Monday, December 17, 2007

Saul in Tarsus

I’ve been back from sabbatical for over six weeks, and it does seem as if things at the church are pretty much back to normal now. But I myself have changed—especially since the three-week intensive retreat. In fact, I am pretty sure that I have changed a lot. Identifying what those changes are, how they are emerging, and how they are being put into practice is a process, i.e. it is happening over time. In many ways, it is pretty uncomfortable, because if I have changed, my relationships have changed. Not everyone wants to recognize the changes or even hear about what I learned when I was away. I hadn’t really anticipated that.

In the past year there has been more upheaval in my life, parish, and the wider Church than at any other time. And nearly all the upheaval so far has just brought ambiguity and irresolution. Nothing much has been “solved” or come to closure. Although this is uncomfortable, it is not bad by any means. I see it as a necessary transition time in which God is working.

Shortly after I returned home the house was recarpeted. That meant that just about everything in the place had to be taken out and then put back in. It was a ton 0f work and there are many details of reorganizing still to be sorted out, even a month later. The recarpeting was a super symbol for returning from the three-week retreat. It’s the same house, of course, and it is definitely recognizable for what it is—but the interior is both the same and also very much different. There is still a lot of stuff in the garage that needs to be unpacked. Some will be put in a place other than where it was before, some will go into storage, and some will be given away.

So today I mused on the time when Paul went to Tarsus after his conversion in Damascus. Setting apart his own somewhat different story (in Galatians 1:15-24) of the post-conversion events, I looked at Acts 9:1-30, especially the last five verses. Saul had gone to Damascus “breathing threats” against the Christian believers, got converted, and then began to preach what he had just tried to destroy. That raised murderous ire in some folks. Then he went to Jerusalem to try to join the other disciples but they were initially distrustful of him. Once again his preaching inspired a murderous response. So “the brothers … sent him off … to Tarsus” (Acts 9:30). He doesn’t appear again until Acts 11:25 when Barnabas sought him there and brought him back to Antioch to assist in the church. From there, after at least a year, began the missionary journeys and eventually the Pauline epistles.

Of course I had read this account many times, but only today did I ask, “What did Saul do in Tarsus?” We are told nothing about it. It is reasonable to expect that, at least in the beginning, it was a time in which he was pretty disconcerted. He was a highly trained rabbi with a powerful testimony. His effectiveness in Damascus was remarkable, his teaching even incontrovertible. When he came down to Jerusalem, he may well have expected that he would have been welcomed by the believers—which, eventually, he was. But this “highly trained rabbi” found himself subject to one-time fishermen who had been described as “uneducated laymen” (Acts 4:13)—not only that, but apparently he stirred things up enough in Jerusalem that the “uneducated laymen” sent him home to Tarsus. That couldn’t have been pleasant, nor would it have boosted his ego.

So I ask again, “What did Saul do in Tarsus?” What part did his stay there play in his later effectiveness? I expect that a time of tempering, including growth in humility, was vital to his Christian profession and subsequent preaching. Like many of the good things in life, time is essential for the ingredients of something to blend properly. Tea has to be steeped, wine has to be aged. I think spaghetti is better on the second day. Music played too fast becomes comic. Changes in life have to be assimilated and lived out.

I think that what I am going through now is learning to live with the ambiguity and irresolution that have so strikingly characterized the past twelve months. I very much doubt that it is a coincidence that so many important issues and events have been left open-ended—a state I have previously found to be prickly at best. At the very least, the irresolution means leaving the timing and details of things to God—and other people—as matters unroll. Patience. Humility. More listening and less talking. Putting familiar furniture back onto new carpet, etc.

Gradually things will get sorted out. Even the new direction this blog needs to go in is emerging. I doubt it’ll be too different from what it was before—like putting the furniture back into the house. But since the writer of the blog has been changed, what is written will be done a little differently.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

To Everything There is a Season

This blog started up fourteen months ago, and I’ve posted an average of a little less than one entry per week. Now that my sabbatical has ended I have come to a place in which I note that the more I have reflected on personal and spiritual issues, the less I need to say. It seems good to me now to step back from blogging.

Since John One Five started up, my blogposts have been on several themes. One theme, and the one that got the most hits, was Being Orthodox in the Episcopal Church. Things are now moving quickly in this arena, and many people are writing and speaking about them. I’ve made my contributions to the exchanges, and I think that they were unusual and cogent—such as Jawbone of an Ass, Winner Take Nothing (one year ago today), and Martial Church. Now I believe that my place is to be silent for the time being. But let no one conclude that silence means indifference, acquiescence, or surrender.

I’ve also posted on the theme of Office and Person—what it means to be a priest and pastor but also a person. The posts I wrote on this theme took more time to compose than any others, and affected me—and a few other people—more than any other. The more I thought, reflected, and then wrote, the more complex the matter showed itself to be. Whatever the complexities, however, I have concluded that no matter what the nature of the relationships I may have with members of the parish—friend, sensei, supervisor, employer, spiritual director, etc.—the role of pastor will be and should always be uppermost. I must hold fast to that one in every case; any other relationships that there may be will always come first from pastoring and be subordinate to it.

I’ve posted on a number of topics regarding the Christian Spiritual Life, like personal evangelism, the importance of showing affection, hearing confessions, reconciliation, and devotion to the Virgin Mary. I’ve been generally pleased with these and wouldn’t change much about them, and hope that they have been helpful to others.

Finally, I’ve written about a number of Miscellaneous Personal Matters like the value of hobbies and the treasures of memories. These posts probably had little merit other than entertainment, if that. These have interested some readers and perhaps bored others, but they were fun to write.

On the sabbatical I went more deeply into my own heart and memories than I ever have before, and now words are not sufficient for what I feel called to do. Words in a blog, no matter how carefully thought through or prayed about, are no longer the best way to communicate as I wish to. I won’t close the blog down and will probably still post once in a while, but I think that John One Five has served its purpose. Or maybe it will take some time to rethink what direction it may be moving in.

“To everything there is a season. …There is a time for speaking and a time for keeping silent” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7b).

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Golden Thread

I said I would report back later. Yesterday I returned from the three-week intensive retreat called Journey. It’s a program offered by Dr. Bryan Van Dragt in Gig Harbor, Washington. Bryan is a remarkably gifted and skilled Christian psychologist/spiritual director.

I have been on a lot of retreats, but never anything like this. The retreatant is to have no distractions—no internet, no telephone calls, not even books (except the Bible). “Boredom is your friend,” said Bryan early in our time together. You just have to trust that that is so, and discover what emerges in the empty hours.

