Father, Forgive Them

A few months ago a friend asked a question on Facebook. It concerned forgiveness, and the willingness of “the world” to forgive, compared with the willingness of those in the Church. It made me think. A lot. Forgiveness, seemingly such a simple concept, has become a hugely complex and difficult subject in the heart of mankind.

The Bible speaks often of forgiveness. As Christians we are exhorted to forgive one another.

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13)

These verses are in the context of living as a Christian community. But Christ doesn’t seem to limit the scope of forgiveness when he says, immediately after teaching the Lord’s Prayer,

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15)

He is emphasising one verse from the prayer. Think about it. Jesus is emphasising one verse from the most famous, most widely spoken prayer in the history of the world. What does that say about the importance of forgiveness?

There is something about these verses though. Something that I think our fallen hearts focus on even if we are not aware of it. We see a transaction taking place. God forgave us and so, in return, we should forgive others. If we don’t forgive others then, in return, God will not forgive us.

And sometimes that’s how we forgive. We do so because we know we should, or worse, because we want to be seen as good Christians – or if we are not believers, to be seen as good people. Like the giving, praying and fasting of the hypocrites in Matthew 6, we forgive for show, not for love. For forgiveness to count for anything, it must come from the heart, as Christ explained in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35).

There’s another way our hearts lead us to misunderstand forgiveness. Consider these words of Jesus.

If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them. (Luke 17:3-4)

It is an unambiguous instruction. Depending on the nature of the sin, it might be a very difficult instruction to follow, but Jesus never said that following Him would be easy.

But I’m not thinking about the difficulty of forgiveness, so much as what comes before it in the verse – repentance. Repentance and forgiveness go hand in hand at various points in the Bible. And we have come to believe that repentance is a condition for forgiveness. Unless the one who has sinned against us repents, apologises, begs forgiveness, in some way admits their wrongdoing, they don’t deserve our forgiveness, and we are entitled to withhold it. (Oswald Chambers wrote a short, interesting devotional on repentance, you might like to read it.)

In this world there will be times that we feel sinned against when the “sinner” has actually done no wrong, but the hurt is based on some kind of misunderstanding or disagreement, not on any intention of harm. But even when harm is deliberate, and there is no sign of repentance, we can still forgive.

When I consider this, I remember Gordon Wilson, who lost his daughter Marie in the Enniskillen bombing of 1987. After describing her last words to him, he said to the BBC,

But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life. She was a great wee lassie. She loved her profession. She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.

Tears come to my eyes as I read his words again. This is true forgiveness, from the heart, born out of faith, unconditional.

And that brings me to Christ’s words on the cross,

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

I think about the Roman soldiers casting lots for His clothes as Jesus forgives them. I think of the people of Jerusalem who had cried out for His crucifixion, not understanding who He really was, and He forgives them as He hangs there.

It was only when I thought about His words again recently that I realised He was also speaking of me. I understood that this was the moment in history that Jesus saw all my sin and prepared Himself to suffer the full consequences of everything I will ever do in defiance of God’s will. And He knew that in my humanity I can never completely change, that every day I will sin in word or thought or deed. He knew that sometimes those sins would be wilful, and sometimes neglectful or thoughtless. And He knew that I can’t possibly truly know what I’m doing, because I can barely comprehend the cost of my sin or the depth of God’s love for me in spite of it.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

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So Will I

When I attended The Gathering in Birmingham last year I heard some amazing messages and experienced some wonderful worship. One of the highlights was Amanda Cook’s outstanding rendition of So Will I (100 Billion X). I hadn’t heard it before, and it filled me with such joy, such awe, such appreciation of our beautiful God. Since that evening I haven’t found a version to equal the majesty of that performance, even from Amanda herself, although the one below is close.

The lyrics of this song are exceptional, and I like to read them as poetry, and as a prayer:

God of creation
There at the start
Before the beginning of time
With no point of reference
You spoke to the dark
And fleshed out the wonder of light

And as You speak
A hundred billion galaxies are born
In the vapour of Your breath the planets form
If the stars were made to worship so will I
I can see Your heart in everything You’ve made
Every burning star
A signal fire of grace
If creation sings Your praises so will I

God of Your promise
You don’t speak in vain
No syllable empty or void
For once You have spoken
All nature and science
Follow the sound of Your voice

