Tag Archives: broken relationships

Advent: Kissing the Peace Child

kiss the sonDespite how consumerist Christmas has become, there is one thing about it that the world gets surprisingly right. Hallmark specials and feel-good commercials repeat the story of reconciliation, of estranged friends and far-off family members being brought near through unexpected twists of fate. Cliché references to the true meaning of Christmas inevitably point to restored relationships and random acts of kindness.

What used to strike me as distracting perversions of the gospel message I have now come see as beautiful retellings. Meditating on the final Old Testament prophets through this advent season, I have felt the angst of post-exilic Israel. Finally restored to their land but still estranged from their God, they had to be wondering if they really wanted to Him to show up or not.

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
Exodus 20:18-19

From their first real encounter with Him as a nation, God had been a terrifying enigma. He had thundered at them from the top of Sinai, causing them to quite literally quake in their boots. His commands had seemed rigid, His demands overwhelming. Out of fear they drew back, wanting relationship with the God who took care of them but feeling the distance between His holiness and their all-too-human selves.

Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Psalm 2:11-12Exodus 20:18-19

Throughout their history as a nation, they had consistently failed to live up to His standards. And though He proved His long-suffering temperament and His merciful nature, He had also followed through with His promises to punish their persistent disobedience. Who knew the extent of His wrath better than these survivors of famine, war, deportation, and lengthy exile?

“…Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness…
Malachi 3:1-3

Perhaps a cold, distant relationship with their God was safer than an up-close, fiery-hot one. But the souls of the faithful longed for more. In response to their cries for His intervention, God promised the day of His return. But would it be a good day or a bad one? Would they survive His purifying fire or be consumed by it? The Old Testament closes with a mixed-bag of prophecy, anticipating the coming King with equal portions of hope and fear.

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Zechariah 9:9

Who could have known that the King they both desired and dreaded would come so gently? The clenched jaw they expected would come instead with soft, kissable cheeks. The unapproachable Judge would arrive wrapped in a blanket, irresistibly lovable and anything but intimidating. The lamb-like bleat of His newborn cry would beckon those both nearby and far away to come adore Him.

This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…
Luke 2:12-14, 22

When God finally returned to His temple, He came as a peace offering. His flesh-and-blood presence brought laughter and rejoicing, not fear and trembling. Yes, His broken body and spilled-out blood would purify the sons of Levi, enabling a priestly nation of believers to offer up acceptable sacrifices to the Lord. But His tiny, cuddly presence was in itself an invitation to restored intimacy. Prophetess and priest held Him in their arms. Lowly locals and pagan kings made the trip to gaze on their God.

Though the world may not know why, the core message of its advertising campaign is dead accurate. Christmas is about receiving an unexpected gift, about estranged people being drawn into the warmth of long-lost relationship. Some of us may more keenly feel our estrangement than others.

Sing to the LORD, you saints of his; praise his holy name. For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
Psalm 30:4-5

Whether like the wise men you have never known this King or like the shepherds you have fearfully co-existed with Him, Jesus is God’s gift to you. His tiny form alleviates your fears, beckoning you closer to the God you have wanted but dreaded.

Come home to your Father, whose love outlasts His anger.

Kiss the Son. Embrace peace.

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A Unifying Feast

IMG_7822“What is the significance of Thanksgiving?”

Inevitably the question gets asked around our nomadic Thanksgiving table each year, primarily because the guests who fill our mismatched chairs are a constantly varying assortment of races and nationalities. Years ago we established a family tradition of inviting friends from whichever local community we happened to belong to at the time to share our feast with us, largely inspired by our desire to express our gratitude to them for welcoming us in and helping us settle. I have always relished answering this question, getting the chance to draw the parallels between their kindness to us and the kindness of the Native Americans to the pilgrims.