The retreatant meets with Bryan very early in the morning Monday through Friday for a double appointment, and then returns home to the cabin that is provided for the duration. Bryan gives you a topic for that day’s reflection, very generally, in a very few sentences. For the rest of the day, apart from meal preparation and other necessary labors, there is nothing but silence and a journal. I filled 194 pages with handwritten notes—probably more than 30,000 words.

The cabin is located on Fox Island in Puget Sound. Here is a photograph taken from a fishing pier at the east end of the island, looking south.

Although there are many residences in the area, most of them are surrounded by old growth forest. Many homes cannot even be seen until you are right upon them. Here is a photograph of the cabin from one of the nearby streets.

Journey is not intended to be a restful retreat, but an encounter with God in the depths of oneself. I found it very hard at the beginning but the rewards began to come within a few days. Toward the end of the first week, I began to do almost nothing but go through all the memories I could possibly bring up from the first two dozen years of my life. Doing this at age 59 was, well, amazing. After a few days, a life without distractions had become almost second nature, and my reflections continued without ceasing, even during meal preparation, taking a shower, or during walks. A great peace settled into me that remained until the end. Then I was ready and eager to come home.

I was greatly blessed by the experience. It was astonishing how many of the great mysteries of my life were solved. Patterns, feelings, habits, attitudes, fears, interests, and joys that have marked my life for decades, whose origin I never knew or understood, became clear and fit together into a whole fabric. I might even say that I have no major questions left, and have come back very much changed.

Sometime early in the retreat, as I drove back to the cabin (eight miles from the office), there was early morning fog through which the newly-risen sun was shining with spectacular beams. I took several photos; this one seems to be the best of the lot. If there is a single photo that could capture what Journey was like for me, it would be this one.

One foremost theme that came through my reflections, the journaling, and the appointments is that there has never, ever been a time when I wasn’t aware of God’s presence and guidance, from my very earliest memories up until now, even in the darkest and most painful of experiences. In my journal I called this “the golden thread”. In everything God’s timing has been flawless, even in dreadful reversals and times of suffering. In periods of joy but also in every single dark, agonizing, or confusing period of my life, there was always the “golden thread” for me to follow, which I knew was the sureness of God’s presence. Bryan said that if he could give one gift to everyone, it would be that.

It will take some time, of course, to assimilate the changes, and maybe to show them. I have one more week or so to ease back into normal life, and to reflect on the experience. I will be back at church on Sunday, November 18, and my sabbatical will be over.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


In the early 1970s, when I was in seminary in Vancouver, British Columbia, there was a tiny shop in the downtown area called The Anglican Bookroom. It was run by an elderly couple, Albert and Florence Edge, long gone to their reward. They were simple and devout people. Their shop, also long gone, had many inexpensive treasures in it. I was greatly blessed by Mr. and Mrs. Edge and by several valued items I bought from them and still own.

One of them was a small book called The Hidden Garden of Prayer. It was written for children, first published in 1931 and reprinted in 1953. It is an exquisite handbook for teaching prayer, both deep and simple, childlike and mature. The author was an English Cowley Father, Edward Sedding, S.S.J.E. (Society of Saint John the Evangelist). He delivered his captivating teaching through an account of the cultivation of an English garden—preparing the soil, putting down a border of rocks, weeding, setting out the flowers, and of course enjoying them. The book began with an account of unlocking an old wrought iron gate to get inside the garden. I have since found ten or so copies of this little book, and have given some away as gifts and retained some on my bookshelf.

Here is the cover.

Here are a few internal illustrations. Beautiful in themselves, they also match the tone of the book.

I mention this enchanting book because I have the feeling that during the next three weeks, I’ll be living it out somewhat as I go on to the next step in my sabbatical. About halfway through the sabbatical now, I have come to feel like a garden that is being weeded, dug up, turned over, maybe fertilized, and definitely prepared for some new planting.

On Saturday morning I’ll fly up to Gig Harbor, Washington to continue my sabbatical with a three-week intensive retreat called Journey. I will stay in a cabin on an island in the Sound, surrounded by trees. Once a day I will drive across a bridge to meet with a psychologist/spiritual director. The rest of the time will be spent without any distractions—no internet, no telephone calls, not even books. Nothing but silence and a journal.

Of course, there will be the necessary housework like preparing meals, cleaning up, doing laundry once in a while—but other than that, there will be only prayer and reflection. It’s okay to walk in the woods, but only if it is conducive to deep deliberation. This is not intended to be a restful retreat, but an encounter with God in the depths of oneself; there are to be no distractions—not even too much exercise. The prospect is simultaneously attractive and daunting.

Six or eight other members of the parish have already gone through this experience, usually reserved for those in the Spiritual Direction program at Biola University. With two or three others, they comprise my primary prayer support for Journey. As one of them said to me recently, “If you ain’t scared, you ain’t taking it seriously enough.”

I’ll report back later…

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mid-sabbatical Reflections

Two days ago this blog turned one year old. In that time I’ve put up 52 posts (counting this one) totaling over 61,000 words. Its readers—or at least browsers, since I’m not sure how many actually read this blog—have come from 63 countries, some of which I’ve never heard of. I have posted on several themes, such as what it’s like holding orthodox beliefs in the Episcopal Church, musing on issues connected with being a priest and pastor, essays on personal spirituality, theological reflections, and miscellaneous personal matters. Whenever I posted something that had to do with confronting the course of the Episcopal Church in its headlong flight into wherever its going, the number of hits shot up into the hundreds for a few days, and then dropped off again. Usually this blog muddles along with a couple of dozen hits a day, many of them the same few.

For most of the past month I’ve been out of state on matters connected with my sabbatical. The sabbatical was severely derailed last May when I entered hospital through the emergency room. That was followed by an unexpected consuming pastoral matter that took up a lot of time and energy. By midsummer I was back on track, and plans that had had to be put off from the spring were rescheduled for the fall. After ten weeks back in the parish, I restarted the sabbatical September 17 and won’t be back until mid-November. A number of amazing lay leaders and staff, three assisting priests, and seven vocationers to Holy Orders are keeping the parish running admirably.

September 17-24 I spend in Loranger, Louisiana at a CREDO II conference. This course for priests is offered through the auspices of the Church Pension Fund, with a strong emphasis on “clergy wellness”. This is an intense program with plenary sessions for presentations by experts, small groups, optional individual appointments, and time for personal reflection and writing. CREDO (Clergy Reflection Education Discernment Opportunity) addresses clergy issues in four major categories of personal and professional life. I attended the first CREDO in October 2001. Being naturally suspicious of programs offered by Episcopal officialdom, I had to be urged to go the first time. A good recommendation by a priest of noted traditional credentials convinced me to give it a try. It was very good. I went without reservations to CREDO II, which was more in-depth.

