Who is My Enemy?

Who is My Enemy?

My day began, preparing for my Friday morning Bible Study.  We’re currently studying the Sermon on the Mount, and our passage today was the end of Matthew 5, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”

Included in that group of teachings is the instruction to love our enemies, which raised the question, “Who is my enemy?”

I’ve been chewing on that question all day.  The Greek word for enemy, used in the New Testament, is “echthros,” which means someone who is openly hostile, hateful and actively seeking to do me harm.  With that definition in mind, “Who is my enemy?”

A few moments ago, I had an unexpected visit from a family from New York, who are members of a Bruderhof community.  Members of Bruderhof communities are Christians, living in community, sharing all things in common.  Their purpose is to live as close to the values and ways of the New Testament Church as possible.  Bruderhof communities began in Germany, but now exist all over the world.

This particular family is here, in Coral Springs, to serve our community in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy.  Their primary message is the need for love and forgiveness.  Can you imagine traveling across the country, giving more than a week of your life, to share about forgiveness?

So, my day has been bookended by two common themes – “Who is my enemy?” and forgiveness.

I know I’m not everyone’s favorite person, and that some may not like me at all.  But, I sincerely hope no one thinks of me as an enemy.  Though I’m the target of an unfriendly word from time to time, I know that comes with being a pastor and a leader… and being an imperfect human.  But, the messenger, no matter how harsh the message, is not my enemy.  As the New Testament defines “enemy,” I’m grateful to say I don’t have any that I’m aware of.

You’re not my enemy if you disagree with me.  Your’e not my enemy if you yell at me.  You’re not my enemy if we vote for different candidates.  You’re not my enemy if we have different theologies, or interpretations of Scripture.  You’re not my enemy if you leave an angry reply to this post, or any other.  You’re not my enemy if you leave something distasteful on my social media (though, I’ll likely delete it).  You’re not my enemy if you cut me off in traffic… well, maybe…

Jesus, undeniably had enemies.  They crucified him.  The earlier Church had enemies.  They were persecuted.  Though I’m not always popular, I’m thankful I’ve never experienced having an enemy, actively seeking to do me harm.  At least, not yet.

But, forgiveness, is a different matter.  I need to be forgiven, for a lot.  There are lots of people I need to forgive, that aren’t necessarily my enemy.  I need to forgive family, friends, co-workers, brothers and sisters in Christ.  I need to forgive people I love.  I need to forgive some people I don’t particularly like.  I need to forgive myself.  I may even need to forgive God.

And, I wonder if the longer we don’t forgive someone, the more likely we may begin to see them as an enemy?  I wonder.

Whose your enemy?  Who do you need to forgive?

 

 

Embracing the Grey

Embracing the Grey

I had a very random conversation with a complete stranger, yesterday. He said that the hot issue many counselors/therapists/psychotherapists are dealing with, lately, is how to help their clients deal with friends and family, with whom they have differing political views.  His point was that, in our current political climate, friends and family are being ripped apart by opposing loyalties and ideologies.  People are increasingly afraid to open their mouth, and state their opinions, for fear of other’s reactions and potentially being ostracized.

Differences of opinions – even within families – is nothing new.  But, tearing families and friends apart?

What’s wrong with us?

I listened to a speaker last night, who said many wise things, and much that I agreed with.  But, there were HUGE holes in his arguments.  And, he unfairly villainized his opposition.  As much as I liked and agreed with the speaker, the voice in my head kept screaming, “YEAH!  BUT…  WHAT ABOUT…..?”

Even my denomination is currently polarized around the issue of homosexuality; opposing sides condemning the other.  Many are fighting and praying to find a middle-way.  And, many fear that no middle-way will be found, and that we, like so many friends and families, will also be ripped apart.

It is just so easy to paint everyone with the absurdly broad brushes of black or white, right or wrong, saint or sinner, good or bad.  And, it is so inaccurate and so unfair.  Why must my opposition be evil, ignorant, and immoral?  Is it possible that both could be partially right, and partially wrong?  Is it possible that neither could be right?  Is it possible that both could be right, depending on your perspective and agenda?

