Category: Scripture

Finding forgiveness

What’s the opposite of unforgiveness? Forgiveness? Well, grammatically, yes. But simply adding the “un” doesn’t help us get at the core questions—and answers—about unforgiveness. Why do we harbor unforgiveness? Why do we struggle to forgive? Why is it sometimes so hard to genuinely let something go?

Volumes have been written and preached on this topic. In practice, where actions, emotions, and life-altering events impact our present circumstances and potentially shape our futures—just as we impact others and shape their futures—it can seem complicated.

The Secret of Gratitude salvaged wood, rotating sculpture.

Life is full of real situations with genuine injuries and deep hurts, and It’s not my intention here to imply that forgiveness is easy. Reading this won’t enable anyone to suddenly forgive deep hurts that may have scarred their lives. I do believe, though, that there’s value in contemplating the topic because forgiveness, and the withholding of it, has serious consequences.

In the sixth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus teaches His disciples how to pray. Countless Christians regularly recite what has become known as “The Lord’s Prayer” in worship services around the world. Recall these words from verse 12 of the chapter: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” A couple of verses later, Jesus explains, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Serious consequences.

Think for a minute about past hurts you’ve experienced or caused. What most affects our capacity to forgive? Is it the degree to which we’ve been wronged? Is it our relationship with the offender? Is an injury by a stranger easier to forgive than a hurt inflicted by a close friend or family member? What effect does the passage of time have? Does time really heal all wounds?

Recently, the United States was rocked by two mass shootings. Unfortunately, news of these types of tragedies is all too common and certainly not new.

In October 2006, Charles Roberts invaded a one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, shooting and killing 10 Amish schoolgirls. In stark contrast to other similar incidents, the Amish community didn’t cast blame, lawyer up, or hit the talk shows and social media. Instead, they extended grace and compassion toward the family of the killer. Even in the immediate aftermath of the shooting an Amish grandfather of one of the victims expressed forgiveness toward the killer. Later that week, the family of one of the Amish girls who had been killed invited the Roberts family to the funeral of their daughter. And at the funeral of the shooter, Amish mourners were said to have outnumbered non-Amish attendees.

More recently, on June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, entered a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine people. Some of the families of the victims extended forgiveness to the killer in the wake of his deplorable, racially motivated killings.

It seems unfathomable that anyone could forgive in situations like these. Are these pictures of radical forgiveness, or examples of forgiveness working as intended by God? Amid such violence, grief and torment, what creates the capacity for forgiveness?

And for every inspiring story of forgiveness, there seem to be countless more of unforgiveness. The New Testament shares accounts of both. For example, the apostle Paul pleads for reconciliation in Philippians 4:2, where he writes, “Now I appeal to Euodia and Syntyche. Please, because you belong to the Lord, settle your disagreement.”

A lesson from the Creator of the Heart

Forgiveness seems to be an issue of the heart, and no one knows the human heart like the One who designed it. Colossians 1:15-17 tells us plainly that “… through [Christ] God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see … Everything was created through Him and for Him. He existed before anything else, and He holds all creation together.” So when Jesus teaches about forgiveness and the human heart, it’s a lesson we want to hear.

The gospels record many instances where Jesus spoke about forgiveness. Let’s look at two of them. The first is found in Matthew 18:23-35 (Read the whole passage here).

In this passage Jesus told a parable, a story about a servant who owed his king a sum of money equivalent to wages from about 60 million working days. When the king called the debt, the servant could not repay, so the king ordered the servant and his whole family be sold to help pay it. Then the servant fell to his knees before the king and begged for more time. Jesus said the King was filled with pity for his servant and simply forgave the entire debt.

That’s a compelling example of forgiveness, but Jesus didn’t end the parable there.

The forgiven servant then met his fellow servant who owed him just three or four months worth of wages. When he demanded payment, his fellow servant fell down before him and begged for more time, just as the forgiven servant had done before the king. But instead of granting forgiveness, as he had been given, the forgiven servant had his fellow servant thrown into prison until he could repay the debt.