The conference was held at the Solomon Conference Center, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana. The center is located on a paw of land surrounded by a lake shaped like a horseshoe. One side of the property is thick forest through which there are several paths. I spent much time there.

In the abundance of material that was presented and in the overall experience, there were many worthwhile nuggets, and I am glad that I went.

At the end of the program, I flew to Milwaukee. While in the air, I noticed that we were flying between two cloud layers. I'd never seen that before, so I snapped a photo with my cell phone.

Once in Milwaukee, I rented a car and drove 30 miles to Nashotah House Seminary, the Anglo-Catholic seminary of the Episcopal Church. I had been invited to conduct the fall retreat for the student body and faculty. It was supremely heartening to see that, after alarmingly lean times in the past twenty or thirty years, the seminary was now packed with students, most of them young, most of them holding traditional views. The community life is solid, built around the daily offices and the Mass. Here's the chapel:

It was a rich and complete delight to have frequent visits with Micah and Jenn Snell and three-year old Elisabeth. Micah is the farthest along of the ten vocations to Holy Orders that Blessed Sacrament is nurturing at present. Micah is in his final year at Nashotah House, and is scheduled for ordination to both diaconate and priesthood in 2008. The Snells and I had dinner together at least three times, and visited other times just to “hang out”. Standing out in my memory are watching the ballet “Swan Lake” on DVD with the spellbound Elisabeth, and sailing on Upper Nashotah Lake with Micah and Elisabeth on their own sailboat while Jenn enjoyed some time to herself. Here's a photo of Upper Nashotah Lake through the trees.

The retreat wasn’t scheduled to begin until a week after my arrival, so while I had the chance I spent a few days wandering around the seminary grounds, getting to know its routine and observing the students in community. The seminary was founded in 1842—just 66 years after the Declaration of Independence, in the days when people owned slaves and Wisconsin was the western frontier of the nation. The campus is spread out; the chapel is about a half mile from the married students’ housing where I was given a guest apartment. Making the round trip two or three times a day was good exercise. The cemetery is located directly across from the housing, and contains the mortal remains of several generations of Nashotah faculty, staff, graduates, and students, including Bishop Jackson Kemper and James Lloyd Breck.

One day I drove into Milwaukee where I had been asked to lunch by David Kalvelage, editor of “The Living Church”. I have written a number of articles and many devotions for the magazine during the past ten years or more. Mr. Kalvelage and I had corresponded during all that time but had not met in person until this occasion. The offices of “The Living Church” are located to the left in the gray building in this photo. The cathedral offices are on the right.


The weekend before the retreat was to begin I took three days to travel. I had brought CDs of four of the Chronicles of Narnia as dramatized by Focus on the Family. I had previously listened to the first three, and used the time of my driving now to complete the Chronicles. This is a magnificent production that I highly recommend.

I visited personal friends I had made through email contact, and concluded the journey with a stop at Blessed Sacrament Episcopal Church in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

That parish and my own are the only two churches out of about 7,000 in the Episcopal Church that bear that name. We have been informally connected for 26 years, but this is the first time I was able to be present on a Sunday. The Rector, Father John Cell, SSC, invited me to celebrate the second Mass on Sunday, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Father Cell has a true pastor’s heart, loves his ministry and his people, and is a gracious host. He’s been Rector for a little more than 25 years and hopes to stay as long as they’ll have him.

Here are the only two Rectors of Blessed Sacrament in the Episcopal Church:

I came back to Nashotah House and began the retreat on Monday evening, October 1. Over the next few days I delivered six addresses of 30-45 minutes each, heard a number of confessions, had a few appointments with students for spiritual direction, and finished up my official presence there by preaching at the matriculation Mass in the evening of October 4. It was a lot of work but extremely enjoyable.

The theme of the retreat was “Our God is a Consuming Fire”, with the six addresses dealing with matters of priestly life and spiritual leadership. I chose topics that can be learned best by experience and cannot be taught well, if at all, in an academic setting. My goal was to provide thought-provoking material for students who are called to the priesthood, and their families. The addresses were all recorded and will be available soon in MP3 format. They should all fit on one CD.

The day after the retreat was finished, I packed up and drove four hours to Peoria for a two-day visit with George and Lettie S. and their charming 20-month-old daughter Orinthia, called “Rinn”. They had moved from Blessed Sacrament to Peoria a little more than a year earlier. While in Peoria, the See City of the Diocese of Quincy, Bishop Keith Ackerman, SSC, gave me two hours of his time on a Saturday morning. Micah Snell had previously described me as being one of Bishop Ackerman’s “five hundred closest friends”.

With George, Lettie, and Rinn I enjoyed two wonderful dinners out, a drive through the gorgeous tree-clad “grand view” area of Peoria with its mansions and view of the river, a visit to Jubilee where Bishop Philander Chase founded a school in the 1830s and in whose cemetery he is buried, and finished with Mass on Sunday afternoon at Zion Episcopal Church in Brimfield where I was permitted to preach.

A long drive to Chicago brought me that evening to Trinity Evangelical Seminary where Adam Johnson is a doctoral student. I stayed that night with him and his wife Kat and their two small boys, Reuben and Nathan. The Johnsons had moved from Blessed Sacrament more than two years before. Having to catch an early flight the next morning, I was up before light and drove to Milwaukee where I turned in my car and began the flight home.

The visits were not over, however, as Matt and Charity Anderson met me during my layover in St. Louis and kindly bought lunch for us all in the airport. Matt and Charity had moved away from Blessed Sacrament just six or eight weeks earlier.

By that evening I was home, arriving just as the red ball of sun lowered to the western horizon. I had been gone 22 days, the longest time I have ever been separated from my wife in over 36 years of marriage. It was a rich and rewarding time away, packed with many different kinds of ministry, but I am glad to be home again.

Friday, September 07, 2007

More on Reconciliation

I reflected on “Sin, Forgiveness, and Love” with two posts a few weeks ago (here and here). To my surprise, continued reflection revealed layers of even greater complexity that I had known well but that hadn’t come to my conscious mind before. So here is one more post. This one is on the nature of reconciliation between human beings.

I assume in this post that all parties are Christian believers. Reconciliation with an unbeliever can, of course, happen, and should, but it is done a little differently and I don’t intend to write about that.

By the command of Jesus, when we sin against someone or someone sins against us it is not enough just to seek our own healing. At some point we must be truly concerned about the other party as well. When we are, the measure of healing when it is achieved can often be multiplied beyond our best imagining, and we see the grace of God working powerfully.

