Learning the Dance of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is one of the most freeing and challenging practices we encounter in life. We all know we need it from others and should give it to others, yet learning the way of forgiveness can feel unnatural and confusing. This feeling may grow stronger when we read the strong words of the Apostle Paul:

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:13)

forgiving-as-weve-been-forgivenThis past weekend in my message, “Reconciliation,” I quoted from Célestin Musekura‘s book Forgiving as We’ve Been Forgiven which he co-authored with L. Gregory Jones. Here is the quotation I referenced, where Musekura reflects on the Cross of Christ:

Because of this divine act, the Christian model of forgiveness stresses the granting of unconditional forgiveness to those who cause injury, pain and suffering in this life.

In the book, Musekura shares his own journey through the pain of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and beyond. Reading his words thrust me back into the trauma-filled stories I had heard from other survivors in Rwanda when visiting in 1999 and 2000 as a staff member of World Relief. Musekura’s own journey into forgiveness and the work he has done with African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM) brought him to this powerful realization:

If forgiveness is the heart of the gospel, it is the center of the church’s mission as well.

Jones puts legs to this, using the metaphor of the dance of forgiveness. Comparing the work of forgiveness to learning how to dance, Jones offers six steps of forgiveness that I found incredibly helpful as we seek to grow in the grace of forgiveness. I wanted to share them here as we reflect on our own lives and the divided society around us:

Step 1: Truth Telling: We become willing to speak the truthfully and patiently  about the conflicts that have arisen. “We need not only honesty but also patience…[to] discern more clearly what is going on….We must, rather, take the time to talk to one another about the things that divide us” (46-47).

Step 2: Acknowledging Anger: We acknowledge both the existence of anger and bitterness, and a desire to overcome them. “Whether these emotions are our own or belong to others who are mad at us, it does no good to deny them….We learn to overcome bitterness as we begin to live differently through practices that transform hatred into love” (48-49).

Step 3: Concern for the Other: We summon up a concern for the well-being of the other as a child of God. “Seeing as children of God the ones on whom our bitterness focuses challenges our tendency to perceive them simply as enemies, rivals or threats. Now they are potential friends of God” (49-50).

Step 4: Recognizing, Remembering, RepentingWe recognize our own complicity in conflict, remember that we have been forgiven in the past and take the step of repentance. “People need to be held accountable for their actions…we also need to recognize and resist our temptation to blame others while exonerating ourselves….Repentance breaks the cycle of violence and creates space for God to do something new” (51).

Step 5: Commitment to ChangeWe make a commitment to struggle to change whatever caused and continues to perpetuate our conflicts. “Forgiveness out to usher in repentance and change. It ought to inspire prophetic protest wherever people’s lives are being diminished and destroyed. Forgiveness and justice are closely related” (53).

Step 6: Hope for the FutureWe confess our yearning for the possibility of reconciliation. “Continuing to maintain reconciliation as the goal – even if this is ‘hoping against hope’ for reconciliation in this life – is important because it reminds us that God promises to make all things new….Every concrete act – every prayer prayed, every apology offered, every meal shared across dividing lines – is a sign that our history and habits of sin have been definitively interrupted by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (55).

Reflecting on Jones’ dance steps of forgiveness, I couldn’t help but reflect on numerous situations I’ve experienced in my own life or in walking with others as a pastor. Some of these steps come naturally, while others take great selflessness and humility. Still, I see them as helpful guides into the pathways of forgiveness.

If, as Célestin Musekura writes, “forgiveness is the heart of the gospel” and “the center of the church’s mission,” then it may be time for some dance lessons! What do you think?

Four Aspects of Suffering in Joseph

josephs-coat-diego_velc3a1zquez-1630.jpgLet’s reflect on four aspects of suffering that we see in the life of Joseph:

  1. Joseph’s family dynamic brought suffering down upon him. Joseph did not choose to be born into the dysfunctional and broken family system of Abraham’s generations, but that was the context of his birth and growth. The tensions between Joseph and his brothers reflected the tensions between their mothers, Leah and Rachel, as well as with their father, Jacob. These tensions went back a generation before into Jacob and Esau’s broken interactions, as well as that of their parents Isaac and Rebekah. There was a social and relational brokenness that brought suffering down upon Joseph. We see and experience this in our own lives, when the cycles of family sin and brokenness bring suffering down upon us, even if we were not the cause of them. Suffering as a result of social, relational dynamics is real.
  2. Joseph’s personal attitudes and decisions brought suffering down upon him. Clearly, Joseph made decisions himself that brought suffering down upon him. The way in which he swaggered around, wearing that the regal robe given by his father, did not endear him to his brothers. The dreams, although given by God, were freely shared in a way that did not add anything good to his prospects. When Joseph’s brothers reacted with anger in a plot to kill him, some of this came from beyond him while some parts of it were a result of Joseph’s personal decisions. We also see this in life. There are any number of people who wonder why ‘bad things happen to good people’, while all the while ignoring the ways in which their decisions and attitudes have led to some of their suffering.  Suffering as a result of personal attitudes and decision is real.
  3. Joseph’s cultural context and systemic brokenness brought suffering down upon him. While it was the familial relationships and Joseph’s personal decisions that brought about the situation where he was thrown into a cistern by his brothers, it was the cultural context and systemic brokenness that brought rise to the slave trade route on which that cistern was located. As the Midianite traders passed by within the real systemic evil of slavery, Joseph suddenly found himself caught inside of suffering that was much bigger than his own sin and his family’s sin. The way in which sin, evil and brokenness worked their way into fallen systems that marked the culture of his day and time brought suffering down upon Joseph. Again, we encounter this in our own day were certain aspects of suffering come down upon us because we simply find ourselves caught in the midst of a web of cultural and systemic evil that we cannot avoid. Suffering as a result of our cultural context and systemic brokenness is real.
  4. Still, God was present and somehow at work in the midst of every level of Joseph’s suffering. While Joseph’s cultural context, familial dynamics, and personal decisions all brought suffering upon him, the account of his life in Genesis makes it clear that God was not imprisoned by these other aspects. Does God cause these things? No. Does God allow these things? Yes. There is no other way to be human in a broken world than to have the capacity to choose evil or good. The necessary result of this is the capacity for personal, relational, and systemic sin, brokenness, and evil to exist, even as truth, beauty, and goodness may also exist. Even when suffering comes down, God does not throw up His hands and say, “Well, I guess I cannot do anything about that now.” No, even in these different aspects of suffering, Joseph’s life tells us that God is somehow still present — “the Lord was with him” (Genesis 39:21) — and active — “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (50:20). God’s power and presence in the midst of our suffering is real.

