Category Archives: forgiveness

Dealing with that “love your enemies” verse

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After Jesus tells his listeners (during the Sermon on the Mount) that those who struggle in life are the “blessed,” which really does seem like a strange blessing indeed, he gives them a huge word of encouragement: He tells them they are the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth.”

Mind you, he is speaking, here, to an oppressed people. Their land is occupied by a mighty and, often, cruel foreign empire.  Many of their own countrymen have ridden the coattails of Roman power right over their heads. Their own religious leaders offer little comfort, instead using oppressive legalism to exert their own power–only adding to the already overwhelming burden of Roman occupation. Jesus’ words must have been either encouraging or downright hard to believe.

I am the salt of the earth?  Really? I thought I was just dung under someone’s foot.

Just when the crowd might have been tempted to congratulation themselves (“He says we are the light of the world!) or see Jesus as siding with them against those nasty Romans, Pharisees, Scribes. and tax collectors, Jesus turns his challenge directly towards them.  He says they have to do an even better job than the Scribes and Pharisees, their own hyper-holy leaders, in being righteous.

What?! Isn’t this the guy who just said we are the light of the world. This is a such a downer message.

For at least 27 verses, Jesus goes on to talk about–what?  Political oppression? Hardships? Life’s difficulties?  No!  He talks about relationships. Relationships!  Is this guy serious?

He challenges his listeners to do a better job in loving others–and he has really weird ideas about who those “others” are. He talks about loving your enemy, doing good to those who hate you, giving up your right to retaliate, allowing people to take advantage of you, treating others the way we want to be treated.

Juliet's balcony. Loving the Enemy

Juliet's balcony. Loving the Enemy. Photo by Vavva

It’s one thing to encourage people today to go the extra mile, smile when you’re down, or overlook insults. We live in a rich society. We have generous rights and legal recourse if we are harmed. But Jesus addresses crowd here whose sons or daughters could be, and often were, enslaved, killed, or imprisoned at a moment’s notice–and they could do nothing about it. These people had nothing close to the rights we know today, and many lived in or on the edge of poverty.  Yet Jesus has the gall to sit there and say it’s not good enough to love your friends and family.  Anyone can do that, Jesus says.  How about loving your enemy? How about loving someone who really doesn’t care about you?  How about loving someone who wishes you harm?

Is that even possible?

I won’t lie. It is totally impossible to me. If someone hurts me, I want to hurt them back.  If they hurt my kids–forget it! Mercy and grace may be in God’s nature, but it’s not always in mine. There are times when I just want justice–not mercy. And there are times when justice is the greater need. But even in oppression, Jesus does not let them, or us, off the hook.  Can oppressed people be guilty of sin? According to Jesus…absolutely. Had his listeners been given the power at that moment to overturn their enemies, would they have behaved with largesse and kindness and generosity towards their former oppressors?  Not likely. They would probably have given the Romans back, in spades, what the Romans had given to them.  And how, then, would they be any different from the Romans, their enemy? How are we?

Jesus doesn’t let us get away with simply exposing the sinfulness and unrighteousness of others. He challenges us to see and deal with our own. It starts with us. It always starts with us.  When we are incapable of love because we are hanging on to our right to retaliate, we must start and end with a dependence on God for the love and forgiveness we cannot give.

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Stupendous Friday

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Good Friday Worshipers

© Lawrence Wee | Dreamstime.com

It always seemed strange, maybe even a little morbid, that this day is called “Good” Friday.   This is the day when Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Christ.

What’s so good about that?

A dear friend once asked me, “What’s the point of Jesus?  I get God.  I just don’t get Jesus. Jesus just sort of gets in the way for me.”  After some discussion, though, we both concluded that if you don’t see yourself as someone in need of a Savior, Jesus would get in the way.

I am not one of those people.

Good Friday Cross

© Paul Mckinnon | Dreamstime.com

I know my own heart all too well. I know when I act in jealousy, pride—even hatred.

If our one purpose is to love, I fail more often than I care to admit. I love myself too much to love my enemies, and I don’t always even love my friends as I should.

So I cannot fulfill those two commands that Jesus said were the culmination of all the laws: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and spirit. Love your neighbor as yourself.  Just two little commands.  That’s all.

But love for self prevents me from fulfilling them. And THAT is what sin is all about. It is a failure to love.  It is, sometimes, a refusal to love. A just and loving God cannot turn a blind eye to a refusal to love. He would no longer be just and loving. Sin must be addressed.

