Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Art of Dying Well - Philippians 1:20-21, 2:1-8

20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body,whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain....

            Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death
        even death on a cross!

   I had a rather upsetting experience recently.

        My son and daughter in law and my wife and I went out to eat at a Chinese restaurant.  I know this sounds corny, but you know what I really love about Chinese restaurants? 

        The fortune cookie.  I’m not superstitious – I just like to see what the message says.  Besides, I’ve never met a dessert I didn’t enjoy!

        My son opened his and he read it aloud.  “You will have a happy surprise.”

        My daughter in law opened hers and read it aloud:  “Make the most of every opportunity.”

        My wife’s fortune cookie said, “Look to the future.”

        I opened mine, and it said “Resolve all unfinished business immediately.”

        My son thought that was funny.  He suggested that this might simply be nothing more than a way for the restaurant to say we’d been sitting at the table too long and we needed to pay the check and get out of there.

        Then my wife suggested that perhaps the waitress knew something about the chicken that I didn’t know.

        Well, I smiled, but inside I found it rather unsettling. 

        “Resolve all unfinished business immediately.”

        The phrase had the ring of death to it.

        The simple fortune cookie had allowed death to enter our lives and to sit with us at the table of our meal.  I didn’t like that.  I don’t like the possibility of death to be allowed into my everyday life.  And in that regard, I am a child of my culture, and so are you. 

        Longmont, Colorado, is a kinder, gentler place these days. City Council members have voted to replace street signs reading "Dead End" with ones that read "No Outlet."  Technically, those two phrases mean slightly different things, but in Longmont, Colorado, some people complained the signs that read, “Dead End” were too gloomy.  (Reason magazine March 1994)

        We live in a culture that does not know how to deal with death.

Woody Allen put it this way: “I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens to me.”

        What it takes for most of us in this world to accept the reality of death is a shock.  Face to face with a doctor, we hear the words, “I’m sorry, I’ve looked at your tests, Maynard, and I think you should resolve all unfinished business immediately.”

        Now there was a time when the church saw it as one of its main missions to help people to think about death.  Not death in general, but their death.  This was not a morbid sort of activity.  It was considered to be very helpful.  In fact, a main focus of devotional material centuries ago was built on the belief that by learning how to die, we will learn how to live.

        There was an entire collection of this devotional material called the Ars Mo ri en di, the “art of dying well.”

        John Cheever has written a short story called, “The Death of Justina.”  It is about a man with the very symbolic name, Moses.  He lives in a little town called Proxmire Manner.  One day Moses comes home from work in Proximire Manner, and when he enters the house he finds there on the couch is his wife’s elderly cousin Justina.  Dead as a doornail.

        Now when you find your cousin dead as a doornail in your home, you have two tasks.  Get the body out of the house and get her a proper burial.  But Moses finds that in Proxmire Mannor, this is no easy thing to do.  He discovers you can’t take the body out of the house without a death certificate, and you can’t get a death certificate in Proxmire Manner because the County Council in a fit of community spirit and in the effort of keeping a funeral home from building a location in Proxmire Manner made it illegal to die in Proxmire Manner. 

        So Justina is not only dead, she is criminal.

        Moses contacts the head of the County Council and asks if an exception can be made in this case since she is already dead.

        “No, it would set a bad example” says the head of the council.  “People don’t want to live in a place where things like this happen.”

        Finally he was able to succeed at getting the cousin out of the house and buried in a cemetery.  In the final lines of the story, are in the voice of Moses.  Here is what he says.  “How can people who cannot deal with death ever deal with life?”

        That is, in fact, what the ancient Christian leaders were trying to say in their devotional material of the Ars Mo-ri-en-de.  In order to know how to die well, you must first know how to live well.  And in order to live well, you must be prepared to die well.

        About 30 years ago, one of the hot books about death was Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ Death and Dying.  If you know that book, you will recall that she presented a wonderful presentation of how people deal with the process of their own death.  She said that people move through a very specific set of stages.

        According to her, people start out with denial – “I’m not going to die.”  But then people would realize they were indeed going to die, so they became angry.  Then they moved into bargaining.  They would bargain with the doctor, with the family with God Almighty.  When that didn’t work, they would move into depression.  And once they worked through that stage, people would arrive at the peaceful state of acceptance. 

