive those whom he believed had trespassed against him. His repentance rang with sincerity, so I gladly spoke in the stead of Christ, pronouncing him forgiven, then fed Him Christ’s body and blood to nourish this blessed gift of faith.

I left John, wondering. He was a lifelong Lutheran and faithful worshiper, active in our congregation. He had heard the Gospel of forgiveness hundreds of times. He had prayed in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Yet, he held this grudge, and the bitter taste of it lived in his mouth for decades.

I don’t know what allows some to forgive and some to find it impossible. I have learned that it does not matter whether or not one practices a religion, whether or not one specifically knows and believes in the free forgiveness won by Christ and has spoken scads of times, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” or whatever station in life a person holds. There is no rhyme, which allows me to find no reason.

As a Christian, I know the Holy Spirit works with our spirit to lead us to a Christlike attitude, who prayed from the cross for the forgiveness of those who were crucifying Him, but I also know the Holy Spirit forces nothing on anyone. The Spirit gives Christ, who is the Good Shepherd, and as a Shepherd Christ speaks and leads and guides, but never screams, pushes, or coerces. He wants no one to walk off the edge of a cliff, but He will pressure no one into the fold of His forgiveness.

Because of what I have witnessed, what I have here described, it seems to me that the ability to forgive is a full-bodied part of our being: one part nature, one part nurture, and the final part personal decision.

I also know this: I know that hearts can change; I’ve seen it too many times to give up on hoping for it.

When I read about the Emily Does of the world, I both rejoice in their ability and hope that grudge-holders will be smacked upside the head with the reality of what they are doing. When we live as a nation in the wake of horrific crimes such as the Pulse massacre, I pray that we can react peacefully—even as we express appropriate pain, horror, and anger—so that we might find ways to heal, to improve our citizenry, to forge a better and safer future.

I have observed grudge-holders. I have seen families in turmoil because no one would budge. I have watched how grudges are only one aspect of many negative behaviors in people. And I certainly would call none of it good. None of it beneficial. Not for families and communities. Not for the person who bears the grudge.

Forgiveness is way less about the one who hurt us than it is about us. Forgiveness brings healing, and healing begins at home. It begins in MY heart.

It works the same way it works in Christ, who provided for our forgiveness by dying for us “while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8),” not first calling for us to be sorry for our sins. “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them (2 Corinthians 5:19).”

Thank you, Emily Doe, for your magnanimity toward Brock Turner. You have played the role of healer to the one who harmed you. What an exquisite gift you have given!

May all who bear grudges see that those grudges lead nowhere good, never bring healing.

Far more, may they be enlightened to the ability which they hold in their own hands, the ability to heal from within through the possessing of a forgiving heart.

Forgiveness reconciles people who had been at odds. Reconciliation is the foundation for peace.

Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

Someone to watch over me

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There is a lovely Gershwin song called Someone to Watch Over Me. You might recall this:

There’s a somebody I’m longing to see,
I hope that he Turns out to be—
Someone who’ll watch Over me.
I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood
I know I could, always be good,
To one who Watched, over me.

Won’t you tell him please to put on some speed
Follow my lead, oh how I need,
Someone, to watch, over me.
Someone, to watch, over me.

In the song, it’s a young woman who is looking for this perfect Mr. Right to watch over her. Don’t we all long to be watched over? Isn’t it true that no matter how old we are, we feel better, safer, calmer, more secure, when we have someone watching over us?

I remember those times, when I was a kid, that my parents would go out for the evening, I never felt quite right. And, if the weather were stormy, I was all the more queasy. I relied on my parents to watch over me, for me to feel safe, calm, secure. Someone to watch over me.

I’ve found it interesting, since I’ve grown up, that enduring a storm, all alone in the house, is not nearly as easy as enduring a storm with at least one more person in the house. It’s not as though that other person can do a thing about the storm—they can’t do anything more about the storm than I can—but just having someone there, well, that makes all the difference. Someone to watch over me.

