Forgiveness is a central element in embracing the love of God. We are called to forgive others as we ourselves have been and are continually forgiven. Jesus told us that if we did not forgive others, we would not be forgiven ourselves. Forgiveness is not an optional extra; it is absolutely essential to our spiritual and emotional health and wellbeing.
There are a lot of myths around the subject of forgiveness. If we forgive someone, we must like them, or we must reconcile with them, or we must let them off the hook, or minimise or excuse the wrong they have done to us. Some people think that forgiving someone else requires them to be sorry, to say sorry, to feel contrition.
None of these things is true. Forgiveness takes place in your heart alone. It does not require the cooperation or contrition of the person you are forgiving. These things are certainly required if there is to be reunion and restoration of relationship – but forgiving is done alone, in your heart, for your own health and freedom.
We should forgive slowly and carefully. This will involve recognising the humanity of the person who has wronged us, and not reducing them to their crime or wrongdoing. It will involve us leaving justice to God, rather than claiming our right to get even or get revenge. And it will, with time, involve us wishing the other person well in some way. All of this can take time and may require the help of others along the way.
It’s a long-term investment but, whatever happens, forgiveness will ultimately set you free. Don’t get bitter – get better!
Listen to the full Sunday message: "Forgiving one another", by Geoff Lee >
Sometimes the most difficult person to forgive is ourselves. As Jeremy reminded us on Sunday, based on the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus, we all carry around with us a sense of guilt, of regret and of perceived or real failure.
Just like Peter, we have done things that we regret, that we are ashamed of, that represents failure in our life.
The song “Je ne regrette rien” (“I have no regrets”) is far from our experience. Most of us have regrets, carry guilt, and are more than aware of our failures.
Sometimes we may feel like Robert de Niro’s character in the film “The Mission”. Mendoza, a slave trader, drags around a heavy bundle containing his armour and sword in penance for his past sins.
It is a heavy physical load to bear, but the real weight is the weight of regret and self-condemnation that Mendoza feels for his past misdemeanours. However, there comes a redeeming moment of freedom in the film when one of the native Indians takes a knife and cuts the chord of the heavy burden from Mendoza. The burden of guilt that he has been carrying falls away into the ravine below and Mendoza is set free.
Embracing the love of God means accepting his forgiveness. As James Bryan Smith writes:
“The basis upon which we dare forgive ourselves is the fact that God has forgiven us. God’s love, manifest in forgiving us, is the foundation upon which we can begin the process of forgiving ourselves.”
There are two things that help me in this regard.
One is to be brutally honest before God and to admit and submit everything to him. He knows everything about me and he is not shocked by my honest admissions. Admit it and submit it to God.
The second thing that brings me comfort in this regard is Jesus’ statement to Peter. Peter – you are going to mess up – but I have prayed for you…and after you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.
The Bible tells me that Jesus is still interceding for us. Sometimes I tell him how much I am struggling, and I ask him to pray for me! I know he does, and I know he is on my side – and yours too. Let the burden go.
Listen to the full Sunday message: "Forgiving ourselves," by Jeremy Martin >
“Divine forgiveness makes a heroic demand upon our courage. For that forgiveness is not the easy passing of a sponge over a slate. It is a stern and painful process: it means the reordering of our soul’s disordered love, setting right what is wrong, washing it from wickedness and cleansing it from sin.” (Evelyn Underhill)
I find that, when it comes to the love and grace and forgiveness of God, I need to soak myself in the truth again and again and again – and over long periods of time. I am prone to spiritual amnesia. I am driven by my feelings. I am forgetful. I need to hear this truth over and over, and let it sink down to the level of my soul.
It takes a while.
I need to let the word of Christ dwell in me richly – this involves teaching one another with wisdom, and singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.
We imbibe so much of our theology through what we sing.
During this series, I have been singing to myself more (and to God!) I have been singing “Jesus loves me this I know”, both to my daughter at bedtime, and to myself throughout the day.