When the king learned of this injustice, he called his forgiven servant to appear before him and said, “You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?”

Jesus concluded His parable with these words: “Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”

The second passage, in Luke 7:36-50, provides a powerful contrast to the previous parable. Here Luke records Jesus’ visit to the house of a religious leader, a Pharisee named Simon (Read the whole passage here).

Luke writes, “When a certain immoral woman from that city heard he was eating there, she brought a beautiful alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. Then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. She’s a sinner!”

Luke says that Jesus “answered his thoughts” by telling him a story about two people, one who owed a large amount, and one who owed a smaller amount. Both of their debts were forgiven by their creditor. Jesus asked his host, Simon, “Who do you suppose loved [their creditor] more after that?” Simon replied that the one who was forgiven more would love more. Jesus affirmed his answer and then contrasted Simon’s lack of hospitality toward Him with the woman’s expressions of love. He explained it to Simon like this: “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.”

A key to enable forgiveness

What is the key difference between the wicked servant and the humble woman at Jesus’ feet? Jesus said the woman loved a lot because she had been forgiven of a lot. We see her extreme and very public display of love toward Jesus. That great display of love is the evidence of something she had that the wicked servant lacked. The servant was no doubt relieved to have his impossible debt cancelled, but his heart seemed to be unchanged by the forgiveness he received. So instead of expressing his love, he selfishly proceeded to shake down one of his fellow servants.

What’s the true opposite of unforgiveness, then? What can enable, even compel me to forgive—and love—today?

The answer may be hidden in plain site through the contrasts of these two accounts. Genuine forgiveness may just hinge on gratitude. The accounts in Matthew and Luke offer us snapshots of two hearts. One empty and one overflowing. Lack of gratitude for the forgiveness we’ve been given drains the heart, leading to unforgiveness and selfishness. Gratitude fills the heart full to overflowing and leads to generous forgiveness, which may be a beautiful byproduct of gratitude. Genuine, seemingly radical gratitude will spill out of a full heart in ways that appear astonishing to onlookers. Forgiveness will be granted in impossible situations.

Are you trying to scoop up a teaspoon of forgiveness from a drained heart? How can we fill our hearts with gratitude? Can we learn to cover the Master’s feet with genuine tears of thanksgiving for our blessings, our lives, and our new standing before God (if we’ve trusted in Christ’s death as the payment for our sins)?

Those are things to be genuinely thankful for, aren’t they? Meditating on those powerful thoughts can produce genuine gratitude that will cause our hearts to overflow. And what will spill out will be just as authentic: forgiveness and blessing instead of unforgiveness and selfishness—a pleasant aroma instead of a bitter stench.

See The Secret of Gratitude rotatable sculpture new in the shop this week.

Fifty years ago today Apollo 11 took Neil & Buzz—and Communion elements—to the moon

Image of Apollo 11 Communion sculpture

On July 16, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission was launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center at 9:32 a.m. EDT.

Today marks its 50th anniversary. Newspapers, magazines, and the Internet are full of remembrances of the event that captivated the attention of the world as Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. became the first humans to set foot on a celestial body other than earth.

What was not as frequently reported at the time—and not as often remembered today—is that the first liquid poured and the first food eaten on the moon were the elements of communion, the bread and the wine that Jesus Christ commanded His followers to take in memory of Him until He returns (Luke 22:19-20).

After Armstrong and Aldrin landed the Eagle at Tranquility Base on July 20, there were a few hours of rest scheduled before they opened the lander’s hatch and made their historic descent onto the lunar surface. Aldrin, an elder at Webster Presbyterian, just outside of Houston, used a few moments of that down time to observe The Lord’s Supper.

Aldrin wrote about the experience for Guidepost magazine, explaining that he and his pastor, Dean Woodruff, “had been struggling to find the right symbol for the first lunar landing. We wanted to express our feeling that what man was doing in this mission transcended electronics and computers and rockets.”