Seeking forgiveness from God is comparatively easy. Even a sacramental confession, scary as it can be, has a dependable outcome. One can always trust God to love and forgive, and (in this life) we know that we don’t really have to face him directly. Seeking forgiveness from another person, however, immerses us in a thorny real-life application of what we claim to profess. This can be very risky because (1) we DO have to face someone directly and (2) there is no guarantee or assurance, as there is with God, of a “happy outcome”.

I must add quickly, though, that whenever I have sought reconciliation with another person, or another person has done so with me, it has invariably been an easy and rewarding experience. The only hard part is thinking about it first.

I think there are four main reasons why people may choose a course other than reconciliation whenever they have sinned against another person, or been sinned against: pain, fear, anger, and pride. All of these are very powerful and can influence even devout believers, causing a detour from the way that Jesus has commanded us to follow. They must be overcome before reconciliation can take place.

For example, this is how pride affects those who are sinned against: there can be a kind of sweet, contrary pleasure in being wronged, because it creates an illusion of power over another and produces a false sense of “rightness” in oneself at suffering an injustice: it is easy to think, “I am better than the person who wronged me.” I confess there are times that I have felt this masquerade pleasure and have given it up only reluctantly. When I did so, a genuine pleasure immediately followed.

Reconciliation does not, cannot, and should not mean that a relationship will go back to the way it was. The past can be redeemed, but not changed or treated as if it didn’t exist. “Forgive and forget” is a secular saying; it is not Christian. “Forgetting” is not part of genuine forgiveness. The saying becomes Christian when it means “forgive and then allow the sin no more power to continue a rupture in your relationship”—i.e., “forgive and let it go.”

Reconciliation can mean either rebuilding and strengthening a relationship or closure with a measure of peace. That is, in reconciliation a relationship that has been damaged by sin can be renewed with greater strength and power than would have been possible before, or it can come to a peaceful, if poignant, end with the assurance that there is no unfinished business.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are processes; they often take place over a span of time rather than in an instant. Sometimes the span of time needs to be long. One can ask for, or grant, forgiveness too soon. Doing so may mean that one wants an illusion of peace without allowing oneself or the other party an opportunity to do the necessary work. For forgiveness to be full, it must be freely, completely, and knowingly given. To ask for it, or grant it, too soon is not really to know it in its richness; it is to settle for an “easy fix”. Sometimes it can take fifteen or twenty or more years to ask for or grant forgiveness.

Sometimes time is needed just because one or both parties need to mature to the point where they are able to address the process of forgiveness and reconciliation sufficiently and properly. Adults who were abused as children, for example, need adult maturity to process and understand the issues involved before any forgiveness they offer can have full richness.

I remember being told of a woman who had been severely abused in childhood for years by her mother. Eventually the woman came into contact with a certain Episcopal Bishop (who told me the story himself). Through the Bishop’s ministrations the woman eventually chose to release the harm done to her by her mother and forgive her. As soon as she did so, her mother—who had long been estranged from her daughter and lived across the country from her—suddenly felt a great burden lifted from her. In the power of the abrupt lightening in her soul, she sought out her daughter and the two were movingly reconciled.

The one who asks for forgiveness may need a long time to prepare for the request, but the one who is asked to grant it may be taken by surprise and therefore be unprepared to do so. I have sought out people against whom I had sinned twenty years before, and others have sought me out after many years. In these cases asking for or granting forgiveness has invariably been a rich and exhilarating, liberating experience, but it took those years for both parties to be ready to do what needed to be done. A delay longer than necessary, however, can multiply hurt, sorrow, and damage more than necessary. It is always sin that is messy— forgiveness and reconciliation are just about always simple, deep, energizing, and powerful.

There was a time when I took a severely injured party to meet with the offender more than two decades after the offense, when even two therapists strongly counseled against it. The offended party, however, decided to follow my suggestion and as it turned out, there was gratifying reconciliation—not perfect or complete, by any means, but a good beginning that eventually involved others. The injured party decided to risk much for the possibility of much greater reward—and got it.

Sometimes it takes the immanence of death to bring about the right opportunity. I know personally of someone who had caused grief and sorrow to her family for many years. When she was dying, she hung on until her husband said, “I forgive you.” A tear fell and a peaceful death followed shortly afterwards.

In this blogpost I have not considered the effects of ancillary relationships that parties in a broken relationship have. They also heavily influence the course of sin, injury, forgiveness, and love. That is, whenever a bond between two people has been damaged by sin, all the other relationships both parties have, both past and present, influence the course of what happens next. “Family of origin” issues and the present counsel of friends and advisors all contribute either to further estrangement or reconciliation.

Even a brief glance at the personalities in “Romeo and Juliet”, just to pick a well-known example, shows the truth of this quite handily. And these observations are just the barest beginning of real-life complications that I have seen all too frequently, or been a party to. I will not take the time here to share my reflections on the complexities of these issues. It is beyond the scope of this blogpost to look further at this element in dealing with sin and forgiveness, but it is important to point out that, regardless of the influences other people have in our lives, ultimately each individual must decide personally what he or she is going to do about the estrangement that a sin has brought about, and only the individuals who are most affected by the sin have the power to tip the scales—friends and advisors do not have that much power unless we give it to them.

Over all, in the universe of glory and the boundless ocean of God’s love, is it not obvious that even the worst sins are like dust motes? What will the relationship be like in heaven between Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and the persecutor Paul who consented to his murder? It is inconceivable that there would be bad blood between them. Do we not see from this that any sin can be forgiven—not only by God but by the offended party as well? —that what is complicated on Earth becomes the easiest and most natural thing when we do things God’s way? Can we not see that the sole “unforgivable” sin—the “sin against the Holy Spirit”—is eternally refusing the unutterably consoling and life-giving love that God endlessly offers his people, of which forgiveness of sins and the reconciliation of sinners is an essential facet?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

In Silence, Shouting for Joy

I have just returned from a personal, completely silent retreat of three days’ duration at New Camaldoli Hermitage. New Camaldoli is a Benedictine monastery of 800 acres set on a hillside a mile or so above ocean cliffs on the central coast of California, placed among oak, eucalyptus, various spreading evergreen trees, and lots of chaparral. Though the hillside was open to sunlight, the sea below was blanketed in fog like batting throughout the day.

I have gone to the Hermitage every year or two for a decade or more, and had been there less frequently than that since 1975. I picked the dates of this retreat back in February when I made my reservation because of a total eclipse of the moon that was to take place on August 28. I only found out a few days before my departure that the eclipse would occur between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m.! Still, I woke up for it.

