Where there is Sadness, Joy: Meditations on the Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon: Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy.  O divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; To be understood, as to understand; To be loved, as to love; For it is in giving that we receive, It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.

 Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.

II Corinthians 7:10

“…joy and sorrow are inseparable…together they come and when one sits alone with you… remember that the other is asleep upon your bed”

Kahlil Gibran

A propensity to hope and joy is real riches; one to fear and sorrow real poverty.

David Hume

I frequently facilitate debriefings with people who have served for years in some far-flung nation. Some of these people serve in places where life is bleak and hope is limited. Often they share their experiences of friends living with great suffering, poverty and injustice, and they often speak of the sorrow and helplessness they feel.  They share that it’s hard to know what to do with those feelings that overwhelm any positive reflection on their experiences. Often I direct them to look at two yellow rubber ducks I keep on the shelf in my office.  One is clean and new and the other is beaten up, battered and scuffed.  They are my “pair-a-ducks” and they stand for the paradoxical nature of life–a life where joy and sorrow are often intertwined.  As they continue to share from their lives, I help them to see where the paradoxes exist, sadness and joy coexisting.  Two contradictory things being true at the same time.

Henri Nouwen writes, “Joys are hidden in our sorrows!…We keep forgetting this truth and can all top easily become overwhelmed by our own darkness.  We easily loose sight of our joys and speak of our sorrows as if it is the only reality there is.”

I am convinced that if joy cannot exist where sadness exists—two contradictory realities paradoxically existing at the same time—we couldn’t endure the lives we live.

Paul points out the difference between two types of sadness (sorrow) in I Corinthians 7:10; worldly sorrow and Godly sorrow.  I think that worldly sorrow must be sorrow that has no hope in it.  There is no hope that there is a paradoxical reality of joy.  Without hope of joy, sorrow deepens because the person living under it is compelled to manufacture something to make life bearable on their own.

Father Thomas Keating describes this as what begins at infancy as an instinctual need for security/approval, esteem/affection, or power/control and develops, if left unchecked, into fossilized “programs for emotional happiness”.  Many of us relate these instinctual needs and our expectation that they will help us “feel good” to our relationship with God, self, others, and worldview. we can see this right now in our COVID 19 reality where so many people (many who profess faith in a God who is in control) are unable to relinquish their fear which drives them to take control–control of the narrative (“There has to be a conspiracy, this cannot be really happening”), control of their safety (“How dare you not wear a mask!” “How dare you tell me too wear a mask.”) and control of the blame (“This was China’s fault.” “Fauci funded the lab that started this.” “The government is overreaching/not doing enough.”…). All of these boil down to man’s need to control because a world that we cannot master is unbearable to perceive.

How do I find the joy hidden in my own fear, pain or sorrow let alone be an instrument of sowing joy where there is sadness?  If it is instinctual in me to avoid and withdraw from pain and sadness in order to feel some kind of manufactured joy (or at least to feel nothing which is better than pain and sadness), how can I be expected to live any other way?

The answer lies in the very nature of redemption itself.  Keating writes, “The need for redemption is not just an issue of getting to heaven, but of God’s intent to radically heal us at the very roots of where it began.”  Namely, in the programs for happiness that still manifest themselves in daily life and unconsciously influence our decisions throughout life, unless we take the spiritual journey to begin working on these issues.”

It is not about arriving to the place of our healing, where sadness magically falls away and joy replaces it.  It is about the journey and process of life.  That is where we become healed.  Nouwen describes it as learning to “look at our cup” before drinking it.

“We need to remind each other that the cup of sorrow is also the cup of joy, that precisely what causes us sadness can become the fertile ground for gladness.  Indeed, we need to be angels for each other, to give each other strength and consolation.  Because only when we fully realize that the cup of life is not only a cup of sorrow, but also a cup of joy will we be able to drink it.”

So Paul’s worldly sorrow sees our own instinctual programs for happiness as the only way out.  Choosing this option leads us on an endless cycle of hopelessness.  But Godly sorrow is the path that, if reflected on and “drunk” will lead us on a journey of healing and redemption because it leads us to the place where the loving embrace of Christ meets our own inadequacy to find true joy on our own strength.

Reflection is essential for growth and healing.  Recognizing the joy that God Himself is present in our sadness comes about only through a willingness to face the sadness and even enter into it.  When we avoid it or self-medicate ourselves through busyness, substances, or inaction so that we don’t have to face it, we will only find ourselves in a deeper state of sadness than when we began.

This is why lament is such an important practice. Over and over again, we read the Psalmist express deep sorrow at some injustice or loss, tell God how he would want to see it change, but then find hope and joy and peace knowing that his pain is now in the hands of The Advocate, The Provider, The Healer. A complaint turns into a praise. Joy is found intertwined in the sadness.

Lord, make me an instrument of joy in a world that experiences so much sadness.  Give me the strength to face my own sadness for what it is and to embrace the Cup of Life that you have given me, drinking it to the dregs.  For it is in drinking my own cup that I can accompany others to lift and drink of their cups full of both the sorrows and joys of life.