        Now as helpful as that book was in many ways, it has also been criticized more and more over the years, and rightfully so.  Because people do not move through these stages in an orderly progression.  Most people meander from one stage to another and sometimes circle back into a previous stage they had left behind.  And sometimes they even get stuck along the way. 
As a matter of fact, many have observed that most people do not move through stages at all at the end of life.

        The fact of the matter is that people die the way they live.  And the living and anticipation of our mortality is a dress rehearsal for how we will die.

        If we are a bargainer in life, we will be a bargainer in death.

        If we are angry in life, we are angry in death.

        If we are trusting in life, we are trusting in our death.

        The early church saw itself as a source of alternative thinking.  The world may teach one thing about how to think about death, but the church calls on its members to think boldly, courageously and creatively about death.  So Paul wrote in his New Testament letter to the Philippians, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
And to the Thessalonians, Paul would write “I don’t want you to grieve as those who have no hope.” 

He is not suggesting that we do not grieve.  He is suggesting that grief should be shaped by the hope we have in the resurrection.  And when that happens, grief becomes a different kind of dynamic, a different kind of emotion. [1]
        The ancient writers of the devotional works about how to die well focused on different virtues for life as a way to prepare for death.  Embrace and exercise these virtues in daily living, and you will be better prepared for your death, or the death of your loved ones. 
        Our New Testament lesson is a wonderful letter written by St. Paul.  Paul writes from prison, and it seems that it slowly becoming clear that he will die while in prison.  It is as if someone has passed him a fortune cookie that contains the message, “Resolve all unfinished business immediately!”
        In this letter he wrestles with death.  In the opening verses of the letter he toys with how he might face death, and then he boldly says, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.  For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
        Paul had learned how to face death, by learning how to face life.
        And likewise we will learn how to die well, by learning how to live well.
        Or as Paul would say in his letter to the Philippians, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”  (Philippians 1:27)
        That is an interesting phrase, because Paul began using it a lot shortly before his death.  It shows up over and over in the letters he wrote late in his life.  “Live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ.”  “Live a life worthy of your calling.”  “Live a life that is worthy…”[2]  Colossians.  First Thessalonians.  Second Thessalonians.  Philippians.
        One of the places where Paul uses that phrase, “Live a life worthy of Christ” is in his letter to the Colossians.  And in that letter, he sets forth a plain statement on what it means to live a life worthy of Christ.

        Paul says,   “As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.   Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love...”

        You can take each of those virtues and spend a lifetime looking at each one, but let’s look at just a couple.
        One of the things that makes it difficult for us in our culture to deal with death is our impatience.

        Paul said in Romans 12:12 that we need to learn to be “patient in our afflictions.”  But the greater the affliction, the less patient we become.

        We are impatient for suffering to end, so when we see others suffering, we walk away as quickly as we can.

        We are impatient for suffering to end, and when we are the ones suffering, we might pour alcohol into our systems, take drugs to deaden the pain or long for a society where euthanasia is legal.

        I’m fascinated by the way Rembrandt’s artwork changed during the course of his lifetime.

        As a young man, Rembrandt painted that wonderful but disturbing Old Testament story of Abraham and his son Isaac.  Abraham is about to sacrifice his only son to God, when thankfully an angel appears and stops the father from taking the life of his child.
What young Rembrandt saw was Isaac on the altar and Abraham is pulling his head back and Isaac’s neck is exposed and the father has the knife and is about to thrust it into the flesh and blood of his child.  Abraham has covered the mouth of the child so Isaac cannot speak and argue for his defense.  The angel has to wrestle the knife from the young Abraham.  Abraham is staring into the eyes of the angel as if angry that he is being interrupted, and the angel has one hand on Abraham’s right hand, wrestling the knife from him, while the angel’s other hand is raised as if ready to fight Abraham. 

        Rembrandt sees in Abraham a determination, and zeal and even an impatience to “get it over with.”