This morning in the shower, I was reminding myself of God’s forgiveness – singing at the top of my voice (the house was empty, I was not inflicting pain on anyone) – “As far as the east is from the west – that’s how far he has removed our transgressions from us….praise the Lord O my soul…..Praise the Lord.”
Back in the day, we used to sing: “I get so excited Lord every time I realise – I’m forgiven, I’m forgiven.” It is an exciting truth, an amazing truth, an undeniable truth. If we confess our sin, Jesus is faithful and just, and he will forgive us of our sin and cleanse us from all wrongdoing.
That is amazing in itself. God wipes my slate clean. He forgives me. He removes my sin from me. He gives me a fresh start.
But God’s forgiveness does more than that. As well as wiping the slate clean, the true forgiveness of God acts as surgery on our hearts, to go to the source of our sin, and begins to deal with the disordered loves of our hearts. The cleansing, forgiving work of God is ongoing and purifying and transforming.
God does not want us to be in a sin-sorry-sin-sorry loop of condemnation – he wants to transform us by his love and to sanctify us, making us more and more like Jesus.
God is saving us every day – what he has started, he will finish. As we are reminded in Jude….
“keep yourselves in God's love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.”
Listen to the full Sunday message: "The forgiveness of God", by Geoff Lee >
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” (Romans 15: 5-7)
In this week’s message we looked at the tale of two broken women. The woman who was caught in adultery and brought before Jesus, and the woman who entered Simon the Pharisee’s house and washed his feet with her tears.
A deep realisation of how forgiven we are, how our shame has been dealt with, how much God has loved us – enables us and frees us to love others.
If I cannot love others well, I have not accepted and experienced God’s love for me.
As I feel loved, I reach out to others in love.
We struggle to love and accept others if we have too much pain in our hearts and have not really known the embrace of God’s love.
There is no room in Jesus’ community for throwing stones. We are all too broken. Philip Yancey says that Jesus’ audience would have divided people into two categories: sinners (like the woman) and the righteous (like the men). Yet Jesus in one brilliant stroke replaces them with two different categories: sinners who admit, and sinners who deny.
If you have no sin – go ahead and cast the first stone.
We are called to put down our stones.
Jesus calls us to be salt – not vinegar!
How can we be more accepting of each other?
1) Accepting others does not mean tolerating bad behaviour
“People sometimes think acceptance means an abused wife has to tolerate whatever suffering her spouse chooses to damage her with; that a concerned friend must watch in silence as her friend makes choices that will wreck their life. Accepting another human being does not mean we refuse to confront or challenge that in them that could harm others and damage their soul.” (John Ortberg)
2) We need to be conduits of God’s love with the help of the Holy Spirit
The fruit of the Spirit in our life is love.
“We should not have to strain and struggle to reach out to one another with this kind of acceptance. When we look at a branch bearing fruit we would never say, “Wow look at the effort of that branch! It must be working hard to produce that fruit. The branch is able to bear fruit because it is attached to the vine, not because of its effort.” (James Bryan Smith)
Apart from God, we cannot truly love each other.
This is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. As Thomas Merton says: the chief function of the Holy Spirit is to “make us live by that love and experience it in our hearts.”
“He has poured out his love into our hearts by his Holy Spirit.” (Romans 5:5)
3) We need to focus on what people are rather than what they are not
“A large part of acceptance is letting people be who they are, with all of their uniqueness, all of their beauty, all of their flaws.” (James Bryan Smith)
Try to catch people doing something right.
Try to understand their story.
Know that there is a lot that you don’t know.
Recognise in each other the image of God.
“This…we can attain, if we are careful not to dwell on the evil which men do, but rather to look upon the image of God which they bear, and whose worth and dignity can – and should – move us to love them and to bury their faults which might otherwise repel us.” (Calvin – Institutes)
Affirm one another’s strengths, abilities and gifts.