Where there is darkness, light: Meditations on the Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon: Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy.  O divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; To be understood, as to understand; To be loved, as to love; For it is in giving that we receive, It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.

And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.

-Isaiah 58:10

Physical darkness, blindness, robs one of seeing the vibrancy of color, the majesty of creation and the visual diversity in the faces of the billions of people on this earth.

This physical darkness, which is a loss of the sense of sight, often results in the sharpening of the other senses.  Blindness is tragic to the one who cannot see.  However, there are times when one who is blind has overcome a total experience of darkness through developing their sense of touch and hearing.

What might be equally tragic as the blindness of the eyes might be the blindness of the spirit.  There is no overcompensating in another sense that can even begin to overcome this kind of darkness.

In our society, science and reason have left us insensitive and blind to the message of creation and the life and love that we receive from our Creator.  We have become blind to the mystery of what is most real by placing emotion, feeling and gentleness under suspicion for impeding the objective pursuit of reality.

Economics have become dichotomized from politics, and politics from ethics and ethics from spirituality.  The result is a lack of concern and care for the created order.  Our earth is being devastated in the search for energy and in our over-consumption.  More of mankind is living at or below survival level in conditions that should be appalling to us as an affront to human dignity.  We should be ethically indignant at the growing gap between the wealthy of our world and the poor.

But we are not.  Well, maybe not all of us.  Perhaps a few of us are indignant enough to say something.  But the devastating effect of the darkness of the spirit that our world is under is, at times, overwhelming to the point that it is hard to know if we make any difference at all.

As if this was not enough to make us feel we are being enveloped in darkness, there is an even deeper darkness of the spirit.  There is a darkness that does not grasp the other world that exists with our world—the “sacred thread that unifies and re-unifies, preventing the part from capturing the dynamic whole which is harmonious and full of meaning” (Boff, 2001).  This subtle thread that binds and re-connects is God.

Spiritual blindness prevents us from attending to the inner voice of God speaking to our conscience.  It prevents us from seeing the poor and marginalized of the world as a challenge to those who believe in Christ to be His hands and feet in incarnating the resurrection.  Spiritual blindness gives us the feeling that we are directionless and lost; that we don’t know our own identity or why we are here in the first place.

Sowing light has to be more than just doing good.  Even if the good being done is for the most vulnerable of the world’s poor.  It has to mean embodiment of the True Light who is Jesus Christ.  The song I used to sing in Sunday School—This little light of mine/I’m going to let it shine… takes on a new meaning for me today.  The good we do, the good I do must come from that light.  It must come from a regenerated attitude that is imbued with kindness and compassion and able to cast a different light on open wounds.  It means choosing forgiveness over being justified and gratitude and worship in the midst of suffering.

Lord, Make me an instrument of your light in a world of physical and spiritual darkness.  Let me live in the now as if your kingdom has already come with an attitude that is generative and reflective of The Resurrection.  Let me introduce into the darkness a living experience of the Light that reshapes the meaning of life and recreates the promise of eternity.

Where there is despair, hope: Meditations on the Prayer of St Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon: Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy.  O divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; To be understood, as to understand; To be loved, as to love; For it is in giving that we receive, It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.

Seed will sprout in the scar.  Though death is in the healing, it will heal.

-Wendell Berry

You have to trust that your experience of emptiness is not the final experience, that beyond it is a place where you are being held in love.

-Henri Nouwen

A dear friend once told a story about driving through a South African township in the days of Apartheid.  She said the hopelessness in the faces of the people was almost as bleak as the squalid backdrop of the township.  The despair around her was about to overwhelm her when she saw a little flash of white flowers growing in the median of the highway down which she was traveling.  That little patch of beauty surviving in the midst of bareness was a lasting symbol of hope to her.

The staff members serving in the Word Made Flesh communities around the world live in some of the most despairing places on the globe.  They are friends with women sold into brothels, mentors to former child-soldiers, caretakers for the dying, and foster-parents for abandoned and abused children.  Sometimes the despair is so deep, it feels like we are about to be consumed by it.

I remember being led in this prayer by two nuns from the Missionaries of Charity. We prayed “Lord make me an instrument…” together each morning before serving a group of elderly Nepali men and women left to die by the sacred Baghmati River in Kathmandu.  The depth of their commitment to serve and the contentment they expressed was a bright light in a very dark place.

My instinct for survival—to avoid pain—tempts me to run away from the despair of this world—even the despair of those I love.  I want to withdraw and find something, someone, someplace that will shield me from their pain and bring me comfort.  To remain in the place of despair is to not only be confronted with the great pain of the world, but to also come face to face with my own wounds and my powerlessness to heal.

I am learning that the comfort that comes from avoidance is false comfort indeed.  It focuses only on the self and though it may allow a temporary easing of my own suffering, it is void of any life that is meaningful.  The image of a little white flower sprouting in the scarred, torn mud of a polluted township offers a practical image of hope that brings true comfort and defies the false, temporary easing of pain.  Like the little white flowers growing in that mud, we are called to be visible signs of hope.  God wants to plant us, like seeds, in the scarred landscape of human despair.

