Tag Archives: theology

forgiveness vs. getting away with

When I was doing my C.P.E. (Clinical Pastoral Education) as a hospital chaplain while in seminary, I was called to see a woman who was described by the nurses on her unit as “depressed.”  She requested a visit from a chaplain, and so I was called.  All I knew about the woman when I walked into her room was that she had been in a terrible automobile accident and had been a patient for about a month.

After introducing myself and exchanging some social niceties I asked her why she wanted to see a chaplain.  She proceeded to tell me the story of her accident.  She had been drunk and had caused the accident which brought her to the hospital.  She had extensive injuries and some setbacks as she was trying to recover and she was convinced that God was punishing her for drinking and driving.  She was desperate to get back “right” with God, and would I help her with that?

I’ve been thinking about this woman a lot the last few days since the “Duggar situation” has exploded. Why? Because the pastoral/theological counsel I gave to her is exactly the same as my reaction to those who say that we should just move on from this – that Josh Duggar confessed, asked forgiveness, received forgiveness from those he abused (although I seriously have doubts about forgiveness granted so quickly by minors and family members!), and has been forgiven by God.

In some ways the situations are polar opposites – this woman being convinced God was punishing her, and those who advocate for Josh Duggar who say that he’s forgiven so we should just move on as if nothing happened (after all, it happened so long ago).  But the statement I gave to this woman, and how we “unpacked” it and the statement I would put forth to those who advocate for Josh Duggar are the same:  there is a difference between divine forgiveness and getting away with something.  God’s forgiveness often runs a completely different path than earthly consequences.

I assured the woman in that hospital bed that God was NOT judging or punishing her.  She made a bad decision by drinking and driving and paid earthly consequences for her actions – she got in an accident, and had legal ramifications for breaking the law that were still forthcoming.  But God’s love for her was constant throughout, and God loved her even in that moment.  Indeed God grieved for her suffering.  She knew she made a mistake, she confessed the mistake (repeatedly), and I reassured her God’s forgiveness was real and that God wanted her healthy again, not languishing in judgment and physical pain.

I would say to Josh Duggar and those quick to move on that he too has been forgiven.  God was deeply grieved and angered by his actions of abuse, but Jesus died for him just as Jesus died for me.  His slate in heaven is clean. HOWEVER, just as with the woman above – there are earthly consequences for his actions.  The statute of limitations ran out so that legal ramifications were no longer possible (although one wonders if that would have been the case if his father and church leaders had gone to authorities in a TIMELY manner instead of waiting so long!) – so instead the ramifications seem to be a loss of reputation in a VERY public way.  And since he saw fit to be a public personality, loss of reputation in a public way is a logical consequence, the price for putting his life on television.

As for his parents?  They too are paying an earthly consequence for their cover-up.  Their salvation is not in question. Perhaps if they had dealt with their son’s actions, again, in a timely manner, and if they had gotten the victims (some of whom were their own daughters!) and their son REAL counseling – instead of punishing Josh with “hard labor” and a “stern talking to” and expecting the girls to “forgive,” this situation wouldn’t have exploded like it has.  They too have lost credibility and now have lost their show.   For them it is the earthly consequence for their “mishandling” and what boils down to a cover-up.

Some of the exploding has to do with the sick and twisted theology to which this family adheres.  The self-righteousness and purity culture, the patriarchy and the subjugation of women are a ripe breeding ground for sexual and physical abuse.  Men get free reign and women are expected to “take it” because the men are truly in charge. Women are discouraged from working outside the home and even from going to college.  They have no positions in church leadership.  They are expected to tolerate physical abuse from their husbands, and for them there is no such thing as spousal rape.  But all this is a topic for another post which I’m not sure I have the stomach to write…

What I wanted to do here was explain that, yes, Josh Duggar can receive God’s forgiveness for his actions – but that doesn’t mean there won’t be earthly consequences for his illegal behavior.  His parents may be forgiven for their “inaction” but are also paying an earthly price.

There is a difference between divine forgiveness and getting away with something.  Josh and his parents have been forgiven, but they have also gotten away with something for more than ten years – so perhaps the uproar is just the interest on their earthly debt….

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my happy place

***I needed to blog about my vacation in two parts.  This first part is more a theological reflection (I’m a pastor, I can’t help it!).  The next part will be from a more “earthy” perspective!  Here’s part one…

For the past week or so I’ve been on vacation.  And for this time out from the regular routine I have been able to enjoy my ultimate happy place – the beach.  I grew up in the Northeast of the United States and have been vacationing at beaches as long as I can remember – mostly in Cape Cod and New Jersey.  But any beach is fine with me.

WHY is the beach my happy place?  Let me count the ways…

IMG_2646When I am sitting on the beach, looking out at the ocean, I’m overcome by the majesty of God.  We periodically read the creation accounts in worship, and that all fine and good, but a trip to the beach for me is like a field trip.  For example, “We’ve read about the Statue of Liberty in school, but now let’s go see it IN PERSON!”  Sure, God’s creation is all around us in our everyday lives, but the beach drives it home for me.  Right before my eyes is the awesomeness of creation for as far as my eyes can see.  Watching the sun rise over the ocean’s horizon is about as glorious as anything else I’ve ever experienced (besides giving birth to my three children).  And the ocean is so, well, VAST.

