I’m pretty sure that law and the concept of sin and consequences were created to try to help us live in the groups we need to survive and prosper. Society is a two edged sword. It keeps us from having to do everything for ourselves from fighting off wildlife, planting, harvesting, to creating clothes and shelter, thus giving us time to think, create, explore, and ask questions about the why, not just the how. But, since humanity is a work in progress…..the old adage, that there’s both a goody and a baddy to everything, holds true for society. Society helps us survive physically, but it also challenges us to learn to love.
The commandments were first of all, simply practical. The laws were aimed at keeping us alive, both as individuals and humanity, long enough to become loving. Whatever the Intelligence called God is, that created and nourishes life, it lives within each of us. It is a source of grace to become more loving, than competitive and combative. And we are like cells in a body. Each of us not only affects those closest to us, we affect the whole for better or worse, even the generations following us.
Self-honesty and understanding, rather than guilt, are the beginning of learning to love. And those take courage and grace. The divorce rate makes it obvious we haven’t become enough like Jesus to even love those closest to us, never-the-less those different from us or even “against” us. The commandments are the basic tools of survival for society. But, Jesus showed us the next level through teaching and living the spirituality of the Beatitudes. They call us beyond the fundamentals of the Commandments and just survival. They call us to freedom, the freedom to love others.
Caring is prayer. Prayer is in the intention, whether expressed in words, thoughts, feelings, candles, symbols, acts of kindness, or forgiveness. There is power in prayer. But both wisdom and love are needed to use the power for others, to understand that all creation, without exception, is one.
Jesus is a turning point in humanity’s journey. He fleshed out a love that sacrifices for not only the weakest physically, but the weakest spiritually. This is not survival of the fittest.
His resurrection also illustrated that this life span isn’t all there is. Jesus is the living example of the potential of God’s grace even within our own humanity.
His resurrection shows us death is simply a door to eternity. When we believe this, it gives us a very different value system than death as the finish line. And His openness and love for all show us the way to overcome the finality of death.
If we can forgive that another person cannot give us what only God can give, then we can celebrate that person’s gift. (Henri Nouwen)
I think as we go through life, we end up having to forgive our parents, our siblings, our children, our spouse, our friends,- etc. etc. etc.- for not being able to be what we need and want because they aren’t God. And our own neediness isn’t love either, so we end up having to forgive ourselves also. Forgiveness frees us to heal and move on.
The core of love is forgiveness. (*This doesn’t mean allowing ourselves to be victims.) It means realizing that we all fall short of perfection, so we can let go of bitterness and even self-hate as we continue to become the unique, imperfect, but with the grace of God, slowly ever more loving, person God created us to be
From Henri Nouwen’s A Spirituality of Living
“We all have wounds…….It is a feeling of loneliness that lurks behind our successes, a feeling of uselessness that hides under all the praise we receive…….that makes us grab onto people and expect from them an affection and love they cannot give. If we want other people to give us something that only God can give, we become a heavy burden.”
Nouwen goes on to say: “I love Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. The father holds his child, touches his child, and says, ‘You are my beloved. I’m not going to ask you any questions. Wherever you have gone, whatever you have done, and whatever people say about you, you’re my beloved. You can come home to me whose name is Compassion, whose name is Love.’
Nouwen says, “ If we keep that in mind, we can deal with an enormous amount of success as well as an enormous amount of failure without losing our identity, because our identity is that we are the beloved. Long before our father and mother, our brothers and sisters, our teachers, our church or anyone else touched us in a loving or wounding way —— long before we were rejected by some person or praised by someone else-that voice was there. ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love.’
That love was there before we were born and will be there after we die. A life of fifty, sixty, seventy, or a hundred years is just a little moment in which we have been given time to say, ‘Yes, I love you too.’ ”
Henri Nouwen was a priest theologian/author who toward his later years went to live and minister in a settlement for the mentally challenged.
This quote is from a tiny gem of a book put together from insights from his other books, called A Spirituality of Living.
It is okay to be who you are as long as you are alive, because you are still becoming the person you were created to be. It’s important to know that, because otherwise you have to pretend- even to yourself- that you are perfect and don’t need to grow and change. It’s a lifelong process, a dance between grace and the limits of the hand we were dealt, that probably will still be happening at our moment of death.
I don’t know about afterward……I’m personally counting on Jesus, the expression of the unconditional Love of God, being God’s promise of forgiveness for those bad choices I made along the way to becoming the person I am meant to be. Remember the Prodigal Son story.
So, I was really struggling this week with the statement by a writer I respect: “That if God is just, there has to be a hell.” I’m wondering if that depends on your definition of “just.”
Justice to me means recognition of an evil that brings about change. The evil can be either personal or societal.
I don’t see it as a “get even” kind of thing. Plenty of people have hurt me, just as I have hurt others, but I don’t need them to suffer for it. I just want them to recognize it and sincerely regret it enough to not do it again to me or anyone else. I figure that’s what God wants from us.
I do suspect from my personal experience that a “balancing” plays out in life here in a lot of ways. Sometimes when someone hurts me, I have a sudden memory of having done the same thing to someone else. Depending on what it is, I may laugh, sigh, or feel heartbroken about my own blindness. But it frees me to not only let go of the hurt and temptation to judge, but to avoid doing it again myself.
I believe the whole point of justice isn’t retribution. Justice is about recognition, regret, forgiveness and change. It seems to me that in many ways it’s a dying to self and that we experience a lot of deaths and resurrections before the big one.
One note: Acts have consequences. The reason there are “Do Not” commandments is that those things have negative consequences not only for others, but for those who do them. The rules are for everyone’s protection. I believe the retribution is intrinsic and comes in this life.
