Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Song of Reconciliation

Papa said to Mack, “I want to take away one more thing that darkens your heart.” Mack immediately knew what it was and turning his head away from Papa, started boring a hole with his eyes into the ground between his feet…Now there was no holding back as hot tears poured down his face and between sobs Mack cried, Papa, how can I ever forgive that SOB who killed my Missy?” (The Shack, p. 226).
In Paul Young's novel, The Shack, Mack discovers that forgiveness is key to the final step of healing that Papa wants to do in his life – but it may be the hardest step of all. Thankfully, Papa has not left us without some clear guidance when it comes to walking the difficult road that may or may not lead to reconciliation.

Before we do anything else to resolve the conflict we have with another, we must pray that it might be resolved to the glory of God. In 1 Cor. 10:31, Paul reminds us that whatever we do should be done to the glory of God… and that includes how we address and resolve conflict. When our lives are consumed with anger and pain, we need to ask God for help.

When Mack decides to return to the very place where the killer had taken the life of his youngest daughter, it could have meant confronting the killer himself (if this was a trick); or God himself…or simply himself. But in any case, it was going to mean dealing with his terrible anger; his doubts, his regrets and his deep sadness. Perhaps you remember the scene as Mack gets out of the car near the shack. We're told that as “He stood and stared down the path, …the pain that had been building in his stomach finally pushed him into panic. After only five steps he stopped and retched so strongly that it brought him to his knees. ‘Please help me!’ he groaned” (The Shack, p. 77). That was Mack’s simple prayer…and that was enough. It’s one of the oldest prayers in the world. It’s not long or complicated, but it’s real; and before you try to do anything in the way of confronting the demons in your life and relationships, it’s a good place to start: “God, help me!” And beyond that, with Paul, we can ask that God would truly be glorified in the process.

Secondly, declare before Christ your forgiveness as the forgiven (Matt. 5: 21; Matt. 18:21-35; Luke 23:34). Jesus tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in which a slave who is mercifully forgiven a huge debt owed to the King goes on to threaten and imprison a fellow slave who owed him a few dollars. The King is furious when he hears of it: “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?” Jesus concludes, “So my heavenly Father will do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matt. 18: 35).

Jesus reminds us again and again that before we consider whether or not to forgive we should recall that we are among the forgiven. So why do we hesitate to forgive those who have wronged us? Perhaps, we assume that to forgive means that we must forget that wrongs were ever done to us, or ‘pretend’ it never happened; but that’ s a misunderstanding of biblical forgiveness.

A colleague of mine, Neal Nybo, who is a pastor on staff at Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church shares this true story about a time when he was working in the business world. “I was supervising a customer service department in a Christian company. One customer service rep had begun showing up late to work, missing days without explanation and was surly to his coworkers. I sat down with him to talk about it. Almost before I could say anything he interrupted me with the request, "Will you forgive me?" I hardly thought his infractions needed forgiving but he insisted. "Yes", I told him, "I forgive you." He turned back around in his seat, end of conversation. I said we still needed to talk about his behavior. "No you can’t," he said, "you have forgiven me, it’s forgotten, you cannot punish me or bring it up again." I felt like forgiving his sassy mouth right out the back door and the rest of him with it.”

The command to forgive does not require me to forget it ever happened. That is not necessary, nor is it humanly possible. To forgive means you choose to live as the truly forgiven; to treat others as you have been treated by God; relinquishing anger (Matt. 5:21) and putting your enemy in God’s hands. Listen to Mack who knows that Papa is challenging him to forgive the very one who killed his Missy. “Papa…I know it isn’t right, but I want him to hurt like he hurt me…If I can’t get justice, I still want revenge….I’m stuck, Papa. I can’t just forget what he did, can I?” Mack implored. “Forgiveness is not about forgetting, Mack. It is about letting go of another person’s throat” (The Shack, p. 226). “Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver….to release you from something that will eat you alive, that will destroy your joy and your ability to love fully and openly” (The Shack, p. 227). Finally, Mack is able to release the rage that was eating up his insides like battery acid: “I forgive you, I forgive you, I forgive you….” Jesus commands us to be willing to forgive up to 70 times 7...which simply means that forgiveness is a process...and that we must be prepared to say it and to keep saying it until it really begins to sink in. If the first thing we need to do is ask for God’s help…the second is to declare our forgiveness as one who has been forgiven from the cross!

Thirdly, seek to rebuild a relationship of trust by approaching the person directly, not gossiping (Mat. 5: 23-24, 7: 4-5; Matt. 18: 15-20; 2 Cor. 5:18-21). Forgiveness is the first step toward reconciliation… but forgiveness is not reconciliation nor is it the restoration of a relationship. Remember Mack’s question to Papa about the killer, and Papa’s all-important response….
“So what then? I just forgive him and everything is okay, and we become buddies?” Papa answers: “You don’t have a relationship with this man; at least not yet. Forgiveness does not establish relationship. In Jesus I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship….” (The Shack, p. 227).

