Thursday, November 7, 2019

Romans 14:8

Today's devotional from the Jesuit Society (which I receive in my email each morning) had the passage Romans 14:7-12 (New Revised Standard Version).
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?
For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
Ever since I was a kid, whenever I was asked what my favorite Bible verse was, I would say Romans 14:8, "If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s." I've always liked resting in the comfort that I, and those I love, belong to the Lord, whether we're living or dead.

I can remember being aware of the possible death of those I love from when I was quite small. Did you think about that as a child? I remember way back when my little sister and I shared a bed, I used to get quite crabby with her for "hogging my side," but I would make sure that I said "I love you" to her before we went to sleep -- just in case she or I died overnight. I wanted to make sure the last thing I said was nice, and no matter what, she would know I loved her.

Now, the verse still gives me comfort. Life is more complicated. There are more and more things I don't understand. I can think and think, read and read, discuss and discuss, learn and learn, but still I cannot comprehend or understand why such sad or horrible things happen. BUT, "If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s." I'll rest in the Lord.

Monday, November 4, 2019

A Primer - a poem about Michigan

A Primer

I remember Michigan fondly as the place I go
to be in Michigan. The right hand of America
waving from maps or the left
pressing into clay a mold to take home
from kindergarten to Mother. I lived in Michigan
forty-three years. The state bird
is a chained factory gate. The state flower
is Lake Superior, which sounds egotistical
though it is merely cold and deep as truth.
A Midwesterner can use the word “truth,”
can sincerely use the word “sincere.”
In truth the Midwest is not mid or west.
When I go back to Michigan I drive through Ohio.
There is off I-75 in Ohio a mosque, so life
goes corn corn corn mosque, I wave at Islam,
which we’re not getting along with
on account of the Towers as I pass.
Then Ohio goes corn corn corn
billboard, goodbye, Islam. You never forget
how to be from Michigan when you’re from Michigan.
It’s like riding a bike of ice and fly fishing.
The Upper Peninsula is a spare state
in case Michigan goes flat. I live now
in Virginia, which has no backup plan
but is named the same as my mother,
I live in my mother again, which is creepy
but so is what the skin under my chin is doing,
suddenly there’s a pouch like marsupials
are needed. The state joy is spring.
“Osiris, we beseech thee, rise and give us baseball”
is how we might sound were we Egyptian in April,
when February hasn’t ended. February
is thirteen months long in Michigan.
We are a people who by February
want to kill the sky for being so gray
and angry at us. “What did we do?”
is the state motto. There’s a day in May
when we’re all tumblers, gymnastics
is everywhere, and daffodils are asked
by young men to be their wives. When a man elopes
with a daffodil, you know where he’s from.
In this way I have given you a primer.
Let us all be from somewhere.
Let us tell each other everything we can.

Published in the print edition of the May 19, 2008, issue.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Shepherdly Love

Last week I wrote about God’s maternal love, the love he shows us that is like a mother’s love, “a wise, capable, strong, patient, kind, no-nonsense, deeply loving mother.” It started me thinking of other metaphors for God’s love, and the first one that came to mind was the image of a shepherd, his “shepherdly” love.

There are so many verses about Jesus as a shepherd, I could write about them for weeks! The first one I thought of -- and probably you did, too -- is Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” A few others:
  • in John 10: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.”
  • in 1 Peter 2: “For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
  • in Luke 12: “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
  • in Isaiah 40: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixaby
Years ago I heard a sermon about Psalm 23. The minister noted how at first the psalmist is writing about the Lord his shepherd in 3rd person, using “he”:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
    he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
    for his name’s sake.
Then, when he starts talking about the dark valley, the psalmist switches to 2nd person, using “you”:
Even though I walk
    through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.
The minister said you could imagine this as if from a little boy’s perspective, on a train ride with his dad. First the boy is a few seats away, perhaps on a different car than his father, talking about his dad to another passenger, saying, “he does this, and that, and that.” Then the train goes through a tunnel. Everything gets dark. The boy hurries to his dad’s seat and says to him, “YOU do this and that and that.” When it gets dark and scary, the child needs the reassurance and closeness of his father.

It’s easy to imagine this from the perspective of sheep or lambs, too. Trotting along on the green grass at the shore of the smooth waters of a stream, feeling good (“feelin’ groovy...”), confident, walking ahead of the shepherd. Then they go into a valley. High hills block the sun. It’s dark and cold, the sheep cannot see what might be ahead. Now the sheep draw closer to the shepherd, perhaps walking beside or behind the shepherd, making sure they see his rod and staff.