So, when I am sitting on the beach, looking out at the ocean, I’m overcome by how SMALL I am.  I’m struck by the enormity of the body of water before me.  I’m struck by the enormity of the horizon.  I’m struck at times by the power of the waves.  I’m struck by the ocean’s depth, and the whole other universe that exists under its surface.  What am I compared to all that?  Nothing that’s what.  I’m tiny, inconsequential, completely unimportant.  My life matters not much in the grand scheme of nature.

But, when I am sitting on the beach, looking out at the ocean, I’m overcome by God’s love for ME.  Because, while I really don’t matter in the grand scheme of nature, at the same time my well-being is of the UTMOST importance to God.  How utterly amazing is that?  Amid all this beauty, all this majesty, all this vastness, all this power, God chose to die for ME.  God loves creation – God said it was good.  But God loves you and me, these tiny specks of sinful nothingness, so much that God was willing to DIE to save us.  This is the truth that Christians live with every day, that Jesus was willing to sacrifice HIMself to save us from OURselves.

IMG_2434When I am sitting on the beach, looking out at the ocean,  I’m overcome by Law and GospelThe beach tells me I’m nothing and deserve nothing, but the beach also tells me that I’m everything and have received the very best.  It convicts me, shows me my earthly place, but it also reminds me of the greatness of my salvation, the enormity and the lengths to which Jesus will go in order to keep me in his arms of love.

Sure, there are plenty of superficial reasons why the beach is my happy place.  My husband loves the beach.  My children love the beach.  A trip to the beach is one vacation destination on which we can all agree.  That alone would be reason enough!  I also have wonderful memories of the beach through the years – as a child vacationing with cousins, dating my husband and getting to know his family, watching my children when they put their toes in the warm sand for the first time, first sand castles, helping them “jump” the waves, smiles and laughter.  Now that the children are getting older I can even close my eyes for a few seconds at a time to “take in” the sound and the rhythm of the waves.  Mind you, they’re still too young for me to take a nap or read a book, but those days will come back again one day.  Now that I think about it I could probably read a book, but for me book-reading leads to nap-taking, so better to leave the book back at the beach house…

In the end, the beach for me is a place for spiritual wonder and earthly joy.  It’s a place to realize and experience God’s creative greatness, my “not-so-greatness”, but yet God’s great love for me.  There’s no other place like it – not for me anyway.

IMG_2681

you can find part two, where I describe the more “earthy” aspects of my vacation here

 

Quid Pro Quo

I saw a statement on twitter yesterday that made me sad.  Sad for the untold number of people who actually believe it.  Sad for the preachers and spiritual leaders that don’t have the audience or the “reach” to combat it.  Sad for Jesus, whose sacrifice is rendered useless if the statement is true.  The statement?

God’s promises hinge on our obedience.

Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve come across a statement like this, or heard preaching with this slant, but for some reason today I felt like I had to write a response.

Praise and thank God that God’s promises do NOT hinge on our obedience.  Our obedience has nothing to do with it.  There is no quid pro quo with God.  You see, that’s one of the basic differences between God and human beings.  WE operate constantly on an “if/then” basis with one another.  Many times we’ll only do something nice or generous if we’re going to get a public thank you – one of the reasons why so many churches are filled with plaques of folks who have donated stuff, and why a hospital I walked through the other day had a HUGE wall of names of donors.  God doesn’t operate that way.

In reality, God’s promises are true and sure despite our LACK of obedience.  Jesus didn’t die on the cross so that we could perfectly follow God’s Will – he died precisely because we are NOT perfect and consistently sin and do NOT act in obedience.  THAT’S CALLED GRACE.  You and I don’t deserve a thing from God except condemnation.  But what does God give us?  GRACE.  FORGIVENESS.

I’m wondering what this person considers to be “God’s promises?”  Oftentimes when we hear phrases like this, what the people are really referring to are not God’s promises, but earthly “blessings.”  If I follow rules A, B and C, then God will give me D.  This my friends, is baloney (to put it nicely).  There are many preachers out there these days who are spouting this nonsense because IT’S WHAT PEOPLE WANT TO HEAR.  Of course we want to hear that if we play by the rules we’ll be rewarded.  Of course we want to hear that if we’re good little boys and girls God will get us a new toy.   We DON’T want to hear that bad things happen to good people.  We DON’T want to hear that we can be faithful and love God and still have a life filled with hardship.  We want to believe that we are somehow in control of our own destiny.  The idea that we are NOT in control is downright frightening.  But my friends, that’s the truth.

