Church – Life Changing or Not?

Did you see that the Barna Group did a recent survey asking American Christians about the effect going to worship has on their life?  I think the results are thought provoking:

26% said their life has changed or been greatly impacted

25% said it “somewhat” had an influence

46% said their life has not changed from attending church

Why is that?  How do you think these numbers break down in your own church?  Why do you go to worship?  And pastors, is leading worship transforming for you?

One more thing I came across recently, that may be related: a video that went viral last month that is very provocative.  If you haven’t seen “Why I Love Jesus but Hate Religion” yet, take a look.  Do you agree there is a difference between religion and following Jesus?  Should religion be life changing?  Is it the wrong thing to expect?  Would you expect following Jesus to be life changing?  Are following Jesus and religion mutually exclusive?  If yes, then what?  If no, then why don’t Barna’s numbers suggest otherwise?  Share your thoughts and reactions with a comment!  I’m trying to provoke a response here!

At this point, I’m not saying one thing or another.  One day soon, however, I may share with you some shifts in my own thinking.

Learn What You Believe – Part IV

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Part IV – Suffered, Crucified, Risen

Dear friends:

I am spending this time on the Apostles’ Creed because Jesus-followers need to get a firm grip on what they believe.  So many church people are content to casually believe in Jesus, go to church when they’re in town, and maybe read the Bible occasionally.  It’s good for them and it doesn’t cost anything .  Well, it didn’t used to cost you anything to take luggage with you on the airplane either.  But we are heading towards a time when admitting that you believe in Jesus and go to church (or that you own a Bible) is going to cost something – maybe a lot.  Some readers may already be experiencing that in their work place or at school.  Even if out-in-the-open persecution of Christians in the Western world never happens, you will need your faith more than ever; life will be severely tested in so many ways that casual belief won’t get it done.  So, “get a grip” on your faith while there’s time!

…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell.  On the third day he rose again;


Lots of big fancy theological words can get piled up on this one: atonement, propitiation, redemption, justification.  This little chain of historical events carries a lot of freight.  Put simply, Christians believe that every human’s rebellion against God (sin) brings with it the verdict of “guilty”, and the sentence of death.  But God the Almighty Father sent his Only Son our Lord to rescue people by standing in for us to receive the judgment and punishment from God that we deserved for our rebellion.

The fact that Jesus was condemned before Pilate is more than a historical detail – Jesus stood before Pilate accused as a guilty evil-doer.  To rescue us he allowed himself to be condemned by a mortal judge, and sentenced to death.  But the gospel accounts of Jesus display his “shining innocence”.  They show clearly that he had no guilt and evil of his own; he was punished for the evil lodged in our hearts, poisoning our own lives and the lives of others, in ways petty and monstrous.

Crucified, dead and buried seems to be a triple redundancy to state emphatically that Jesus was really, really dead.  But there is significance in the manner of his execution.  The cross was a sign of being cursed.  It carried, of course, a heavy stigma from a human point of view – what would be your first reaction to hear that someone you knew ended up in the electric chair?  Kinda casts some tarnish on your opinion of them (or however tarnish ends up on someone) doesn’t it?  But death on a cross also carried the curse of God’s law (see Galatians 3:13).  To believe that Jesus was crucified means you believe that the entire curse of God lay on you because of your rebellion against God (sin), and falling short of God’s design for you – But!  That curse was lifted off of you, and transferred to Jesus.

Even more, Jesus abandoned himself completely over to the power of death – the curse of sin – “he was dead and buried.”  Death is the power that puts the chains on the human experience, and holds us captive.  Jesus surrendered himself to death to deliver us from it.  “…because [Jesus] suffered death for us, he is now crowned with glory and honor.  Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9).


“He descended into Hell”.  I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, what does that mean exactly, where does the idea even come from, and do I really have to believe that or can I just mumble that part?