The sound of cicadas was everywhere. The full moon was a bit south of directly overhead. The view could not have been better. A little after 2:00 a.m. the disk of the earthshadow had bitten a noticeable chunk out of the moon. An hour later, the moon was fully engulfed by the shadow and had become the color of blotchy, drying blood. It was definitely worth getting up in the wee hours of the morning to see, but there was an added blessing I hadn’t anticipated.

I could see the Milky Way—the great spangle of stars that spreads across the night sky as if it had been sprayed. Unfortunately there were bright night-lights in the proximity of the retreatants’ rooms, but I only had to walk fifty yards or so to get away from them. I lay on my back on the top of a low brick retaining wall and looked up. The view of the stars was dazzling. There were so many it was even hard to identify common constellations.

Is this what Abraham saw? I wondered. “The Lord took Abram outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars if you can. Just so shall your descendants be’” (Genesis 15:5). Abraham probably saw even more stars than I was seeing, for he had no artificial lighting of any kind to wash out the light of the stars.

As I stared upward, I was unexpectedly brought back fifty years or more when I could see the Milky Way from the back yard of my home in Northridge, a little town in the San Fernando Valley twenty miles northwest of Los Angeles. For decades now light pollution has been so strong there that one can see few stars at all, much less the Milky Way. I’ve heard reports that when there is a power failure in Los Angeles, frightened people call up the police station to ask what all the dots of light are in the sky. How incredibly sad!

I remembered that it was looking up at the night sky in the early 1950s when I was a small child that first piqued my sense of wonder and inspired a love of astronomy. From that, through many stages, came my love of orthodox Christian theology, which is itself throbbing love poetry for God. My sense of wonder has never been slaked—rather, it grew into worship.

It was well worth waking up at 2:00 a.m. Although, being on retreat in a hermitage, I was in silence, I was also in a place where “The morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy!” (Job 38:7)

Friday, August 24, 2007

“So Could You Kill Somebody?”

Once not long ago I had an appointment with somebody in my office; the only time I could see him was an hour before the martial arts class, so I was dressed in my karate uniform. When he found out how long I had been training and teaching others and what my rank was, he asked, “So could you kill somebody?”

I answered, “Just about anyone can kill somebody. It is better to be in a state where aggression of any kind cannot overcome you—when you can endure and survive an attack without causing harm in return, and even work toward healing your attacker.”

When I was growing up, advertisements for martial arts classes often showed a picture of a little guy at the beach getting sand kicked in his face by some pugnacious lummox. The headline for the ad read something like, “TIRED OF GETTING PUSHED AROUND?” The ad promised that those who trained at so-and-so school would quickly be able to respond to violence with even stronger violence.

Isn’t it usually the case that people who use violence are weak in some way? Emotionally, spiritually, relationally, etc.? More often, it is the strong who can endure injustice and even violence and come through okay. When Jesus was arrested, a large group of armed soldiers came to apprehend one man in the presence of eleven men who were fishermen and other non-soldierly types. Yet they were afraid, and came with swords, cudgels, and torches to cover their fear. When Peter swung his sword (impetuous as always but also pretty courageous), Jesus rebuked him and said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53)

Sometimes I think about what it would have been like to see that happen! I don’t know how many a legion is, but it’s got to be a lot. It would have been really cool to see twelve of them appearing to drive off the arresting party. Of course, that would have meant no crucifixion and therefore no redemption, and that would have been bad.

Sometimes letting oneself be assailed, treated unjustly, and the like is a necessary part of ministering, teaching, and loving. It is within the will of God. Many times one or few stood alone for the sake of fidelity to God: Elijah against the 850 prophets on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18), Paul bearing witness to Jesus before Felix and Agrippa in Caesarea (Acts 23-26), Athanasius “against the world” holding forth for orthodoxy against powerful and popular but erroneous belief, Hilary likewise boldly standing up for orthodoxy alone in a council of waverers and opponents, Francis and Catherine of Siena walking away from their earthly-minded families for the sake of utter dedication to Jesus, Teresa of Avila maintaining the course for a return to basic Christian living in the face of opposition from her comfortable superiors. There are many, many others.

Numbers and popularity apparently mean very little to God. Only rarely, if ever, has he depended on numbers to win a battle. Usually, it’s the contrary. We are called simply to believe in him, trust in him, hold fast, and when called to do so uphold the truth. This is strength, the only strength that matters and is reliable.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Reflections on the Anglican Realignment

There seems to be little question that the Anglican Communion is going through an unprecedented major realignment at this time. Most leaders and commentators across the spectrum of conviction agree that this is the case. Indeed, the realignment has been in process for years already. Some reflect and publish in a considered and Biblical manner, and make their case logically and humbly. Others do so with varying degrees of arrogance, stridency, fear, discouragement, lack of charity, ignorance, etc. What the realignment will look like when it has been achieved is a matter of guesswork, and the settlement will probably take years to emerge.

Blessed Sacrament’s Discernment Committee, which I called together last January (see this post), has been doing careful, prayerful, and effective work to look at the trends, issues, and possibilities. The Committee has a huge charge, though it may be simply stated: make a recommendation to the Vestry about what is best for Blessed Sacrament in this time of realignment.

The Discernment Committee—and two of our Lenten programs as well—began by learning about the Anglican Communion, which consists of 38 independent provinces throughout the world, with about 75 or 80 million Anglicans. We have learned that the Communion overall is healthy and robust. The strength of the Anglican Communion is in the “Third World”, mostly in Africa, if one may measure by vibrancy of faith in the pew, number of converts, and strength of commitment to commonly-understood Biblical orthodoxy. Almost 25% of the Anglican Communion is found in Nigeria alone. African Anglicanism is strongly evangelical rather than Anglo-Catholic in preference. Western Anglicanism appears to be in decline. Membership and attendance in the Episcopal Church, for example, have declined a little bit each year for a long time.

The Anglican Communion came into existence almost at random, with its greatest period of expansion in the latter half of the nineteenth century with the spread of the British Empire. There was no intention at that time to “centralize” the Anglican Communion or come up with a way to make decisions on a worldwide basis. There was no need to do so. Anglicans generally have considered the independence of the provinces and a decentralized form of governing to be a strength. It has often been said that the Archbishop of Canterbury is a “first among equals” and has no juridical authority outside his own diocese.

For the past generation or more, however, a few provinces in Anglicanism have made unilateral decisions that have had a serious negative effect on the rest of the Anglican Communion. These decisions, mostly made by the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, and how other parts of the Anglican world responded to these decisions, have brought the Anglican Communion to a crisis. It is clear that the Anglican world has come to a point where it cannot and will not function as it used to. Whatever it comes to look like, the future Anglican Communion will be different from what it has been.

