Oh Deer!

When the sword of vengeance is unsheathed, blade and handle become infected, ultimately destroying those at both ends.

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Recently a reporter interviewed a lady hiker who happened upon an unusual sight in the woods; two deer, antlers locked, one with a broken neck, both dead. After the forestry department investigated, first believing poachers to be responsible, it was determined these two deer got into a fight. Both decided to kill the other; one was finally successful in breaking the other deer’s neck. Yet, because their antlers were locked, after a long and drawn-out skirmish, the “victorious” deer was unable to free himself, thus forced to succumb to the same fate as his opponent. Even though both deer fought their best, there was no winner.

At the age of 28, I accepted my first pastorate, a small church in North Carolina. Very early on, I was faced with two congregational members that had been bickering for years, with outbursts that increased in both frequency and severity. Because of my inexperience, attempts to reconcile these two proved to be in vain. After one particularly vocal conflict during the Sunday School hour between these two women, the deacon’s chairman had enough and gathered them together in one of the small classrooms. After telling them that their bickering was hurting them both and affecting the congregation, he told them they would not be allowed out of that room until they could apologize to each other, confess their sins to God, and move forward in grace. He then stepped into the hall, closed and locked the door, and watching through the window; he waited for them to reconcile. After the Sunday School hour was over, I made my way to the sanctuary and found this man outside the door. Once he brought me up to speed, I asked him to let them out, especially since one of them was our pianist, the other our choir director, and the church service was about to start! The chairman held his ground, and I nervously made my way to the sanctuary. Just a few minutes after I welcomed everyone to the service, the side door to the sanctuary opened up, and in came that chairman followed by the two ladies, each taking their positions, and the service began. It turns out, the unorthodox approach by the chairman of the deacons was just the wake-up call these two ladies needed as they both repented to God and reconciled with each other. The remainder of my tenure there was marked with love and unity. 

I am now in my 50’s, and while I celebrate victories like that, I must say they are rare; generally, feuds between people are taken to the grave. Two people, antlers locked, doing everything they can to have the last word and make the winning point. Even if one can pull off a victory by silencing their opponent, success remains elusive, with guilt, shame, and bitterness being the only trophies on display. The Bible is very clear on this topic; when Christians argue amongst each other, the watching world; desperately searching for hope, walks away unchanged with Christians now being the excuse they use not to attend church at best or reject Christ at worst (Proverbs 18:13, Titus 2:7-8, Hebrews 12:14).

Scripture: “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.” -II Timothy 2:14, ESV

Question: Is there someone in your life standing as a reminder of an open argument? Would you be willing to be the biblical model in that relationship to make things right?

Prayer: Father, I struggle with being “right” in a situation yet remaining silent. Please help me to sacrifice my “right to be right” on your altar of love for the sake of unity that the message of hope would go forth unrestricted. Remind me that you see and hear everything and have promised to be my defense. And, remind me that vengeance is yours and yours alone. For those in my life where there remains strife, please open their hearts to you, that when I take that first step of reconciliation, they will greet me with the open arms of your love. Thank you for having patience with me. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.

It Hurts So Good

Forgiveness is a dish best served on the plate of love with a spoon of grace.

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As I rounded the corner of the hospital hall that day, I was not expecting who I would be faced with, an encounter I prayed would never again happen. At that very moment, as I rounded the corner, I went from joyful to angry with even my fists clenching as if they had a mind of their own. There he stood, the man that relentlessly hindered and criticized my leadership, allowed my family to be persecuted, chased my son out of town, and had nothing but a smirk of victory on his face when my three young daughters had their Christmas play parts taken away days before the performance. And, this all happened in a church I pastored where this man seemed to make it his goal in life to oust me from ministry with verbal challenges like, “Pastor, I’ve been here through many pastors, and will be here well after you leave.” From finding several want ads circled in red from the local paper on my desk to my children being the only ones not served communion during Children’s Church. These are but a few examples of what my family went through over my five-year tenure. But, that chapter of my life was over; God had released me from that culture and called me to start a new church, a place where my family found joy, peace, and purpose. I had been gone from that toxic church environment for over two years when I found myself in the hallway of that hospital facing the man I had never forgiven, with fists clenched, frozen in time. And there we stood, no words spoken for what seemed like minutes, resembling two cowboys in the old west waiting for the clock to strike high noon before drawing our weapons.

During one of my early counseling sessions in ministry, I addressed two church members that refused to forgive each other over a past argument. Time had done nothing but make matters worse with these members shunning each other, gossiping about one another, and even sitting as far from each other in the sanctuary as they could. The story I used to facilitate reconciliation was that of Corrie ten Boom, taken from her book, The Hiding Place:

It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. It was 1947, and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. “When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.…”

The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence, collected their wraps, in silence left the room. And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were! [Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.] Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!” And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?

But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze. “You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,” he was saying, “I was a guard there.” No, he did not remember me. “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Chris-tian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,” again the hand came out—”will you forgive me?” And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again been forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it—I knew that.

The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that. And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too.

Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “… Help!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.” And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.