        But as an old man, Rembrandt revisited this biblical story with an etching.  With the patience learned through suffering and wisdom, the artist saw everything differently.  Isaac is no longer on the altar, but is lovingly and gently held by his father who has pulled him to himself in a loving embrace.  Abraham does not cover the child’s mouth, but he does cover his eyes so he cannot see the suffering that is to come.Rembrandt. Abraham's Sacrifice.  The knife is held reluctantly.  It’s even pointed away from the child.

        There is in aging Rembrandt an understanding that we should not rush the timetable of death, but we should be hesitant and patient. 

        A key factor in whether a person will “die well” is found in how well that person can embrace the virtue of patience in dealing with grief, suffering and sadness.[3]

        Forgiveness is another element of Paul’s list of virtues in Colossians, and like the other virtues it is important to embrace so that one may live well, and die well.

        One of my Methodist colleagues was taking his wife out to eat one night, and they were walking on the streets of the city where they lived.  They saw a man collapse nearby.  While his wife called 911, the Methodist minister leaned over the man to comfort him.

        “Don’t worry,” he said.  “We’ve called for help and they will be here any moment.  Just hang on.”

        Suddenly the stranger reached up and grabbed the minister by the coat and pulled him close to him so they were eye to eye – “Charlie,” the stranger said.

        “I’m not Charlie,” said the minister.  “But don’t worry.  I’m with you and we’ve called for help.  Just hang on.”

        The stranger ignored him.

        “Charlie, forgive me.”

        “I’m not Charlie.  Charlie isn’t here.  But we’ve called for help.”

        “Charlie, listen to me, forgive me!”

        “I’m not Charlie.”

        “Charlie, listen to me.  Forgive me.”

        And seeing the desperation in his eyes, the Methodist minister said, “I forgive you.”

        And those were the last words the stranger would ever hear before his death.

        The minister later thought about how arrogant he had been to offer forgiveness.  “Who am I,” he would later ask, “to speak for this Charlie and to offer a word of forgiveness.”

        But then he realized as a minister he did that every Sunday in worship, and ever day of his life.

        We are called to forgive.  God means for us to be forgiving to others and to receive and enjoy forgiveness. 

        At death, people often desperately seek forgiveness from others, or they desperately seek to extend a word of forgiveness before it is too late.

        But to die well, or to live well, means that we walk in forgiveness throughout all of our lives.

        In New Testament, Paul wrote to the Colossian Church, “forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Colossians 3:13

        All of this keeps bring us to the same truth – if you want to die well, you must live well.  You learn to prepare for death by learning how to live.

        If you are angry in life, then you will be angry at death.

        If you are bitter in life, then you will be bitter at death.

        If you are forgiving and compassionate and patient in life, that is how you will face death. 

Copyright 2014, The Rev. Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.

[1] Patience, compassion, hope and the Christian art of dying well
Christopher Paul Vogt, Boston College 2002
[2] Examples:  Colossians 1:10, I Thessalonians 2:12, II Thessalonians 1:11
[3] Ira Byock, Dying Well:  Peace and Possibilities at the End of Life (New York: Riverhead Books, 1997), page 60.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Standing Firm - Philippians 1:21-30

Philippians 1:21-30
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.  If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!  I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far;  but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.  Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith,  so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved-- and that by God.  For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

            If there is one person in the Bible who seemed to have a firm faith, it is St. Paul Paul in his writings in the New Testament is always talking in terms of  “I am convinced.”  “I am persuaded.”  “I know.” 

            But strangely, there came a time when some of Paul’s friends were worried that he might develop a crisis of faith. 

            His friends were in the church of Philippi And they were very concerned about their brother – their father and mentor in the faith. 

            Paul was in prison for preaching about the Christian Faith.  Now they know that Paul has been in prison before, but this is different.  In fact, Paul may well be near to death – about to be executed for his faith. 

            So in their concern for Paul, and in order to encourage him, they collect some gifts, possibly in the form of money, to be sent to him by one of their own members. 

            And it works.  Paul is encouraged by the actions of the Philippians, and he in turn tells the Philippians that they should also stand firm in the faith.

            That is a strange reversal.

            The Philippians are worried about Paul standing firm in the faith because he is in prison.