At the risk of putting it too simply, it seems to me that there are now two views about the way Anglicans should do business. One view says that in the modern world, Anglicans need to realize that they are in fact a world community addressing world issues, and that the provinces are interdependent—not “should be interdependent”, but already “are”. Major issues that confront any given province will likely affect all the other provinces. Therefore a way must be found to define Anglicanism as a world community with a decision-making process at the world level. That means that we must “centralize” the way we make decisions in areas that affect the whole Anglican world.

The other view asserts that that is not the way Anglicans have ever made decisions, and actually goes against one of the strengths and boasts of Anglicanism: a decentralized form of government with provincial independence. This claim is certainly accurate—historically, at least. The question is whether this way of doing business meets our current needs. In my opinion, the old way is clearly inadequate. Even apart from the issues that have created the crisis, to try to maintain the old way of doing things is backward thinking—basically merely saying, “But we’ve never done it that way before.” It is doing business this way that has brought the Anglican Communion to its current crisis. It doesn’t work any more. It hasn’t worked for more than thirty years. (I find it more than curious that most of those who claim to be “pushing the envelope forward” in the Anglican world are the “backward thinkers” in the matter of Anglican decision-making!)

The first view, proposed by the great majority of Anglican leaders, is indeed a way new to Anglicanism. This does not make it automatically wrong. In my opinion, it is, in fact, wise, realistic, and essential. The realignment is moving in the direction of this view—creating a worldwide Anglican identity with mutual accountability and effectively recognizing that Anglicanism has become a world family and is no longer a loose confederation.

There are currently four Instruments of Unity in Anglicanism that define us as a world family: the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury who is the symbol of unity and has authority to decide who is an Anglican; the Lambeth Conference of all Anglican bishops, which began in 1867 and meets every ten years to take counsel; the Anglican Consultative Council, a deliberative body that includes clergy and lay people from around the world; and the Council of Primates, or bishops who are leaders of the 38 Anglican provinces. The latter two only came into existence in the 1970s.

Currently, there is proposed to the 38 provinces an “Anglican Covenant” by which the various provinces are asked to agree together to be a worldwide family with mutual accountability and, when necessary, make binding decisions together. It is a situation similar to the time after the original thirteen American colonies had become independent from England and then had to decide whether to form a federal government or not. It is a rare situation in world history, and people do not easily or gladly cede authority to a larger body. Until now there has been no need in Anglicanism to do so, but it seems to me to be a crying need today.

What will the Episcopal Church do in the present time? What will the rest of the Anglican world do once the Episcopal Church makes its decision? What will Blessed Sacrament do as these decisions unfold? Ah—these are the questions, aren’t they? As always, they are only different forms of the One Great Question of all: how do we best serve Jesus?

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Sin, Forgiveness, and Love: Part II

Read Part I of this post here.

Writing this post has been far more demanding and time-consuming than I anticipated, for each line carries some heavy complexities. But then, this is only a blogpost, not a treatise, curriculum, or book. So here goes:

Restore me to you
Christians believe that we are forgiven sinners. When we sin and are sorry for it, we believe that God forgives us. “We have complete confidence” and are “sincere of heart and filled with faith, our hearts sprinkled and free from any trace of bad conscience” (Hebrews 10:19, 22). Yet I have found that although many believers acknowledge that this is true, they rarely feel it. We are often told, even by experienced spiritual directors, that feelings are comforting but not strictly necessary, and that assenting to the belief is most important.

This is true, but I rather think that consistent failure to feel what we believe is indicative of something that needs attention. Doesn’t the assurance of being truly loved fill us with joy? If it didn’t, wouldn’t that be a sign that we didn’t really believe or trust that the love was genuine? Believers are to be confident that we are loved and worthwhile people in spite of our sin.

Our confidence to relate to others, especially those against whom we have sinned and to whom we owe a moral debt, can only come from being restored to God who strengthens us and gives us grace to seek reconciliation with others. Without that, the best we can do is stumble through with very mixed results. Yet we are also taught by Jesus himself to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”—that is, our understanding of and ability to accept forgiveness from God is linked to our experience of forgiveness at the human level.

Grant reconciliation with any whom I have offended
This is by far the most difficult, challenging, and risky part of the entire process of sin, forgiveness, and love. Although reconciling with others is a command given by Jesus in Matthew 18:15ff, I think that it is rarely followed. Whenever a serious sin has done considerable damage in a relationship, it is complex and costly to try to effect reconciliation, for doing so is completely dependent upon others who are sinners themselves.

Those who ask forgiveness put themselves into the power of others, and Jesus knows well that that power will not always be wielded in mercy and love, but sometimes in vengeance—which is another sin in the sad cycle of human relationships. Since no sin is solitary, being hurt by someone else’s sin stirs up other sins that have caused wounds. (For more on this subject see the post called With His Stripes We Are Healed.) That can inspire a variety of different responses that can make reconciliation very difficult, requiring generous servings of humility and courage.

Yet Jesus ordered us to seek reconciliation with anyone whom we have offended—and, for that matter, anyone who has offended us. In spite of all the complications, if two people desire reconciliation, they can find it, with or without the involvement of others, as long as they are willing to recognize and accept that reconciliation in this life can never be free of “fuzzy edges”. In fact, Jesus provides no other option for achieving reconciliation.

Through all the complications, it is vital to know that no merely human circumstances have veto power over forgiveness. If the offended party is unavailable—long missing, dead, or unwilling to reconcile for any number of possible reasons—this can complicate matters but can never blockade the peace that God promises in Jesus. Any individual who sincerely seeks forgiveness may have it, with or without the participation of the offended party. (I’ll post more on this topic in a few days.)

True love is shown when there is genuine desire for genuine reconciliation, for such love is powerfully made known when the sinner knows he hasn’t earned it but it is given just the same. This is where love is proven. I suspect that love is perhaps most truly shown in such circumstances. This kind of love is akin to the love Jesus commands us to show to those who cannot pay us back. “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10).

Help me to forgive those who have sinned against me
When we ask for forgiveness, we are indeed asking someone to give us something that may be very difficult to give. In some ways, it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to grant it. One has much to gain but maybe little to lose by asking.

Yet Jesus has made it clear, very clear, that our own forgiveness is dependent upon our forgiving those who sin against us. Many, many people have sinned against me, sometimes grievously. I’m sure that every priest can say the same thing. We are often unjustly the targets of people’s angers and hurts; it is part of our ministry. Even though I know this, I have been angry for many years at some people for savage hurts they have done me.

Yet I must forgive—certainly for my own ability to be forgiven, but also for the sake of those who have sinned against me. Jesus himself, and his first martyr Stephen after him, prayed for those who were unjustly killing them at the time they were doing the praying. (See Luke 23:34 and Acts 7:60.) Forgiving others is a critical precondition for receiving forgiveness for our own sins—not like the turning of a switch, but as a condition into which we grow over time.