When we get sick, we especially want someone to watch over us. It is never fun to be sick, but it is even worse when you have to be sick by yourself. Ah, but when you have your mom or spouse or another loved one to watch over you, well, it makes being sick a whole lot easier. Indeed, isn’t that the case with any of the trials of life? Any hardship is easier to take when we have a caring person helping us through. Someone to watch over me.

All of this leads me to what this special Church day is all about. It has been forty days since Easter, which makes today The Ascension of our Lord. Part of the Lord Jesus’ ascension into heaven has to do with the Kingship He earned by suffering in our flesh and paying for our sins. By ascending into heaven, Jesus took His rightful place as King over all of creation.

Another part of our Lord’s ascension was so that He could send the Holy Spirit to us. We can think of it this way: If the Lord Jesus were still on earth, He would only be taking one prayer at a time, in the form of one visitor at a time or one phone call at a time. But, by ascending into heaven and sending the Holy Sprit to us, we have a spiritual, heavenly connection to our Savior, and He can take as many prayers at a time as we can send Him.

Doesn’t it seem funny, though, that it was just before the Lord Jesus left that He proclaimed, “Surely, I will be with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20)”? He makes this claim, and then, poof, He disappears into the clouds.

Someone to watch over me?

Yes. Despite His bodily going to heaven, this is exactly what our Lord is doing from His throne: He is watching over us. When the Lord Jesus ascended to heaven, He wasn’t going on a long, long, long, vacation from which He would return when He reappears on the Last Day. No, the best reason that He ascended was for Him to keep on doing what He had been doing on earth.

What had He been doing on earth?
• He had been healing the sick.
• He had been forgiving sins.
• He had been teaching about God’s way.
• He had been hearing prayers and answering them.
• He had been bringing peace to the troubled.
• He had been feeding the masses on heavenly food.
• He had been sacrificing Himself for His creation.
And that is exactly what He continues to do as He watches over you and me.

I find this so comforting, so dazzling, that our King is also our ultimate servant, that Jesus Christ— who deserves to be served and celebrated and honored and worshiped and glorified—doesn’t simply sit in heaven and take all the acclaim that He has earned—and earned it He has by wearing our flesh and bearing our sin. Rather than acting as we would act if we were a king, our Lord Jesus Christ still does the work of the ultimate servant.

• On earth, He healed the sick. From heaven, He heals the sick. He does it through medical science. He does it through the gift of faith which confers His grace by which we are ultimately healed for all that harms us and takes our lives.

• On earth, He forgave sins. From heaven, He forgives our sins. Indeed, all of Christ’s forgiveness is the ultimate healing which each of us needs. It is the spiritual healing that brings eternal life.

• On earth, He taught the way and the truth and the life. From heaven, He teaches us the way and the truth and the life. He does it through the Holy Bible, and then through the proclamation and instruction which we do in and as His Church.

• On earth, He heard and answered pleas and petitions. From heaven, He hears and answers our prayers. Indeed, He assures us that He hears and answer every single one of our prayers (John 15:7; John 14:13, Matthew 7:7), always according to His good and gracious will—always, according to what He knows is best for us.

• On earth, He brought peace to the troubled. From heaven, He brings peace to us when we are troubled. “Come to me,” He invites we who are weary and burdened, “and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).”

• On earth, He fed the masses on heavenly food. From heaven, He feeds us on the heavenly food of His own body and blood in Holy Communion.

• On earth, He sacrificed Himself for His creation. From heaven, He continues to sacrifice Himself for us through His humble service, always on duty, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

In other words, He watches over us. He is someone—He is the best someone—to watch over you. That is the good news that makes you feel safe, calm, and secure.

You are secure in the eternal love of your Savior, who watches over you. He is the Faithful One. As the Lord Jesus Christ has promised, He is with you always, until the end of the age.