A seed, however, only flourishes when it remains in the ground where it was sown.  We can tear ourselves from the places God plants us but we will live false, temporal lives focused on self—void and lifeless.  Though the mud may be scarred and torn, the soil beneath contains all we need to grow and bloom.  The new life that sprouts will not obliterate the surrounding despair.  In fact, the suffering of the world likely will mark and even wound us. The marks may be visible for a lifetime.  Truly the comfort of God that gives us hope in a world of despair is costly.  It comes at the cost of death.  Not only the death inherent in a suffering world but also in what must die within us in order that our hearts are opened up to the new life and the hope that results.  “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).

Lord, make me an instrument of hope.  Plant me in wherever you will that I may be a visible sign of the new life you have given me and that you desire to share to a hopeless world through me.

Where there is doubt, faith: Meditations on the Prayer of St. Francis

“Those who demand guarantees from God show that they have no understanding of God”

-Gustavo Gutierrez

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon: Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy.  O divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; To be understood, as to understand; To be loved, as to love; For it is in giving that we receive, It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.

In our postmodern society, we have become disillusioned by the previous generations that promised us the world is getting better.  We have lost our faith in leaders who spoke of the possibility of political, social or economic utopia.  Clearly the were wrong.  The claims of freedom and peace through the implementation of democracy has not brought much hope to the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, the former USSR and many other nations who in shedding the bondage of Communism or dictatorship have only found themselves in bondage to chaos and the unleashing of pent up racial and ethnic hostility.  And the free market has not turned out to be the cornucopia it was supposed to be.  The poor are getting poorer while the few rich are becoming richer.  The gap is only widening.  How is any of this better (except for the few rich)?

And the church with all its promises, society in general has become disillusioned with it as well.  Our priests and pastors were supposed to be safe people for our children to learn from, but a few have turned out to be monsters that prey on their vulnerability while others protect them—not the victims.  They promised us they were people of integrity and yet the number of scandals cast a dark shadow over any claims they make.  The church is supposed to be a place of love and grace and yet we see countless examples of the abuse of power, judgment, condemnation and parochialism.  It has often become more of a place of exclusion than one of embrace.

The world is not a better place now than it was a hundred years ago, or two thousand years ago.  We have medical and technological advances that are astounding.  Nevertheless, the majority of the world’s population lives on less than two dollars a day.  Where has God been?  Where was He when the tsunami devastated the coastlines of Indonesia and South Asia and killed nearly 250,000 people in 2004?  Where was He in 1994 when Rwandan Hutus hacked a million Tutsis to death?   Where is He now when little girls are bought and sold as sex slaves in the open streets of Asia’s cities—and in our own cities as well?  It would seem to some that God has been absent.  Didn’t He also promise never to leave us or forsake us?  The doubt seems to have plenty to nurture it.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…  Where there is doubt, faith.”  How can I be an instrument of faith in this deepening context of doubt?

For me, it has to start with my understanding of who God is.  The first question of the Heidelburg Catechism forces me to accept my human condition before God: “What is the only comfort in life and death?”  The comfort Chris has to offer is not in removing pain or eliminating suffering.  It is in first calling me to look death face on.  We are held in the will of a completely attentive God who calls us to life.  He calls us to life not by avoiding pain and death, but by preparing us to pass through it, and the suffering that comes before it, with full confidence of who we are in him.

The doubt comes when God does not fit into the paradigm I have created for him.  When he hasn’t made the world better, I doubt.  When he hasn’t intervened in recent tragedies, I doubt.  The problem is not God; it’s my paradigm of God.  I am afraid to face death and the human condition of suffering that precedes it.  So I want a God that removes it.  Comfort for me would look like eliminating the pain, not being present with me as I pass through it.

Suffering and pain, however, could be our greatest opportunity for faith. according to attachment theory, of we receive comfort as children when we experience pain, we are more likely to be open and honest with our emotions and share them freely. learning to lament our suffering and the suffering we see in the world around us is a way to share our emotions with God much like we see in the laments of Psalms. By laying every emotion and every experience at the feet of God, his God who make a covenant with his people, the psalmist reinforced a bond of intimacy, affirming healthy attachment. Just as God made covenant with Abraham by the breaking apart of animals, so to, through the Psalms of lament, Israel embodied the bond of the covenant by breaking open their hearts before God. The God who speaks calls us into relationship.

But isn’t lament just another word for complaining? Actually, a lament, properly done, is a form of praise. Old Testament scholars estimate that two-thirds of the psalms are laments. Yet the title of the compilation is “praises” (Hebrew tehillim). How could a collection which includes so many complaints be considered praise?