Give me desire and grace for amendment of life
Once we recognize that we have sinned, , we must set about doing whatever we can to prevent a recurrence of the sin. To achieve this, human effort and divine power must work together; hence “amendment of life” requires both desire for it and grace. Grace provided without desire for it is rare but possible, but is intended to build desire without which the grace may be unproductive. An example is the man by the pool of Bethesda whom Jesus healed and then called to forsake his sin. (See John 5:1-14). As for desire without grace... well, there is no such thing, though grace may be delayed until the timing is right. I do not believe that grace will be denied if genuine desire is there.

One may think of the broken bone that, immediately after the injury, hurts and hampers normal activity, yet eventually grows to be stronger than before. Most leaders of the people of God were displayed as great sinners: Noah, Moses, David, Peter, Paul, etc. Paul even boasted of it—boasting not of his sin, but of the grace of God that was manifested to all because of his sin. “‘My grace in enough for you: for power is in full stretch in weakness.’ It is, then, about my weaknesses that I am happiest of all to boast, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me... For it is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9, 19b).

This is the conclusion of the well-known passage about Paul’s thorn (2 Corinthians 12:7ff)—probably either a chronic illness or a besetting sin that God refused to remove. It was Paul’s own weakness—whatever it was—that revealed to him the powerful grace of God.

We must couple John’s, “No one who is a child of God sins” (1 John 3:9a) with Paul’s, “The good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want—that is what I do” (Romans 7:19). This is far too complex a matter for reflection on a blogpost that has already grown long, though I think that a good place to start would be to consider what is in the heart of the believer. When we truly and genuinely desire holiness, to love God and our neighbor, our sins will be kind of like “exhaust” on the journey, i.e. not willfully evil or deliberately injurious to others as the primary pattern of life. That is, they are evidence of weakness and imperfection rather than corruption that has been embraced while God is rejected.

Let me live in joy
The final stage in knowing the infinite love of God through the process of renewal after sin is to accept it all humbly and gladly, with childlike simplicity. We cannot do this, of course. Writing the points of these two blogposts down as if they were points in an instruction manual makes it come across as rather artificial, and of course no real relationship can be like that. We must always live with rough edges, incompletenesses, anomalies, and imperfections. God knows that.

Where John taught that “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18a), we have to hope that maybe pretty good love reduces fear, and that we will grow step and step, stage by stage, seeking the holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14) but which is granted only by the will of God. (See Hebrews 10:10).

Finally we must believe that, “No created thing whatever will be able to come between us and the love of God, known to us in Christ our Lord” (Romans 8:39). By the grace and in the economy of God, therefore, even our sins and the sins of others against us can lead us and them more and more deeply into the fathomless depths of joy and peace and truth and love. In this life, these will always be mixed with pain and grief, but at the end we may expect that God “will wipe away every tear” (Revelation 21:4) and our joy “no one will take” from us (John 16:22b).

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Five Smooth Stones

This item can be considered a companion to last October’s post I called Jawbone of an Ass.

Recently I reflected on David’s encounter with Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1-58), and for the first time noticed something that gave me a cool insight. As I read through the account, there were the usual observations I had seen before. At nine feet tall, Goliath was a pituitary giant. These unfortunate folks usually have weak hearts. The man also wore heavy bronze armor and carried bronze and iron weapons. He clearly had some strengths, but also a few obvious weaknesses. With his size, his movements would have been ponderous and he would have tired easily. The opponent most likely to be successful against him would have to be someone who could move quickly and keep out of range of his weapons.

Goliath’s taunts of the Israelite army were a large part of his assault. A voice that was no doubt booming and his formidable size with overlarge weapons surely made it easy to daunt the Israelite army. His challenge to single combat really ratcheted up the stakes. It is no wonder that the Israelites couldn’t find anyone willing to meet Goliath. The war of nerves was pretty one-sided, but that was only because the Israelite army was thinking in the same terms as the Philistines—matching strength for strength.

David reset the terms by asking, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Samuel 17:26b) —that is, David didn’t see a giant who had all the advantage by brawn and force; rather, he saw one who was at a fatal disadvantage because he was opposing the army of the people who served the true God—even if that same army was failing to remember that. In short, David recognized that this was not a secular battle but a spiritual battle—and he was confident of victory because he was dedicated to the living God.

From an encounter based on sword against sword, armed warrior against armed warrior, David changed things by forsaking armor and even conventional weapons. When he stepped out unarmored and apparently weaponless to confront the giant, Goliath protested, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” (1 Samuel 17:43b) Goliath had failed to realize that the terms of battle had shifted. David announced the new terms in the exchange of boasts before the fight when he cried, “I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand” (1 Samuel 17:45b-46a).

See, David was totally confident that the Lord would deliver Goliath and that he would prevail in the clash. Still, confronting Goliath in the valley while two armies watched from the ridges must have taken a lot of courage. With that courage, in spite of his youth, David could also depend on his experience against lions and bears, as he had informed Saul. So David went out with both faith in God and his own skill and cunning. The sling was precisely the right weapon with which to do battle against Goliath.

The new insight I mentioned above came to me when I read that David had chosen “five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s bag or wallet” (1 Samuel 17:40). The thing is, he took five stones. Though fully confident in the Lord, he didn’t take just one stone; he admitted to himself the possibility that he might miss the first time—and the second, third, and fourth. David knew that his success against Goliath would have to depend not only on the Lord’s favor and grace, but also on his own courage, his successful defense of his flock against lions and bears, and his skill with the sling, and he knew that these were fallible and he had to be prepared for catastrophe. That is, alongside the grace of God he would have to work for the victory.

So it often is with the faithful. Many times, like the Israelite army, we think by a secular measure and therefore refuse to go to battle because we are vastly outnumbered and outgunned and we are unnerved by formidable opposition. On the other hand our dependence on the Lord may be such that we only “pick up one stone”; we expect deliverance by a miracle and fail to see that we have to do our part with everything we’ve got—our own courage, our own experience, our own skills, and our own possibility of missing the mark once or twice or more often than that when the battle is joined. God will not abandon us, but usually neither will he do all the work.

In nearly every specific task in Scripture that God asks of his people, they have to do something. Noah had to build an ark. Ananias had to go to Saul to lay hands on him after his conversion. Etc., etc. God assures us the victory, but we cannot be mere spectators to it. We have to do our part, and that means going forth confidently while also admitting the possibility of setbacks and failures. Taking five smooth stones is by no means evidence of distrust in God—on the contrary, it is recognizing that within God’s grace we are subject to failure and reversal even as we go forward on the winning side to ultimate victory.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Sin, Forgiveness, and Love: Part I

According to Luke, the first generation Church had two emphases in its preaching: the resurrection of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins. “It is written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that in his name repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be preached to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47); and “By his own right hand God has now raised [Jesus] up to be leader and Saviour, to give repentance and forgiveness of sins through him to Israel” (Acts 5:31).

