Sunday, June 30, 2013

Today's Sermon: Feeding of the 5000

Matthew 14:13-21

     Sometimes things seem overwhelming.  Sometimes we become so used to relying on other people that we don’t see the options until we are forced to be in a leadership position.  We don’t know our strength and our gifts until they are called on.  We sometimes take the easy way out and don’t even see options unless we are the only ones who can.
    I remember a time when my youngest child, Aislynn was just a baby of about 6 months old, Jonah, my son was 2 and my eldest daughter was 5.  I would not have been winning any parenting awards on that day, and at one point I even considered shipping off at least one of my lovely three children to someone who I knew would be much better capable of managing what I came to think of as my own personal monkey cage.  I had to come expect help on Fridays, but this particular Friday I was completely on my own all day.  The kids had been in rare form; all demanding things in temper tantrum format all afternoon.  By 7:00 I was a stressed out mess.  With Aislynn in her bouncy chair, and Jasmyn in the shower, I was trying to get Jonah dressed for bed.  But when I tried to put his pajama top over his head I was greeted with yet another temper tantrum.  He would not tell me what he wanted, but instead ripped the shirt off and started to scream at the top of his lungs.  At that moment, Jasmyn called me to help her wash her hair and Aislynn decided this was the perfect moment to put in her two cents as well and she started crying like there was no tomorrow.  I explained to Jonah that if he was going to fight me I couldn’t help him, I left him in his room, went and picked up Aislynn who continued to scream, took her into the bathroom with me to help Jasmyn with her hair and tried to take a deep breath.  When Jonah came running into the bathroom after me, it was all I could do to not snap his head off with a “What is it now, Jonah?” But instead of crying, or screaming, my two year old boy walked up to me, wrapped his arms around my legs and with a look of deep compassion said very simply, “I’m sorry I was fighting with you, Mama.”  In that moment I saw him again - my little, caring, sweet boy who needed my attention, who needed my love.  Yes, I could give it.  I had reserves that I didn’t even know I had just for him just for then.  Still, that was one day.  Now I am the single mom of these three children every day.  Yes, they are older, but in some ways that brings new challenges as well.  And not only do I manage to have the energy to do it, but I usually enjoy my time with my kids and even manage to laugh and play with them regularly.  I didn’t know I could.  But we can often do more than we think we can.
     When I was in my last year at seminary, I interviewed with a church in AZ to become their associate pastor.  Two members of the nominating committee came up to meet me and spend time with me.  They were planning to spend the night at the seminary and had made arrangements to do so, but when they got to their room, they discovered that the door was locked and they could not get in.  I think before this situation I usually would have been one of the people made helpless by this.  “What are we going to do?  The office is closed.  There won’t be anyone there.  It’s late at night.  I can’t wake anyone up.  What are we going to do?”  But I was in the midst of an interview.  And somehow I knew that this un-premeditated test was going to either make or break the interview for me.  So I took a breath and did some quick thinking.  I thought of the student who helped out in the office and who might be able to help us through this.  This was pre-cell phone days and I didn’t have his phone number, but I did know where he lived.  So we walked over to his house, found he was not yet asleep and that he could help us out and got the two interviewers settled in their dorm room.  I was offered the job.  But more than that, I learned that day that I could do more than I thought I could.
  In the movie, “The Family Man”, Jack is given the opportunity to see what his life would have been if he had chosen a different path at a critical juncture.  At one point he meets the man who in his real life worked under him and who in this different path was now the boss.  And he found that the same man, in different positions, behaved very differently.  When he was the boss, he was powerful and could make decisions and saw things clearly.  But when he was second in command, he was not capable of making decisions, but deferred to the boss on everything.
What are we capable of?  What are we really made of?  What can we do if we have to, if we are forced to, if we must?
      All of these situations remind me of the disciples response to the situation described in today’s gospel lesson.  The disciples don’t know what to do with all these hungry people and they can’t seem to think on their own.  They want Jesus to fix it.  They want Jesus to send everyone away so they won’t have to deal with them.  But Jesus challenges them to think and to take charge.  “No,” he says, “you feed them.”  But still, they don’t want to take on this leadership role, they don’t want to think, they don’t want to use the gifts God has given them.  So at that point they become whiney, “But we only have 5 loaves and 2 fish!” they protest.  They choose not to think for themselves, or to act in this situation.   I can just imagine Jesus giving a heavy sigh of frustration as he takes the food from them.  He does his miracle.  He shows them a different way of being, one that involves trusting God to provide and “acting as if” until the things that are needed become more than just hopes but instead realities.  He shows them that their faith is stronger than they can imagine, and their abilities to rise to any occasion are deeper than they know.
 But do they get it?  Do they then become the people God calls them to be, or do they just continue to look to Jesus to always fix it for them and make things better and stronger?  They continue to rely on Jesus until Jesus is finally gone.  But they have him as a model and when he does leave them, they finally do find their strength and are able to continue to serve God and proclaim Jesus’ Good News to all the people, despite personal danger, despite their human weaknesses.
We are called, like the disciples, like all of God’s people, to be the best, most whole, most faithful and most God-led people we can be.  We are called to feed God’s people and to heal God’s people and to tell the good news of God’s love and grace.  But we get stuck in our “I can’t” thinking, and this is dangerous for all of us.  It is also unfaithful.
Hildegaard de Bingen once said: “A divine voice spoke to me, saying, ‘How fragile you are, Human, made of dust and grime, but I am the living Light.  I make the darkness day, and I have chosen you to see great wonders, though I have humbled you on earth.  You are often depressed and timid, and insecure.  Because you are conscientious, you feel guilty, and chronic physical pain has thoroughly scarred you.  But the deep mysteries of God have saturated you, too, and so has humility.’  When I heard the Voice, I began trying to live a godly life.  The path became difficult as I questioned myself again, saying, ‘This is pointless.’  I wanted to soar. I dreamed impossible dreams and started projects I could never finish.  I became dejected, so I sat and did nothing.  My self-doubt is my greatest disobedience.  It makes me miserable, and I struggle with this cross daily.  But God is by my side, reminding me that he created me.  So, even in the middle of my depression, I walk with wise patience over the marrow and blood of my body.  I am the lion defending itself from a snake, roaring and knocking it back into its hole.  I will never let myself give in to the devil's arrows.”
Marianne Williamson said it this way, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
God calls us to be whole, and to serve out of the gifts we are given.  Let us strive to follow God to the fullest that we might be the most whole People God calls us to be.
I want to end today by sharing with you a prayer called the Knots prayer:
The Knots Prayer
Dear God, please untie the knots that are in my mind,
My heart and my life.
Remove the have nots,
The can nots and the do nots
That I have in my mind.