It’s helpful to define our terms. We tend to use the words lament and complaint interchangeably. But in the Scripture, complaint and lament occur in different contexts and can be distinguished as explaining different ideas. One of the clearest examples of complaining can be found in Exodus 16 and 17 when Israel complained to God about the lack of bread and meat and water. They assumed the worst about God: He wants to kill us! The people who had been dramatically rescued from Egypt and saved through the Red Sea turned on their Rescuer, painting Him as the bad guy. Their complaints were actually a way of putting God on trial; they were “testing” God. But in the psalms, Israel asks God to answer according to His unfailing love, because He is a God of justice and righteousness, and because He has been faithful in the past. By contrasting Israel in the wilderness with Israel in worship, we can say that a complaint is an accusation against God that maligns His character, but a lament is an appeal to God based on confidence in His character. This is how we can define a lament as praise. It is recognizing who God is and bringing our unique situations of loss and pain into the light of His character and faithfulness.

Lord, as I pray “Make me an instrument of faith in a world of doubt”, give me the courage to die to my false paradigms of who you are and put my faith in Your unfailing love, the God that calls me to life by preparing me for and accompanying me through life’s suffering and even death.

Where there is Hatred, Let me Sow Love: Meditations on the Prayer or St Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon: Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy.  O divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; To be understood, as to understand; To be loved, as to love; For it is in giving that we receive, It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.

“The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred.  It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work.”

-Oscar Romero

We have little tolerance for those who illicitly take from us, who victimize those whom we love and whom we desire to thrive.  Those who use power or authority to cause harm or perpetuate injustice may seem worthy of hatred.  Some of our friends working in the red-light districts come face to face with those who seem “worthy of hatred” every day;  men who use their power to take advantage of women—even young girls.  Then there are the madams who perpetuate the cycle of dehumanizing abuse.  Both illicitly take what is not theirs over and over again.

We also seem to have little tolerance for those who are different from us.  In one city where I used to live, there are clearly demarcated areas that divide Hispanic, African American and White communities.  When explaining where I live (a predominantly African American part of the city) to others, the reply I often received was, “Why would you choose to live there?” Or, “I would hate to live there.”

It seems to me that the goal of sin in our world is aimed at reconfiguring the very nature of God’s created order.  The only aspect of God’s creation that he said was not good was that Adam was alone.  I was created to be in relationship with others, not enemies of anyone.  This is the very nature of God who, Himself, exists as a community of three.

If this is true, then hatred of any kind for another person plays into sin’s goal of reconfiguring the nature of God’s created order; an order which is not just a set of rules but is actually a reflection of His own character and nature.

Matthew 5:44 tells us to be like God in loving our enemies.  To live well as a human being is to love in synchronization with the character of God and in how He has acted.  I love to think of God as an infinitely generous source of all good things but I easily forget the part where I am also created in His image.  I become the recipient of the gift of God’s loving embrace only when I do not resist being made into an agent of His love.  “What happens to us must be done by us.  Having been embraced by God, we must make space for others and invite them in—even our enemies” (Volf, 1996).  To resist this is to exclude myself from it; “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar…” (I John 4:20).

Hatred is more than animosity toward another. It is also indifference. Hatred is not the opposite of love, it is the absence of it. Anything that resists the embrace of God even passively, perpetuates sin’s goal of reconfiguring God’s created order.

Hatred multiplies evil.  It rejects the nature of the Creator in whose image we are created.  Choosing to sow love mirrors the generosity, indeed the very nature of God whose goal is neither to satisfy injured pride or reward the good and punish the wrong.  His goal is to free his beloved people from sin and re-establish communion with His creation.

God, grant that I may sow seeds of love today. Let me take steps that live out and practice the future reality of your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Where there is injury, pardon: Meditations on the Prayer of St Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon: Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy.  O divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; To be understood, as to understand; To be loved, as to love; For it is in giving that we receive, It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.

“Forgiveness itself is a form of suffering; when I forgive I have not only suffered a violation but also suppressed the rightful claims of strict restitutive justice.”

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“The Heart of forgiveness is a genuine release of a genuine debt.”

–Miroslav Volf

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your sins.

–Mark 11:25-26 25

Owning up to my wrongdoing is hard to do without also rationalizing what I have done, justifying it or attacking and dragging the one I am “apologizing” to into my own sinfulness by pointing out their own wrongdoing.  It’s not just that I don’t like to be wrong, but also that I can so clearly see that the other person is not completely innocent either.  With ease, I admit wrongdoing, justify myself and attack all in one breath.  “I’m sorry I said that unkind thing to you, but when you…”  Clearly, repentance is not something that comes easy.

But is forgiveness any easier?  Let me be honest, regardless of my anger and desire for revenge, when I am the victim of a wrong (at least something I perceive as a wrong) forgiveness is an outrage against my sense of justice, the belief that there is a delineation between right and wrong.  The perpetrator of the wrong done against me deserves not to be forgiven.  That person owes me something; a debt that needs repayment.

The problem with this demand of debt-repayment (unforgiveness) is that it enslaves me.  I remain the slave of the wrong done to me until the perpetrator of that wrong makes it right or until I exact payment (revenge) from the perpetrator.

The predicament we find ourselves in is that our deeds and their consequences cannot be undone.  The harsh word spoken in anger that left me devastated cannot be taken back.  The wound is irreversible and so easily becomes infected and torn open again and again.  Even our omniscient God cannot undo the wounds we inflict on one another.  And so I am enslaved by the wrong done to me until the one who did it pays me what is owed or until I can take back on my own what is owed me.  I become enmeshed in a cycle of violence that feeds revenge and revenge feeds further violence.  The only true way out of this predicament is through forgiveness.