“I wondered if it might be possible to take communion on the moon, symbolizing the thought that God was revealing Himself there too, as man reached out into the universe. For there are many of us in the NASA program who do trust that what we are doing is part of God’s eternal plan for man.”

Aldrin and his pastor planned the communion celebration together. Aldrin explained, “I could carry the bread in a plastic packet, the way regular inflight food is wrapped. And the wine also–there will be just enough gravity on the moon for liquid to pour. I’ll be able to drink normally from a cup.

The astronaut’s pastor even provided the cup, which he showed to Aldrin, who tested its weight. “I hefted it,” he wrote, “and was pleased to find that it was light enough to take along. Each astronaut is allowed a few personal items on a flight; the wine chalice would be in my personal-preference kit.”

image of the personal kit for Buzz Aldrin.
Apollo astronauts could carry small personal items to the moon. The Communion cup and bread rode along with Aldrin in his kit.

Pastor Dean made plans for two special communion services at Webster. One would be held with Aldrin, just before he left Houston for the launch at Cape Kennedy. “The second,” Aldrin wrote, “would take place two weeks later, Sunday, July 20, when Neil Armstrong and I were scheduled to be on the surface of the moon. On that Sunday the church back home would gather for communion, while I joined them as close as possible to the same hour, taking communion inside the lunar module, all of us meaning to represent in this small way not only our local church but the Church as a whole.”

Aldrin wrote that he gave considerable thought to the passage of Scripture he would read for the occasion before settling on John 15:5, in which Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” “It seemed to fit perfectly,” Aldrin wrote, adding, “I wrote the passage on a slip of paper to be carried aboard Eagle along with the communion elements. Dean would read the same passage at the full congregation service held back home that same day.”

Both sides of the card containing the Scripture and Aldrin’s prepared comments for the lunar communion service. According to Heritage Auctions, which listed the handwritten card in a 2007 auction (It appears to still be available), “The verses [Aldrin] would have liked to have read [publicly, over the air, from the moon] are found at the top of [one] side of this handwritten card: “An [sic] Jesus said, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.’ [John 15:5]” There are additional, and very appropriate, verses beneath in a different ink that Aldrin did actually quote three days later during a TV broadcast by the astronauts aboard Columbia the evening before they splashed down safely in the Pacific. He writes: “Psalm 8: v. 3,4 ‘When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained; What is man that thou art mindful of him? And the Son of Man, that thou visitest Him?'” Photo from Heritage Auctions, HA.com

After the historic landing, as the men prepared for the next phase of their mission. Aldrin spoke to the ground crew back on earth. “I would like to request a few moments of silence,” he said. “I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.”

Aldrin described the scene in his own words:

“In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture [Jesus’ words in John 15]: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.’”

Armstrong observed quietly but did not participate.

Aldrin continued, “I had intended to read my communion passage back to earth, but at the last minute [they] had requested that I not do this. NASA was already embroiled in a legal battle with Madalyn Murray [O’Hair], the celebrated opponent of religion, over the Apollo 8 crew reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas. I agreed reluctantly. I ate the tiny Host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements.”

It’s also interesting to realize that some of the first words spoken on the moon were the words of Jesus Christ, who made the earth and the moon — as Colossians 1:16-17 tells us, “For by Him [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”

Fifty years on, the lunar missions remain among the most reported and analyzed events of our—or perhaps, any—time. They still fascinate, inform, and inspire us. And for Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., and several of his pioneering colleagues, they were not only a triumph of science and engineering, and humanity’s first steps into the cosmos. They were something more—a chance to see the creation and appreciate The Creator with renewed awe and wonder.

Postscript:
Over the years, Aldrin has described his Communion experience on the moon several times, including an August, 1969 interview with LIFE magazine, an October, 1970 Guideposts article, and in his 1973 book, Return to Earth. Webster Presbyterian Church will hold its 50th Lunar Communion Celebration later this week, on July 21, 2019. Learn more here.