John Calvin said, “If it is left out, much of the benefit of Christ’s death will be lost.”  Yes, he really said that.  Admittedly, the Biblical data is slight and indirect, but it is found in Acts 2:31, Ephesians 4:9, and possibly I Peter 3:18-20.  The idea that Jesus descended into Hell pushes the envelope on the necessity of Jesus surrendering himself to the power of death.  What Christians believe that Jesus suffered the pain and torment of death to rescue us – body and soul.  Jesus not only died, but also suffered Hell in order to experience the terrible torments of God’s judgment after death.  When Jesus suffered in your place, he went the full distance.  He suffered the full extent of God’s judgment.  To believe this is to believe, as Calvin states, “…in death we may now not fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up.”  Or as Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:54, “Death is swallowed up in victory.”[1]  If you believe Jesus suffered the full extent of death, you believe that both physical and eternal death have been consumed by your Lord.


Christians believe something that stands the “real world” on its head: Jesus was physically raised from the dead.  Long time church people hardly think about it.  Easter is just the high point on the church’s spring calendar.  We forget how foundational the resurrection is to Christianity and how profoundly it blows “the-way-things-are-supposed-to-work” right out the window.  Paul was very emphatic with the Corinthian Christians that without Jesus’ resurrection Christianity is a joke:

 But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.  And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.[2]

Spend time thinking through who put Jesus in the position of being condemned to death, and how they put him there.  The phrases “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried” carry with them the overtones of our world’s hard reality, where lies, corruption, manipulation, misuse of political power and a host of other manifestations of evil are the way it works.  If Jesus rotted in the grave, then all of that evil would have won; Psalm 2 would end at verse three – the powers of earth succeed in their plot to break their chains and free themselves “from slavery to God.”  But God changed the rules, upset the apple cart, turned the tables, re-wrote the book; evil appeared to have gained the upper hand, only to have its scheme transformed into fatal defeat on Easter morning.  Give that careful consideration.

Not only did God’s goodness triumph once for all over evil, but in Jesus’ resurrection love triumphed over hatred.

…the attitude of those who procured [Jesus’] crucifixion was an almost virulent hatred, so bitter that in the end it was capable of ascribing the loveliness and graciousness of his life to the power of the devil.  If there had been no resurrection, it would have meant that the hatred of man in the end conquered the love of God.  The Resurrection is the triumph of love over all that hatred could do … The Resurrection is the final proof that love is stronger than hate.[3]

Suffered, crucified, risen – three words that form the core of God’s loving hope for this world.  Look for how they intersect with your life today.

Next: Ascended, Return and Judgment

[1] Isaiah 25:8

[2] I Corinthians 15:12-19, Tyndale House Publishers: Holy Bible : New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004.

[3] William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, The Daily Study Bible Series, Revised Edition, Westminster John Knox Press,1975, p. 147, 148.

Learn What You Believe – part III

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Part III – Christ, Son, Born, Lord

A friend of my wife’s is vegetarian.  She told us the story once of when she invited friends over to grill, carnivores and vegetores alike.  As he was leaving, one of her carnivorous friends thanked her for providing some real beef on the grill – it was one of the best hamburgers he’d ever had.  The thing was, all she had was the usual vegetarian mushroom/soy/whatever meat “substitute”.  Rather than accepting her point that “you can’t tell the difference”, I preferred to assume that her carnivore guests had very low standards for hamburgers.  After living almost twenty years in cow country, I can claim confidently that the key ingredient to a great burger is not what you pile on top; the essential ingredient is a nice juicy, grilled to perfection patty of ground cow.  Without that, what you have might taste alright, but what you have is not a hamburger, because you don’t have the primary ingredient.

The meat of the Apostles’ Creed – the essential ingredient that makes the Creed the hefty spiritual sandwich that it is – begins with these words “I believe in Jesus Christ…”  Believing in Jesus is the core, the heart of the Christian faith.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary …


Christians believe that Jesus is the Christ, not that he was born to Joseph and Mary Christ.  It is a title that comes from a Greek word, christos, which reflects a Hebrew word translated as messiah.  Messiah and Christ are interchangeable because they both mean “anointed”;  Put another way, this title is The Anointed One – God’s Anointed One.

