Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Heart that Forgives

Carl is a distinguished, gentle man in his 70s who has spent over 30 years in the counseling ministry. Several years ago, I had a chance to hear his story. I’m always interested in hearing a seasoned individual reflect on his life and ministry. You just know there will be some gold nuggets of wisdom from a guy like Carl. Sure enough, his talk was loaded with more nuggets than I can recall, but a couple things stood out that I’ve mused on many times over the past few years.

Carl said (my paraphrase based on memory), “Over the past 30 years, I figure I’ve had over 30,000 counseling appointments with thousands of different people and I’ve come to realize that the vast majority of the people that I’ve worked with all have the same root issues—the inability or unwillingness to forgive someone who has hurt them, or the inability to receive forgiveness when they are the offender. The lack of forgiveness in human relationships is the biggest problem I see. Most of my time has been spent helping people to forgive others or to help them find forgiveness.” I’m not sure I heard anything else Carl said. That comment set me back for few minutes. Really, Carl? With all the mental and emotional disorders out there? With all the bad things that can happen in a person’s life? Forgiveness is the key to spiritual and emotional health? Carl would say, “Absolutely!”

Carl went on to describe a dangerous continuum that people get trapped in—anger, bitterness, hatred, and apathy. Let’s say that something has happened in a relationship that has caused you to feel disappointed or hurt by someone’s actions. Anger can be the first emotion to surface. “I can’t believe she did that. That ticks me off.” Your anger builds and goes unchecked, and as a result it turns to bitterness. “You know, this isn’t the first time she’s hurt me, and it won’t be the last. That’s the way she is!” Hatred can quickly follow bitterness as the emotions fester downward toward vengeance. “I can’t stand her and the first chance I get, I’ll get her back. She’ll pay for the pain she’s caused.” The end of the continuum is apathy when a person feels nothing for the other person. “I’m done with her!” Unfortunately, this continuum is the natural way of things within the human heart. It’s easy for us to slide down that slippery hill.

So, what stops that slide? Forgiveness. Sure, there are other important things that need to happen such as honest conversations and confrontations, as well as remorse and repentance from the offender. But at the end of the day—no matter the outcome of the confrontation, no matter if the offender expresses remorse—forgiveness must happen for us to live in peace. A forgiving heart frees us from the downward slope of anger, bitterness, hatred, and apathy. An unforgiving heart shackles us to destructive emotions that result in a bad outcome. I think the Apostle Paul would agree with Carl’s synopsis of the human heart.

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4.31-32

It all sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Throw off all your anger, bitterness, and fighting and replace it with kindness and forgiveness. Easily said… but harder to do, we all know. What encourages me about this verse is the reminder of how much Jesus has forgiven me… how much he’s forgiven you. Paul seems to be saying, “You can forgive the people who have hurt and disappointed you because I have forgiven all the hurt and disappointment your sins have caused me.” Maybe Carl is right. It all does come down to forgiveness. Remember, you are forgiven to become a forgiver.

This week's author- Phil Niekerk, senior small groups pastor

Friday, November 19, 2010

I've Gotta Big Mouth

Several years ago, I found myself in a circle of guys at a social gathering. The jokes were flying and laughs were rolling as we bantered with each other. Then, someone asked, “So, what were you like in high school?” That seemed like a fun question to surface some interesting stories. When it was my turn, I talked about the sports I played, my cool car and the pranks my friends and I would pull. My goal in high school was to have fun and to get as many laughs as possible. My short description seemed to get respectful smiles from the guys.

However, there was one guy in the group that didn’t seem to like the question. He was noticeably uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation and he worked hard to avoid answering the question. But finally, he slyly chimed in, “You know, I was kind of a geek. I was small for my age and I didn’t like sports. So I just focused on my school work.” I could tell the he really didn’t like talking about his high school days but something in me didn’t want to let him off the hook. Any ounce of sensitivity or compassion eluded me at that moment. This was prime for a one-line remark that would be remembered throughout the annals of guy banter for all-time. So I said with a gentle laugh in my voice and an evil gleam in my eye, “Dude, guys like me used to stuff guys like you into lockers.” Now, I never did that to anyone in high school as I was a prankster not a bully. But, the one-liner worked. I got some laughs and even a high-five. Even the guy I picked on seemed to enjoy my brilliance in guy humor.

Our huddle got interrupted and we all dispersed into the greater group of people in the room. But that conversation wasn’t over. During a quiet moment, that particular guy pulled me aside and very respectfully, but with strength and boldness said this to me, “Phil, remember what you said about guys like you stuffing guys like me into lockers? Well, that actually happened to me in high school. Stuff like that happened to me a lot. You know, it wasn’t funny then and it’s not funny now.” You know the feeling you get when you cause traffic accident? That’s what I felt at that moment. I had caused a relational accident but didn’t know if it was a fender bender or if the Jaws of Life would be needed to save our friendship. My friend was very gracious with me as I extended a sincere apology.

I wish that were the only story I could tell about how my friendly banter and teasing got out of hand and caused damaged. It seems this is an ugly pattern in my life that I need to continue to monitor daily in my life. So, when I read the verses like this, I hear a reminder from God that I need to clean this ugliness out of my speech.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. Ephesians 4.29

Think about these definitions of unwholesome; rotten, putrid, worn out, poor quality, bad, unfit for use, worthless. Paul says to strip these off like a smelly shirt. He says to delete all forms of useless, vial, and harmful speech patterns. But what I love so much about Paul is that he gives us a positive replacement. He gives us a positive standard to measure our words against. The only words that should pass through our lips should be those that help, build up and encourage someone else.