“Honour one another” (Romans 12:10)
“Don’t grumble against each other” (James 5:9)
Confirm the gifts of one another (Romans 12:3-8)
The preacher can tell you that God loves you.
Your Bible tells you that God loves you.
The songs we sing in church tell us that God loves us.
Your understanding of theology tells you that God loves you.
At a basic level, you kind of believe that God loves you.
But somehow – that does not take the sense of shame away.
The main narrative in your head, as you wring your hands and approach the Father, is still: “I am not worthy to be called your son/daughter”.
The main feeling in your heart is one of shame.
We struggle to believe that God accepts us, and we have trouble accepting ourselves, because we are filled with too much shame.
“Shame is the deep sense that you are unacceptable because of something you did, something done to you, or something associated with you.” (Edward Welch)
Shame makes you want to hide. Shame makes you want to cover your tracks. Shame makes you want to wear a mask. Shame leaves you running scared.
Shame is part of being human and it is what makes us want to hide and cover up.
In reality, you and I are a mess. Behind each of our masks is not a beautiful person. Behind the mask is a patchwork self that is more prone to lie that to tell the truth, to take than to give, to tear down than build up.
The reason we have such trouble accepting ourselves as God accepts us is that we do not want to see ourselves as God sees us. God sees us as we truly are – God sees beneath the mask.
Whatever you’re hiding.
And he does not walk away. He has a remedy.
“I take your guilt and shame, and you receive my righteousness and holiness.” This is the technical way of saying, “You receive my acceptance.”
What is needed on our part is not self-improvement, but self-surrender.
The cross brought reconciliation. That means it restored our relationship with the Father (Romans 5: 9–11). Jesus died to “bring us to God” (1 Peter 3: 18). We now have access to our God and Father, and we may approach him, having “access with confidence” (Ephesians 3: 12).
This is a far cry from the running and hiding that began the story of shame.
“By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God” (1 John 3:19-21)
Throughout this teaching series, I am going to write a weekly blog, reflecting on each chapter of the book “Embracing the Love of God” by James Bryan Smith, along with additional thoughts from the weekend message. In this first post, I will highlight some of my favourite quotes from chapter one.
“Many of us find it difficult to believe that God could look at us and smile.”
“For most of my Christian life I related to God on the basis of what I did for him. If I prayed well, studied hard, served much, and sinned little, then I felt reasonably sure that God was pleased with me.”
“I was afraid that my weaknesses would separate me from the love of Christ. Now I see that they cannot. I was afraid that my sinfulness would separate me from the love of Christ. Now I am certain that nothing will ever separate me from the love God has made visible in Jesus.”
“God loves me just as I am, not as I should be.”
“How do we come to know such love? We must ask for it. We must pray that we will come to know and feel this love.”
Frederick Buechner writes: “If you have never know the power of God’s love, then maybe it is because you have never asked to know it – I mean really asked, expecting an answer.”
“Dearest Lord, let your holy love possess me wholly.” (Alphonsus Liguori)
2016 has arrived.
I started the year with a message from Hebrews 12:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”
We are not the first people of faith to walk this way. Both in recent history and further back, there is a great cloud of witnesses – men and women who have walked faithfully with God, sometimes in very trying circumstances.
We are to be inspired by them and to emulate them.
They had gritty faith.
And in light of their courageous walk of faith, we are challenged, at the start of this New Year, to:
Have a clear out! A spiritual, emotional and, possibly, physical declutter.
What are some of the things that are holding you back, clogging up your spiritual arteries, hindering and hamstringing you?
What are the things that are not helping your walk with God?
In this respect, I found Bill Hybels’ book: “Simplify – Ten Practices to Declutter Your Soul” very helpful.