But in more recent days I have been struck with the awkward question: what if in return for our new neighbors’ sacrificial kindness, we abused them, took over their land, and forced them into exile? Is that not how the story of the first Thanksgiving turned out? All of a sudden my warm fuzzies over happy natives and holy pilgrims sharing a peaceful meal together shrivel into a nasty knot in my stomach. Sadly, this is my American heritage.

We perpetuate a heritage of sacrificing other’s best interests for the sake of our own.

But what can I do with it? I can dismiss the rest of the story as an unpleasant memory and choose to focus on the positive. But positive for whom? I hate to admit it, but I’m afraid I have been guilty of remembering history only from the perspective that is most convenient to me. And in so doing, I have privately propagated the very practices that I would publically condemn. Racist assumptions. Double standards. Convenient cover-ups. Selective memory.

When I actually face up to the facts, I shudder at the story of what my ancestors did to the people who inhabited the land they wanted. Their behavior makes Ahab and Jezebel look like saints! In a similar way, I cringe at the story of what my people did to the black people they imported to work their stolen land. I start to read the story of Israel’s slavery in Egypt from a different perspective, recognizing that my heritage is that of the oppressors, not the oppressed.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, … if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Philippians 2:1-4

And trying to separate myself from my ancestors’ actions won’t work either. On varying levels and on different fronts, these racist practices have continued right through the generations and into my day. We perpetuate a quickness to sacrifice other’s best interests for the sake of our own, conveniently slotting them into the category of “outsiders” so that we can be left alone to enjoy the fruit without the guilt. Free-market competitive pricing becomes an excuse for international extortion. Self-defense becomes an acceptable reason for killing someone who makes us feel threatened, even if he was defenseless.

My heart breaks as I witness in the news the physical manifestations of an ever-present rift, both in the racist assumptions that would lead to multiple police killings of African-American youth and in the violent backlash in response to them. But I have to admit that I am not surprised. Generations of divisive attitudes and oppressive behaviors have built this wall, and a smattering of charitable gestures and affirmative actions won’t tear it down.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Ephesians 2:14-16

So what is the way forward in reconciling a history of racial division and distrust? What tiny part can I play in tearing down this too-long reinforced wall? I think the first step is to acknowledge the true story, to listen to my African-American and Native-American neighbors’ retelling of the past and to humbly bear the shame of my ancestors’ role in it. But beyond that, I relish the opportunity to participate with them in a new future.

Each time we gather around our Thanksgiving tables, we replicate Christ’s unifying feast.

Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it. Out of His fragmented body, He drew together people from every tribe, tongue, and nation to become one holy race. Each time we gather around the communion table, we participate in this reality. And each time we gather around our dinner tables, we replicate that unifying feast.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.
All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…
Acts 2:5, 44-47

The early Christians understood the significance of eating together, of gathering around the table and entering into face-to-face communion with people whom they had formerly considered “other.” I can’t help but wonder if this is what the pilgrims had in mind when they initiated that first Thanksgiving meal. And though the communion between European-Americans and Native-Americans would turn out to be pathetically short-lived, it is what we commemorate each time we gather around our Thanksgiving tables.

Tomorrow I look forward to once again eating that meal with the odd assortment of multi-racial guests whom I have the privilege of calling friends. As we break bread and share turkey together, we are practicing for the ultimate Thanksgiving feast, the unity supper of the Lamb.

Vindicating Forgiveness

I sat at lunch with a dear friend recently, swapping stories of past hurts and current healing. Sadly, neither of us was surprised by the other’s experiences of betrayed friendships and smeared reputations, spiritualized power plays and politicized cover-ups. And although we both have been delivered from these abusive situations, the doubts and insecurities they raised within us linger on. The questions they raised about our honor remain unanswered; the accusations they implied about our character stand uncontested. In a way, we both feel like we were taken apart by a team of ruthless examiners and then left in pieces, abandoned on the workbench.

Public shame calls for public honor.

What would finally allow all the pieces to be made whole again? What would lay these past wounds to rest and free us to move on?

In a moment of brutal honesty, we admitted that we want vindication. We want the record set straight about who we are and how we have been treated. We may privately know the truth, but as long as public perception remains inaccurate, the past cannot be laid to rest.