Therein lies the rub.  How could we ever “pay” for the sin of failure to love God or love others?  What is the price of that ticket?  Even if we could pay, that wouldn’t solve our problem.  We’d fail again, and again, and again, until we’d owe an eternal debt that could never be paid.

And THAT is what Good Friday is all about.  God stepped in and said, “Child, I cannot turn a blind eye when you refuse to love.  But I can show you what Love looks like by paying your debt.  I will bear this burden on your behalf because I love you.” God didn’t even wait until we appreciated or acknowledged this self-sacrificial act.  No, we are still quite enjoying our self-consumed journey—not even seeing the need for God to intervene.  Yet, God steps in anyway.

That’s not just good news.  It’s stupendous.  We should calls this “Stupendous Friday.” God’s self-emptying, ego-less, utterly humble love should leave us speechless.

Good Friday Service

© Lawrence Wee | Dreamstime.com

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4-5, NIV)

My First White Friend

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Patricia Raybon

Patricia Raybon

Friendships that transcend color and culture barriers have always fascinated me, so when I first heard of Patricia Raybon’s book, My First White Friend, I knew it was a reading list priority. Normally, I would go into the book itself here, but my personal interest in the book will explain much of my reaction to it.

My parents, Alabama born and bred, were careful to raise my sister and me with the belief that we were no better and no worse than anyone else. They taught us to respect people of all colors and to appreciate differences, but as I was growing up, the South was still fairly segregated—not so much by law anymore as by choice.

When I was 18, though, I moved to Amsterdam where I worked with an international mission organization. I was smitten with cross-cultural life. I thrived on the discovery of living and eating like the locals, enjoying their traditions, customs, and quirky sayings. In turn, I learned to appreciate the quirks and eccentricities of my own culture and language in the process.

The fun of cross-cultural and interracial friendships is in the exchange. Once you get past all the little nuances, though, you realize that we’re all just people. The rest is secondary. Fun. Intriguing, Fascinating. Sometimes frustrating. But always secondary.

But when it comes to African American culture, I learned over the years just how hard it is to reach across the fence and find someone willing to reach back. I learned, in fact, that this fence isn’t so much about language or culture. Rather, this is a well-fortified wall of mistrust, hurt, and anger over any number of insults that African Americans have suffered. I also sense that there is, within the African American community, some sort of mantra that goes something like this: “Be polite. Be kind. But don’t trust.”

Eddie Huff

Eddie Huff

My black friends (those brave enough to reach back across the fence and such gold to me) taught me, through their stories, what racism looks like on a very personal level, and that’s what Raybon’s book does as well. I have heard stories like hers before from friends, colleagues and even students. It always shocks me. I know racist behavior happens every day, but because I am eager to transcend barriers, I’m still surprised when I hear about those who are not. It’s a shame. They miss so much.

Eddie Huff, now a talk show host, was the first black friend who reached across that fence to me. Actually, he jokes that I was his first teenage daughter.  I lived with Eddie and his wife Vickie while serving with the mission I mentioned earlier. Vickie, who is white, was a little nervous when I first moved in. Here I was, this young white girl from Tennessee that the mission had placed in their home. (Ironically, my roommate, yet to arrive, was a white woman from South Africa!) Eddie wasn’t home when I arrived, suitcases in hand. Vickie, a lovely, gracious woman, helped me move in and made me welcome. While we were lugging suitcases up the stairs, she suddenly stopped, turned around and looked at me, and said, “There’s something I need to tell you about my husband.” All kinds of scenarios raced through my head.  He’s a paraplegic. He’s deaf. He’s a paranoid schizophrenic!

I waited. After a beat or two, Vickie smiled sweetly and said, “He’s black.”

I laughed outloud. “Is that all? Geez, you scared me to death.” I was thrilled! Growing up in the South in the 70s was a long, long way from Bull Conner’s Alabama, but there still wasn’t a whole lot of interracial friendships in my schools. So this was my first chance to have a real black friend. Even better, I was part of their family. They had two small children—Talitha, who was 4 and Eli, who was about 3. I became the big sister, and I listened and learned.