The apostle Paul was very clear in his letter to the church in Corinth that simple justice is not the answer when we are wronged by another (1 Corinthians 6:7).  He objected to the believers’ pursuing justice in a court of law.  Not only was he disturbed that they weren’t able to settle their disputes by themselves within community, he was also troubled by something more basic.  “In fact,” he wrote, “to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you”.  To be defeated in a dispute involving injustice, we normally think, is to be pronounced guilty.  For the apostle Paul, to be defeated was to bring the case before the court in the first place, to even attempt to deal with it according to the principal “measure for measure” (Volf, 2005).  When we forgive, we forgo the demands for retribution which ties our treatment of offenders to the character of their deeds (an eye for an eye).

How is this just?  Do not the guilty deserve punishment?  They do, indeed, we all do.  But this is the scandalous nature of forgiveness.  Christ took all the punishment for our sins upon himself.  There is no longer a place for punishment (I make a distinction between punishment and the consequences that occur because of our actions).  Punishment for the offender replaces forgiveness and removes the need for forgiveness.  It pays back the debt that is owed.  That is not forgiveness because it removes the reason for it.  Punishment cannot supplement forgiveness.  The heart of forgiveness is relinquishing retribution—giving up the claim that you owe me something.

To forgive also means to release the wrongdoer not just from punishment but also from guilt.  Christ not only bore our punishment; Christ also separated us from our sin and released us from guilt.  Its burden no longer rests on our shoulders.

God’s forgiveness is indiscriminate.  The person who cut me off in traffic and the Rwandan who committed genocide are equally atoned for.  That is the bedrock of our faith.  The scandalousness of God’s indiscriminate forgiveness is that we are called to imitate it.  When we are called to forgive, most of us probably feel entitled, at least unconsciously, to draw a circle around the scope of it—I will forgive this much, but…  we should forgive some, maybe even most, wrongdoings, but certainly not all.

I must consider once again God’s indiscriminate forgiveness which serves as our model of forgiveness: Colossians 3:13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. where there is injury, no matter how great or small, may I be an instrument o your divine, scandalous, indiscriminate  and complete pardon.

Lord, Make Me an Instrument: Meditations on the Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon: Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; Where there is sadness, joy.  O divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; To be understood, as to understand; To be loved, as to love; For it is in giving that we receive, It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Amen.

Lord make me an instrument of your peace…

“Most people think of peace as a state of Nothing Bad Happening, or Nothing Much Happening.  Yet if peace is to overtake us and make us the gift of serenity and well-being, it will have to be the state of Something Good Happening.”

-E. B. White

My personality type has been described as “The Peacemaker”.  It is also described as having the tendency to ignore the disturbing aspects of life and to seek out some degree of peace and comfort (Riso & Hudson, 1999).  When in an unhealthy state, my personality type responds to pain and suffering by attempting to live in a state of gross denial, spending energy on avoiding or deadening inner and outer conflicts and suppressing strong feelings.

I have the capacity to be a peacemaker.  To accept others without prejudice, to make others feel understood and accepted.  I have the ability to be unbiased in arbitrating conflict and see and appreciate the positive aspects in both sides of a dispute.  At my best, I can express difficult truths calmly so that it is easy for people to accept.  But it is a choice I must make.

I also have the capacity to be a peacekeeper.  In moments of conflict, I can stay out of the way and preserve “harmony”.  I can tend to be overly accommodating out of a fear that I will loose the connection I have with people if I don’t.  I can say “yes” to things I don’t really want to do to avoid disagreements and conflict.  I can be a master at avoidance and passivity.

In calling on the Lord to make me an instrument of His peace, I am not asking Him to help me continue to be a nice guy and not make waves.  I am not asking Him to empower me to avoid conflict and loose my own needs and desires by accommodating those of others.  This is not what His peace looks like.  The Lords peace in our present world would look like an end of conflict and discrimination; a world where justice prevails and people understood one another.  This kind of reality cannot come about in part or in full by avoiding conflict and remaining passive.  It must be active and intentional to address wrongs.

It is said about my personality type that most of us will not change the world because we prefer the path of least resistance and are afraid of making decisions and taking on important responsibilities.  Many people like me are too busy keeping the peace to be peacemakers in a world that desperately needs them.  Just thinking about that makes something rise up in me and want to prove it wrong. I do not want to play any part in a passive response to the issues that divide us and keep us from experiencing the true Peace of God.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, not mine.

The Temptation

We are meditating this morning on the passage in Luke 4 of the temptation of Jesus. One of the thoughts that struck me is that one of the greatest temptations we face is power over other people. This temptation will always lead us to assume roles that we were never intended by God to hold even with the best of intentions. 

The temptations Jesus faced (or rather how he faced them) were all about Jesus defining how he was going to be Israel’s true king. The temptation was: do what you need to do to achieve what you need to achieve. The end justifies the means. 