            But Paul, in turn, is worried about the Philippians standing firm in their faith because they have to live out their faith in the day to day world.

            And Paul tells the Philippians church, "Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then ... I will know that you stand firm.”

            It is hard to stand firm in the faith.

            Day after day after day.

            I mean it’s one thing to come to church and sing the old familiar hymns. 

  How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
    Is laid for your faith in God's excellent Word!
    What more can be said than to you God hath said,
    To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

            But on Monday morning, it may be different.

            How do you live a Christian life in an unchristian world?

            How does a young person stand firm in the faith against taking drugs?  Or resist the peer pressure to join in bullying someone?

            How does an adult maintain integrity at work?


            How does a person resist sexual temptation?

            How do you stand firm in the faith in such a way that you live life in a manner, as Paul says, worthy of the Gospel?”

            It is interesting that Paul uses this phrase about standing firm twice in this very brief letter to the Philippians.

            First, he uses it here in the first chapter, and then he uses it at the end of the book, in the last chapter.  And at the end of the book he says, “Therefore, my brothers  ... that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!" 

            By using the phrase that way, it is as if Paul is saying that the entire book of Philippians is concerned with how to stand firm in the faith.

            When your faith is being challenged day after day?  How do you stand firm?

            First, Paul says in this letter to the Philippians, "Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you."

            To follow that example and that pattern is to follow the Word of God.

            In the New Testament book of II Timothy (3:16), it says, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”


And in the Old Testament there is a verse in Psalm 119 expressed it, "How can a young man keep his way pure?"  And the answer the Psalmist gives is, "By living according to your word."

            When workmen began to renovate Theatre London in London, Ontario, they were determined to save the theatre's greatest glory -- its splendid arch with its hand-painted murals.  During the project's early stages they discovered that one side of the arch was supported by nothing more than a broken brick standing on loose sand.  A steel support was hastily erected before the arch collapsed!

            That's the Word of God in our lives.  We can survive without it, just like that arch building in Ontario did fine without having a strong support.  But if any significant stress would come along, everything would be in danger of collapsing.

            And life has stress all the time – and that’s when we need the Word of God to keep our lives from collapsing.

            Keep focused on the laws and decrees of God.  Keep focused on the Word of God.

            That is the first thing we must do in order to stand firm. Look to the Word.
            A second thing we need to do is to Look to Home.  I don't mean our earthly home, but our heavenly home.

            Paul says, "For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.  Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.  But our citizenship is in heaven."


Our citizenship is in heaven – keeping focus on our heavenly destination can help us to stand firm in the faith.

            I heard an account of the Freedom Riders on NPR radio not long ago.  The Freedom Riders were those groups of people who would ride the busses through parts of the Deep South during the early 1960s as part of the Civil Rights movement.  In one town of Alabama the people were removed from the bus by the police and taken to jail.  Now the eyes of the entire nation were on this, so the police were very discrete in their attempts to demoralize the group.  The first thing they did was to bring the Freedom Riders food, but it was so heavily salted, no one could eat it.  The second thing they did was to taunt the prisoners.  The salty food didn't break the spirit of the group.  The taunting didn't break the spirit of the group.  But then the police came up with another plan.  One by one, the police removed the mattresses, so there were more prisoners than bed spaces. As time passed, the group began to compete for the mattresses. 

            The morale was just about to be broken, when someone began singing, "Amazing Grace."

            Then another joined into the singing.

            And another.

            Until the whole jail block was singing in unison, "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now I'm found, was blind, but now I see."

            The police officers came in to see what the problem was.

            And then someone took one of the remaining mattresses, and pushed it through the bars.

            And then another, and another until there were no mattresses left.

            In the interview, one of the Freedom Riders reflected on his experiences from those many years ago and said, "We started thinking of ourselves as prisoners.  We started thinking that we belonged in prison.  That was our mistake.  Once we were able to remember that we were just passing through, we didn't care if we had mattresses or not.  After all, we weren't going to need them to sleep on a week down the road.  Remembering that we were just passing through helped us put up with anything the police could throw at us.  You can salt my food, you can taunt me, you can take away the mattresses and do whatever you can think of to make my life miserable, but you cannot take away the faith on which I'm standing firm."