I learned that though Eddie’s mother was a white German, the hardships he had faced in life had nothing to do with his white mother and everything to do with his black skin. He experienced the same snubs and insults that so many others have known before him. Yet, maybe because he had lived part of his life in Germany, maybe because his mother was white, maybe because he actually spoke another language for the first few years of his life—maybe all of that together made him a little more willing and able to reach across that fence to befriend anyone willing to reach back. I’m grateful for that.

Racial relationships have come a long way, but each time an African American is ill treated, it reinforces that mantra: Be polite. Be kind. Don’t trust. And sometiMy First White Friend Book Covermes the walls go higher. Raybon’s book provides deeper insight into what it feels like to be judged by your color. A dear Guatemalan friend once told me that she had experienced racist behavior from some of my colleagues.

“Really? I don’t see it,” I was genuinely surprised.

“Why would you?” she reminded me, “You’re white.”

Indeed. I had missed that very obvious fact. My corner of the world looked and responded to me differently simply because I am white. Oh sure, I’ve had my own share of insults for other reasons, but Raybon’s book provides just a taste of what it means to be targeted for no other reason than skin color, and this is a valuable perspective for white readers who have never experienced a similar prejudice.

But Raybon’s book is ultimately about forgiveness–which transcends all colors. Someone once said that unforgiveness is the poison we drink, hoping our enemy will die. Despite the ways she was treated, Raybon realized that if she did not forgive, she could never be whole herself. She began to see that her life was false and reactionary. A life all about proving herself to be worthy—no, even better—than those on the other side of the fence. After all, hadn’t her anger produced “good” things like career success, achievement, and recognition?

Remarkably, she finally named her behavior for what it was: bitter spite. And she courageously concluded that it provided a poor platform for an identity. She challenges us all with her willingness to do the hard work of rebuilding her identity on something far more profound—the grace of God. As a Christian, Raybon realized that the “love thy neighbor” bit included white people. Still, the reader feels the struggle and weight of the truth that Raybon slowly discovered: The journey of forgiveness is costly and lasts a lifetime.

OnBook Jackete sadness to me in this book was that the “white friend” in the title is barely a blip on the radar. I thought I would be reading a story about a wonderful journey of discovery and love between this writer and her white friend. Instead, the book is about Raybon’s growing awareness of her need to forgive and let go so that such a friendship would even be possible. I admit it: I was disappointed, but in fairness to Raybon’s very personal journey, I left the book knowing that as she embraced mercy, God would give her new friends of all shapes, colors and backgrounds. (Her latest book, I Told the Mountain to Move, does indeed reveal beautiful and moving glimpses of just how colorful her world has become.)

I’m not sure who Raybon had in mind for her reading audience: People of color? White people? I’m not sure it even matters. There are nuggets of wisdom here for anyone, and her considerable writing skills—powerful, rhythmic, lyrical, filled with a rich voice—make the reading a pleasure. We all have our biases, whether against another race, or another culture, or even another socio-economic group. The lessons of forgiveness cannot be taught enough, and Raybon’s willingness to reveal her honest struggles to forgive provide encouragement to us all that we can do the same.

 

© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

Great News–Your Debts are Cancelled

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What are you owed?
It is so hard to forgive when you’ve been genuinely wronged. Especially if the wrong was personal.

Of course, it would be so much easier to make amends if “so and so” would just admit what a jerk he or she is! A little groveling at our feet wouldn’t hurt either. After all, the offender owes us at least that much, right?

In truth, there are times when offenses against us genuinely merit retribution of some sort. An apology. A financial settlement. A show of proper gratitude.

Last night, as I sat in a Good Friday service at my church, it dawned on me that if anyone deserves to be offended, to demand apologies and payback..then surely it is God. But if God reached beyond his offense and sought us out “while we were yet sinners,” to draw us back to himself, can I do less?*

What if God went further? What if he declared to all mankind for all time: “My only Son–my very heart–took your debt on himself, paying it fully with his life. I exchanged your life for His. Your debt is hereby canceled.”

“Now, come back to me. Come back to your heavenly Father, and live in eternal friendship with me–and with my Son who took your place.”

What if God said that?

How can I…How can we, then, look at what someone “owes” us and say, “It’s not enough. I won’t be satisfied–I won’t budge until this debt is paid.” Christ paid our debt–and the debt that others owe to us–in order to reconcile us to himself, to our heavenly Father, and to one another.

I can do no less.

*Romans 5:8 “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

Matthew 18:21-35

 

© 2009 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.