What if we were to get in the habit of asking ourselves one of these simple questions before we speak? Will my words give to that person or take from that person? Will what I’m about to say be helpful to those who hear? If you can’t answer yes, then perhaps silence is your best choice.

This week's author- Phil Niekerk, senior small groups pastor

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Integrity With A Cost

When it comes to professional golfers, Brian Davis isn't the best-known name in the game. He’s not even in the top one hundred. But earlier this summer, he had a huge chance to move up in the PGA rankings. Davis found himself tied for the lead and in a sudden death playoff with Jim Furyk at the Verizon Heritage Open. This was his first and best shot at winning a PGA Tour tournament. The first place prize was over $1 million.

Davis's approach shot on the first hole of the playoff missed the green and rested in the rough. When he tried to punch the ball up onto the green, his club grazed a stray weed on his backswing. So what? Well, there’s this rule: Hitting any material around your ball during your backswing constitutes a violation of the rule against moving loose impediments, and is an immediate two-stroke penalty. If the penalty is called, he loses the playoff.

Silly rule? Maybe. But, that’s the nature of golf and everyone who plays professionally knows that. Davis knew the rule. He saw the weed his ball rested on move on his backswing. So, he called the violation on himself. Immediately after the shot, Davis called over a rules official, who conferred with television replays and confirmed the movement—movement which was only visible on slow-motion. As soon as the replays confirmed the violation, Davis conceded the victory to Furyk.

Every golfer’s dream is to win. So, imagine having the fulfillment of your life's dream within your grasp and you make a small mistake. If you say something, your dream is gone—at least for that day. If you don't say anything, you’ll probably get away with it. Would you own up to the mistake, or would you keep quiet and hope for the best? For Brian Davis the answer was clear. He knew that in golf, honesty is more important than victory.

In Ephesians 4, Paul tells the believers to put off the old and put on the new—like taking off an old, stinky shirt and putting on a new, clean one. I love this metaphor because Paul not only tells us to discard the bad, but he gives us a replacement of something good. Check this one out.

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. Ephesians 4.25

Put off falsehood. Discard lies. Throw out dishonest gain. Trash exaggerations. Dispose of any misrepresentations. Instead… put on truth. Tell the whole truth. Report things accurately. Present yourself honestly. Value integrity.

The reason Paul gives us for living lives of honesty is that we are members of the body, the Body of Christ. We represent him. We represent each other. This is part of our identity as adopted, redeemed, and sealed children of God. Because we belong, we behave in a distinct way.

Is there any dishonesty, half-truths, white lies, exaggerations, or misrepresentations that you need to throw away or make amends for? As you examine your life this week, think about what Brian Davis valued most. Speaking the truth was more valuable than personal gain. Character was worth more than victory. Acts of integrity put a smile on God’s face and give the Body of Christ credibility.

This week's author- Phil Niekerk, small groups pastor

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lessons From Bees

Tuesday night at 11 p.m. is a strange time to be running my hand up and down our living room wall, but that’s what I was doing on that August night. I was convinced I had found the source of a strange sound that had been haunting us for at least a month. There had been this purring sound in our living room (we don’t have cats)that we couldn’t figure out. It was a sound that was most evident later in the evening and it had gotten louder over time.

That night, my curiosity got the best of me. My suspicions told me it was a bee hive in the wall or attic. But that crazy sound got me so curious that I felt I needed to mess with it. Next to me was a curtain rod that I was supposed to have installed in our bathroom. Ignorantly, I decided to just gently tap the drywall near the sound hoping to see if the sound would change. To my shock, my gentle tap sent that rod right through the drywall. Apparently, bee hives do incredible damage to drywall and the only thing between me and the bee hive was a thin piece of paper and a layer of paint. The ceiling was quickly invaded by hundreds of yellow jackets. My wife rushed into another room as I hurried into the garage to retrieve a can of wasp spray.

Over the next few minutes, I soaked the ceiling with two cans of wasp spray, working my way to the four inch hole I had created with my curtain rod. Emptying the final can into the hive in the attic, I stepped back to survey the situation. Minutes before, I was contemplating a restful night in bed. Now I had poison dripping from the ceiling and walls, yellow jacket carcasses littering my floor and furniture, a gaping hole in the ceiling, and thousands of angry bees still in the attic trying to make their way through a poison-soaked hole. A small board and four screws secured the hole for the evening; and over the next hour, soap, a couple rolls of paper towels, and a broom took care of the mess.

Days later, I began to muse on some life lessons these bees had taught me. God began to remind me that our culture has an invasion plan for my life and home. Like bees, certain things in our culture invade gradually but with persistence. They slowly erode our protection until there’s very little between us and a dangerous and damaging situation. Then we find ourselves in a mess, asking how this all happened. But inside, we know we’ve allowed it to grow by ignoring it or through toying with and poking at it.

When Paul wrote to the believers in the churches in the Ephesus region, he fully knew the cultural dangers that would continue to invade the lives of the Greek believers. Ephesus was a city saturated with sexuality that was out of control. It was culture that offered a lifestyle of anything and everything— but never truly satisfied—leaving people lusting for more. This was the culture many of these new believers had come from. This was the culture that Paul was asking them to separate from.

Paul told the Ephesians to “put off the old” and “put on the new.” The “old” promises danger and damage. The “new” promises life and satisfaction. As you examine the world around you, where are you being invaded? What dangers are creeping on the other side of the wall, eroding your protection? What do you need to “put off”? Greed? The misuse of sex? Gossip? Lying? Bitterness? And, what can you “put on”? Contentment? Godly sexual desires? Kindness? Truth? Forgiveness? The dangers around us are real, but God always offers a way out— a way to safety and satisfaction.

This week's author- Phil Niekerk, senior small groups pastor