Friday, August 26, 2016

Four Hundred and Ninety Reasons To Forgive

While it seems to go without saying that forgiveness should be a huge part of what it means to be a Christian, most of us struggle to forgive those who have wounded us. And sometimes, even when we do forgive, we find ourselves in the unenviable position of having to offer forgiveness to the same person or persons more than once.  

When it comes to forgiveness, it's hard to know exactly how many times you should offer it to someone--especially when they keep hurting you.  There's a moment in the Gospel of Matthew when the Apostle Peter finally decides to ask Jesus just how many times he should forgive someone.  

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Some ancient rabbis in the first century taught that forgiving someone more than three times was useless.  In other words, if someone is so untrustworthy that they break faith with you more than three times, it's not worth your time or energy to keep forgiving them.

Peter thought he was being a big shot by upping the ante to seven times, but then Jesus blows his mind by saying, "Seven?  Not even close.  Try four hundred and ninety times."  Does this mean that Jesus was putting limits on forgiveness, too?  Not at all.  He was simply using an exaggeration to demonstrate the lengths we should go to forgiven one another. 

In his excellent book Rumors of Another World, Philip Yancey tells the story of a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa that sought to bring unity to a country torn apart by racism, bigotry and oppression.  A South African policeman had to recount how he and other officers murdered an eighteen year-old boy and then burned his father alive in front of the boy's mother.   

The woman was asked what she wanted from the policeman.  She said she wanted the policeman to go to the place where her husband's body was burned and to gather up the dust to give him a decent burial.  Then she added, "Twice a month, I would like for [the policeman] to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him."  

She went on to say that she wanted the policeman to know that he was forgiven by God and that she had forgiven him, too.  The man fainted in the witness stand, overwhelmed by the grace he received at the hands of a woman who could have demanded his imprisonment.  

Pastor and author Rob Bell once wrote: “Maybe forgiveness is ultimately about me and about you – it’s about us. Because when I forgive somebody and I set them free, it’s like I’m really setting myself free.”  

May you find new strength and courage today and every day to forgive those who have wounded you.  May you realize that by forgiving them, you are releasing yourself from the burden of those wounds, setting yourself free to be the person God dreams for you to be. 

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always.  Amen. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Strange & Destructive Allure of Egypt

When my family moved to Florida in 1982 we rented a small house not too far away from the church and Christian school where my dad would be serving as a schoolteacher.  

We had been filled with hope and excitement when we made the cross-country trek from Colorado to Central Florida.  My parents believed that God had been in the middle of their decision, and I was eager to make new friends and start a new life in what seemed like an exotic and awesome place. 

But the house was small and hot--my room didn't have air conditioning.  One evening, as I was reading a book for school on my bed, a huge cockroach crawled across my chest.  I didn't sleep well that night, or for the next several.  

The house didn't have a washer or dryer either.  My mom and I had to carry our laundry to a dirty laundromat every week.  We were sufficiently poor enough that my dad had to get a part time job driving a bus at Disney World to make ends meet.  

All of our hope and excitement started to fade.  We all longed for our old house in Colorado Springs, and our old life there.  I pined for my old friends and old school on occasion.  It was a hard time for us in that first year.  

It's easy to second guess your decisions when the path you've chosen suddenly becomes a lot harder to see, and the way forward gets difficult to tread.  

In the Old Testament book of Numbers, the Hebrew people were poised to go into the Promised Land--the land God led them to with a promise to go before them and be their shield against the rival tribes who lived there.  Instead, they became scared of the daunting task ahead of them.  It was going to be difficult--more difficult than they had imagined.  
"That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud.  All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, 'If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword!'"  (Numbers 14:1-3)
It's hard to imagine a group of people who had lived in slavery to long to return to it.  But when faced with the uncertainty of the unknown, most of us would choose the relative safety of what is known even if it isn't the best thing for us.  And in so doing, we risk missing out on the blessing and joy that comes from doing God's will and fulfilling our purpose. 

If we had never moved to Florida, I would have never met the love of my life and my wife of these past twenty-five years.  My three boys wouldn't exist either.  

That part time job my dad took at Disney has turned into a thirty-five plus year career with great financial, and emotional provision for my parents and for our whole family (I have never paid to take my family to Disney World--ever).  

All of these things would have never been possible had we walked away when things got difficult.  The way forward was unclear back then, but we kept moving forward, trusting that Jesus was somewhere out there in the distance beckoning us to follow.  

May you find the strength to keep moving forward when the path is hard to see.  May you find the courage to leave behind your longings for what was and trust that what is to come is even more amazing.  

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The God of Second Chances - Pt. 2

When I was in my early twenties, I was driving back to my apartment very late after hanging out with my friends to the wee hours.  My car broke down in the middle of nowhere, but luckily not too far from a gas station and a pay phone.  

I was not living my life very well then, to be honest.  I drank too much, partied too much, smoked too much and generally did too much of every other bad thing you could think of--all of which made my poor parents worry.  

For about a half an hour I tried everything I could think of to get the car moving again, but to no avail.  I had one quarter in my car, which I found underneath the floor mat.  That's all the money I had on me, which meant that I had one phone call to make. 

So I called my dad.  

My dad disapproved of me big time.  He and I didn't get a long very much at all.  We disagreed on everything, mostly as it related to drinking, smoking, and other assorted poor behaviors on my part.  

But what I didn't know what that my dad also held some hurt in his heart, and had been holding it there for years.  He'd tirelessly served as a Christian school teacher for years in churches that slowly drove his son away from the Christian faith.  

And I have come to know that what he wanted most of all was to have another chance to do things differently.  