Is vindication a godly desire? Shouldn’t forgiveness eradicate our need for it?

When I think of forgiveness, I picture Jesus on the cross, reputation thoroughly trashed and body totally thrashed, crying out to God to forgive the people who were treating Him this way. No vehement self-defense. No retaliatory threats. Just compassionate, sacrificial love.

Hear, O LORD, my righteous plea; listen to my cry. Give ear to my prayer– it does not rise from deceitful lips. May my vindication come from you; may your eyes see what is right.
Psalm 17:1-2

And yet when I read the Psalms (including some of the messianic ones), I can’t escape their repeated prayers for vindication. These prayers are what David claims to be a righteous response to being falsely accused and unjustly persecuted. At least he is going to God for vindication rather than taking it into his own hands, but shouldn’t he just let it go altogether?

Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have led a blameless life; I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for your love is ever before me, and I walk continually in your truth.
Psalm 26:1-3

But he can’t. The fact is that even in God’s economy, honor matters. David’s integrity has been denounced, and he is coming to the righteous Judge to make it right. He is asking God to look him over, check to see if he is alright, and reapply the stamp of approval that others have stolen from him.

O LORD, you have seen this; be not silent. Do not be far from me, O Lord. Awake, and rise to my defense! Contend for me, my God and Lord. Vindicate me in your righteousness, O LORD my God; do not let them gloat over me. Do not let them think, “Aha, just what we wanted!” or say, “We have swallowed him up.” … May those who delight in my vindication shout for joy and gladness; may they always say, “The LORD be exalted, who delights in the well-being of his servant.”
Psalm 35:22-27

And a private awards ceremony won’t cut it. Knowing that God sees and knows the truth about him isn’t enough. David boldly asks God to make public what He has already affirmed in private. He has been attacked and shamed before the eyes of others; now he is asking God to restore his honor in the same sphere.

This isn’t just about David’s reputation. It’s about God’s. Is He or is He not just? Does He or does He not care about the well-being of those who entrust themselves to Him? God’s vindication of His servant will vindicate His own character before a watching world.

Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Matthew 26:62-64

And this is exactly what I see happening in Jesus’ story. At the height of His trial, in the midst of cruel insults and relentless accusations, He broke His silence to answer a direct attack against His identity as God’s Son. He told His accusers that they would one day witness what they were currently denying. He had no need to argue His position now because God would prove Him right later. He would not defend His honor now because God would publicly exalt it later.

Entrusting our vindication to God allows us to extend forgiveness to others.

Jesus’ ability to forgive His accusers was predicated on His certainty that God would vindicate Him before their eyes. He could let go of His honor because He knew that God wouldn’t.

So is it wrong to ask God for vindication? Far from being wrong, I think it demonstrates a deep trust in God’s righteousness and an unwavering confidence in His unfailing love. Taking vindication into our own hands would betray our lack of faith in God’s justice. Downplaying the idea that God will vindicate us would deny the extent of His care for each of His beloved children, including ourselves. But entrusting our need for vindication to Him allows us to extend forgiveness to others.

We can love them because He first loved us. We can forgive them because He won’t forget us.

Challenging Forgiveness

“How can I forgive her if she hasn’t said she’s sorry?” My son looked at me with his penetrating blue eyes, his sincere question about his sister unwittingly peeling a scab off my past.

How can I answer him when I haven’t yet resolved this issue myself? My mind instantly brings up the faces of people whose actions and words once wounded me so deeply that I still wince at their memory. What continues to hurt is not what they said or did, but the outstanding fact that they have never acknowledged that it was wrong.

Have I forgiven them?

If forgiveness means that I have completely forgotten their mistreatment, that I carry on our relationship as if it never happened, then no. I have not done that. I’m not sure how I could relate freely with those whose words and actions damaged me so deeply, not to mention radically redefined our relationship. The truth is, I don’t entrust myself to them, not if they haven’t expressed remorse or at least evidenced a desire to change.