Can’t we see that the truth – the TRUTH – is often somewhere in the middle?

As I watched the endless political debates of 2016, both Republican and Democrat, I constantly thought “There’s got to be more to the story.  The other side can’t be THAT wrong; THAT evil; THAT short-sided.  The solutions can’t be THAT obvious.”  Are either the Democrats or the Republicans right about everything?  Of course not.  Neither party can even find agreement even within their own ranks.  But, neither are 100% wrong, either!

Why must we villainize each other?  Don’t people matter more than points of view?  Can’t we disagree, and still find ways to respect one another, and even work together for solutions that just might be wiser and richer from considering broader points of view?

Grey is not a watered down version of black, nor is it a dirtier version of white.  Grey is a legitimate color.  In fact, it comes in many shades.

I’m embracing the grey.

Doing the Right Things for the Wrong Reasons…

Doing the Right Things for the Wrong Reasons…

I’ve been thinking a lot about motives lately – my motives, specifically.

Sometimes, I do things because I’m paid to do them.  It’s my job.

Sometimes, I do things because I have to – like paying taxes

Sometimes (too often), I do things out of selfish desires.

Sometimes, I act on impulse.

Sometimes, I do things to earn the approval of others – or to avoid their criticism or disapproval.  If I am going to be honest, I do this a lot.  A lot.

We all do, I suspect, to one degree or another.  We want people to like us.  We crave validation.  It doesn’t feel good to know someone is disappointed in you.

But, I fear, especially for pastors, this can be a slippery and dangerous slope.  It is for me.  Rather than doing what is right and good for the intrinsically right and good reasons, it is easy to slip into doing whatever it takes to make and keep people happy, and to avoid upsetting anyone.  As a pastor, it is easy to slip into being a people-pleaser.

It’s easy to do the right things for the wrong motives.  Not evil motives.  Just not the right motives.

I’ve told many prospective pastors that the hardest thing about ministry, for me, is always knowing that someone is unhappy with me.  That is just reality.  No matter how hard a pastor tries, someone will always feel let down.  Pastors are only human.  We can’t be in two places at once.  We can’t give everyone equal attention.  We can’t make everyone happy.  We aren’t omniscient.  We can’t fix everything.  We only have so much to give before running out of steam.  We make mistakes.  I make a lot of mistakes.

After all, many of us even struggle, from time to time, with feeling let down by God.   If God can’t escape our disappointment, how can any of us expect to be spared from it?

A counselor once told me, “Vance.  You have to confess and repent your idolatrous desire for human approval.”  He was right.  I am painfully aware that too much of what I do is divided between earning human approval and avoiding their criticism.  I know that I have God’s love and approval, unconditionally.  But, that’s never enough.  Why, is this particular idol so hard to cast down?

So, let’s get back to motives.  I think Jesus would say that everything we do should be motivated by love.  He certainly didn’t make everyone happy.  He only seemed to care about his Father’s approval, who said, “This is my son, whom I love.”  But, he loved.  He loved God and he loved people.  He loved the broken, the outcast, the sick, the sinner, the demon-possessed, the confused, the doubtful, the rich and the poor.  His greatest act of love, of course, was the cross.

Here’s a fact – if I love you, I will gladly do anything I can for you.  If I don’t love you, I may still do it, but for entirely different motives.  I would much rather be motivated by love.

Love is the only motivation that matters.  Maybe someday my motives will be purer than they are today.

What motivates you?

Relationship Restoration (Part 3 of a sermon series called “Restoration” at First Church Coral Spring on March 19, 2017)

Relationship Restoration (Part 3 of a sermon series called “Restoration” at First Church Coral Spring on March 19, 2017)

Let me tell you about a relationship in my life that’s been broken for some time, but has recently been restored…

We had been very close – enjoying lots of time together, traveling together.  We’d had highs and lows before, but we’d always managed to fix them – or at least put a Band-Aid over the problem.  But, last November, our relationship just stalled out.  It wasn’t working.  It was going nowhere.  And, frankly, I just walked away.