In the Old Testament, God would occasionally tell his prophets to anoint a particular person with olive oil to serve as king.  This signified that person as set apart, or ordained, by God for leadership of God’s people.  To believe Jesus to be God’s Anointed One is to believe that Jesus was ordained, set apart, by God to be the leader of God’s kingdom.  Jesus, if you remember the gospel stories (Matthew 3, Mark 1;1-11, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:29-34), was baptized not with olive oil, but the Holy Spirit, right there in the Jordan river by John the Baptist.

As God’s Anointed One, Jesus leads his people as Prophet (teacher), High Priest, and Eternal King[1]:

  • He is our Prophet because Jesus reveals completely everything about God’s will and purpose for fixing the Garden of Eden disaster (in other words, salvation) that had not been made clear before.
  • Jesus is our only High Priest because not only did he sacrifice his own body as the sin sacrifice for all time, but he now performs the priestly task of standing before God on behalf of his people.
  • Finally, Jesus was anointed as our Eternal King because he rules – governs – leads – God’s people as they read and hear the Scriptures, and through his Spirit that lives inside every believer (the Holy Spirit); he protects us against everything that is at war with God’s kingdom, and he provides everything we need to flourish in this freedom-from-sin life he has won for us.

Only Son, born of Virgin Mary

God’s only Son and born of the Virgin Mary are related ideas.

First, aren’t we all supposed to be God’s children, so how can Jesus be God’s only kid?  Well, this is the flip side of saying that God Almighty is Father of Jesus the Messiah.  It recognizes that Jesus’ relationship with God is unique – that uniqueness is spelled out in Philippians 2:6-9 (also see John 1:1-18):

Though he was God,

He did not think of equality with God

As something to cling to.

Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;

He took the humble position of a slave

And was born as a human being

When he appeared in human form,

He humbled himself in obedience to God

And died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of

Highest honor

And gave him the name above all other names …

Jesus the Christ is uniquely God’s Son because he is fully God, fully human; he was the Divine Agent of Creation (John 1:3); his sacrificial obedience led to the highest honor, his name above any other thing in the created order –  Jesus is to be worshiped.  His relationship with God is unique, essential to his person, a relationship that is integral to God’s triune nature.

For a lot of Protestant Christians, the Virgin Birth is not as important as it was to the early Church.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t significant any more, however.  As you remember from the Christmas story (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:35), the Holy Spirit was Jesus’, “birth” Dad (well, It wouldn’t be strictly accurate to call the Spirit his “biological” father).  “Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” is a shorthand summary of this part of the Christmas story which forms the basis for the verses in Philippians 2.  This is the great mystery of the Incarnation: that Jesus, God’s Only Son, The Anointed, was completely God, and also completely human.  It also means that Jesus was God’s Only Anointed from the very beginning; he wasn’t a supremely exceptional human being who caught God’s attention and “Only Son, The Anointed” bestowed on him by God like some award for excellence.  Believing Jesus was fully God and fully human has been a stumbling point for people down through the ages, because it is difficult to keep in balance.  Yet, if Jesus was not really one or the other then the entire message of Good News gets thrown off track, one direction or another.  Take some time to think on that for yourself to discover what it might mean if Jesus were only God, or only human.

“Only Son”, and “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” affirm the Incarnation of Jesus from two different directions, the eternal Divine direction, and the helpless human direction.


The words “Jesus is Lord” are so familiar and time worn that most Christians have lost the significance of the words.  In fact, the concept of Lordship is completely foreign to North American culture.  We have no experience with it, or any valid parallel.  Let’s face it – lordship was a basic cultural structure of the human race until we Americans consciously chose to invent a completely different way to build culture.