Erase the will nots,
May nots,
Might nots that may find
A home in my heart.

Release me from the could nots,
Would nots and
Should nots that obstruct my life.

And most of all,
Dear God,
I ask that you remove from my mind,
My heart and my life all of the “am nots”
That I have allowed to hold me back,
Especially the thought
That I am not good enough.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Grace and Faith

     I had a conversation recently (very unpleasant) with another Presbyterian Pastor whose theology is so different from my own that I actually question whether we worship the same God.  I can't completely let go of the conversation so I thought I'd write about it a bit.  But first I want to say that normally I don't mind and usually enjoy theological debates with people whose theology differs from my own.  But in this case, the conversation was followed by the words from the other pastor, "I would never send my child to be under YOUR tutelage" - words I found unnecessary and pretty hurtful.  So much for loving your neighbor as yourself.
     The conversation with this other pastor had to do with grace and faith.  The other pastor was pushing me on how one "earns" God's grace.  I kept saying that you can't earn God's grace, that grace, by it's very definition is given by...well, by grace - which means that we can't do anything to earn it.  God gives it freely.  This was not the answer he wanted.  And he pushed until finally I said, "Look, I know what you are looking for in this is that we are given grace through believing - through our faith.  And the truth is that I do believe that, but I am certain that I mean something VERY different than you do when I say that."  I proceeded to explain that I deeply believe with all of my heart, soul and being that God's grace is offered all the time to all people.    But we are not very good at accepting that grace.  We live in fear, we live in guilt, we live in shame - and we have a hard time accepting the grace of God's love deeply and fully into our beings.  We do, however, accept that grace through faith, by which I mean that through our belief that it is there, through our opening ourselves to that grace, through our trusting that God is love and gives us that grace all the time in every moment, we are able to accept that grace into our beings, and then to live in love, letting go of fear, guilt and shame.  In other words, it is not that God withholds grace based on whether or not we believe.  It is, rather, that believing opens us up to see and accept the grace that is offered all the time to all people.  It is reversing the sentence, "I see therefore I believe" to one of "I believe and therefore I see."
    Speaking very personally here, I know from my experience that this is true.  I know that grace is offered all the time.   And I know that through our faith, we can accept it in at such deep levels that we are transformed, made new, and get to live again, even beyond the deaths that face us, even beyond experiences in hell.  I know because I have been to hell, I have walked in hell, I have lived there.  And I found that God was there, too.  That God was with me even in that darkness, and that it was only by grace, constant and present and full grace that I was led out of hell.  I would not have survived the last few years without that grace, without my faith.  I would not have come out of it without being jaded and cranky and bitter.  But not only have I survived it, I believe I am doing much better than I ever did before because of that grace and faith.  I know that I am a better, more whole person because of my experiences, and in particular because God did stand with me through all of it and lead me gently, with love, with grace out of that hell.  I am not bitter.  I am not cynical.  I have not been made into a sarcastic and jaded person.  Instead, I have been transformed through my experience into a person who sees God everywhere, in every breath I take, in every interaction with others, in every new opportunity to meet people and to connect with people and to walk and live and laugh and play with God and God's people.  Rather than feeling easily hurt and easily angered by the personal injustices that come our way all the time, every day, I instead see more easily when good and amazing things come my way that are undeserved and show up for no reason whatsoever.  I am much quicker at embracing life.  I don't worry so much about what must be done and instead live much more fully in each moment knowing that we just don't know what is coming in the next moment and so we may as well enjoy and embrace and give our most to others during this moment.  For example, in the last 24 hours - I had donuts for breakfast this morning - something I would not have done in the past - but I just felt like donuts, so that is what we did.  I took my daughter to the movies yesterday - just because I could.  I invited a stranger to be a friend last night - something that would have been scary for me before, but last night felt natural and full of hope and possibility.  I opened my window just a few minutes ago to let out a moth that was trapped inside my office - just because it looked like it wanted to be free, and I found great joy in letting it go back into the world.  I see God in smiles and hugs and goofy behavior.  I forgive more quickly.  I let go of pain and problems more quickly.  People who used to annoy me don't anymore because life is too short to be easily annoyed, and because it is so much easier to see the good now in people.   I see each day as full of possibility and new opportunities to see God in new ways.  That is grace.  I have been set free by Grace.  I have been saved - literally, by grace.  And yes, by my faith that has opened me to the grace - again, not because God withholds but because we embrace it better when we are open to see through our faith.
     I don't know what led the pastor with whom I am talking to his personal theology.  But I know what has led me to mine - a constant experience of the Divine that I simply cannot deny, an experience of Grace that is beyond expectations and even hopes.  I am so grateful for that experience.  And I would wish for everyone that they, too, might find that grace in whatever way it comes to them.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Be Careful What you Pray For - today's sermon

