FORGIVE ME

One of my Bible study groups is studying the Lord’s Prayer. We are slowly moving through the content of the prayer, with many journeys here, there and everywhere as we examine the implications of the prayer for our lives. Eventually, we arrived at the place where we ask God, “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. That verse kept our study going for several weeks.

This isn’t a passage telling us that God will only forgive us as much as we forgive others. That would be at odds with the rest of the New Testament, which makes it clear that God’s forgiveness in Christ is unrestricted and unfettered, a limitless offer of love and grace that most of us will never fully understand.

As I and various people, including the Bible study, have grappled with this passage over the years, it seems to me that the real message the passage is trying to get to has to do more with our ability to forgive than with God’s ability to forgive. The bottlenecks and roadblocks and impediments to forgiveness all come from us, not from God.

And the biggest problem, I think, is our inability to actually forgive ourselves. Most people, especially faithful people, are terrible at forgiving themselves. We often have a sense of what “good” people should be like and an even better sense of why we are not like that. We know that God forgives—but we are uncomfortable believing that he could actually forgive us for that terrible sin of having an extra piece of pie (or maybe even the first piece, depending on the circumstances).

Often, we who are people of faith have our insides cluttered with sins and perceived sins that we are pretty sure are the worst sins in the history of faith, stuff that makes us feel guilty and unworthy and sinful and which we are sure that God couldn’t ever forgive. And if God can’t forgive us, who are we to let ourselves off the hook?

But the Gospel truth is that God can and does and even did forgive everything—that is the point of the cross and the resurrection. God can forgive us. And if God can and has forgiven us, who are we to argue? We can’t claim to know more than God; we can’t suggest that he doesn’t have the full story; we can’t argue that he has missed something—although in truth, we do all that stuff. But God is God, he does know the full story, he didn’t miss anything and when he offers to forgive, he can and will deliver.

So, many of us in the faith walk around as forgiven children of God who are still carrying heavy imaginary burdens of unforgiveness simply because we won’t in the end forgive ourselves. We make God into a liar and a weakling because we refuse to believe that he is stronger than us and our sins.

And then it gets worse because we are pretty sure that if we don’t really deserve forgiveness, that no one else actually deserves it either. If I can’t forgive myself for that second slice of pie, how can I forgive you who joined me in the raid on the fridge? Or even worse, if I don’t eat the pie and can’t forgive myself for even thinking about it, how can I ever forgive you for actually eating the pie?

Our theology of forgiveness needs to be improved. Actually, it needs to be real theology, not our thoughts and feelings. God has made it clear that forgiveness is a consequence of his love and grace. He makes it clear that there are no limits (I know about the sin of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit in Matthew 12.31 but essentially worrying about this sin is a pretty good sign you haven’t committed it). He goes to inhuman lengths to let us know that he is prepared to forgive us no matter what.

So, if the God of all creation, who know everything there is to know about me and everything else is willing to die to forgive me, I should probably learn how to forgive myself—and at the same time, that will help me forgive others. When we let God’s rules about forgiveness guide the process, we will all do better.

May the peace of God be with you.

FEELING GUILTY

The other day, I was at the fall fundraising event for several of the churches in our area. Rather than set up competing events, the churches get together, rent a large hall and do the event together. So, in one big space, there are bake sales, jam sales, quasi-yard sales, silent auctions and a really good brunch. Since we browse the tables at different speeds, my wife and I quickly got separated but since we both knew we would end up at the brunch tables, that wasn’t a problem.

As I looked at the tables and talked to people I knew from all the various churches, I came to the table run by a neighbour who is on one of the same committees I serve on. She had volunteered to take the minutes of our last meeting, which I would then scan and send on to the rest of the committee. As soon as she saw me, she joked about feeling guilty because she didn’t have the minutes done. My joking response was that my job as a pastor was done because I had made her feel guilty. We both knew we were joking and went on to talk about other things—and in the process made a tentative plan to get the minutes done.

I have been thinking on the topic of guilt since then—well, to be honest, it is a topic that I have been thinking about on and off for a while. It seems like guilt is almost synonymous with being a person of faith. I have heard pastors (and comedians) talk about various religious groups as being the inventors of guilt. I remember one person whose faith I admired telling a visiting speaker that she really appreciated his message because it made her feel so guilty—she was giving him what was her supreme compliment.

There is a connection between faith and guilt but not the one that is popularly assumed to be there. It seems like many people both inside and outside the faith want guilt to be the supreme quality of a religious person. Such thinking almost has a valid point. Most religions begin with the idea that we human beings are imperfect and that there is a better, holier and perfect something beyond us. Our continued imperfection is a problem—and guilt seems to be the appropriate response for most people.

