reconciling broken relationships

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

Matthew 5:21-26; NRSVue

One must pay careful attention to Jesus’s words here to not fall into serious, even dangerous error. For example a wife might be told that she must reconcile with an abusive husband, who has shown over and over again that he needs help. This passage gives no space whatsoever for that, nor anything else in the Bible. As can be seen in the passage, it was spoken in a different time, yet the ramifications come across pretty straight forward to our present time.

What I want to dwell on a bit is the importance of Jesus followers making their relationships a priority. But add to that, when you consider all Jesus said here, doing our best in every relationship.

First of all contempt has no place. Yes, we might be shaking our heads to ourselves, but we must never do that in public and if we do, make sure we make it right. We should express all our concerns to God, this after all is a good even important occasion for praying. Everyone deserves a certain basic respect as a human being made in God’s image. That said, we do need to proceed carefully because while many people fully intend good, others certainly don’t.

When some occurrence has made a rift in a relationship with a sister or brother in Christ, then we need to do all we can on our side to mend that rift. And I would add to that any other person, whether or not they profess to follow Christ. We can’t force any kind of reconciliation, and only God can heal. Often either words or actions or some combination of both has broken the relationship and what fellowship there was before is gone. We’ll have to express our regret and seek forgiveness where we’ve been wrong.

Let’s be careful not to think we had no wrong in a given situation. That is strictly the case only with Jesus. But let’s not force some equal responsibility when clearly that is not the case.

If we take Jesus’s words seriously, this is something we need to take with the utmost seriousness. Do all we can, pray, and keep doing that along the way as needed. God can bring the needed change both in us and the other person. That we might live out the unity that is ours in and through Jesus.

in praise of mourning

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Matthew 5:4; NRSVue

“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

Luke 6:21b, 25b; NRSVue

We all have to be careful, and I’m thinking especially of myself, because we can easily try to contradict something which actually in its place is quite true. Even while we too may be making a valid point. We may well be talking past each other, myself addressing something which really has nothing to do with what I think I might be correcting.

So there’s indeed need for people who are depressed, down, in despair, easily emotional, given to weeping to get professional help from a counselor, maybe a psychologist or psychiatrist, and perhaps to get medical help as well. There’s no shame in that. It can be not only the right thing to do, but absolutely necessary. Let there be no doubt about that.

I have gone down that course before, and it did help. But the meds had their side effects, and I thought I would rather be in my old normal state of kind of feeling down much of the time, and sometimes pretty depressed, though never to the point that I couldn’t carry on every day with everything, though that could make challenging times seem harder. I have never been diagnosed as being depressed.

At the same time, I’m wondering if we’re of a disposition nowadays to think that if we’re down, then we’re out. Do we have to feel good much of the time, maybe all the time, that serotonin kicking in? Yes, again you and I down the road might need special help. We must never ever give into despair. If we’re even heading that direction, then we need special help.

At the same time to lament over the world at large, and over our own world with the troubles people face, the intractable difficulties we ourselves face, along with the brokenness all around us in evil, danger and death, that is very much a Biblical response to life. There is nothing wrong with not feeling good at times, and in mourning. Yes, there’s “a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Yes, we do need some good belly laughs.

But by and large I think and feel that it’s not only okay, but good to be down given the brokenness of this world, of our present existence. As we see in the passages, Jesus said such is blessed by God. When we’re down we’re more prone to look up in prayers to God. We can tend to become more dependent on God, and less on ourselves, less even on circumstances. It can be a part of a needed humbling.

May the Lord give us all the wisdom we need. May we see sorrow, lament, and weeping as a gift from God. God’s comfort and peace even sense of joy helping us in all of this. In and through Jesus.

hardness of heart is not beyond us

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

James 4:7-10; NRSVue

It’s easy to think that our hearts are always alright before God. Maybe not altogether because of “small” deviations during a day, but generally speaking, okay, because of God’s grace given to us in Jesus. And while we’ve been given a new heart in Jesus, that never automatically means that we’re in the clear and no longer have to consider what’s in our heart.

We can get carried away into something which is not helpful, we can set our hearts on many things other than on what we’re directed to in scripture, such as God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, things above, on the Lord himself. And shockingly enough, hardness of heart is not only all too common, but surely by and large endemic in us. I’m not saying an entirely hard heart, though that might happen along the way. But a hardness in the heart, so that it’s not altogether soft before God.