Okay…it mystifies me that we as Christians don’t seem to recognize that of all the “do nots,” the one Jesus was strongest on was “do not judge.” And obviously he didn’t mean “do not judge people for the good things they do.” He meant do not judge others for the sins they commit.
Why? Why give us rules and then say “do not judge” those breaking them?
#1 because no one is without sin or in secular terms: nobody is perfect.
#2 because the message of Jesus is that we are loved by God in our imperfect, broken, unfinished, “sinful’ humanity, and once we recognize that we are loved in spite of our selfishness and lack of love, it gives us the grace to begin growing in loving others as Jesus and God love us.
#3 because we do not know the “hand” anyone else was dealt. Only God does, so only God can judge them. And only God will know when they can accept His love enough to truly see themselves without condemnation and be freed to become more like Jesus in what ever way God is calling them to grow. (Not in whatever way we think they should be growing at any particular time.)
1. Nobody’s perfect.
2. When we recognize our brokenness and learn that we are loved as we are, we become free to change and grow more loving.
3.Only God knows if, when, and how He is calling and freeing someone to grow.
The heart of true religion is spirituality. Then and only then can it become communal. If our faith communities are not made up of people with a humble personal relationship with God based on our own ongoing needing and receiving forgiveness, our faith communities will become legalistic, judgmental, unforgiving, about pride and power, and ultimately conflict ridden.
The heart of the spiritual life is a personal journey from recognizing our human weakness and failures, then experiencing forgiveness and unconditional love, to an ongoing response to this grace of becoming more and more able to love others in the same way. It’s an ongoing cycle of repentance and grace and growth in the freedom to love.
The heart of unconditional love is forgiveness. No one is perfect. We all need forgiveness and new beginnings throughout our lives. Truly accepting forgiveness and forgiving others are interdependent. And forgiveness and love are inseparable. We can’t accept or give one without the other.
Each day we are called to open our hearts and minds to God, to find God’s grace in: a first cup of coffee, morning birdsong and sunlight, star filled darkness, storms, fear, difficult people, beauty, a tearful child, a faithful pet, sharing our daily bread, our own and others’ brokenness, sorrow, joy, forgiving, laughter, loss, love, every moment, every human experience, every human relationship, and every human being. When we have “God” eyes, we see God and God’s love everywhere. When we are filled to overflowing, God’s love can pour out for everyone, even those who need our forgiveness.
Today, the first Scripture reading says: “Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.”
In the Gospel reading it says of the twelve year old Jesus who has caused his parents great anxiety, “Then he went down with them and was obedient to them. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”
The important words for us here are grow and increase. If Samuel and Jesus had to grow and increase, even in wisdom and in favor with God and man, it’s a pretty safe bet we do too. And the growing doesn’t stop when we are 12, or 21, 78 or 95.
Today’s second reading says to us: “As God’s children, holy and beloved,”(Don’t you just want to wrap that word ‘beloved’ around you like a warm soft comforter?)
But it continues, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”
The word clothe implies that compassion and humility and patience are not necessarily natural human traits. What follows points the way to grow and increase in them: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Not should or ought, but must.)
The scripture continues “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom.”
Oh boy, there’s the rub. I don’t know about you, but I am not very teachable and if you decide to admonish me, you probably should be prepared to run.
Here’s the good news, when we admit our own need to grow and change, accepting forgiveness brings the grace to change. Forgiveness actually has the power to free us from being trapped even in a lifelong destructive response to people or events.
THEN and only then, can we like Jesus be a witness by visibly fleshing out the power of grace through growing and changing. The best way to teach is to show how it’s done. (It’s probably the safest also.)
Listen please with an open heart to the PRAYER OF CONFESSION followed by a time of silent reflection:
God, you call us beloved. Jesus you showed us that we are called and can be freed to grow and change. Let us feel your hand on our shoulder as you gently shake your head at our blindness. As we listen in silence, free us by your tender love to see where we need to grow and change. Then help us to completely accept forgiveness in the depths of our hearts, so we may be living witnesses to God’s saving grace.
………Take time for reflection…………………
We are all God’s children. We are all God’s beloved. Feel that. Cling to it. Rejoice in it. Give thanks for it. And trust God to complete the good work he has begun in you.
Reflections on Scriptures from the Revised Common Lectionary for Sunday, December 27, 2015 NRSV
1 Sam 2:18-20, 26 Col 3:12-17 Luke 2:41-52
Laws, whether civil or religious, are designed to keep us safe while living in groups, so that we can persevere as imperfect human beings to develop into creatures capable of life-long commitment to another imperfect creature and thus become capable of concern and kindness toward all other creatures.
No person is perfect, no relationship is perfect. But if we resolve to make a relationship work, we can develop peace treaties of love and tolerance to transform a difficult situation into something beautiful. (One may start this, but ultimately it will take two.)
The key to living is not perfection, but perseverance in becoming ever more capable of loving other imperfect beings.
And the most vital part of learning to love ourselves and other imperfect human beings is forgiveness.
And the purpose of forgiveness is grace for personal growth and the ongoing evolution of humanity from survival of the fittest to creatures capable of love for all others.
Reflecting on the Body,
you the hand, I the foot
Christ the head, perhaps the heart,
all at times the hidden part,
I let the Scriptures
flood my mind with images,
with suddenly one image,
a moving picture
so harshly real
I gasp aloud.
A person staggers
arms flailing, head jerking
back and forth in spasms,
body parts all pulling
This then, reality,
Christ’s earthly body now.
God, forgive us.