We’ve been talking a lot about forgiveness today…but the real goal, the finish line is the sweet song of reconciliation. Paul writes, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself…. we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5: 19, 21). Reconciliation is a two-way street! God has come toward us...but he waits for us to come toward him. In the same way, you can forgive all day long, but it takes two to reconcile., to have a relationship. Here are five things that facilitate reconciliation…

First, you must confess your own sin to God. “Take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matt. 7: 5). Start with the man in the mirror. Second, you must speak the truth in love. In the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus warns that “If you are angry or insult a brother you will be liable to judgment….” Proverbs has much wisdom on this subject: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). And again, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov. 25:11). Our tone makes a world of difference when we confront one with whom we have a conflict. Third, be ready to speak words of forgiveness: “I forgive you!” Fourth, offer words of repentance: “I’m sorry!” These are the two most powerful phrases in the process of reconciliation. And finally, pray that God would bring true healing to your relationship. You can say all the right words and even mean them…but still not have a relationship. It’s possible you may never achieve that this side of heaven. Prayer acknowledges you both have a relationship with the same Lord who will one day bring you together.

On Thursday night I was running late for a special friendship dinner in Universal City hosted by a Turkish community organization dedicated to building bridges of friendship with Christians and Jews -- a very fine organization that goes by the name of Pacifica. And so, I got on the freeway about 5:45pm, trying to make it by 6:30pm for the opening introduction. It took me an hour and fourty minutes of stop and go driving to go 26 painful miles; but I did barely make dinner. It was a wonderful evening. Then it was time to go home…and how can I describe the joy of crossing all those roads again at full throttle, engine purring, banking easily through the 101/405 freeway interchange at top speed, negotiating the gentle curves of the Sepulveda Pass and down into West LA in under 30 minutes! This is what automobiles were designed for! As I was driving…the thought came to me. This is a powerful picture of forgiveness and reconciliation! Without forgiveness, you can get by…but it’s like slogging through LA at rush hour. Your thoughts and emotions are handicapped by the obstacle of unforgiveness which is eating away at every good thing in your life. But once forgiveness and reconciliation is tried, it is like driving on the open road, full throttle; unencumbered, un-burdened, exhilarating! This is how human beings were designed to live!

Friends, all this talk about forgiving...and even loving one's enemies as Jesus taught us from the cross is more than fantasy or the stuff of fiction writers like Paul Young. This stuff really happens. I know a man in my own congregation whose daughter was murdered by her fiance in a fit of rage. The anger he felt toward this man grew and grew until it was literally killing him. But there came a day when God made it clear to him that he needed to forgive...not just for that man's sake, but for his own. And so like something out of a novel, my friend went to the prison where he met with this man face to face, forgave him, and shared with him the love of Christ. That act of forgiveness not only changed my friend...but the stunned man who had shot and killed his beautiful daughter. Not many months later, his daughter's murderer was himself killed in prison, but not before repenting of what he had done...and finding peace with God. The power of forgiveness is real, the hope of reconciliation is real....and many of you, like me, have seen its effects.

One last thing Jesus tells us when it comes to the subject of relinquishing anger and moving toward others in forgiveness and reconciliation is to simply do it, and not delay: "Do it now!" (Mat. 5: 25). Perhaps my favorite scene in The Shack is the one in which Mack is given the opportunity to face again the man who beat his mom, and then beat him for three days chained to a tree with a belt and bible verses; a man who hurt him so deeply he put rat poison in all his bottles before he ran from home. It’s implied elsewhere that Mack may have poisoned him to death (cf. The Shack, pp. 10, 73). So much of Mack’s distrust in God; so much of his pain is tied up with that ugly relationship. But then comes the night Mack is brought to a forest meadow under starlight…and his eyes are opened to see a view into heavenly realities… And there in a circle of fire and light, a festival of friends, luminous heavenly beings, children, adults, and angels…is one who knows him…but whose face is filled with shame and sadness. It is his father. Mack finds himself running now toward him, until he finds himself standing before his father who is now on his knees, head hanging low before his son.

“Daddy!” yelled Mack, and he threw himself onto the man who could not even look at his son. In the howl of wind and flame, Mack took his father’s face in his two hands, forcing his dad to look at him in the face so he could stammer the words he had always wanted to say: “Daddy, I’m so sorry! Daddy, I love you!” The light of his words seemed to blast darkness out of his father’s colors, turning them bloodred. They exchanged sobbing words of confession and forgiveness as a love greater than either one healed them” (The Shack, p. 217, cf. 10, 73).

Friends, we can only pray that many such meetings will take place in heaven for those who die in the Lord…but why wait? Sadly, there will be many such meetings that never take place, because sins are never confessed, forgiveness is never declared, and love is never shared. Why silence the sweet song of reconciliation? Why wait to speak the words of confession and forgiveness. Why delay, when you and I both know that a love greater than either one of us can heal what has been broken?

Father, forgiveness is difficult and painful, for there is a part of me that wants to hold on to my resentment and anger…even if it kills me. Let me begin by asking your forgiveness for my unforgiveness. Let me begin by crying out to the One who said, “Father, forgive them!” from the cross; and let the sound of my Savior’s words drop me to my knees in tearful repentance. Jesus, may your words move me now toward the ones I have kept at a distance, blamed for all my pain, or written off with my indifference and daily annoyance. Help me to see clearly…to own up to the things I have done wrong, including the unwillingness to forgive. Yes Lord, help me to forgive, to take my hands off the throat of the one I am so angry at; to release my anger and to entrust you to be the final judge. Do a miracle of mercy in me such that I may now go to the one with whom I am angry, or to the one I know I have hurt and then -- Holy Spirit, by your power -- to form the words, “I am sorry!” and again, “I forgive you!” Jesus, you built the bridge of reconciliation with the cross on which you died for this world’s sin…help us now to walk across this bridge where both of us may meet with you, and be healed! Amen.

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