There are so many other areas of Christian life and belief that are now preached that I wonder if somehow we have lost sight of the immensity of the declaration that sins can be forgiven. For Luke, it was the first, most amazing promise of Christian profession. (Of course, one has to have a sense of sin before the promise of forgiveness will have any appeal. That is difficult today, even in the Church, but still true.)

For a long time, like so many believers I thought that we need do no more than confess our sins and so be forgiven. “If we acknowledge our sins, he is trustworthy and upright, so that he will forgive our sins and will cleanse us from all evil” (1 John 1:9). Simple. And, of course, true. But over the years, as my understanding of theology has grown and my experience as a sinner, spiritual director, and one who hears confessions has broadened, I have come to realize that this simple thing has layers to it. Reflecting on the layers provides a rich understanding of Luke’s great claim that “because Jesus is risen from the dead, sins may be forgiven.”

For most of my adult life I have done a moral self-examination each day and confessed my sins to God, and then several times a year made a more thorough inventory for confession to a priest. But in the past few years my daily prayer in this area has expanded. Now I begin each day by praying that when I sin you will protect others from any harm that might come to them because of me, and show me my sin, bring me to repentance and confession, have mercy on me, forgive me, restore me to you and grant reconciliation with any whom I have offended, help me to forgive those who have sinned against me, give me desire and grace for amendment of life, and let me live in joy.

Following are brief reflections on this prayer, line by line.

When I sin, protect others from any harm that might come to them because of me
This is the first part of the prayer, coming even before I pray that I will know what my sin is. I intend this to be an act of love for others, that they will be protected from the consequences of my sin even before I ask to know my sins and ask for forgiveness. “Protect others before setting me right,” is what I mean.

At the same time, I do realize that whenever I sin, others will be hurt regardless of my prayer. It is the network of human contact and relationships that we live in that makes this so, just as it makes love possible. No one sins alone, and no sin is solitary. By this prayer, then, I really mean to commit anyone who is affected by any sin of mine into the care of God so that the sin’s effects will become means of blessing, redemption, and growing in love.

It also asks that whoever I sin against will be loving toward me by showing me my sin and bring me into a deeper understanding of God’s love. Whenever I sin against someone, I put myself into their power, for they have the potential to show me the power of God and his love in a fashion I could not receive in any other way.

Show me my sin
Knowing for sure what one’s sin is may not be as easy as one might think. It’s more than just acknowledging that one had lost one’s temper, neglected to help someone in need, or whatever. We human beings have many ways of avoiding an unpleasant truth. Some want to grab all the blame if something goes sour, others become defensive, others rationalize, and still others look for someone else to blame—or a combination of these responses. All of them are ways in which people refuse to see what is true. Being set right with God after a sin requires first simply acknowledging not just facts, but truth—neither claiming blame wrongly (for that denies to others the opportunity to recognize their own sin, which is unloving to them), nor refusing to listen, nor defending oneself (and there is always some proper reason to do so), nor rationalizing, etc.

It can take real discernment to prise the truth out of a situation. In addition to hurt, there is shame, blame, defensiveness, fear of being thought poorly of by others, etc. John’s, “If we acknowledge our sins,” can be very difficult to do, even if we want to acknowledge them. Often it takes another who loves us who can and will show us the truth, as Nathan told King David: “You are the man!” And David responded properly and admirably, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:7, 13). Until Nathan confronted him, David had intrigued to hide his sin, and by doing so became more and more embroiled in it.

A few years ago, for example, I became angry at someone at an important event in his life. Later he came to me, gently and humbly, and showed me how inappropriate my anger had been. We were quickly reconciled and I was greatly blessed by his love and truth-telling.

Bring me to repentance and confession
Recognizing one’s sin provides no guarantee of moving on to the next step. After recognition, one must come to repentance. Repentance means not only saying, “I have sinned,” but being sorry for it and wishing to fix it. There are times when someone may say, “Yes, okay, I did it, but...” And “but” is followed by rationalization, blaming someone else, pointing out someone else’s sin, or even an excuse for why the sin was really okay.

Repentance (which may include contrition or a feeling of sorrow and empathy with offended parties) must lead to confession. In confession, one frankly names one’s sins. Confession must be made to God, quite often to the offended parties, and sometimes to “the Church” in one form or another. If no sin is solitary, neither is any sin just against God alone. Just as love of God and love of neighbor must go together, sin is also against both God and neighbor. In the rite of the Reconciliation of a Penitent, at one point the penitent says, “I confess to Almighty God” and “to his Church...” It is at this point that the penitent begins to gain power over his sin; it is true that to name something gives one power over it.

Have mercy on me
The request for mercy must come before asking for forgiveness. Mercy acknowledges the debt that a sin has created, and that it is really unpayable. The penitent can never pay the debt, and must have a measure of understanding the debt before he can value and receive the forgiveness. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” is a prayer that Jesus highly commended. (See Luke 18:13.)

The infinite indebtedness of sin is shown in the parable of the servant whose debt “ran into millions” (Matthew 18:24), whose master forgave him when he begged for patience. But the master rescinded the forgiveness when it became evident that the servant had no understanding of what had been done for him. We see it also in the simple but moving account of two debtors Jesus provided when he ate a meal in the home of a Pharisee: “Which of them will love him more?” asked Jesus. “The one who was let off more, I suppose,” Simon answered. “You are right,” said Jesus” (Luke 7:42b-43).

Forgive me
Having acknowledged that the debt is unpayable, then the penitent can request forgiveness by claiming the power of the sacrifice (and resurrection) of Jesus, which makes possible the removal of the sin. The incredible, powerful, mystical foundation to the truth that sins may be forgiven is explained in some detail in Hebrews, the Biblical letter that addresses the theme of the high priesthood of Jesus: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,” “Christ has offered one single sacrifice for sins,” and “by virtue of that one single offering, he has achieved the eternal perfection of all who are sanctified” (Hebrews 9:22b; 10:12, 14).

The request for forgiveness is utterly dependent upon the love of the One to whom the request is made. We put ourselves completely in the power of the Other, making ourselves vulnerable as a loved person, plowing through and overcoming all the ways listed above by which we can resist knowing our sins. And this makes it possible for us to receive love in a robust way that cannot be known in any other fashion.

The rest of my reflections will appear in a few days.