In the New Testament the title “Lord” is part of Jesus’ elevation by God to “the place of highest honor “.  Let’s go back to Philippians 2 for a moment where Paul says

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of

highest honor

and gave him the name above all other names,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.[2]

In Philippians Jesus is Lord because his name is above every name; his lordship will be confessed by everyone.  So in the New Testament, the title “Lord” is applied to Jesus in the highest sense possible, that he is God, the God of Israel.  To quote a theologian, the writers of the New Testament used the title “Lord” for Jesus because

…it was the most adequate term for expressing what … believers had come to understand and appreciate of Jesus’ person and achievement and his present decisive role in the outworking of God’s purpose and blessing for the universe.[3]

Most importantly however, how does one respond to such a Lord?  The only possible response to this kind of Lordship is submission (as Philippians 2:10-11 states).  This is another concept North Americans have trouble understanding.  Try it like this: to believe that Jesus is your Lord means that you are no longer “self-employed”.  The responsibility for failure or success, making all the right decisions at the right time, doesn’t rest solely on your shoulders anymore.  Rather, you are now “Jesus-employed”.  He has bought you out, he now owns the whole enchilada, and he is now the one responsible for making sure everything runs well.  To paraphrase Calvin, to claim Jesus as Lord means:

We are [the Lord’s]: let us therefore live for him and die for him.  We are [the Lord’s]: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions.   We are [the Lord’s]: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only [permissible] goal.[4]

That is the goal – not merely to say “I believe in Jesus as my Lord” – but in the mess of every day’s living to strive toward Jesus, the Anointed-Fully-God-Fully-Human, to live for him more, to let his wisdom and will rule your actions more.  Yes, you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Only Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary; so how is that “making you” today?

Up next: Crucified, Descent, Resurrection.

[1] The Heidelberg Catechism, question 31.

[2] Philippians 2:9-11, NLT.  These words are arranged in the form of verse because most modern scholars believe that Paul was quoting a contemporary hymn.

[3] F.F. Bruce, Paul:Apostle of the Heart Set Free; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977, p. 117.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Westminster Press, 1960, p. 690.

Learn What You Believe – part I

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Part One – Believe in God

Our world is moving towards unprecedented political, economic, and spiritual crisis.  Rapidly.  History suggests that during crisis and upheaval religious faith is stress-tested, and when, at least for the Christian faith, it has shown most brightly through the murk of evil.  Since 315 A.D., when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, Christianity has been main-stream Western culture.  Between then and now, Western Christianity has endured few true stress-tests – and never in North America.  That is changing as our world is being pulled into the whirlpool of crisis.

Just in my own life time Christians in the United States have accepted the notion that it is wrong to talk about their religious views in the public arena – well, if not wrong, then at least in very poor taste.  In our public school systems, we have gone from the occasional outrage of a child being censored for expressing their faith, to commonplace reports of Christian students being denied having Bibles, praying on school property, or flunking for challenging evolution on the basis of faith; American Christians have come to expect those stories, and probably wonder how the children’s parents missed the email that taking Jesus to school results in rough sledding (although to be fair, that hasn’t permeated yet into the rural school districts of “fly-over” states).

Here’s the situation: in the non-western parts of this world, persecution of Christians is the rule; in Western countries, even the United States, it is already more difficult to stand up for Jesus than it was twenty, fifteen, or even five years ago.  As crisis deepens, it isn’t very likely that boldly living for Him will become easier – history suggests it will become much harder.  That’s why it is essential for followers of Jesus to begin now to know what they believe.  If someone sneeringly insults you because of your Christian beliefs, will you know what it is you are insulted for?  Or if one day it is necessary to draw a line in the sand between what you believe and what you are being told to ignore, will you know where the line is to be drawn?

Tens of thousands of Christians are at least familiar with one of the oldest and best summaries of the essential Christian beliefs – the Apostles’ Creed.  This creed had its beginnings in the days of the early church, the 200’s A.D.  In those days being a Christian could be tough.  Becoming a Christian and joining a church was not a casual thing.  Before being baptized as a new Christian, you might go through a couple of years of teaching and examination; the pastor or bishop wanted to be sure that you were truly committed.  And at your baptism, you would recite a creed, a statement, that summarized the faith that you had been learning, and which you were about to commit yourself to.  That was the earliest beginnings of the Apostles’ Creed, as a summary of basic Christian teaching from the Bible and the Apostles, which was used to instruct new believers.  As an official Creed it was formalized almost 600 years later at the end of the 800’s.  This Creed was never meant to be an in-depth explanation of Christian belief, just a basic outline to learn, know, and to teach with.  So let’s get with the teaching, learning, and knowing!