As I interact with many broken people (and even reflect on much of my own brokenness) I see in them the effects of so many well intentioned leaders who have bought into the lie that Jesus was offered-“You were promised the throne and the nation’s-there is another, more expedient, more practical way…” The way Jesus chose was humility, service…, death. It was a path of suffering, difficulty and sacrifice. It wasn’t to use his authority and power for cheap stunts and shows of prestige, it was to restore life and strengthen others. 

Many strong, godly, visionary leaders have succumbed to the lie that the end, if it’s a God-given end, actually can justify the means. I have come to believe, however, that the only person I can expect to die to him/herself take up his/her cross and follow Jesus is myself. While others may join in, it is their surrender to Jesus that enables them to do so. No leader should sacrifice someone else on the alter of the vision God has given to them. 

The expediency and urgency of achieving a vision or goal or strategy at the expense or neglect of those who commit to joining with a leader to see it reached is one of the most devastating failures of leadership I have experienced as a counselor. Sadly it is rarely the intention of most leaders. Nevertheless it seems to be a common blind spot. 

What we learn from Jesus’ example in the temptations is that the path he chose to become Israel’s true king is just as important as being king. The path he chose to liberate his people and the world is equally important to our liberation as the freedom itself. It is how we are to walk out being his hands and feet in bringing his freedom to the world. Humility over power and authority; self sacrifice over self promotion; deferring honor to others rather than expecting to be honored; empowerment over using others. These are just a few examples of how Jesus teaches us to lead and how to follow. 

Jesus turned away from the mass demonstration of his power and authority and instead engaged at the lowest levels of society bringing healing, restoring life, and breaking bonds at the messiest, most intimate level-peoples brokenness. This is how he became king.

I’m faced with the question this morning, in my nine’s heart’s desire to be seen and known for having something of value to offer, to not be invisible, can I shine the spotlight on others instead and highlight their contributions? Even if it means I get no credit? Can my three-friends embrace, this morning, the truth that how they achieve their goals is just as important to God-if not more so-as the goal itself? 

There is a question in the story of Jesus temptations for each of us that drives to the very heart of our compulsive selves and asks us to be courageous enough to challenge how we obey not just our willingness to be obedient. 

Maybe We All Need Marriage Counseling…

I do a lot of marriage counseling both as a pastor and as a clinical professional. Couples come in with histories a mile long of misunderstandings, invalidations, and either thinly veiled or explicit insults. By the time they sit down in my office, they are often hunkered down behind nearly impenetrable defensive walls built up over years of cyclical hurt.

What is common in a majority of these couples is that 1). neither usually wants ill for the other person but, 2). both usually perceives that the other has ill intent for them. Another component that usually accompanies these couples is that both desperately want to be understood and validated by the other.

What I find myself doing is taking on the role of teacher and coach. I teach new methods of listening and speaking that slowly begin to break down the impenetrable defenses. And, as they practice these new methods, I coach them and help them identify how and where old patterns of listening and speaking are still hindering their progress.

I attempt to teach the couple to stop listening to themselves when the other is talking—listening to how the other is making them feel, listening to what they disagree with so that they can argue their position, listening for the pause so they can break in and make their point. Instead of listening to themselves, I try to teach them to listen—actually listen to the other person. It is not to necessarily agree, but to understand.

And, I work with them in how they speak to each other. I help them see how they assumptively draw conclusions by mind reading (“I know you don’t care about me but could you just show a little interest in something that I like?”), shut down the other person’s sharing their heart instead of hearing them out (“Oh, no no no! That’s not want I meant by that. You misunderstood me…”), or making the other person feel belittled or invalidated by having to be right (“Your feelings are wrong and here are seven biblical reasons why you shouldn’t feel that way…”).

What I find is that the more couples try to understand each other (vs. try to be understood), the more their love grows for each other and the easier it is for them to resolve conflicts. It becomes easier for them to believe that the other has their best interests at heart and aren’t just needing to be right at their expense, invalidated, or that their point of view or even feelings on a matter are somehow worth less than the other’s. This kind of communication builds strong marriages.

In this political cycle, we in the church need to spend a little time in the proverbial counseling chair before launching our next assault on one of our brothers or sisters who might be sharing their point of view. We don’t have to agree with their perspective but we might find we have a lot more in common with his our her perspective than we think if we take the time to listen to one another before reacting or drawing conclusions about what they are saying. Are we asking the right questions before hitting our own “launch” button to make sure we understand what they are saying or are we just taking shots at them? And even where we do disagree, how are we doing it? Do we implicitly or explicitly belittle their intelligence or try to publically invalidate them while maintaining the “moral high ground”?

In the last weeks remaining before the elections, lets commit to Jesus’ aspiration to the Father that the world would know us by our love—not by which side of the isle we stand on. I’m speaking to myself as much as I am to anyone else reading this. Lets try to listen to one another better and care for each other’s hearts in how we speak to each other. If we cannot be as responsible in formulating our opinions as we are in communicating them, then maybe its better that we don’t say anything at all. I am not saying we shouldn’t share our political perspectives and discuss them openly with others. I welcome healthy dialogue (In fact, I think political diversity within the church makes us stronger). Lets just commit to doing it right and continue being the church that Jesus wanted us to be instead of putting that on pause until we get through the elections.