Corrie ten Boom

As I stood frozen in time, facing this man that had caused my family so much pain and suffering, God reminded me of this story of His power and love. So, I stretched out my hand in greeting, held my breath, and said a prayer. He never took my hand; he just walked around me without a word. Later that day in my office, I drafted a letter to him, asking his forgiveness for my part in our feud, and mailed it out. I never heard anything back. And, that was alright; my forgiving this man had nothing to do with him and everything to do with my stewardship of the forgiveness and love God had given me. 

Hanging from the cross, Jesus asked God to forgive the very ones that nailed Him there and that were gathered around mocking and hurting Him (Luke 23:34). Their repentant hearts didn’t precipitate his request, and it certainly didn’t compel them to seek reconciliation, yet Jesus held out both hands and offered it anyway.

If you have lived long enough, others have hurt you. And, if you have not forgiven them, truly and completely let it go, bitterness has marked your life. Please take it from me; it will consume you until you forgive them and do everything in your power to reconcile. Never forget that the forgiveness God has offered you is not yours to keep but His to give out. You not only have the command to forgive others, but God has given you the power through the Holy Spirit to do the seemingly impossible.

Scripture: “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” -Colossians 3:13, ESV

Question: While you were reading today’s devotion, did a particular situation and person come to your mind? Are there still feelings of anger and bitterness?

Prayer: Father, it is hard to let some things go, especially when mistreated. Please help me remember that you are the only One qualified to be the judge and jury, and trust you even when I am hurt. I ask for the strength to forgive, the heart to love, and the faith to believe that you can work things out.  Please help me follow your Son’s example being slow to anger and quick to reconcile. May I be willing to face my fears today and, with your help, put this behind me once and for all. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.

50 Shades of Brown

Jesus did not have blonde hair and blue eyes.

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Moving to Florida from Boston in the 9th grade was challenging for many reasons, but culturally is where I struggled the most. My new home was a 30-foot Airstream trailer beside an orange groove about 30 minutes south of Tampa. One summer afternoon, a few guys from my new school picked me up in their truck to take me to an “event”. Piled in the bed of that truck, with a few guns mounted to the back window, we took off to the center of town. Finding a parking space, we navigated the thick crowds and headed to the steps of the courthouse, the apparent source of the commotion, and the place where a man was shouting through a megaphone. Although I was still unable, through the crowds, to see the man speaking, his message shocked me. It turned out he was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and was spewing his message of hate to a large crowd that seemed to be energized by his ignorance and empowered by his racism. Once we finagled our way to the front of the group, I was even more shocked by this man’s appearance. This speaker of ignorance was in a suit, had a leather briefcase beside him, and looked like a respectable businessman or attorney; the message did not match the outward man. While I don’t remember the specifics of his message, I walked away stunned that in 1985 racism seemed to be thriving with no consequence, boldly proclaimed on the steps of the courthouse in the center of town. Of course, I still chuckle when I remember what did break up the hate and silence the message. That trophy was not awarded to someone in the crowd or even the police protecting these men; nope, it was a massive black man with a giant boom box on his shoulder playing Jungle Love by the Time. This man made his way to the very steps of the courthouse, stood shoulder to shoulder with the police, and then laid down that boombox with the speakers facing the KKK leader, turned it up even louder, and then just stood there until everyone went home.

To be honest, the only thing that has gotten better about racism since then is its ability to hide in the shadows of our seemingly unified country. We may not have “events” on the steps of the courthouse anymore, but make no mistake, racism is still thriving; it has just learned to be more subversive and subtle since being publicly removed from the light. And, tragically, the church is not exempt from this hate, for I have seen more acts of racism in the church than I did in my 14 years of military service. Fueled by our emotions, indoctrinated through tradition, and sustained by our lack of biblical knowledge, racism continues. So, what does the bible say? Did Jesus have blonde hair and blue eyes, making Him superior, hence worthy of cultural emulation?

In the book of Genesis, Moses records the account of our creation in chapter one, that we were all created in the image and likeness of God. A study of the original Hebrew word for “image” proves illuminating and a theological death blow to racism. The root word for “image” is to chisel, or chip away, as an artist does with a rock. But, there is another interpretation of this root word; it can mean “to become dark.” According to the Genesis account, God scooped up some dirt to create the first man, and we know dirt is brown. Science tells us that every human’s pigmentation is brown, just different shades; the lighter brown we call white and the darker brown we call black. While we have become quite proficient in classifying people, especially depending on their race, God says that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9, ESV). The message coming from Peter’s “boombox”; a message that should silence the voices of hate, is that in the economy of God, there is but ONE race.

So, we should be celebrating God’s creativity in the diversity of humanity, not using it to separate ourselves; therefore, silence the message of hope we were called to proclaim. It should be impossible to position ourselves above anyone else when we recognize we all come initially from dirt! As one southern evangelist used to shout from the pulpit, “there are no big shots, are no littles shots, just a bunch of us who ‘ought to have been shot had it not been for the grace of God!”.

Scripture: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” -Galatians 3:28

Question: Do you struggle with loving people that are not like you? Have you ever thought of yourself better than others because of the color of your skin?

Prayer: Father, please help me to see everyone as you see them, through the eyes of love. May I recognize today that everyone was created in your image and likeness, therefore worthy of your love. If there is any racism in my heart, please reveal it that I might confess it. Father, as I go about my day, may I celebrate the diversity in all of your creation, and may others see your love through me. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.