As an outline, the Creed divides into three parts – yes, three!  The notorious three point sermon aside, three means Trinity – God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Sure, the Spirit only gets an honorable mention in the third part – the notorious catch all section – but that’s good enough for a balanced outline!  We will follow that outline in explaining the Creed, first looking at God the Father, then examining God the Son, and finally going into God the Spirit and all the other bits and pieces.

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.


When saying the Creed out loud in worship, it is traditional to stand.  To say “this is what I believe” with other people is not a simple thing – it’s a big deal, much more than whispering, “Here are some ideas I intellectually buy into.”  Christian singer/song-writer Rich Mullins put it this way in the refrain of his song “Creed”:

and I believe that what I believe is what makes me what I am;

I did not make it, no it is making me…”

In other words, your belief in God and how He has acted in the past and continues to act in the present is what defines who you are; it is what aligns every fiber of your being.  The Presbyterian author Albert Winn suggests that believing is passionate, it contains zeal; it contains power, it is a struggle, it coexists with unbelief.  He has written, “Real believing is always in spite of.  We do not say, ‘of course I believe.’  We say, ‘I dare to believe in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.’”  When you recite this creed you declare that this is what you cling to no matter what.

This solemn oath of trust in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is what the martyrs of the early church died for.  It is what Christians are dying for, being beaten for, arrested, and turned out of their homes for, right now today, in places like Iran, Egypt, China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Kenya, Burma, and Indonesia (you can learn more at  Proclaiming “I believe …” is not a casual thing at all.  It has power.  It draws a line in the sand between you and the world at large.  The world will respond with hostility because you have just sided against it (look at Jesus’ words in John 15:18-16:4 and 17 about the tension between his followers and the world).  This why Christians stand when they recite the Apostles’ Creed, because declaring “This is what defines us!” is to take a stand against all evil and powers in the world which defy God’s love and righteousness.


“I believe in God” is a simple statement that represents a very big idea – belief in God, capital G.  This is a profession of monotheism, that there is only one God, expressed in three persons.  The big deal is that if there is only one God, then that God alone is worthy of total, complete devotion and worship – nothing else, no one else can demand that kind of allegiance.  That means no political ideology however noble, no leader however gifted and promising, no virtue however empowering, nothing, is worthy of owning the first and primary place in your life.  Christians believe that this God is alone God, the supreme, ultimate Other; and therefore is alone worthy of unwavering devotion.  The Scots Confession of 1560 expresses the idea with these ringing words:

We confess and acknowledge one God alone, to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom only we must worship, and in whom alone we put our trust. (I added the emphasis)

That’s what it means to confess, “I believe in God.”

Coming up next, Part II – Father, almighty, Creator.

Speaking Frankly – What I’ve Learned About Doing Church

As a pastor, there were things I discovered that seemed so essential to me.  I did my best to communicate them from the pulpit.  But no matter how inspired my sermons were, the need to reiterate these basics never appeared to diminish.  Since I no longer have to deal with the toes of church people I squashed on Sunday, I feel free to share these with you as directly as might be necessary.  I will understand if you choose to read with sugar bowl at hand.  A spoon full now and again may make the reading experience more enjoyable!