We do well to learn from Joseph to pay attention to all of these aspects of suffering. Many times we ask why suffering happens, and we should ask that question. However, when we drop one of these aspects of suffering out of our equation we often come up with partial or simplistic answers.

[This post is drawn from my message “Descending,” the first part of our series The Life of Joseph: God’s Sovereignty in Our Suffering.]

Fasting for Spiritual Growth

I often refer to fasting as an important spiritual growth tool in our lives. Some time ago, I wrote a number of posts on the subject of fasting and I am gathering all of those together here as a resource for understanding fasting in general. These posts also address a number of specific aspects of fasting, biblical background on fasting, and some practical helps for how we approach fasting. I hope this is helpful as you step forward by fasting in order to say ‘no’ to yourself and ‘yes’ to God for growth into the abundant life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Journey to the Cross 2018

Today marks the beginning of our journey to the cross.  At Eastbrook Church, we invite you to join with us in a day of fasting and prayer before a family-friendly worship service at 7 PM. For more info on fasting, read a series of posts I wrote here.

Traditionally, this journey is known as Lent and begins on Ash Wednesday. Lent is a forty-day spiritual journey (minus Sundays) toward Easter. Often you see people walking around with a dark smudge of ashes on their forehead. It is a sign of our mortality; “that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14) and to dust we shall return.

Lent is so much more than a worn-out church tradition about self-absorbed sorrow and meal-skipping.  Rather, Lent is our journey into greater depths of life with Christ through an experience of His journey toward, into, and through the Cross. It prepares us for a deeper experience of the joys of the resurrection on Easter Sunday.

I usually participate in Lent as a spiritual journey in some form. Many times I choose to abstain from something (e.g., food in some form, regular forms of entertainment) in order to have more space to reach out to God in prayer. Fasting is helpful, I believe, only insofar as we put some other meaningful practice in its place that moves us toward Christ.

Traditional Lenten disciplines are fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. In these three disciplines we can see a movement from abstaining from something (fasting), turning to God (prayer), and putting another discipline in its place (almsgiving).

Joseph Series GFX_4x3 Title

Today also marks the beginning of the “Life of Joseph” Lenten Devotional. I encourage you to join us as we journey through the life of Joseph in our preaching series and through the devotional. 

Read the “Life of Joseph” Devotional in 1 of 5 Formats:

  1. Online—Visit eastbrook.org/josephdevotional each day for the reading, or connect with the online version through Eastbrook’s social media channels.
  2. Daily Email—Sign up for a special email list that will send you each day’s devotional at 4 am each morning. Sign up here.
  3. Mobile App—Download the Eastbrook Church mobile app and use the “Devo” tab to read each day. The devotionals will be published each morning at 4 am.
  4. Printed Book—A limited run of free devotional books are available at Eastbrook Church (5385 N. Green Bay Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53209).
  5. Digital Download—Download the PDF of the book for us with your tablet or to print out at home here.

[This day is traditionally known as Ash Wednesday. For a look at what Ash Wednesday is all about, read “What is it?: Ash Wednesday and Lent?“]

What is our picture of Jesus?

We must examine the picture of Jesus that we have in our minds.

Many times, we have a sentimentalized picture of Jesus. It is a hallmark picture of Jesus that is not reflective of the Jesus of the Gospels. We idealize and romanticize the person and work of Jesus to the point where He is no longer connected with the real world in which we live.

Jesus is the eternal Son of God, but He was also the incarnate Messiah of God. He was a middle-eastern man who did not have a place to lay His head. He walked dusty roads. He ate, He grew tired, and He slept. He spent time with people, both the socially important and the socially unimportant. He loved parties and He loved upsetting peoples’ expectations.

And Jesus loved children. Not just sentimentalized children at their best, but everyday children at their worst and in the worst positions possible.

Jesus went to the blank spaces and invites His people to enter into the blank spaces of children with Him.

God does not need to call us to the comfortable spaces because we naturally go there. God does not need to call us into peace because that is the natural desire of every human heart. But God calls us into the uncomfortable, distressed blank spaces because His love cannot hold back.

I love the words of South African missiologist David Bosch: “Mission has its origin in the heart of God. God is a fountain of sending love. This is the deepest source of mission. It is impossible to penetrate deeper still; there is mission because God loves people.”[1]

So, because of God’s love, we are called into love.

Because God goes, we too must go.

Because God enters into blank spaces, so we too must enter into blank spaces.

[For more on this theme, access my message “God of the Little Ones.”]

—-

[1] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991), 392.