Interestingly those who have experienced hardness of heart to a most significant extent, can well end up among those who have the softest most sensitive heart (Psalm 51). We might try to paint on a nice smile, do the right things, and yet our heart betrays us, not only giving us away, but affecting all we do. What we need is not just a change of conduct, but a change of heart.

James tells us that we’re responsible for this; God isn’t just going to do it for us. Of course, it’s only through God and God’s grace given to us in Christ that we can do this. And it’s not a snap of the finger, one time act, either. It surely is a process of repentance and doing like what James tells us in the above scripture. To lament, grieve, yes, even purify our hearts, getting rid of that which is wrong, whatever it might be, and seeking to put on love. The Spirit is present to help us in this, but this must become a part of who we are, that we’re a person given to having a heart as God intended it to be. In and through Jesus.

God’s beloved

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:9-11; NRSVue

Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax-collection station, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

Mark 2:13-17; NRSVue

I think I would put The Cure somewhere on the top ten of the books which have most influenced me, or at least most intrigued me. It is a most interesting read, whether or not you agree with it entirely. It’s really not meant to be a book to convince you of this and that doctrine, in spite of somewhat copious although often helpful endnotes. It is a story of the difference between living in grace and religion*, the latter involving unrelenting standards to measure up to with necessary masking to hide the fact that inevitably no one does. The place of grace is entirely different, not only no mask wearing, but hair let down with many tears. People are real, themselves, and completely accepted. Unlike the place of religion where you are accepted on many conditions.

The difference is what the above passages are getting at: the love of God from the God who is love. God has God’s heart set on all humanity, really intent in restoring all of creation, and especially fallen and broken humanity. That is more than evidenced in God becoming flesh meaning human in the Son Jesus through the Incarnation. Completely identifying with us, right where we live with all of its challenges along with our (not his) failure, but with the laughter and joy as well. But it seems especially identifying with those who are mourning, the poor, the oppressed, the downcast, the marginalized. Bringing the healing that can only come from God, healing being synonymous with salvation in New Testament terminology.

If there’s one place I especially feel uncomfortable, it’s with religious folks. Unfortunately you have to add to that nowadays those who are caught up in the tribalism of this or that political persuasion. But lots of those folks are religious, which just becomes either a new rule added on, or understanding among them that it’s simply that way no questions asked.

In contrast to that, God accepts everyone warts and all, just the way we are with all of our blindness, failure and sin. And unlike religion, people are fully accepted in the beloved one, Christ. Christ came that we might through him find our true identity and ultimately our true selves in the reality we are included in with him through faith and baptism, so that we may come to realize that we too are indeed God’s beloved, God’s much-loved ones.

In the end we’re told that God will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15) accomplished in and through Christ in his life and reconciling death, so that everyone will be included. It will be a most happy ending, even if it takes some time to get there. No one will be left behind, no one left out. Not even the sad religious folk who somehow imagine themselves better and look down on everyone else (see Gregory of Nyssa, George MacDonald, etc.). Not that judgment and severe judgment isn’t in the mix, because it most necessarily is, but not a rejecting, obliterating fire, but a purging, redeeming fire. But this is another subject entirely.

But the point is that we need to see that “in Christ” we are indeed God’s beloved. That we don’t have to measure up to this and that which other people, even churches might want to impose on us. No, we are not rejected, but God’s children.  In and through Jesus.

*Religion in the sense of something fabricated by humans rather than received from God and regularly practiced and lived out in response to that (example: James 1:26-27).

casting the demon out

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.”

Matthew 12:43-45; NRSVue

Sometimes I think, and it’s beginning to feel settled to me, that often a demon so to speak inhabits institutions, and yes, even families. When one thinks about it, there’s really no family nor institution that is perfect. It might be “picture perfect” in reputation or even in its own imagination. But there’s a brokenness in everything as certain as the cracks that show up on the walls or ceilings of any house.

When I refer to institutions, I’m not leaving out churches. Christ’s presence is what makes up a church, where two or three are gathered in his name. But as we see in the seven letters to the church in the Revelation and elsewhere, the devil can get into the details, into the works. And families, the same. Some are very broken, and some seem to get along remarkably well. But no family is any more perfect than any individual.

But while there’s a sense that there may be some truth in this for any institution or family, I’m thinking of special situations such as we find ourselves in today. There is so much anger, division, and there appears to be little if any hope that anything will change perhaps before catastrophe or the worst part hits, hopefully with some cushion and limited fallout. And hopefully as well, to give the needed realization that change is needed.