Luke 8:26-39
In today’s gospel reading I am struck with the reality once again that one person’s hopes, dreams, and wishes are sometimes in conflict with what others wish for, hope and dream.  In today’s story, Jesus listens and responds to four different parties’ wishes:  the man with the demons, the demons themselves, those who tended the swine, and the people of the region who then begged Jesus to leave.  And Jesus attended to each of those (again, even the demons – a point that is well worth thinking about) at each step of the way.  So for example, he responds to the man with the demons by sending them out, but the demons request not to be sent into the abyss.  So he sends the demons into the pigs because they ask to go there, but this obviously upsets the people whose job it is to tend the pigs, so then a further request is made for him to leave town, which he also does.  The man is cured, but the pigs are harmed.  The pigs go into the water, which then threatens the livelihoods of those who tend the pigs.  And eventually, Jesus is sent away out of fear because of his power.  Each request leads to a consequence, which leads to another request, and Jesus attends to them all.  Still, in the end, the man is cured, healing has happened, a miracle has occurred, and that which was really needed has come about.
And again, I’m struck by the deep reality of this situation.  Sometimes the things we want may seem to be best for us, but aren’t actually best for others, or even for ourselves necessarily.
In the movie Bruce Almighty, Bruce is given the opportunity to play God or be God for awhile.  And when he hears the huge or “ginormous” (as my kids would say) numbers of prayers coming his way constantly, he feels completely overwhelmed at first.  But one of the complaints that led to God giving Bruce a try at being God was that Bruce felt God didn’t respond well to prayers, didn’t respond to people’s needs and wants.  So Bruce felt it was important to do things differently than God had, and he decided that the easiest way and best way to attend to everyone’s prayers and wishes was just to say “yes” to them all.  Can you imagine the results that followed?  The chaos that ensued was outrageous, though my guess is that the destruction depicted was not nearly as much as it would have been in real life.  For example, many, many people prayed to win the lottery.  They all did, which meant that each person only won a few dollars.  This was followed by riots and rebellion.  Bruce had also pulled the moon closer to the earth and this caused all sorts of weather problems, which caused power failures and other issues.  Some people praying for one thing contradicted others praying for opposing wishes and the result was a complete mess.  Confusion, destruction, outrage –chaos.
I am also reminded of Mark Twain’s story “The War Prayer”.  The story takes place in a church during a time of war.  And the pastor is praying for their side to win the war.  Mark Twain says it like this:  “The burden of (the prayer’s) supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory…” He then ends the prayer with “Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord and God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”  But as he is saying this prayer, an old and oddly glowing stranger walks to the front of the room, nudges the pastor aside and Mark Twain continues the story in this way: The stranger said: “I come from the Throne — bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import — that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of — except he pause and think.  God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two — one uttered, and the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this — keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon your neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain on your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse on some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.”  The stranger goes on to describe the reality that when we pray for victory for our own, we are praying for destruction of the other.  When we pray that our soldiers might fight and win with strength and might, we are praying that others might die and be destroyed in horrible ways.  When we pray to win, we are praying for others to lose.  When we pray for success, we are praying that others might fail.  It is a short story and I have a copy of it for all who might be interested in reading it, because it is a story worth reflecting on.  But the point is not about war prayers.  The point is much bigger than that.