            If we keep our minds focused on the fact that we don't belong on earth, but that we belong in heaven, we will stand firm in our faith.

            Paul, in another one of his letters, wrote,   "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."  (2 Cor 4:16-18)

            If we want to stand firm, we need to keep our eyes fixed on our heavenly citizenship.


            When I was in college, one of my fellow students lived in the same dormitory, right down the hall from me, and I would frequently visit him in his room.

            He was not a good student.  Not because he didn't have the ability to study and learn, but because he enjoyed too many parties.  He was having too good of a time at school.

            One day I walked into his room and hanging in his room, in full view, was a graduation cap and gown. Right next to it, hanging on the wall, was a frame.  But it was an empty frame.  I asked him what that was all about.

            "I hung those up there to remind my why I'm really here," he said.  "More than anything, I want to graduate college, but at night and on weekends, I forget about a college degree and graduation and I think about having a good time.  Someday, I plan to wear that cap and gown, and someday, I'm going to put a college diploma into that frame."

            Standing firm is not easy.

            It doesn't matter if you are fighting oppression and working for social change, or if you are a young person surrounded by friends who use drugs, trying to stand firm against taking drugs.

            Or a teenager with raging hormones within, crying out for sexual fulfillment, trying to stand firm against sexual temptations?

            Or a person in business trying to resist the easy, unethical practices that everyone else seems to do.

            How do you live a Christian life in an unchristian world?
            Look beyond this world to your heavenly home.

            When you deal with the present, keep your eye on the future you have with Christ – and live your life worthy of that Gospel.

 copyright 2014
W. Maynard Pittendreigh

Friday, September 12, 2014

Let Go of the Rope - Matthew 18:21-35

Matthew 18:21-35
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.[a]
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[b] was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.[c] He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

It is the single hardest thing you will ever do in your life.

            To forgive someone.

            Forgiveness is not easy.

            It’s hard.

            Oh I know, you are walking in the grocery store and someone bumps into you.  They look at you and say, “Oh I’m so sorry.”

            You look at them and say, “Ah don’t worry about it.”

            You walk away from each other and never think anything more about it.

            That kind of forgiveness is easy.  It’s nothing.

            I’m not talking about that.

            I’m talking about finding the strength to forgive someone who has hurt you deeply and profoundly.

            How do you do that?

            You marry the love of your life.  You make a commitment to that person.  And then one day you find out that person has not made a commitment to you.  Or at least not kept that commitment.  Your beloved, has been sleeping with another. 

            How do you forgive that kind of betrayal?

            Someone at work you consider to be a friend has lied about you.  For reasons you will never understand, your friend has sabotaged you. 

            How do you forgive that?

            You’ve been raped.

            You’ve been robbed.

            You’ve been fired.

            Someone else took credit for your work.

            Someone said something about you when you were in the 3rd grade and you’ve never forgotten the pain.

            Your mother called you fat, or your father called you lazy, or your best friend in high school stole your girlfriend 25 years ago.

            Whatever – big or small, you have a grudge.

            And forgiving is the hardest thing you will ever do.

            In our New Testament lesson, Peter comes up to Jesus and asks a question.  “How many times do I have to forgive my brother?”

            Now Peter knows that the teachings of the Rabbis of that time was that three is a good number.  Three strikes, you’re out! 

            It comes not from baseball, but from the Old Testament book of Amos. 

            So Peter knows Jesus is always talking about going the extra mile.  So he suggests not three times, but seven.

            “How many times do I have to forgive my brother?  Seven times?”

            And Jesus says “no” – let’s make it 77 times. 

            Or some translations suggest a mathematical formula – 7 times 70 times.

            But the numbers are not important.

            What is important is that you are expected forgive to the extreme.  Without boundaries.

            Yep, that’s not going to happen.

            We’re human.  You can only expect so much from us.

            After all, we love the grudges we hold.

            We cherish them dearly.       

            That insult spoken at a family gathering years ago.  The boss who fired you.  The teacher who gave you a failing grade.  The rude co worker. 

            Whatever the hurt, forgiveness is hard, hard work.

            It is the hardest thing you will ever do.