Another truth is that faith and material success or “worldly blessings” are often at odds with one another.  They can be a trap, a very dangerous trap.  If we’re not VERY careful our worldly blessings can become other gods for us.  What we have is never enough – whether it be money, power, respect, popularity etc… And for every successful person who thanks Jesus in some television interview, there are MILLIONS struggling to get by – struggling materially, struggling politically, struggling in their careers, struggling in relationships.  Does their lack of “blessings” signal that they are somehow disobedient to God or that God loves them less?  ABSOLUTELY NOT.   You know, the weak and heavy laden, the hated, the mourning, the sick, the little ones, etc…?  Jesus constantly reached out to those on the margins, touched the untouchable, even ate with sinners.  Our earthly blessings are not a sign of our obedience (or lack of it).

GOD’S PROMISES HINGE ON GOD’S PROMISES. 

That’s the way it goes.  God gave us some promises, and because God MADE the promises, God will KEEP the promises.  You know why?  Because unlike human beings, when God makes a promise God will never break it.

And what ARE God’s promises?  LOVE, GRACE, FORGIVENESS, PRESENCE, REDEMPTION, ETERNAL LIFE.

God makes NO promise that we will be loved by others – only that GOD loves us.  God makes NO promise that we will be wealthy.  No promise that we will be respected.  No promise that we will come first by worldly standards.  No promise of physical health.  No promise our relationships will be stable or healthy or even SAFE.  But God DOES promise us that we are forgiven, that we have a place in heaven, and that while we’re still in this life on earth we are NOT alone, but are always held in God’s arms.  And because of THESE promises of God we can have strength to cope with our challenges, strength to try to make our earthly life better, and peace that no matter what life throws at us, no matter how much we screw up, God will always love us, because the following is also true.

GOD’S PROMISES HINGE ON JESUS 

my autistic theologian

Conversations with my 11 year old daughter who has autism are very concrete.  Mostly simple questions and answers.  It gets really complicated for everyone when she asks questions that DON’T have simple answers.

For example, she recently asked, “Mommy, where is heaven?  Is it up in the clouds?”  I knew if I said no, (because I believe heaven is a place that exists apart from the earth as we know it), then I’d enter into a conversation that would leave her confused and me frustrated.  So I told her that I thought it was past the clouds, hoping that would be good enough.  It wasn’t.  Her follow up was, “So it’s in space.”  Um, no, not that either.  Wanting to avoid the confusion and frustration I took the easy way out and I said, “Well, I’m not sure exactly because I’ve never been there.”  That was ok with her.  Sometimes it’s just better, and in this case more honest, to say “I don’t know.”

I had the same interesting balancing act when she asked where Jesus was.  She finds it impossible to understand how Jesus can be in heaven, yet in each of our hearts at the same time.  For her it’s easier to comprehend a Jesus who moves around a lot, and very quickly – jumping between heaven and the hearts of believers.  Actually it’s amazing that she understands Jesus being in our hearts.  The way I explained it to her is that it’s like when she remembers people she loves who died – her grandmother and grandfather specifically.  When she remembers them, they’re in her heart – so when she remembers Jesus’ words or story, that’s when HE is in her heart – and she gets that (I’m pretty sure).

She’s known for a while that not everyone is Christian – we have a few Jewish friends and she has classmates who are Jewish, so she knows that some people worship at Temple (or Synagogue – a word she knows but cannot pronounce!), and some worship at Church.  We have yet to discuss other faiths since they’re not in her experience, and we learned a long time ago to only answer the questions that are asked.  We cross bridges when we get to them, not before.

Now, thanks to some of our ecumenical associations,  she’s starting to understand that not everyone is Lutheran, although we haven’t gotten into details.  More specifically her new area of fascination involves the cooperative worship we had during Holy Week with the local Presbyterian Church.  It’s taken her a few weeks to process some of this because Holy Week was back in April, but she’s been asking LOTS of questions the past few days.  Here’s a sample:

“Mommy, did Pastor Fran (the Presbyterian pastor) go to pastor school?”  (pastor school is how we’ve explained seminary to her)

“Mommy, does Pastor Fran have Sunday school at her church?

I’ve been working REALLY hard with her on pronouncing “Presbyterian” and she’s getting better at it.  When she first started saying it, it sounded more like “predaterian” (as in “predator,” not that she knows what THAT means, but I was still adamant to “fix” it).  I didn’t want it staying in her head that way!

“Mommy, does Pastor Fran and Presbyterians have big meetings like Lutherans?”  (meaning district-wide assemblies/conventions)

“Mommy, is everyone at the Presbyterian Church Presbyterian?   (may seem like a “duh” question for some, but not for her)  Then,

“Mommy, is everyone at our church Lutheran?”  (another “duh” question, but not for her)

The tough part is going to come when she asks what the differences are between Lutherans and Presbyterians (and Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, and Methodists, and Reformed, and Baptists etc…).  The answers will all depend on how she asks the questions I suppose.  We always have to start from there.  It ALWAYS starts from there.

I love that she is so curious about faith and the Church.  I love that she loves worship and sees our congregation as a natural part of her life.  I love that on Sundays we MUST go to church, and I love that she is adamant that if we’re going to church then she MUST wear a dress.  I love that she’s becoming a budding theologian!  Answering her questions is a challenge for sure, but the more I go about teaching her, the more I learn myself.