Do we think about all the ramifications of our prayers?  Do we think about our neighbors when we pray – all of our neighbors when we pray?  A couple weeks ago I shared with you the story of the televangelist who, during a hurricane about 20 years ago, took a group of folk down to the coast to prove the power of prayer.  These few people stood on the beach and prayed that the storm would not hit them.  The storm did, in fact, avoid them, but instead it hit a town full of people who were injured or killed.  Those who traveled to the coast proved that their prayers were answered.  At what cost did they pray them?  The people who stood on the shore to pray did not live there.  They flew there to show the power of prayer.  If in fact, those prayers were the reason the storm went north and hit the town instead, was their proving that prayer worked worth the cost to all of those injured people, families who lost loved ones and people who lost property?
The thing is, I actually don’t really believe that God cares so little for the consequences of our prayers that God only pays attention to what we say and not what others need or what is best for everyone.  Even in today’s story, the man with the demons was not asking Jesus to help him but Jesus chose to do it anyway.  I think God is wiser and more loving than to simply answer prayers regardless of consequences.  None the less, none the less, I think that we are called to think through our prayers, to think through the consequences of those requests, to have a bigger vision for the needs of the community, of the world, of our neighbors, and indeed for our enemies as well.  We are called to do that as part of our loving our neighbors as ourselves.  We are called to do that to help us to have a bigger vision of what others needs.  We are called to do that so that we may grow in compassion and love and deepen in our relationships with God.  And we are called to consider our prayers seriously, since unforeseen and negative consequences to others impact us as well.  We are also called to think through our requests in prayers because sometimes we, too, reap negative consequences of the things we wish for, hence the saying, “be careful what you wish for.”  We know from personal experience that sometimes the very things we want turn out not to be best for us.  Can you think of a time when you got what you wanted, only to discover it came with a cost?
I think about the movie Grumpy Old Men.  The Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau characters have been at each other ever since they were young men because they had both fallen in love with the same woman.  Jack Lemmon’s character won that particular battle, but ended up with a wife who was unfaithful and whom he eventually divorced.  Walter Matthau’s character could never forgive him, though in losing his wish for Meg, he ended up with a wonderful and very faithful wife instead.  And this story is real.  It is real in the sense that many people have shared with me stories of heartbreaks in which they prayed fervently for a loved one to continue to stay with them, only to find someone who was so much better a partner for them, someone they never would have found if their original prayers had been answered.
So where does this leave us?  Does it leave us afraid to pray for what we want?  Does it leave us trapped in the saying “be careful what you wish for” and therefore afraid to wish for anything?  No.  We are still called to be open and honest with God, to talk to God about our feelings and hopes, our fears and our heartbreaks.  But I do think we are encouraged to stay aware, even as we share our deepest desires, that God knows better than we do what is best for us, what is best for others, what is best for the world.  I think we are encouraged to listen for God’s guidance and leading in our prayers and strive to pray for those things God calls us to pray for.  And I always believe that ending our prayers with “yet not my will but yours be done” after we have had open and honest conversation is a good practice.  After all, Jesus modeled this for us in the garden of Gethsemane, as he first shared his hope that he might not have to die – honestly sharing his feelings, and then ended his prayer with “yet not my will but yours be done.”
In today’s story, each request had consequences that led to further requests.  But the good news is that God listens every time to those further requests.  God does care about what we want, what we ask for, and what we need, even when those are different things.  God listens to us, God responds to us, and God strives always to give us that which will bring the most healing and the most wholeness for everyone.  Amen.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Life Lessons