            Frederick Buechner in his book of short essays, Wishful Thinking, addresses anger and has this to say:
Of the 7 deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back--in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you. (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking  p. 117.)

            Indeed, Beuchner is right.  Holding a grudge and refusing to forgive can destroy your spirit, and your body.

            Just Google the words “holding a grudge” and add “health problems” and the Internet will show one article after another from such sources as WebMD and the Mayo Clinic.

            Chronic pain in their back or stomach, arthritis, headaches and heart attacks.  Blood pressure rises, diabetic problems increase. 

Well maybe – but knowing that holding a grudge is unhealthy does not make it any easier to forgive.

We all believe in forgiveness.  But practicing it is so very difficult.

In a recent nationwide Gallup poll, 94% of respondents said it was important to forgive, while only 48% said they usually tried to forgive others. (“Holding a Grudge Can Be Bad for Your Health” by Mike Fillon, WebMD News).

Katherine M. Piderman, Ph.D., staff chaplain at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., points out that forgiveness is difficult because it is so often completely misunderstood. 

People think that to forgive you must forget, but that’s not true says Piderman.  We can’t forget.  We have to remember.  We can’t help but remember.  The act that hurt or offended you may always remain a part of your life.  You cannot erase it.  In fact, you should not.  Our sufferings make us who we are.  When we go through difficult and painful times, we have the potential to become stronger, more mature in our faith and values.  Forgiveness is not forgetting, but letting go ---  of the pain, even while you remember what happened.

Nor is forgiveness reconciliation.  Sometimes the other person does not repent.  Heck, in their opinion they did nothing wrong.  But forgiveness is letting go --- of your resentment.

Forgiveness also doesn’t mean that you deny the other person’s responsibility for the pain inflicted upon you.

Forgiving is just letting go --- of the wounds.

During World War II, Eric Lomax was a signals officer in Singapore.  It was at a time when the war was not going well for the Allies.  In fact, the British had to surrender in the Battle of Singapore – it was the largest capitulation in the history of the British Empire.  An overwhelming 80,000 British, Indian and Australian solders became POWs.

Eric Lomax was one of them.

When it was discovered that he had taken part in building a radio, Lomax was taken away to be tortured and interrogated.  His pain was unimaginable. 

In the movie based on his authobiography, THE RAILWAY MAN, it was the arrival of the Allied army that liberated and saved Lomax’s life.

After the war he went home to live in apparent peace.  But he was not at peace.  He lived with hate and anger and bitterness.

And then he found that his interrogator was still alive.  Not only was this Japanese soldier, Nagase, still alive, but strangely he was a docent giving tours at the former POW prison that had become a museum for tourists.

Lomax traveled half way across the planet to seek revenge on this man.

He was successful in restraining his former tormentor.  He treatened to torture him with the same methods once used on the prisoners.  He held a knife he brought with which to kill the man.

But he doesn’t kill him.

Instead he stands on the bridge of a railroad he and others had been forced to build for the Japanese army and quietly threw the knife into the river below.

            Lomax and Nagase later come face to face once more.

            Both are silent for several minutes.  Then the former Japanese soldier bows to his former captive.

            Finally, the former Japanese solder says with tears in his eyes.  “I am sorry.  So sorry.  I don’t want to live that day any more.”

            The former captive who had harbored so much hate for so many years looks at his tormentor and says, “Neither do I.” 

            The two break down in tears and embrace.

            Later in his life, Eric Lomax wrote to the Japanese man, “The war has been over for many years.  I have suffered much.  But I know you have suffered, too.  And you have been most courageous in working for reconciliation.  But I cannot forget what happened in that prison so many years ago. But I assure you of my total forgiveness.  Sometime the hating has to stop.”

            Such a good example of forgiveness.

            It does not come easy.

            Forgiving someone may be the most difficult thing you will ever do in your life.

            And sometimes, as it did with Lomax in THE RAILWAY MAN it takes years. 

            In the New Testament lesson, Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive a brother who sins against him. 

As part of his answer, Jesus tells a parable.

A man is in debt up to his eyeballs, and he begs his master to forgive him.

And the master forgives.

Not only that, but allows the man to continue to work for him.