  • It’s not about you; it’s all about Jesus.  Don’t be satisfied with just knowing that … Let it seep into you until it merges with your DNA.
  •  It’s not about your pastor.  That poor sap is as much a sinful human being as you are.
  • It’s not about you; your favorite hymns, your injured sensibilities over the new carpet color, or the talk of pulling the plug on your pet project.
  • “Tithing” means giving ten percent, period.
  • Doing church is about loving God with all your (plural, as in, “All together now!”) hearts, souls, minds, and strength, loving other people as well as you love yourselves, and going beyond the church walls to make more followers of Jesus and teaching them his commands.
  • It’s not about the pastor.  As a fallible human being, at some point the pastor will screw up. Please do not storm away from the church, stop giving, and begin murmuring in the parking lot to recruit supporters.  Check out the Bible for lots of great ways to react appropriately.
  • Don’t let the thing of “10% of net or gross?” get in your way.  Pick one and start giving.
  • The little taste of Scripture that you get on Sunday is enough to help you survive, but not thrive.  The time we live is not a good one to be spiritually anemic.  Get grazing on God’s Word.
  • Yes!  Giving ten percent is scary.  It’s supposed to be.  Trusting God 100% isn’t easy until you’ve done it for a lifetime.
  • If you claim that you don’t know how to pray, you must not know the Lord’s Prayer.
  • Speaking of which, tithing will require you to believe God really does hear you pray, “Give me today my daily bread”.
  • Learn to forgive.  Begin with the pastor.
  • Pssst.  Worship is meant to be joyful.
  • Do you remember what commands of Jesus Christians are to know and teach?  Love God with everything, love others, and make disciples!  Pretty simple, right?
  • If you know those commands, then you know what God’s purpose is for your life for the rest of the week!  Maybe even for the rest of your life!
  • It’s not about you.  Learn.  To.  Forgive.  Loving God and loving others (see above) means it’s very important.



Summer camp is so cool, but Christian summer camp is utterly amazing.  I should know, I was in the business during the late eighties and early nineties.

In those days, the Presbyterians in the central and southern parts of Western Washington had joined forces to produce a very dynamic camp and conference program.  We had Buck Creek Camp and Conference Center (the Creek) in the old growth timber country of the Cascade Mountains, and Sound View Camp on the Puget Sound with an enormous waterfront and dock.  My job title was “Program Assistant” and I joked that my job description was “to do whatever my boss didn’t want to do”.  I wasn’t really in charge of anything, but I laid a lot of ground work to make things work well.  For a period of a few years I was part of an exceptional staff, and we were blessed to make our program a leading light of Presbyterian camping for a while.

It’s all gone now, the Creek is in other hands, and Sound View is on its own.  But there are stories from that time that are worth telling.  This is one of them.

We took training our summer staff very seriously.  I wasn’t technically in charge of staff week, but I worked with the other summer program directors to design and implement it.  This particular year I had attended a very intense training event in the spring.  The instructor was the genius behind a powerful program concept called the Twenty-four Hour Experience.  For twenty-four hours the participants work together through a carefully choreographed series of activities while moving from one destination to another – group problem solving exercises, trust building initiatives, environmental education, orienteering (navigating from point to point with a compass) and a slew of sensory heightening activities through the dark of night.  Yeah.  Twenty-four hours, right?  Oh sure, there was some sleep, but the theory was to keep sleep to  two or three ninety minute cycles between night activities.  Did I mention the blindfolds?  Even during daylight I think we spent half our time without sight.  By the time it was over I was one whipped little puppy, but I couldn’t wait to afflict a similar experience on our summer staff during staff training.

Which I did.  But by the time we all stumbled back into camp I was feeling as paranoid as a whaler at a Green Peace convention.  During breakfast all the hostile looks made me flinch every time someone picked up a fork.  Yet, I had inspired at least one counselor.

Weeks later I came downstairs for morning staff devotions, and saw Jim, one of the counselors, sitting on a couch wide-eyed, shaking, and disheveled.  He waited until we were all there before he explained what had happened.

Counselors taking their cabins on night hikes wasn’t an unusual activity.  But Jim had been impressed with the night activities we had done on the staff twenty-four hour experience, and thought an intense adventure in the dark would have a big impact on his cabin of boys.  So after it got dark, he had led his cabin out their door, down the steps, and down the bank into the woods.  But within moments he became disoriented, and was horrified to realize that he had no flashlight.

Remember that this was old growth forest and in that neck of the woods night-time is very, very dark especially when it is overcast.  The trees grow to be in excess of 200 feet high, and create a thick canopy that hides the sky almost completely.  This forest is only a step away from being an authentic rain forest, so the understory can be thick and tangled, and where Jim had taken his boys was very steep.  They were in big trouble, and Jim realized it.

How would he keep the campers together?  How would they avoid injury?  How could they retrace their steps?  Jim’s panic grew as they crashed their way further and further down the steep hill and away from camp.  While he kept his panic to himself, the campers were oblivious to the danger, and were having a ball.  Eventually they got down to bottom of the hill without any injuries.  Jim was despairingly trying to lead his boys when he slipped and suddenly found himself knee-deep in the White river.