And as You speak
A hundred billion creatures catch Your breath
Evolving in pursuit of what You said
If it all reveals Your nature so will I
I can see Your heart in everything You say
Every painted sky
A canvas of Your grace
If creation still obeys You so will I

If the stars were made to worship so will I
If the mountains bow in reverence so will I
If the oceans roar Your greatness so will I
For if everything exists to lift You high so will I
If the wind goes where You send it so will I
If the rocks cry out in silence so will I
If the sum of all our praises still falls shy
Then we’ll sing again a hundred billion times

God of salvation
You chased down my heart
Through all of my failure and pride
On a hill You created
The light of the world
Abandoned in darkness to die

And as You speak
A hundred billion failures disappear
Where You lost Your life so I could find it here
If You left the grave behind You so will I
I can see Your heart in everything You’ve done
Every part designed in a work of art called love
If You gladly chose surrender so will I
I can see Your heart
Eight billion different ways
Every precious one
A child You died to save
If You gave Your life to love them so will I

Like You would again a hundred billion times
But what measure could amount to Your desire
You’re the One who never leaves the one behind

From https://hillsong.com/lyrics/so-will-i-100-billion-x/

Shipwrecked?

As I compose this post I’m sitting on a bench overlooking St. Thomas Bay, Malta. Traditionally, St. Paul’s Bay, where I’m staying tonight, at the north of the island, is the location of Paul’s shipwreck, described in Acts 27-28. But researchers carefully comparing the text with the geography of Malta, have concluded that St. Thomas Bay is actually the most likely place for the events to have occurred.

Looking across the calm sea in the early afternoon it’s hard to imagine a deadly storm could bring such danger and destruction here. But these waters, like so many of our lives, are only tranquil for a season.

How many of us, at times, have felt metaphorically shipwrecked? I’ve been feeling that way for quite a while. The ships that break, and in doing so can break us, are relationships. It’s not hard to see that people can live rich, meaningful and joyful lives when they are in the poorest circumstances, if they are nurtured by rich, meaningful relationships. On the other hand, someone with all the status, wealth and good health they could wish for, can be emotionally crippled and utterly miserable without the love of family and true friends.

Most of us live somewhere between those extremes. But we can find ourselves adrift in a stormy sea when a key relationship is broken for any reason. What can we do then?

Many books have been written in response to that question. I don’t have all the answers, but in reading about Paul’s shipwreck I find helpful pointers.

First, have faith.

“But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.” (Acts 27:22-26)

And let faith give you courage. God may not have spoken to you as clearly as He did to Paul, but He is surely with you nevertheless. He is at your side as you fall from the ship. He swims alongside you to the shore. He is your Rock of salvation. He loves you even when it feels like no one could.

Second, stay strong.

Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. (Acts 27:33-36)

Just as Paul urged his shipmates to eat, you must eat, sleep, wash, work – do all that you need to do to sustain yourself through the storm. God has good things in store for you, and you need to be fit and ready when they come.

Third, hold on.

He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely. (Acts 27:43b-44)

If you can swim then swim to safety, but if you can’t, find something to hold onto – somebody, some hope, whatever can continue to give your life meaning until you reach solid ground.

Fourth, reach out.

The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold… There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. (Acts 28:2,7)

There is someone who can help you recover from your trauma. There is someone who can understand, who can put things in perspective, who can ready you for the next stage of your journey. It might be a family member, or a friend, or a pastor or a counsellor. Maybe like Paul you will find help in the kindness of strangers. God places people in position for you at times like these, but you won’t see them unless you look.

Fifth, take your time.

After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island… (Acts 28:11a)

Paul spent three months in Malta. Some of that time was spent recovering, and some was spent being useful to the islanders – healing the sick. However long it takes until you are ready to set sail again, don’t neglect your new circumstance, and the opportunities it may give you to help yourself or others.

Throughout it all, pray, give thanks, and remember – you are not alone.

When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment. We boarded a ship from Adramyttium about to sail for ports along the coast of the province of Asia, and we put out to sea. Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with us.

The next day we landed at Sidon; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs. From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us. When we had sailed across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board. We made slow headway for many days and had difficulty arriving off Cnidus. When the wind did not allow us to hold our course, we sailed to the lee of Crete, opposite Salmone. We moved along the coast with difficulty and came to a place called Fair Havens, near the town of Lasea.

Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Day of Atonement. So Paul warned them, “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest.

When a gentle south wind began to blow, they saw their opportunity; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the Northeaster, swept down from the island. The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure, so the men hoisted it aboard. Then they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Because they were afraid they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.