Arc of the Summer Moon

The Arc of the Summer Moon door topper is an original sculpture from salvaged 19th century oak barn wood. Acrylic paint, salvaged wood, cut wood.

In ancient times, the Israelite king, David, wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.” Created from salvaged 19th century oak barn wood and hardwood cut from the woods near the artist’s studio, The Arc of the Summer Moon door topper is an original sculpture capturing the peaceful twilight of a summer evening. The moon’s low, lazy arc across the sky is a reminder of the arc of our lives. As it appears to rise up out of the earth, so we were created from the soil of earth, formed by the hand of God Himself, made in His own image, and filled with life from His own breath. And as the moon sets, it looks to us as if it returns to the earth, just as we will—dust to dust.
But in between its rising and setting, it does one thing superbly well—it reflects the light of the sun, and in doing that, it brightens our evenings and nights, spilling its light into the darker places, inspiring, and freely sharing its beauty with any who will glance its way. And isn’t that a picture of what God has designed each of us to do?

This piece by Stephen Rountree is created with acrylic paint, salvaged wood, cut wood and hand stamped with the opening words of David’s Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Wherever it’s displayed, it is a uniquely beautiful reminder of this timeless truth: We get one arc across the sky—one life. And it’s not how, or when, we rise or set, but how well we’ve reflected the light of Son along our way.

A New Year

In Christ sculpture in progress

Picture God at your birthday party singing louder than any of your friends or family. Is that hard to imagine?

Welcome to the new year. ‘Tis the season of resolutions. Someone once said, “A New Year’s resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other.” I’m not a fan of making resolutions, but if I were, I’d likely adopt the two that eighteenth century pastor and theologian, Jonathan Edwards, made: “Resolution One: I will live for God. Resolution Two: If no one else does, I still will.”

But I prefer goals to resolutions. And one of my goals this year is to create art that keeps Scripture front and center in my life and in the life of those who see it. My wife jokes (sort of) that I can’t find anything in a cabinet or the fridge if it’s behind any other item. To a large extent, she’s right. I’m the type of person who works better with everything laid out where I can see it — be it sketches I’m working on or tools in my studio — seeing it all helps me remember that it’s going to be needed — that it’s part of the workflow.

The same is true for God’s Word. Seeing verses from the Bible as I move through my day helps keep God’s truth at the center of my life, reminding me of His loving presence, His promises, and His power.

I’m reminded that God’s loving presence is guaranteed. After His resurrection from the dead, Matthew records Jesus speaking to His followers before He ascended into heaven: “… and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” I won’t face any trials that come my way in this new year by myself. And Psalm 138.8 encourages with these confident words: “The Lord will fulfill His purpose for me; Your love, O Lord, endures forever—do not abandon the works of Your hands.”

God’s promises are comforting. In the book of Jeremiah, 29:11, we read, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” I love that verse, especially when considered in light of another one in Romans, 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose. No matter what 2017 brings, I can trust that God is in control and is working things out for my good if I place my trust in Him and align my life with His purposes.

God’s power is absolute. There is nothing He cannot do. The gospel of Matthew, 19:26, records Jesus describing the power of God the Father: “But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” And I love the vivid language of Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by His love; He will exult over you with loud singing.” That’s quite a statement, that last line. Picture God at your birthday party singing louder than any of your friends or family. Is that hard to imagine? Why? God created you and He loves you more than you can imagine.

An anonymous pundit said, “Many people look forward to the New Year for a new start on old habits.” We might chuckle at that, but it takes intentional effort not to do just that. This year, I’ll be aiming to create more art to help me visually weave Scripture into my everyday life. Do you find that to be helpful in your own life? If so, what are some ways you’ve helped yourself focus on God’s truth throughout your day? Feel free to leave a comment below. And happy New Year!