So when I called that night, he just got dressed and drove out into the night to find his son.  And when he finally did locate me an hour or so later, he pulled the broken belt that enabled my power steering out of a tangled mess, and we started my car.  

He didn't yell at me, he didn't judge me.  He just asked me to follow him home.  

So, I followed him back to my old house and ended up going to bed in my old room and sleeping for what seemed like a week.  As a parent to an adult child, I now know how that must have felt for him to have me back in that room, sleeping and safe.  

One of my favorite Psalms is Psalm 40, which reads like this: 
1 I waited patiently for the Lord;    he turned to me and heard my cry.2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,    out of the mud and mire;he set my feet on a rock    and gave me a firm place to stand.3 He put a new song in my mouth,    a hymn of praise to our God.Many will see and fear the Lord    and put their trust in him.

Both my dad and I needed a second chance that night.  It took a broken down car to bring us together.  Each of us in our own way had found ourselves bogged down, lost and searching for our footing, and we needed a firm place to stand.  

Maybe you are in a situation in your life where you are longing for another chance.  Or maybe you are longing to give one.  Sometimes in those moments it can feel like you can't find your footing.  Be at peace, though.  Wait patiently.  The God of second chances in on your side.  

May you be overwhelmed by the grace and forgiveness that you have been given as a child of God and follower of Jesus.  May you discover anew what it means to give that same grace in return.  And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always.  Amen.  

The God of Second Chances - Pt. 3

Twenty six years ago,  I heard my wife Merideth's voice on the answering machine after not speaking to her for nearly five years, and I thought I was dreaming.  

We had been high school sweethearts, but circumstances, pride, dumb decisions and a host of other factors had separated us and kept us apart.  Both of us had experienced hardships during those years.  We were broken inside, hurt, tired and resigned to the fact that we probably weren't going to ever be as happy in life as we once hoped we would be. 

An old classmate of ours ran into me, and was so concerned about how terribly sad I seemed that she called Merideth to ask her if she'd seen or heard from me.  Merideth was three weeks away from getting married to her fiancee of four years.  I was busy drinking, and smoking myself into numbness.  

And then she called me, and I heard her voice on the answering machine. 

Six months later we were married.  

There is a verse that I have come to appreciate very much from 1 Peter 5:10.  It reads:  
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
When you are in the middle of suffering because of a bad decision, mistake or transgression it is difficult to see any benefit to it--particularly when the bad decision, mistake or transgression was not your own.  But sometimes suffering helps to put things in perspective for you.  

I know what it's like to live my life without true love.  By contrast I also know what it's like to live with my true love.  And I have come to believe that no broken moment is beyond redemption, suffering doesn't last forever, and ultimately God gets what God wants, which is resurrection, restoration, reconciliation and redemption.  

If you are suffering right now through a season of regret, pain, loss or the aftermath of wrong decisions, actions, etc., know this:  It won't last forever.  God is still in the business of raising the dead.  He will "restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you."  

May you find the courage and strength to endure through the tough times, and have hope in the midst of suffering and struggle.  May you look forward in hope to a future filled with incredible healing and victory.  

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.  

Monday, August 22, 2016

The God Of Second Chances Pt. 1

I graduated from high school in 1986, and finally received my Bachelor's degree in 2000.  I am fond of saying that I was on the "fourteen-year college plan."  

For the first few years of those fourteen years of slogging through college, I wasn't all that serious about it.  In fact, I got a "D" in an Intro to Business course because I decided that if you didn't take the last couple of tests, including the final they would consider you "withdrawn."  

This was a policy created entirely in my mind, of course.  I'd had an "A" in the class up to that point, which makes the whole thing ridiculous.  I wish I could go back in time and shake 19 year-old Leon, and smack some sense into that idiot. 

At any rate, nearly fourteen years after that debacle, I was doing everything I could to keep a 4.0 average so I could overcome that bad grade and somehow get a scholarship to go on to post-graduate studies.  

In the middle of all of my efforts, I took a test in an upper level British Literature class and when the professor returned it, I realized I'd left an entire page of the test blank. He'd written a note at the top: "See me."  

After the class I dragged myself to meet with him, and explain I'd just plain old made a mistake.  He looked at me for a bit, and then took my paper.  He wrote "97 - A" at the top.  Then he said, "This is probably the grade you would have made had you finished the test.  You know this stuff inside and out."  He brushed off my gushing words of thanks and sent me on my way--never to forget that moment of grace. 

One of my favorite Bible passages is found in Isaiah 43:18-19.  It reads: 
18 “Forget the former things;    do not dwell on the past.19 See, I am doing a new thing!    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?I am making a way in the wilderness    and streams in the wasteland.
I can't even tell you how many times in my life I have experienced grace when I fully expected something entirely different.  But for all of those moments, there are just as many moments when I've felt like I blew it, and lived in regret--hoping that I would get another chance to make things right. 

The words of God in Isaiah 43 are so life-giving to me.  God is a God of second chances, and new things that are constantly springing up around us.  And God wants us to put the past behind us, to learn from it, but to "forget" it.  

If you've been struggling with mistakes you've made, chances you think you blew and the fear that you won't ever have another opportunity to make some of those things right--I want to encourage you.  Lean into a life lived pursuing and desiring the God of second chances.  A new thing is on the way---"do you not perceive it?"  

May you be filled with the unbelievable hope that comes from faith and trust in the One who gave everything to rescue, redeem you and give you the ultimate "second chance."  May you open your eyes to the new things God is doing around you, and leave behind the bitterness of the past.  

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always.  Amen.