I liked his thoughts on using your diary as a means to an end. Ask the question, not what do I want to do in 2016, but who do I want to become? Put the right things to facilitate that aim and desire in your diary. If you want to become a better father, schedule time with your children – put it in the diary. If you want a more balanced work/life schedule, put times for recharging, recreation, and real life relationships (social media doesn’t count) in the diary.
Some things need to be restricted and relegated to create the freedom to do what is really important.
You mostly don’t need to go looking for it!
We are challenged to throw it off. Get rid of it. Change course.
We are starting the discipleship course Freedom in Christ this month – helping people deal with hurts and habits and hang-ups. This could be very helpful to you in this arena!
For some of us, throwing off stuff that has entangled us could mean real repentance - a complete change of direction and a turnaround. For others, it will mean more of a course correction, a degree change that over time will make a big difference.
Is there an area of your life that has entangled you and that it is time to address?
January can be a difficult month. Christmas and New Year are over. It’s back to work and school. The weather is dark and miserable. Coughs and colds abound. Sometimes – often! – the Christian walk or race is one of persevering; a long obedience in the same direction. Living out our faith in the misty mundane!
Keep going and don’t give up. There is a great cloud of witnesses cheering you on.
As Martin Luther’s spiritual director told him: “Don’t focus so much on your sin – focus on Jesus.”
In 2016 – keep your eyes on Jesus.
He has started something in you that he is committed to finishing.
Trust him on this.
Have a very blessed and God-centred 2016!
Is it just me – or does Christmas seem to come around more quickly with every advancing year? It doesn’t seem a minute since we were packing up the Christmas decorations last year, and now Christmas preparations are upon us once more.
I think it must be an age thing.
Still, I do love an awful lot about Christmas. Here are some of my favourite things, in no particular order of importance:
1) Christmas decorations, candles, trees, tinsel, advent calendars
2) Christmas music; old perennial favourites, Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W Smith - and a few carols from Kings
3) Turkey and all the trimmings and mince pies and satsumas
4) Our Carols by Candlelight service on Christmas Eve – one of my favourite services of the year
5) The Christingle service, with many of the kids taking part
6) Packing and handing out our Christmas hampers
7) Opening presents on Christmas morning with Jenny and Isaac and Beth
8) Cooking Christmas dinner and listening to the Classic FM countdown of the nation’s favourite carols
9) Cold winter weather (!)
10) Our annual staff and Elders’ Christmas party
Many of these things have to do with tradition, culture, memories and familiar things. We are often comforted to hang our hat on old hooks.
There are still many people that like to go to church at Christmas. It’s a tradition thing, a childhood memory, a cultural comfort. I will certainly be doing my best to tell the old Christmas story in a fresh and yet familiar way to those that find their way through our doors, and our very talented worship team will be leading us in some wonderful music and song.
I pray that you, your family and friends will find, perhaps, the ability to see and experience something fresh and new and
wonder-filled among these old and well-visited stories and songs.
May you encounter Jesus and his wonderful peace and joy this Christmas.
God’s richest blessings
I've been asked to write this instalment of the church blog. It has been looking at the Lord's Prayer, taking a line at a time, and the next line is .... Give us today our daily bread.
Before I look solely at this line, I thought I should mention that, over the last few months, I've been focusing on the Lord's Prayer as part of my daily devotions. It was interesting to read that Geoff has been doing the same whilst away in America.
I have this following loose routine:
On most weekday mornings, I like to accompany our girls to school and take the dog for his early morning walk. On the way back, I like to pray, and as I do I like to start by repeating the Lord's Prayer.
I understand that the Lord’s Prayer is not just a prayer but also a model for prayer. As I have a mind that likes to wander and am easily distracted, I have made it a habit now to look at each line and think/pray around it and reflect on it, seeing where each word or phrase may take me - which after reading Geoff’s last blog I realise is “riffing” like Martin Luther!
The Lord’s Prayer is found in Matthew 6: 9-13. It is only short and therefore easy to memorise. This is worth doing as you can then call upon it at any time whilst at home, work or out and about - in my case when walking the dog.