A Pro-Life Vote That Can Count

Though this post is about the upcoming November election, it is not about Trump or Hillary, Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals.

It is about life. Before anyone begins to question my position, let me be clear, I am unequivocally pro-life. This post, though it is about life, it is not about abortion or the rights of the unborn child. The foundations of my belief on life go far beyond the argument of when life begins. It goes to the character and nature of the Source of Life. From what I have come to understand about God, His revelation, and what I find consistently in His Word, I am pro-life. What might set me apart from others who also call themselves pro-life is the breadth of perspective I take on life. For me, life is not a stance on the issue of abortion. It is an ethic; a consistent and comprehensive ethic of life.

Abortion is indeed an egregious affront to the sanctity of life and a marring of the very image of God. But even this issue is much more complex and nuanced than it seems on the surface. Going beyond the deplorable act itself leads to a twisted, convoluted labyrinth of factors that must also be addressed. Just to scratch the surface, a comprehensive ethic of life insists that in regard to the issue of abortion alone, we as the Church must also be wiling to address things like access to viable alternatives to abortion, availability to birth control (controversial I know but a much better alternative to abortion and a stop-gap to necessary but longer term solutions like discipleship, mentoring, and community-wide transformation). The Church must also be willing to beyond the protest lines outside of clinics and the punch lines on Facebook and address issues like adoption and finding meaningful ways to empower and support unwed mothers. We must be willing to engage in community transformation within lower income neighborhoods where a majority of babies who would be born if they weren’t aborted would live. If we are to insist that babies live (which we should do), we must be equally passionate about ensuring they have access to safe, life-giving environments free from violence and neglect. As His standard bearers, we must be willing to engage the socio-economic systems to break cycles of poverty that mar the image of the God of Life. We must engage the judicial and legislative systems that would make and uphold laws that distort God’s image in His creation. We must become salt and light within communities that are broken by unjust systems and bear witness to the love and grace of Jesus while looking for opportunities to empower change that reflects His Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven. This is some of what being pro-life means just as it pertains to the issue of abortion.

But, as I said, this post is not about abortion. As I noted in the beginning, we are coming up to an election. Here in Nebraska, voters are being given the opportunity to choose whether or not to uphold the current ban on the death penalty. A consistent and comprehensive ethic of life makes the death penalty a pro-life issue. You really cannot reconcile being pro-life on abortion and pro-death on the death penalty. Almost all the early Christian Fathers were opposed to the death penalty, even though it was standard practice across the ancient world. As far as they were concerned, their stance went along with the traditional ancient Jewish and Christian belief in life as a gift from God. Mind you, there is, in my view, just as illogical a position on the part of those who solidly oppose the death penalty but are very keen on the ‘right’ of a woman to kill their unborn child.

First, as mentioned above, the death penalty is inconsistent with the belief that life is sacred. Pro-life as an ethic promotes the belief that each life has been created in the image of God and that God is attached to each life in love. No matter who we are—how underdeveloped, incapacitated, unproductive or conversely, how brilliant, diligent or productive—we all have equal dignity before God and equal worth. That belief holds true to the new child in the mother’s womb, for those who are dying in a hospice, and for everyone in between. It is true that the most vulnerable among us—the unborn, the poor, the nationless, those being shelled out of their homes—require special attention, but this should not obscure the basic conviction that all have equal dignity before God.

Is there a point, however, where someone, due to his or her choices toward evil, forfeit that love of God? I would have a hard time trying to defend that based on the biblical narrative. Even in the midst of evil, life is and always has been the agenda of God culminating in eternal life. Ending a life does not end the problem. In fact, it thwarts God’s agenda.

And it is God’s agenda of life that brings me to the second point. The death penalty is the most egregious form of failing to live up to the Christian view of justice. Capital punishment offers us one version of justice. There is a sensibility to it: evil should not go without consequence. And there is a theology behind it as well: “An eye for an eye…a tooth for a tooth.”

Yet grace offers us another version of justice that is more consistent with the agenda of God. Grace makes room for redemption. Grace offers us a vision for justice that is restorative and dedicated to the healing of the wounds of injustice. Grace, however, is hard work. It takes faith. It dares us to believe that not only can victims be healed, but so can its victimizers. It is not always easy to believe that love is more powerful than hate, life more powerful than death, and that people can be better than the worst thing they have done. But if our starting point is that all are image bearers of the God of Life then it becomes easier to believe in and hope for this possibility.

These two versions of justice compete for our allegiance. One leads to death. The other can lead to life, and to healing and a redemptive future that holds possibilities for God’s kingdom to come to earth as it is in heaven.

When we kill to show that killing is wrong, we reinforce the very thing we want to bring to an end. If the cure is equally bad as the disease is it a cure at all? Death closes the door to any possibility for redemption. Grace opens the door to the possible.