After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”

On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet deep. Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away.

Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food—you haven’t eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. Altogether there were 276 of us on board. When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.

When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.

The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. The rest were to get there on planks or on other pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land safely.

Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.

There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. When this had happened, the rest of the sick on the island came and were cured. They honored us in many ways; and when we were ready to sail, they furnished us with the supplies we needed.

After three months we put out to sea in a ship that had wintered in the island—it was an Alexandrian ship with the figurehead of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days. From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli. There we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome. The brothers and sisters there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these people Paul thanked God and was encouraged. When we got to Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him. (Acts 27, 28:1-16)

The Mystery of Matchmaking

I want to share with you the transcript of BBC Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day” from 4 January, presented by Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer:

The Advertising Standards Authority, the ASA, has just banned an online dating agency from claiming it has a scientifically proven matchmaking system. In an advert headlined “Step aside, fate, it’s time science had a go at love,” the dating service claimed to be able to decode the mystery of compatibility and chemistry, so that you don’t have to. The ASA said that there’s no proof that those who use the service were more likely to find lasting love than those who didn’t, and ruled that the advert was misleading.

Matchmaking is a tough business. The Talmud relates how a Roman matron once asked a rabbi how God occupies His time. “He’s busy pairing couples,” answered the rabbi. “Seriously?” scoffed the matron. “Anyone can pair couples. I’ve got a thousand male slaves and a thousand female slaves and I’ll show you how easy it is to pair them up.” “It might seem easy to you,” replied the rabbi, “but I can assure you it is as difficult as splitting the Red Sea.” The matron paired up her slaves, but the following morning she was inundated with complaints from the misaligned and unhappy couples. “You’re right,” she confessed to the rabbi, “I had no idea how difficult matchmaking could be.”

That even God should find matchmaking taxing indicates that when it comes to matters of the heart there is no simple algorithm. Sometimes all the externals match up, and yet that elusive element we call chemistry, is absent. Other times we can’t figure out how an apparently grossly misaligned couple find themselves deeply in love. No algorithm can account for that.

Furthermore, traditional matchmakers recognise that achieving a compatible match is only the first step towards an enduring relationship, requiring much effort on the part of the couple to achieve love. The Bible, in describing Isaac’s courtship with Rebekah, states that he “brought her home, took her as a wife, and loved her.” The sequence makes it clear that in the Bible, love is not the prerequisite for marriage, but rather, it’s successful outcome.

Love is not static. You don’t fall in love with someone, and remain perpetually in that state. As anyone in a long term relationship knows, love is hard work. The root of the Hebrew word for love, ahava, is hav which means “to give.” Falling in love is something that happens to us, but being in love is the result of an active process in which we continually give of ourselves to our beloved. And it is in giving and sharing that we discover just how deep our capacity for love can really be.

A Glimpse of Cross Vision

I would be very interested to read your comments on this article, Frank Viola’s interview with Greg Boyd:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/gregboydnew/

It’s a lengthy interview, in which Greg discusses some of the ideas in his latest books, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and its shorter version Cross Vision.

The principal argument of Boyd’s work is that when you read the whole Bible – specifically the Old Testament – through the lens of the cross, all kinds of problems we have with the picture of an angry, violent OT God can disappear. In Boyd’s words

On the cross, God stoops to meet us, and to enter into solidarity with us, right where we are at, which is in bondage to sin and to Satan. And he does this to free us and to bring us where he wants us to be, which is united with him in Christ.  The cross is thus the paradigmatic example of God mercifully stooping to accommodate people in their fallen conditioning.

In a similar way, every time we prove ourselves incapable of living up to God’s ideal behaviour, God will Himself “stoop to accommodate” us. This even extends to allowing Himself to be portrayed in the Bible as something other than His “true” self, because culturally His people have been conditioned to believe that this is what a god is “supposed” to look like.

In fact, many passages that exalt Yahweh as a warrior contain phrases from songs that Israel’s neighbors sang to their own warrior deities. The biblical author just switched out the name of the pagan god and replaced it with Yahweh.

After reading the whole interview a few times I’m left with several thoughts. The first is that I want to read Cross Vision, and understand the reasoning – scriptural, cultural and logical – that lies behind Boyd’s claim. Because I very much want this to be true. To finally have a solution to one of the most troubling issues of Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) faith would be beyond exciting.