     I am not convinced that we all have the same life lessons to learn.  Or rather, I am convinced that each individual has a unique group of life lessons that they are called to learn.  Some are called to learn surrender, some are called to listen more deeply to their hearts, some are called to trust more in Divine presence.   One of my life lessons seems to be about being an adult - in my life, God does not make big decisions easy for me by "pointing the way," at least not blatantly. It seems that God asks me again and again to be the adult in my own life, struggle with decisions and make them without being given great signs about what to do.  I ask - I ask repeatedly to be told what to do.  And usually the response I get is something along the lines of, "I call you to be an adult in this.  But I will be with you in whatever you decide, loving you, supporting you, offering grace."  Really, there are times when I get tired of this life lesson.  I want to be told what to do.  I don't want to make hard decisions.  (I am afraid of making big mistakes!)  So I "cheat".  I ask other people to tell me what I should do.  My daughter seems to have a different life lesson - hers is more surrender.  So I'll ask her to ask God what I should do.  Once again, I hear the divine chuckle as God watches this particular game that I play, continues to love me through it, but doesn't help me get out of the lesson I need to learn.  So I guess part II to the lesson for me is that we do make mistakes.  We will make mistakes.  But even in those mistakes, God loves us and works to bring the highest good out of our failings.
     But different people have different life lessons. For those who are called to learn the art of surrender, there may be more signs of what the person is called to surrender to.  And some are called to listen more deeply.
     For me, while I don't always like the life lessons, this is another occasion when I feel that the serenity prayer applies.  In greatly edited version, very specific to myself:  God, grant me the serenity to accept that I cannot change your call for me to be an adult.  Give me the courage to choose paths that may not always be the easiest, but feel they have the most God/Life/Love in them.  And give me the wisdom to know that it is okay if I make mistakes in my attempts to find the path, follow it and do so with a loving, open heart; and that you will forgive and be with me even when I fail.
   I pray this for everyone - that we may surrender to our life lessons and strive to learn them with grace.  That we may not shirk those challenges but face them with dignity and humility.  That we may have courage in facing them, and that we may accept our efforts that don't quite make the grade.  Whatever your life lessons, God is with you.  And that is a comforting thought indeed.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