Lastly, our view of Scripture needs a second look. The traditional defense for the death penalty is built on an interpretation of the Bible. In our nation, some of the firmest upholders of the death penalty have used Scripture to support their beliefs. In the last 38 years, over 85% of state executions have occurred in the Bible Belt. Much of the justification for the death penalty comes from deeply held beliefs in what the Bible says.

Death itself was a consequence of original sin in the garden. Death was not a part of Gods original plan. In our obsession with original sin we forget that in the beginning, there was original innocence—before sin and death there was life. God is the author of life, the one who breathed it into lifeless soil.

A summary of fall that we usually give goes as follows: there was perfection in the garden. There was intimacy with God. Sin entered in and changed everything-the end. While this is absolutely true, are we emphasizing the right points? How about this for an alternative: God made life. Sin entered the world. Death is the fruit of sin. God has a different plan. God is and always has been on the side of life.

Even after the first homicide, God does not execute Cain. In fact, after judging the murder, God protects Cain, denying blood vengeance to others. God’s answer to the first ever murder was neither a lenient excusing of Cain’s actions, nor a “law and order” insistence that he be executed. God acted to punish in order that Cain would seek redemption-restorative justice rather than retributive justice. Should not the people of God act similarly in seeking to address violent crime and violent offenders?

If God’s most perfect will were for everyone who kills to be killed, God would have wanted Moses executed. In Exodus 2:1-12 we see Moses deliberately murdering the Egyptian—a sure case for execution. Yet, in a face-to-face encounter with God, the furtive murderer becomes God’s agent for Israel’s redemption—the human agent in the liberation and creation of God’s covenant people.

Then there is the “ man after God’s own heart” who broke almost all of the Ten Commandments. David lied, coveted, lusted, committed adultery, and committed murder. The fact that he did what he did with Bathsheba and Uriah while already having several wives and numerous concubines adds to the fact that our “man after God’s heart” was what we would call today a lecherous womanizer. Yet no biblical character so captivates the messianic hope of Israel. We see through the prophet Nathaniel that David was confronted with His crime, and even led to pronounce sentence on himself (“The man deserves to die”). But rather than be killed, He is restored. The consequences of David’s sin are not annulled, but God allows David to continue to be His instrument of leadership to His covenant people.

These illustrations aside, there are biblical passages that seem to confirm the position that the death penalty is “biblical” for murder (Exodus 21:12). These passages, however, also list a number of other capital crimes that do not get the same attention in our culture: adultery (Deuteronomy 22:22-24), rape (Deuteronomy 22:25), fornication (Deuteronomy 22:13-21), cursing one’s parents (Exodus. 21:17), incest (Leviticus 20:11-12) rebellion in a son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), or working on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15). If we were to try to justify the death penalty simply on the argument that it is Biblical, then we have to take a second look at our stance on a number of other issues that the Bible also labeled legitimate capital crimes.

If the Hebrew people were held to this degree of penal retribution, there wouldn’t have been many of them left. Therefore there must be an alternative way to understand the inclusion of the death penalty in the Old Testament other than as a roadmap for our current criminal justice system.

People who want to retain the death penalty often quote the rule “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” as a primary justification (Exodus 21:22-25). In summary, this teaching seeks to satisfy the sense that punishment be appropriate and proportional to the crime, and is not means as a literal repetition of the crime. There is no command to lie to a liar, rape a rapist, or steal from a thief. That level of consistency would be gruesome and absurd. And yet, that is how we use this passage as it pertains to retaining the death penalty in our country. This Talmudic law is not a demand to force symmetrical justice on judges who would otherwise be inclined to grant an overly merciful sentence, but rather it limits the escalating vengeance cycles. It was an important legal reform at a time when vengeance killings and tribal retributions were commonplace. It was a law intended to thwart escalating violence.

The Christian community has used the Hebrew scriptures to execute people with more passion, conviction and frequency than the Jews ever did. The Talmudic rabbis made it virtually impossible with strict legal requirements to warrant an execution. Even though there were plenty of stoning-worthy crimes, there were not many executions over the centuries. The Hebrew leaders were so well versed in God’s agenda—of the dignity and sanctity of life—that they were loath to enact an execution. Yahweh’s agenda for life was so much a part of their understanding of who God is and what He required of His people that they took life very seriously.

A comprehensive ethic of life makes us ask the compelling question; “How do we deal with evil without becoming evil ourselves?” If we can understand death itself as the evil thing we are addressing and not how it is carried out, or by whom it is carried out on, everything changes. God hates sin because He loves people and sin destroys us. The biblical narrative that we need to be reading is not that God wants us to get what we deserve. It is about God providing a means of stopping the cycle of destruction that we brought upon ourselves. God is concerned with preserving life, not ending it. The author of life is on the side of life. and I firmly believe that we must be as well.

And so, I encourage each of my fellow Nebraskans to carefully and prayerfully consider the way you choose to treat Referendum 426—our opportunity to retain the existing ban on the death penalty. It is not every day that we have such a present and tangible way to vote on a pro-life issue.