Is it unforgiving of me to hold back, to maintain a bit of physical and emotional distance between myself and them? What is it that God is asking of me when He tells me to forgive?

Forgiveness has many appropriate manifestations, each determined by our current stage of relational healing.

Not to hold Joseph up as a perfect life model, but I think his story lays out an excellent example of what forgiveness looks like in the different stages of relational healing. His brothers had stolen from him his identity, his dreams, and his whole life as he had known it. Their betrayal cost him everything, including the ability to trust himself to them again.

Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.”
Genesis 41:51

But even in a state of woundedness, Joseph did not harbor a grudge against his brothers. Rather than feed on memories of how horrible they had been, he simply tried to forget them. Though that was not an adequate long-term solution, I think it was an appropriate form of forgiveness for that stage of their relationship.

As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them.
Joseph said to them, “It is just as I told you: You are spies! And this is how you will be tested: …Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth.
Genesis 42:7, 14-16

When God brought his brothers unexpectedly back into his life, Joseph did not seek revenge. Nor did he immediately run into their arms and pick up where they had left off. Joseph kept his distance and his anonymity, allowing himself the time and space to ascertain if they had changed. Instead of shutting himself off from them forever, he demonstrated another layer of forgiveness by creating opportunities for them to prove themselves worthy of his trust.

They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.”
They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. He turned away from them and began to weep…
Genesis 42:21, 23-24

Joseph may have seemed harsh and unyielding, putting his brothers through the tests that he did. But his goal was true restoration, not revenge. Like God so often does with us, he graciously set them up for a re-match. Another round of jealousy-inducing favoritism, this time towards Benjamin. The recurring offer to throw their little brother under the bus to save their own hides. But when they pleaded for Benjamin’s life, offering themselves in his place, Joseph knew that they had changed. He knew it was finally safe to come out of hiding.

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him…
Genesis 45:1-2

Deep springs of pent up emotion burst forth as Joseph made his startling revelation. That emotion could very well have been anger or bitterness. But Joseph’s tears manifested the forgiveness that had been working its way through the layers of his heart all along. Tears of grief over his freshly-awakened pain. Tears of sorrow over the years of lost relationship. And tears of relief and delight over this wonderfully unanticipated fresh start.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.
And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him.
To each of them he gave new clothing, but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver and five sets of clothes.
Genesis 45:4-5, 15, 22

Joseph did not wait for an apology or an explanation. He already knew their hearts. He threw himself on his brothers, hugging and weeping over each of them like the prodigal son’s Father. He did the explaining for them, welcoming them back into fellowship and soothing away their fears. And he demonstrated the extent of his forgiveness, bypassing probation and jumping straight into extravagant provision. New clothes. New inheritance. A land for their families to settle in right alongside his. A relationship restored.

…”‘I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.”
When their message came to him, Joseph wept. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? … So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
Genesis 50:15-21

But the reconciliation process wasn’t finished yet. Nor was Joseph’s healing. Years later, after the death of their father, fear prompted the brothers to finally apologize for what they had done to him. It had been a long time in the coming, and in many respects Joseph had moved on, not expecting to hear it, but their apology hit the spot. A fresh round of tears. A healing opportunity to verbalize his forgiveness.

Forgiveness is more of an attitude than a status,
a heart posture than a court verdict.

I look over these layers of development in Joseph’s story and begin to conceptualize forgiveness in a new way. Maybe forgiveness is more of an attitude than a status, a heart posture than a court verdict. Maybe what God is calling me to is to desire and work towards reconciliation, even if it is not a current possibility. Short cuts won’t get me there. Faking it won’t work. But persistently loving those who hurt me opens the door for God to bring about true restoration, one that neither compromises my wholeness nor denies God’s grace.

So how do I forgive those who haven’t said they are sorry? I pray that, just as He did with Joseph’s alienated brothers, God will write them back into my story. And I wait with open arms.