If we’re concerned about such a situation, chances are it’s close to us, or we’re somehow involved in it. Like Daniel of old, who from all appearances even in Scripture was blameless and upright, we too need to pray to God, confessing our sin, our part in the problem, be it in family, or any institution. We most definitely need to be open for the Lord’s insight and correction in our own lives, before we can imagine God’s breakthrough in the lives of others.

As we do that, then maybe God will give us the understanding and sense needed to become part of or fit into the solution. And as Jesus said, some do not come out except by prayer and some manuscripts add, fasting.

There’s always hope, even if it doesn’t come easy. In and through Jesus.

no, it’s not wrong to have a broken and contrite heart. quite the contrary

The sacrifice acceptable to God[d] is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Psalm 51:17

After we’ve sinned, and I refer not just to “great transgression” (Psalm 19:13), but to all sin, when we confess and repent we’re often told to forget about it. That our sins have been removed as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12) which is true upon genuine confession and repentance. But if we’re to take seriously the great penitent Psalm, 51, then we need to accept the fact that what pleases God is not only acceptance of God’s forgiveness to us in Christ, but also God’s acceptance and I would even say pleasure in a broken and contrite heart over our sin.

That doesn’t mean we should wallow in our sin, or hate ourselves. We hate what we’ve done, and not merely the consequences. If we hate only the consequences, then we certainly don’t have a broken and contrite spirit. For most sins the consequences are only a reminder that we haven’t arrived in this life, and that we do well to be more and more humble. For some sins the consequences may be greater along with the realization that there’s work for us to do to be rid of our tendencies without ever thinking we’ll come to the place in this life when we’re actually above the possibility of falling again.

No, with thanksgiving and praise to God we accept God’s forgiveness upon our confession of sin. But we also take our sins seriously, out of love for God and others allowing our hearts to be broken. So that our lives following will become different. Hating what we’ve done, and making amends as best we can with an entirely different life. Letting God, as the psalmist, probably David in Psalm 51 aspires, to do God’s work of thoroughly cleansing us on the inside, so that our hearts might be inclined in love toward righteousness and justice, wanting to avoid all wrong.

In and through Jesus.

a broken and contrite spirit (warning and blessing)

The sacrifice acceptable to God[d] is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Psalm 51:17

There are a couple of severe warnings, red signs I want to put up at the beginning of this post. First: Never ever under any circumstances say that the big sin is alright because of what can come after it. Secondly, never think for a moment that you are less close to God since you’ve never committed such, but be thankful you haven’t.

If you consider David’s story, and the tradition that says that this psalm is in conjunction with David’s great sin in essentially murdering Uriah, and committing adultery with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, you will note that while God was merciful and did bring good out of it, yet much evil also happened in connection with it. And God told David through the prophet Nathan that because of what David had done, the sword would never leave his house. David paid an awful price. Yes, he may have had a deep sense of sorrow over sin, and the desire to live completely differently the rest of his life. But do you need to commit such a sin to have that? No. The blessing is that such a sin never leaves a person, that they should be humbled daily the rest of their lives over that. But really all of us need to be humbled, because everyone of us is capable of committing the same. Even if we haven’t, we know that in our heart sometimes along the way, we actually have, or at least have been sorely tempted to do so.

But now to dwell on the main point for a moment. God never despises the broken and contrite heart. Contrite as in deep sorrow over what has been done, not over the consequences at all, but this is sorrow over what one has actually done. One who has committed the great sin should never let go of that blessing, even as they remain with a brokenness and contriteness over it the rest of their days. And the rest should never look down on them, but seek to have such a heart themselves, realizing that they too are broken, that daily their attitudes fall short of always loving God and neighbor. While at the same time all being thankful for the truth that those who have committed the great sin can have a heart over it that God will never despise, so that God will help them, and can give them a depth beyond, sadly many of those who haven’t committed such a sin. In and through Jesus.

peace of mind

Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace—
in peace because they trust in you.

Isaiah 26:3

Shalom is the transliteration of the Hebrew word translated “peace” which means more than inward tranquility and rest. As translations indicate and considering the context, here it could mean safety (NET), as well as the flourishing of humanity and creation. Peace of mind comes with the sense that all is taken care of, that all will be made well, and in the end be well as in whole, no longer broken.