In January, we decided to get help.  But after weeks and weeks without any progress, things had literally fallen to pieces. I’ll admit I was frustrated, and about ready to walk away – forever.  A friend encouraged me to try again, and recommended a different professional who was more qualified to help us.  So, we tried again.

I’m very happy to report that, after our long 4-month separation, and a lot of investment, a lot of patience, and some big changes, as of last Tuesday, we’re back together and back on the road!   We’ve been fully restored!  We’re so happy, we even took a selfie together!  (Imagine of a picture of me with my motorcycle, with the song “reunited” playing in the background – “reunited, and it feels so good…”)  Yes – I’m talking about my bike, which has been broken down since November.

As much as I love my bike, today I’m talking about something far more valuable.  Today, I’m talking about human relationships, and how to restore them when their broken.

One of my most treasured possessions is an old book I found at a used book store, called, Spiritual Friendship, by a 12th century monk name St. Aelred.  It doesn’t have great monetary value.  But, what makes it special to me is a note that’s written inside, from one nun to another, following the death of that nun’s best friend.  The nun who gave the book actually underlined the passages she thought would be meaningful to her friend, and she wrote, “I pray you will find healing in Aelred’s words.”  What a beautiful act of friendship – one friend praying for the restoration of another, during a time of loss and grief.

Aelred writes, “No medicine is more valuable, none more efficacious, none better suited to the cure of our temporal ills than a friend to whom we may turn for consolation in time of trouble, and with whom we may share happiness in time of joy.” 

 Made for Relationship

            The Bible says, over and over, that we’re made for relationship.  After God made Adam, he said, It is not good for the man to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18).  God took a rib from Adam’s side and made Eve – someone for Adam to share his life with.

Though Jesus spent time with the multitudes, he had a smaller group of friends, including the 12 disciples.  He was particularly close to 3 of the 12 – Peter, James, and John – and maybe closest to John, who called himself the “One who Jesus loved.”  Jesus was also close to Mary Magdalene, and to the family of Lazarus, Mary and Martha.  As Jesus demonstrates, we were made for relationship.

For a moment – think about the most important relationships in your life, and the gift they are to you.

Now, think about the relationships that are broken, and need attention.

 Broken Relationships

Relationships get injured. Even the closest relationships get wounded.  Relationships can be damaged by neglect, abuse, or betrayal.  Sometimes, relationships can be broken beyond repair.  But, today I am talking primarily about relationships that get wounded and just need restoration.

If you spend enough time with anyone – no matter how much you love them – wounds happen.  Careless words, stepped-on-toes, selfishness, confidences betrayed, birthdays forgotten, immaturity, neglect, annoyances, impatience, competition, insecurity, envy, jealousy, insensitivity, etc., etc. all do damage to valued relationships.

 Loving God and Loving People:

            Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-38).  That’s one command in two parts.

            There’s a direct and corresponding relationship between how we love God and how we love people.  In fact, they are directly interrelated.  As we love God, we will love people.  As we love people, we are closer to loving God.  Conversely, when we feel distant, bitter and resentful toward God or people, we are more than likely to feel the same about the other.

One of the most important ways for us to grow spiritually is in relationship.  In fact, one of the ways we become most godly, potentially, is in the ways we relate to each other – growing in love, kindness, and grace.

I would even say that you will only become as close to God as you are to some other person.  I would also say it is very difficult to be close to God when any of your human relationships are broken.  The two are interrelated.  In some mysterious way, the deep love and intimacy I have with my wife, my children, and my close friends makes me closer to God – and vice-a-versa.  As long as I allow anger, bitterness, resentment or forgiveness to exist in my heart, toward people I am called to love, I will be handicapped in my pursuit of God.

 Relationship Repair

            For Lent, we are talking about how God can take what is damaged, broken, worn out, and trashed, and restore the broken parts into something new and beautiful.  So, let’s talk about how, with God’s help, broken relationships can be restored.  Of all of the messages in this series, I think this one might be the most applicable.

To repair, rebuild, and maintain healthy relationships, there are three things that we must learn how to do.  Let me warn you – they are simple, but they are NOT easy.