At that moment, with visions of campers swept away in the river, as his panic surged, Jim said that he physically felt some one grab his hand. That hand pulled  him out of the river, and led him back up the hill, and onto a trail.  As far as I know, he never saw who it was, but I have always thought it must have been Jesus himself, while others have assumed it was an angel.

Finding the trail was a huge relief to Jim.  They followed it upstream until he could see the silhouette of the suspension bridge over the river, and finally knew exactly where they were.  He had the boys huddle together beneath some low hanging branches until it was light enough to see.  They returned to camp just minutes before staff devotions.

I don’t think the campers ever realized that anything was wrong.  I don’t remember that as a staff we ever talked about it much after that morning.  But I am still astounded when I think about it.   Sometimes I think  that the Lord’s direct intervention was an affirmation that our program was pleasing to Him.  I’m sure that  a worst case scenario would have torn the heart out of our program.

Yet, it’s never about being worthy enough to earn God’s intervention in our lives.  God’s love and compassion was so great that night that He just had to take a hand and prevent disaster.  Why should that cause amazement?  Perhaps I don’t expect enough from God.

God’s Kingdom Has No Debt Ceiling

 Matthew 18:21-35

 21 At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?”  22 Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.  23” The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. 24 As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. 25 He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.  26 “The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ 27 Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.

28″ The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’  29 “The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ 30 But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. 31 When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.

32″ The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. 33 Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ 34 The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. 35 And  that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”

The Limit

When I was attending seminary, the Holy Egos drove me nuts.  These were the guys (yes, they were all male, go figure) who wanted the whole class to know that they had the highest theological IQ in the room, including the professor.  They would soak up huge amounts of class time in wearisome debates taking issue with the professors, to prove, I suppose, how wise and holy they were; therefore demonstrating how uniquely God had anointed them to proclaim the truth and defend the faith.  In this account from Matthew, I recognize the signs of Holy Ego in Peter.

I suspect that he was trying to impress Jesus – and the rest of the class – with his theological IQ.  That may be why he raised this question about forgiveness – then provided an answer.  “In the spirit of what you are talking about Rabbi, seven times would be about right wouldn’t it?”  Anyone even slightly conversant with the New Testament probably thinks that Peter only proved  what dough-head he really was.  But cut him some slack, because Peter actually showed some theological sparkle here.

In the religious teaching of that day, forgiving someone three times was as far as you needed to go.  Based on the book of Amos, it was taught that the extent of God’s forgiveness was four, and since no person is God’s equal, forgiving someone three times was sufficient.  Therefore, when Peter suggested a limit of seven, he was actually going over the top!  He was exceeding the norm.  And since seven was a special number associated with wholeness, completion, and perfection, Peter was really ahead of the pack!

Jesus responded by saying that in God’s realm, forgiving someone even seven times isn’t big enough, the limit is 70 x7.  So right here, we have the definitive standard of how many times you need to forgive someone, 490.

But do you really believe Jesus was being so literal?  Because if he was, do you really think you could keep track of someone sinning against you 490 times?  Even if you could, by number 490, forgiveness would have long since have become an ingrained habit!  Jesus’ reply means: “There is no limit to forgiveness – seven times might be a complete number, but it is not complete enough”.  Then Jesus tells this story to explain why there can be no limit to forgiveness in God’s realm.

Some Good News

It is difficult to accurately translate the servant’s debt of 10,000 talents into 21st century value. What puts it into perspective is learning that the annual revenue for the entire province of Galilee – a wealthy province – was 600 talents.  It would have taken the entire province of Galilee over sixteen years to pay off this man’s debt.  In other words, this man’s debt was astronomical.  His descendents would be working that debt off for generations.

So the servant begs – for more time, an extension, anything – it’s about to cost him everything. But the king doesn’t grant him an extension – he completely writes off the entire debt, a debt so large that it would have been significant for the king as well.  The king could have reduced it or refinanced it, but instead, he canceled it – completely.  The servant left a free man.