In telling this parable, Jesus uses exaggeration for ironic effect. This man owes his master 10,000 talents – a talent was a large sum of money. 

In his book Antiquities of the Jews, historian Josephus, said that the total tax revenue for Judea, Idumea, Samaria, Galilee, and Perea for one year amounted to 800 talents.

And in the parable, the amount the man owed to the master was an overwhelming 10,000 talents.

But the master forgives this debt, as big as it is.

What happens in the parable is that the one who is forgiven then goes to someone who owed him money.  Just a tiny bit of money.  A mere 100 denarii.  Pocket change. 

And the man who was forgiven by his master, refuses to forgive the man who owed him money.

Now, this is not a lesson in economics and debt relief.

It is a reminder that God has forgiven us.

Not because we deserve it.  Not because we earned it.  God has forgiven us freely by his love and grace.

And because of that, we are expected to forgive others.

This parable does not end well.  In the parable the master finds out that the man who was forgiven for this huge debt was himself unforgiving to another for a small debt.  Jesus said, “The master summoned the man and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’  And in anger his master handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.  So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

From your heart!

It’s not enough to live forgiveness and to just restrain yourself from seeking revenge.  You must feel the forgiveness.  From your heart.

Forgiveness like that may well be the most difficult thing you will ever do.

Many years ago, during the Nazi era of Germany, Corrie ten Boom, along with her sister and father, were sent to Ravensbruck, a Nazi concentration camp.
Her sister and father died there, but Corrie was released, due to a “clerical error.”
After the war this native of Holland went back to a defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.  It was a message she believed that a bitter, bombed-out nation needed to hear.  She often gave her favorite illustration of God’s forgiveness.  Perhaps because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, she liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown.
In many gatherings she gave the familiar speech:  ‘When we confess our sins,’ she said, ‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. And even though I cannot find a Scripture for it, I believe God then places a sign out there that says, ’NO FISHING ALLOWED.’
One night, as she was giving this familiar story, she looked out at the faces, and that is when she saw HIM. 
He was dressed in a brown hat and an overcoat, but in her mind she saw him in a blue uniform, wearing a cap with a skull and crossbones.
She remembered this man. 
She had seen him when she was in a crowded room with dozens of other prisoners.  There was a pile of dresses, a pile of shoes, and she and her mother and sister were walking past him, naked and afraid.
This man she was now looking at was one of the guards at the concentration camp where her father and sister had died.
And now this man was in front of her.
After she finished the message, he walked up to her and Corrie ten Boom wondered if he remembered her.
He thrust out his hand and said, “A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!"
As Corrie ten Boom later told the story, “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. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
The former guard continued to speak to her.  "You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk.  It just so happens that I was a guard there."
No, he did not remember Corrie ten Boom.
"But since that time," he went on, "I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the terrible things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fraulein,"—again the hand came out—"will you forgive me?"
And she stood there.  She whose sins had again and again been forgiven—and could not forgive. Her sister had died in that place.
Corrie ten Boom said, “It could 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." And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart.  Woodenly, mechanically, I thrust out 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!"
[Holocaust Victim Forgives Captor, Citation: Corrie Ten Boom, Tramp for the Lord (Berkley, 1978), pp. 53-55]

Corrie ten Boom describes forgiveness like letting go of a bell rope.  If you have ever seen a country church with a bell in the steeple, you will remember that to get the bell ringing you have to tug for a while.  Once it has begun to ring, you merely maintain the momentum.  As long as you keep pulling, the bell keeps ringing. 

Corrie ten Boom says forgiveness is letting go of the rope.  It is just that simple.  But when you do so, the bell keeps ringing.  Momentum is still at work.  However, if you keep you hands off the rope, the bell will begin to slow and eventually stop. 

It is like that with forgiveness.  When you decide to forgive, the old feelings of unforgiveness may continue to assert themselves.  After all, they have lots of momentum.  But if you affirm your decision to forgive, that unforgiving spirit will begin to slow and will eventually be still.  Forgiveness is not something you feel, it is something you do.  It is letting go of the rope of retribution.

            It’s time to let go of the rope.

Copyright 2014, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.