As I’ve been asked to write about Give us today our daily bread, here are a few of my thoughts and observations on this line.
Give us: it is collective not just individualistic. It is not give me, but give us. All the way through the prayer it is in the plural.
Our daily bread: it is about us; family, community, the church, belonging together, unity - not just me!!
It is interesting to note today and daily bread. I often think of God as the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, but here I’m challenged to see God in today, the present, the here and now, not just the God of miracles in the past or our coming king - but relevant for today. It reminds me of the psalmist, when he says that God is an ever present help in times of trouble. God is interested in us today and more than capable of providing for us.
It also makes you focus on the importance of now: it’s not about next week or next year. He wants us to be; to be in the moment.
When I think of the word bread I am reminded that bread was/is the staple diet; it’s about what we need not what we want. Needs are necessary and wants are not always good for us. Our needs can be very varied. My mind likes to go through lists here: give us peace, love, patience, mercy, grace as well as meeting our material needs.
Daily bread also reminds me of the manna Geoff has been talking to us about from the book of Exodus; God providing for the Israelites in the desert and Jesus being the bread of life. We are not just asking here about physical needs, but also emotional and spiritual needs.
So to conclude: Give us today our daily bread is a conscious reminder to be focusing on today's events, not looking ahead and not looking at the past.
What do we really need today? What do we need God to provide for us today? He is our rock, He is our salvation, He is our eternal hope – and we can trust him with today and live in the present, always relying on God to sustain us.
The Lord’s prayer is Jesus’ response to the disciples’ request: “Lord teach us to pray”.
So it is a very definitive and important prayer template for us as Christians.
This has been recognised over the centuries, with this prayer being a central element to the teaching and catechisms of the church.
In our recent Sunday evening series on prayer, based on Tim Keller’s eponymous book, we reflected on Martin Luther’s habit of “riffing” on the Lord’s prayer. That is, when he prayed, he would pray around and over the different sections of this prayer, using the different phrases as the guiding melody and rhythm of his conversation with God. He would expect and allow the Holy Spirit to guide him in this, and to “preach” to him. Sometimes, like a good piece of jazz improvisation, one line of the prayer would stand out, and he would spend considerable amount of time praying around that line. Other times, he moved through the prayer quite quickly, without feeling any great level of inspiration.
Over recent months, I have been following the same practice, using the Lord’s prayer as the starting point and framework for my time speaking to and listening to God. As a family, we recently visited the States for a few weeks, and I would start most days running along the beach, and then walking back slowly, dragging my feet in the water, and talking to God. I reflected on and around the Lord’s prayer as I did this.
The line that I want to mention in this blog is “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”
As I pray this line over many areas of my life – my family, the church I lead, my staff team, my areas of responsibility, individual people and needs – I pray along the lines:
“God you be in charge in this situation. You be the boss. You be the CEO. You are the King. You are in charge. Exercise your power and your purpose.” I acknowledge, as I pray, that I am not ultimately in charge. When I pray for the church, I slope my shoulders, and I acknowledge that God is the senior leader, the main shepherd, the one in charge – not me. I submit to him in prayer. I surrender ultimate responsibility. I recognise my limits. I defer to my boss. “Your kingdom come.”
And then I pray – “Your will be done”. I pray: “Let what you want to happen, happen! Whatever you want in this situation, in this person’s life, in my family, in our church – let that happen! Here on earth, just as in heaven. I know that what God wants is ultimately the best outcome – though I do not always immediately recognise this to be the case. Sometimes, I want something different. A different outcome. A different time scale. A different result. But ultimately, if I trust God, I know that he knows best, and he wants what is best. So when I pray that what he wants to happen will happen, I again defer to his greater knowledge and power and wisdom and goodness.
Let your kingdom come. Let your will be done. On earth, as it is in heaven.
God you be in charge. God, let what you want to happen, happen.