I think in this life we have to hold on to promises like this, because so much seems in flux, unstable, threatening: undermining what is good. We certainly do need peace of mind, which is often the way this Scripture passage has been applied, even if that’s not its precise meaning. It certainly is included. And notice that it’s dependent on whether or not we trust in God. When we do, no matter what, God will give us God’s peace. This reminds me of another Scripture passage, Paul’s words to us:

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

Notice that the promise here is not that everything will turn out just the way we like. We know better than that in this life. But that no matter what, God will be at work through our prayers is implied, with the promise that God’s peace which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. We need to hold on to this promise and not let go of our faith, putting that faith into practice by doing what Paul tells us to do here. God will always answer. According to our faith, it will be done for us. And God values our efforts, even though inevitably imperfect.

We know that in the new creation we’ll live in God’s care with no concerns whatsoever, whole and fully at peace in the love of God. But even in a world which is often turbulent and tearing at the seams, we can still have God’s peace. Yes, right in the midst of the storm. And in spite of so many things we wish would be different. Peace of heart and mind. In and through Jesus.

against perfection

About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David’s town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. He went with Mary, his fiancée, who was pregnant.

While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the hostel.

Luke 2:1-7; MSG

When we think of Christmas, our visions might be a bit idyllic. And there’s no doubt that no greater gift was given, and this is cause for celebration, even extravagant celebration. But what we need to not lose sight of in the backdrop and throughout is that this happened in the real world. God became flesh, fully human, yes, one of us, in this sad, weary, broken world. And the event itself was marked by just one conundrum after another. A fiancée near the end of her pregnancy having to go on a long trip, around seventy miles, over a three day journey on a donkey. When they get there, “no guest room available” (NIV). They ended up putting the newborn Jesus in a manger, a feeding trough for animals (see NET footnote in above link).

One of the greatest enemies of faith is the desire and thought that life in God in the here and now is marked with perfection. If we can get rid of that thought, we’ll begin to experience the real joy and blessing. God-with-us in this broken world, in our own brokenness. We need to settle into that. Not imagining everything should be perfect now if God is really with us in Jesus. But that God-is-with-us in Jesus, Emanuel in the midst of the imperfection in everything, the real world in which we live. As we look forward to the change the one Perfection will bring, that little baby Boy to us, yes, and to the world.

the slippery longing for shalom in this world

The wolf will romp with the lamb,
the leopard sleep with the kid.
Calf and lion will eat from the same trough,
and a little child will tend them.
Cow and bear will graze the same pasture,
their calves and cubs grow up together,
and the lion eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens,
the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent.
Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill
on my holy mountain.
The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive,
a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.

Isaiah 11:6-9

Shalom (שָׁלוֹם) is the Hebrew word meaning “completeness, soundness, welfare, peace” (BDB). It certainly carries the idea of the absence of war which so many of us more than less take for granted, but would seem a luxury in too many places. Both human flourishing, and the harmony and well being of all creation are part of this wholeness which shalom brings. It is really like a dream that comes true in the First/Old Testament writings, as seen above in the prophet Isaiah. It is not to come to fruition until the new creation. God who made creation, can certainly remake it, and that’s the promise from Scripture that God’s people count on. While the word is not in the above passage, the words there are an apt description of this shalom.

We long for something of that in this current existence. That promise is present in our minds, and the new creation is breaking in through the new life and existence in Jesus, but it’s breaking into a world which seems largely incompatible with it. That is in part why Christians are called to take the way of the cross in following Christ even today. It is an uphill battle and slippery slope we might say, a daunting journey all the way, though Christ followers don’t do it in their own strength, but in all their weakness through the life and power of the Spirit.

I  think as we say in “the Lord’s prayer,” that we should long for something of God’s kingdom and perfect will in this life. But at the same time, we have to recognize the limitations set in place. After all we have natural disasters, and conflicts between warring factions, as well as just random violence everywhere. Add to that the human abuse of the earth for consumption and greed. And then to cap all of this off, even in the best of times humans just don’t get it all right, but we live in an existence in which even if one possibly did, they still wouldn’t be shielded from trouble, even disaster at times.

God’s people must remember that while the Day is coming, we need to be advocates for the poor, the marginalized, the outcast and downcast. We must not let up, but go forward in love, taking the way of the cross, remembering that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. In this life the lamb and the wolf don’t get along, and sin resulting in broken relationships between people and God is very much present among us.

In Christ is our hope for seeing the beginning of shalom now. Bringing healing and new life in the midst of the old. We accept the limitations, in the way of Jesus now, even as we are part of that new creation in Jesus breaking in.