 Say you’re sorry

First – we learned by Kindergarten to say we’re sorry.  When you do something wrong, admit it.  Don’t defend it.  Don’t rationalize.  Don’t make excuses.  Own your mistakes.  Acknowledge that you did something wrong.  Feel the sorrow for the pain you’ve caused.  And, say that you are sorry.

Jesus said, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”  (Matthew 5:23-24)

Isn’t that interesting?!?  Before God wants our offering, he wants us to be reconciled in our human relationships.  And, Jesus puts the burden on us.  If someone has something against you, YOU take the initiative to apologize and try to make it right.

Frederick Buechner writes, “To accept forgiveness means to admit that you’ve done something unspeakable that needs to be forgiven, and thus both parties must swallow the same thing: their pride.” 

“Unspeakable” sounds a bit extreme.  But, in most relationship conflicts, both parties have something to apologize for.  As a Christian, for the sake of the relationship, we are called to take the first step toward making things right, by making the first apology.  That means setting aside our pride, admitting we were wrong – even if the other person was too – and saying, “I’m sorry,” even if the other person hasn’t or won’t.   And, of course, saying “I’m sorry” implies “I will try to do better from now on.”

 Let it go

The second thing that we have to do to repair a broken relationship is to learn how to “let it go.”  In other words, we have to let go of the annoyance, the anger, the resentment, the grudges, the hurt feelings, and the desire to get even, etc.

Jesus said, “I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (Matthew 5:22.)  The Apostle Paul wrote, “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26-27).

            Letting go is learning how to forgive.

The Apostle Peter once asked Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”  (Matthew 18:21).  Jesus said, “seventy-seven times!”  Seventy-seven times!  Let that sink in!

Frederick Buechner writes, To forgive somebody is to say… “You have done something unspeakable, and by all rights I should call it quits between us… However, although I make no guarantees that I will be able to forget what you’ve done, and though we may both carry the scars for life, I refuse to let it stand between us. I still want you for my friend.” 

Forgiveness is NOT saying that the wound doesn’t matter – like we are letting the wounder off the hook.  Forgiveness is NOT saying that what was done didn’t matter.  Forgiveness IS the decision to let it go, and not allow it to damage the relationship further.  And, it is a decision – not a feeling.  It is a choice – to let it go, seventy-seven times, or more, if we have to – to act into forgiveness, whether we feel it yet or not.

And, forgiveness not only heals the person forgiven and the relationship. Forgiveness also heals the forgiver.  Carrying around anger, hurt, and bitterness in our hearts is toxic for us.  We hold a grudge, thinking we are punishing the person who hurt us.  But, in truth, the un-forgiveness in our hearts is harming us. Unforgiveness is like intentionally keeping the wound open, and reliving the injury over and over.   Anne Lamott says that un-forgiveness is like, drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”

Love Anyway

Finally, love anyway.  When Jesus died on the cross, weighed down by human sin, he still loved us.  We call that kind of love agape.  Agape is a Greek word that means a love that is not based on any kind of personal gain.  Agape is entirely based on self-giving, and even self-sacrificing – like Jesus did on the cross.  It’s unconditional.

When you get hurt – love anyway.  When you feel betrayed – love anyway.  When you feel let down – love anyway.  When you don’t feel loved in return – love anyway.  And, when you feel annoyed, selfish, resentful, petty, vengeful, prideful, etc. – especially then! – love anyway!

As it says in 1 Corinthians 13, love – the kind of love that Jesus demonstrates – “keeps no record of wrongs” and always, “perseveres.”

I don’t want to mislead you.  While I am sure these three things – saying you’re sorry, forgiveness, and loving unconditionally – are absolutely essential in restoring a relationship, I’m not saying it’s easy.   It requires an amazing amount of courage, humility, and love.  And, I’m not saying that if you do these three things, you can automatically fix any relationship.  Unfortunately, some relationships are too broken to be fixed and some people are too broken to have a healthy relationship with.

But, regardless of the result, it’s the right thing to do.  It’s the Jesus thing to do.  Value people.  Seek relationships.  Protect your relationships.  But, when your relationships get wounded – and they will – do all you can to heal them!