            I’ve been thinking about joy a great deal lately.  I have found myself caught quite deeply by joy for a bit of time now, joy that has been an amazing and unexpected gift, joy that snuck up on me when I truly least expected it, joy that came in guises that I could never have imagined, and in part as the result of events I thought would devastate me.  It's an odd thing to find oneself immensely joyful after living in deep and at times unrelenting pain for almost two and a half years. It is a weird feeling to wake up each morning without anxiety but instead with anticipation for the adventures and connections with loved ones that may be coming that day.  It feels strange and foreign to go on long walks alone and instead of feeling lonely or scared, to feel so at peace with the world that I find myself dancing down the path.  It feels surprising and unexpected that I am silly with my children daily, constantly, once again, not out of a sense of desperately needing a good laugh, but out of utter and complete delight in being with these incredibly beautiful, precious people.
It has taken me a long time to get here, and yet at the same time, I feel like it came on quite suddenly in some ways.  I've been released.  I've been set free.  I have come back to me after being caught in a storm of craziness and crazy making.  Anger is gone.  Fear is dispersed. Instead there is peace, joy, purpose, and a journey to walk with God and with God's people.
            It's not that I'm always in this space.  There are moments of depression still, there are times when I grieve and feel the many losses I've experienced in these last years.  There are still moments (though they are very rare) of anger, moments of feeling that dangerous self-righteousness that could have the potential of leading to lashing out (which always does more harm than good).  But they are few, and farther between each day.  I've moved to a different place.  I am happy more than I am not.  I am hopeful more than despairing.  I am at peace more than in a turmoil of regrets.  I am deeply, deeply grateful for every smile that comes my way, every kind word or connection, each joke that appears in my email box, the quirky behavior in a loved one, strong hugs, the gentle breath of the wind, rays of sunshine, the booming of thunder.  I am beyond grateful for my loving friends and amazingly grace-filled community, for the children who light up my days, for a sense of meaning and purpose in my work.    
            And the additional gift that has come from this joy is a deep recognition that joy really is about grace.  It is a gift given by God that one cannot anticipate, cannot summon, cannot create.  It is a gift that we can receive if we are open, if we pray, if we look for God around us.  God wants to give us this gift, and gives it despite whatever else is happening in our lives.  But it is found in unexpected places, and at unexpected times.  It shows its face sometimes through pain, sometimes even because of pain, sometimes as a result of the things we fear the most and think will destroy us.  Always, it is a gift that we cannot expect but which is given in spite of and despite ourselves.  Joy is like the butterfly that suddenly landed in front of Jasmyn and I during our walk a little over a year ago now - showing itself when we could not envision its appearance.  We took in the gift of that appearance because we had eyes to see it.  And those eyes, too, are a gift of grace, a gift from God.  Thank you, God, for this gift of joy.  May we all look for it, see it, be open to it, and receive it with gratitude.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Forgiveness, Part IV

I am aware that this topic may feel like it is getting old to some of you, my readers.  I apologize for that.  And yet, I feel compelled to write on it, probably because it continues to be an important theme in my current life.  Our lectionary group was focusing on forgiveness yesterday as it presents itself in scripture, and in particular in Luke 7:36-8:3 (for those of you who don't have the entire Bible memorized by scripture and verse, this is the story of the sinner woman anointing Jesus' feet with ointment and tears in the Pharisee's home, much to the Pharisee's upset).  Here are some things that developed in my thinking from that conversation:

I believe God forgives us even before we ask.  That is God's nature - to forgive, to call us to start afresh, to wipe the slate clean and to give us new beginnings at each moment.  God does this for us, all the time, every day, each moment.  This is really hard for us as humans to accept.  Of course we want forgiveness for ourselves.  But we struggle with God forgiving people like Ariel Castro and Anthony Edward Sowell.  Also when we are personally hurt by someone, we often feel like we want them to suffer as we have suffered.  We want them to know what the pain feels like and "pay for it".  I even hear this out of the mouths of people of deep faith who want revenge, who want retribution, who want punishment for those who have, in their own personal opinions, done harm.  But this attitude, this desire, this need for revenge is about us.  This is not about God.  God forgives.  That is who God is.  And again, I believe this happens before we can even ask.