And that leads me to my next thought, which is that when something seems to be too good to be true, it usually is. This lens of the cross, while on the surface it seems totally Biblical, is surely just too simple. I find myself returning to Isaiah 55.

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,’
declares the Lord.
‘As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.’

Isaiah 55:8-9

And the most troubling thought of all is this: if I can use God’s “stooping to accommodate” as an explanation for the particular “atrocities” mentioned in the book, why can’t I use it to explain anything at all that I don’t like? And how can we tell the difference between the times that God is pleased with an action and the times that he is accommodating us? And how does this then apply outside of scripture, in our daily lives? What can we trust to be God’s genuine will? Do we just follow the 10 commandments and for everything else do our own thing, confident that God will accommodate us?

There are answers to these questions, the simplest one being that if the Holy Spirit dwells within us we can have confidence in what He says to us. But nevertheless I think Greg Boyd’s ideas are just as likely to unsettle as to comfort us, and if I can be sure of one thing, it’s that his books will not end the debate about the “Old Testament God”.

But I’m very much looking forward to reading more.

Book Review: “Martin Luther: A Biography for the People” by Dyron B. Daughrity

October 31, 2017 is the five-hundredth anniversary of the day the Reverend Father Martin Luther posted to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, “The Ninety-Five Theses”. It was an act, history tells us, that lit the blue touchpaper and sparked the Protestant Reformation, changing Europe, and the world, forever.

If you’re anything like me, those two sentences will pretty much cover your complete knowledge of those events. And if so, Dyron Daughrity’s book will fill in a lot of blanks, and help you understand the extraordinary years, at the closing end of the medieval period, and approaching the peak of the Renaissance, in which Luther played a pivotal role.

The first thing I learned is that the Ninety-Five Theses were neither a declaration of war, nor a declaration of independence. The official title attests to this: “Disputation for Clarifying the Power of Indulgences”. Martin Luther was concerned about the abuse of indulgences – the practice of the Catholic Church offering “remission of sins” in exchange for a Christian’s financial offering – effectively giving believers the opportunity to purchase a fast track ticket to Heaven for themselves or their deceased loved ones. He saw corruption in the church and wanted open debate on the matter. Perhaps he believed he could effect change from within and restore the purity of Christ’s bride. As we know, that wasn’t to be.

Daughrity describes well the context of Luther’s life – the changes in academic and theological thinking that were taking place, as well as the political and religious turmoil in Europe as the Holy Roman Empire struggled to push back against the advances of the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent. Into this cultural melting pot Luther was born, and Daughrity tells as much as we know about his early years, education and religious training – a pursuit that was not encouraged by his father.

We see the formation and continuing development of Luther’s key theological insights throughout his life. We see how this theology is built largely on his understanding of the Pauline epistles, and influenced by the works of his other Christian “hero” St. Augustine. We see how his commitment to the Roman Catholic church weakened until it eventually became his enemy, and the Pope became in Luther’s eyes the “antichrist.”

We see a major turning point in Luther’s life at the Diet of Worms and in its aftermath. This was where he faced the real danger of suffering a heretic’s punishment, but survived unscathed thanks to the intervention of his friend Frederick the Wise. This undoubtedly strengthened his standing, while the pamphlets he published from hiding powerfully articulated his theology and his anti-papal arguments. His famous German translation of the New Testament was also completed at this time. After this we see the rapid spread of Protestantism, in its various flavours, and the losing battle Luther waged to keep control of the reforms.

We read of Luther’s key relationships, including his close friendship with Philip Melanchthon, and his marriage to Katherine von Bora. We read of his physical and mental ailments, with depression casting a dark shadow over periods of his life. We read of his outstanding ability to communicate to the common man in his own language, and to win almost any debate – if not at the time then in writing afterwards! And we read of his weaknesses of character, his obstinacy, his infamous anti-semitic writings.

All of Luther’s intricate and interweaving influences are presented in a sympathetic and well formed narrative. Daughrity includes copious notes and quotes from various academic sources, while doing his best to keep this a “biography for the people.” While it is ultimately a biographical work, Daughrity also explains the theological differences – and similarities – between Luther and the Catholic church, as well as the way Protestantism almost inevitably fragmented as soon as Luther’s ideas took root. So it is at the same time a fascinating history book for anyone interested in these crucial years in the life of the church.

It is well worth spending some time with this book.

Thanks to NetGalley and Abilene Christian University Press for providing this book for review.