Interestingly enough, most people want to maintain a perfect level of guilt. They want to have enough to feel religious but not enough to change behaviour. This is a hard balance to maintain, though, and often people get caught in the swamp of uncontrolled guilt that causes them to slip into low self-esteem, despair, even hopelessness. The process isn’t helped by the vast amount of guilt producing preaching, teaching and advice given by religious leaders.

But what if guilt isn’t the purpose of faith? What if, instead of guilt being the goal and focus of faith, it is only a tool to get us to something greater, a tool that has a important but limited use? What is God uses guilt to motivate us to confess and accept his forgiveness so that we can be free of guilt? What is guilt that can’t be dealt with by God’s offer of forgiveness is false guilt and isn’t something that we need to or should deal with?

I think that this what if is actually the case. I think our Christian faith is based on the reality that God doesn’t want us to feel guilty. In actual fact, he wants us to feel forgiven—and forgiveness by definition ends the hold of guilt on our lives. God wants us to live in the freedom that comes from knowing that we are forgiven and that there is no need to hold on to the guilt that led us to accept God’s forgiveness. Sometimes, that left over guilt is really a sign of our inability to really accept and appreciate the forgiveness that God has given us in Jesus. We hold on to our guilt probably because we feel better feeling guilty that we do feeling free.

But as believers, we are free, we are forgiven and for us, guilt should only be a temporary reminder that we have more to take to God and when we take it to him, he takes care of us, relieving us of the need to feel guilty. Real faith is marked by a sense of freedom from guilt, a freedom that comes from opening ourselves to the grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

MORE VACATION

One of the perks of being a pastor in our denomination is the vacation time recommendation that our head office suggests. The denomination recommends that pastors get four weeks of vacation a year. Most of the churches within our denomination follow that recommendation, which I really appreciate. Many pastors choose to take their vacation in a block. Some, according to one cynical church member I knew years ago, try to schedule their vacation for a five Sunday month to get an extra week.

That has never really worked for us. In fact, I don’t think that we have ever taken a month of vacation all at one time ever during my time in ministry. There have been a couple of times when I have been away from the church for a month or so but that was generally vacation combined with church sanctioned ministry which didn’t count as vacation. We have tended to take two or three breaks during the year, a pattern which works much better with both our personal fatigue cycles and the church year. An added bonus is that by not taking a whole month off during the slower summer months, I get the opportunity to use some of the over-time hours I accumulate during the busier seasons as extra summer time off.

While this plan has worked really well for my time in ministry, there is a drawback. The drawback is that I always seem to be telling the church that I will be away on vacation again. Nobody in the churches minds that I am taking vacation. Some, in fact, would allow me to take even more time if I wanted it. And yet there is that nagging sense of guilt when I approach the deacons or write the announcement in the bulletin or tell the church that I am off yet again for another vacation.

The only ones who ever say anything about the vacation fall into two categories. One group teases me about being away so much, asking didn’t I just have a vacation and so on. They are not being serious, we all know they are joking. The other group, who are often exactly the same people, tell me it is about time and that I need to forget about the church and have a good break.

My problem isn’t with the church—they are quite happy to give me my vacation time. No—the problem is mine. Even after 40+ years of ministry, I am still a bit uncomfortable getting paid to travel, go camping, visit family, finish woodworking projects or just sit home and do nothing related to church work. I know that I need the time—my ministry is much better after a vacation than it is just before a vacation time. The break, whether it is one week or two, is enough to clear out the accumulated fatigue, re-motivate me and allow me to get on with the ministry that I have been called to do.

And having three such breaks a year, combined with the compensatory time off during the slower seasons of ministry allows me to recharge at regular intervals, rather than trying to jam the whole rest and restoration process into one long break. But that does mean that three times a year, I have to stand in the pulpit and announce that I am going to be on vacation for a certain period of time—and deal with the nagging sense of guilt that comes with that.

It isn’t debilitating guilt. It isn’t strong enough that I resist vacations. I don’t feel guilty enough to have to do penance when I get back. There definitely isn’t enough guilt to take away from the enjoyment of being on vacation. I just feel enough guilt to make the announcement in worship uncomfortable. Once that is out of the way, I am on vacation and the guilt can get lost.

I am not going to find a way to get rid of that guilt at this point. It has been there for 40+ years so I am pretty sure that it will only go away when I retire. But that is okay because my vacation guilt and I have come to an agreement that works. I will acknowledge the guilt and having been acknowledged, the guilt will then let me enjoy my vacation.

May the peace of God be with you.