Still, in most of our protestant churches we offer up a prayer weekly confessing our sins.  And this is important because while God automatically forgives, we do not automatically or even easily accept God's forgiveness.  Accepting God's forgiveness is a whole other ball game.  It requires, first of all, "getting" what we've done wrong.  It requires really looking at the ways we've hurt people, feeling it, acknowledging it and taking ownership of that.  We accept forgiveness only by really knowing the harm we have done, and that this harm may have ripples - or extend out to other people as well.  And while this is not easy for any of us - to really look at the ways in which we have hurt or damaged others, it is the call of any who really want to accept God's forgiveness into their hearts, into their beings.

But it doesn't end there, either.  Accepting God's forgiveness frees us. It frees us to start again and it frees us to release the feelings of guilt, sometimes shame, and inadequacy.  But it also calls us forward.  Accepting God's forgiveness calls us into two actions out of our gratitude for what God has done for us.  The first thing that it asks us to do is to try to set right the wrong we have done, to try to make amends or fix it, to work to bring healing and restoration to broken situations and broken relationships.  The second thing it calls us to is to change our behavior so that we don't make the same mistakes, create the same injuries, do the same damage and or harm others (or even the same person(s)) in the same way in the future.

None of this is easy.  Many times we would rather stay angry and remain focused on the harm that's been done to us, rather than on how we have contributed to a painful or broken situation, or how we have hurt others.  If I can stay angry at you, then I don't have to look at my own part in the situation.  I also don't have to figure out how to make amends, and I don't have to change any of my own behavior or actions because I can keep telling myself it is YOU who are at fault and YOU who did wrong and YOU who need to change.  Unfortunately, that attitude does not ever lead to healing.  And not just for the relationship or the situation or the other person.  I see people caught in anger, and their lives become more and more bitter, more and more lonely, more and more angry.  They live as victims, feeling that life is unfair or unjust.  They can develop physical ailments as well (which is not to say that people are at fault for their physical illnesses.  There are many reasons for physical illness.  But I do think that anger can and does contribute in some cases...that our bodies and our spirits just aren't completely separate.).  I also see that while we can try hard to deny our own sin and our own contributions to broken relationships, that it is the people who are most adept at doing this who actually have the lowest self-esteem.  This is one of those paradoxes and ironies of life.  And I guess the only way I can understand this is that, first of all, somewhere inside of us we know that we have done wrong.  But when we fail to acknowledge it to ourselves or to make amends to others, we are never able to actually take in the forgiveness that God offers.  We can't accept it when we can't acknowledge the pain we have caused, ask for forgiveness, and accept that forgiveness into our hearts and beings.  So our guilt and our shame eat us from the inside, cause us to feel bad about ourselves, and erode our sense of value and self-worth.

There are strong reasons why 12-step programs call people to look at their own mistakes, to own them, to accept God's forgiveness and then to correct them, to make amends.  People with addictions can be angry, accusing and self-righteous people (spoken from self-experience).  But as long as they stay in that angry, self-righteous place, they cannot let go of their addictions.  It is only when they stop putting the "sin" out there, onto others, and instead look at their own mistakes and work to correct them that they can let go of their addictions as well.

I'm reminded of the last Harry Potter book in which J.K. Rowling states that the only way Voldemort (or anyone) can really heal or be saved is to feel remorse for what they have done.  And that this is the most painful state of being that a person can experience, and because of that, it is seldom chosen by those who have truly done harm.

Can we chose it?  Can we choose to really look at what we have done so that we can release the guilt and accept God's forgiveness?  Can we choose to accept starting anew?  Can we do our best then to make amends and to change our ways?  That is the goal, but it is a journey and a challenge for all but the best of us.  My prayer today is that we can continue to walk forward on this journey towards wholeness and God's shalom.