And that is incredible Good News, because each of us is the servant in that story.  Each of us owes God a debt of sin that is beyond our ability to ever make right with God.  No matter how hard we work at paying that debt down, we just keep getting deeper.  We identify with the words from Romans 7:18-19:  “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t.  I want to do what is good, but I don’t.  I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.”  It’s as if our natural inclination is to ignore God’s terms and instead try to relate to him on our own terms.  Or even to think and live as if there is no God.  That debt will cost everyone of us everything.

But God wrote the check on that, so to speak, when Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead.  God didn’t reduce the debt, or refinance it, God canceled it completely for everyone who chooses to accept the deal.  God offers to forgive the full debt of living in rebellion against Him. God has done more than we could ever ask for, more than we had a right to expect.

But look what happens next in the story.  This servant meets a fellow servant who owes him a little money.  Again, 100 talents is hard to translate into contemporary value, but whatever its value, it was only 1/100th the debt this guy was just released from!  Yet he didn’t even grant the mercy of more time that he had originally begged the king for! – let alone granting the kind of mercy he had just received.  So when the word got back to the king about this incident, the king was very unhappy, and things turned out worse for the servant than they would have originally.

Peter was thinking big, trying to expand conventional thinking on the limits of forgiveness.  But Jesus’ parable says that there are no boundaries to forgiveness where God rules, because there are no debt limits on God’s forgiveness.  God freely, completely forgives the debt of sin, a debt so large it is beyond comprehension, utterly un-payable.  Therefore, how can God’s people fail to forgive the comparatively small transgressions they encounter from others?

Jesus’ concluding statement forms a sharp contrast with Peter’s question.  The issue isn’t how many times you forgive someone before you can give them what they deserve.  If you follow Jesus, the issue is forgiving others with the same kind of limitless mercy that God has forgiven you.

Forgiveness 101

If you are a church person, this Good News about God’s limitless forgiveness has probably seeped in to your DNA.  But how about the “as I forgive my debtors” part of the Lord’s Prayer?  Do you know – really- what it means to do that?

1 Corinthians 13 says: keep no record of wrongs.  That is forgiveness.   Forgiveness doesn’t hang on to memories of hurt feelings, hold grudges, or think: “I guess I’ll cut you a little slack and see if you can make it up to me – I’ll give you a bit more time to pay down your debt.”

No – forgiveness cancels the record between you and that person, just as God canceled your debt with Him.  Don’t be misled by the tough guy idea that it’s possible to forgive, but not forget.  True forgiveness forgets, it deletes all the data in the “everything-I-hold-against-you” file.  The old Greek word translated in this passage in Matthew as “forgiveness” carried the sense of: to let go, let alone, let be; to disregard; to omit, neglect; to let go, give up a debt, to remit; to give up, keep no longer.

Church can be one of the most miserable and vicious places on earth.  Every church I have been involved with has had multiple layers of “issues”, a code word for unresolved hurt feelings between people in the church, as well as between family members.  Forgiveness is the balm to heal all those “issues”, but it is so rarely practiced.  I had a church leader once who hung on to a letter a church member had sent him that hurt his feeling horribly.  Even after the writer of the letter was diagnosed with a terminal illness, he refused for a long time to give up that letter and forgive.  I was stunned that a committed follower of Jesus would refuse point blank to even consider forgiving someone.  Happily, he removed it from his dresser and destroyed it before she died.

Hurt feelings hurt!  Forgiveness is hard, and not something most people are naturally inclined to do.   But hey, if God wants his people to so the impossible, then it’s up to God to make it happen!  The first step to forgiving someone is talking to God about it.  Let God known how hurt you are, how impossible it is to forgive that person, or even to want to forgive.  Lay it out there – “the only way forgiveness will happen God is for you to change me.” God likes those kind of challenges!

If you follow Jesus, how full are your “everything-I-hold-against-you files”?  Are you holding grudges, or continuing to feed hurt feelings with anyone at church, in your family, a friend, or a neighbor?  Don’t let your holy ego get in the way of following Jesus.