Like a shepherd, God guides us. In times of trouble, when we are scared or unsure of the future, we want to be close to God, to listen for his footsteps, see his rod ahead of us, like Gandalf leading the way through the dark mines of Moria (“The Lord of the Rings,” by J.R.R. Tolkien).

Like a shepherd, Jesus cares for us, nourishes us, knows us, loves us. May you be filled with the shepherdly love of God, now and forever.
You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Mines of Moria by Gellihana-art
PS - If you would like to read more about Jesus’ Jewish culture and the Bible from a Hebraic perspective, check out Lois Tverberg’s blog, "Our Rabbi Jesus, His Jewish Life & Teaching," She has also written several books -- links in the blog. I thought this was an excellent article, “Discipleship: What Sheep Can Teach Us,” Lois Tverberg, January 14, 2013. There are many more.

What can I pray about for you?

love and blessings,

What is this?? A while back, I had an idea. I was thinking of some friends I wanted to pray for, but I didn't have a specific thing to pray about on their behalf. I decided to pray that they would feel God's love. I decided to send them an email when I prayed, so they'd know and be encouraged. Then I thought about my many other family and friends who I would like to encourage with prayer, and decided to start this email.
Two things I try to do:
-- Encourage you with a reminder of God's love. My goal is to avoid anything where the response is "I should..." Just a short reflection of God's love.
-- Pray for you. I'll pray with each email, and please reply to me with anything you'd specifically like me to pray for you. I'll keep it confidential, don't worry..
. If you would like to send me specific prayer requests. I will gladly pray with you. Email me at mavis at I'll keep all communication confidential.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Discipleship as a Shepherd

I like the way this article talks about discipleship. I (and I think many of us) tend to think of "doing" discipleship as telling people about Jesus. This author says:
I used to think that Jesus’ command to make disciples simply meant teaching people certain beliefs about God, helping them to accept Christ as Lord, and then educating them in doctrinal truth later on. 
Though all these are important, this way of defining discipleship showed that I, like many westerners, approached the gospel primarily as information.
Not just teaching, not just passing along information, but involving transformation.
God’s goal isn’t to simply fill the world with people who believe the right things. It is to fill the world with people who shine with the brilliance of Christ.
Not just trying to get people into the doors of the church, but walking alongside people as we learn to follow Jesus, to hear his voice and go where he wants us to go, "[living] transparently before others, humbly teaching them the way of Christ."

Discipleship: What Sheep Can Teach Us

I used to think that Jesus’ command to make disciples simply meant teaching people certain beliefs about God, helping them to accept Christ as Lord, and then educating them in doctrinal truth later on.
goatsThough all these are important, this way of defining discipleship showed that I, like many westerners, approached the gospel primarily as information. Unfortunately, such an approach tends to produce efforts at evangelism that are thinly disguised power grabs. We try hard to foist our belief system onto others, debating with people until they declare our way the best.
An eastern view of discipleship seems far more in keeping with the gospel. The eastern view encompasses the understanding that Jesus died for our sins and that belonging to him involves repenting and receiving him as Lord. But it also recognizes that Jesus lived transparently in front of his disciples in order to teach them how to live. They, in turn, were to live transparently before others, humbly teaching them the way of Christ.
This approach involves not just information but transformation. God’s goal isn’t to simply fill the world with people who believe the right things. It is to fill the world with people who shine with the brilliance of Christ.
sheep in pen smlShepherding in Israel is a wonderful metaphor for of this kind of discipleship. In many countries, sheep spend their lives in fenced-in pastures where they spend most of their time grazing and milling about. Many Christians seem to think that the great commission is a matter of getting sheep “into the pen” —inviting people to accept Christ, the high point of their spiritual lives.
In Israel, however, where grass has difficulty growing in the arid soil, sheep must know their shepherd, following him obediently from pasture to pasture. There, shepherding is a much more active task.
Judith Fain is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Durham. As part of her studies, she spends several months each year in Israel. One day while walking on a road near Bethlehem, Judith watched as three shepherds converged with their separate flocks of sheep. The three men hailed each other and then stopped to talk. While they were conversing, their sheep intermingled, melting into one big flock.
Following ShepherdWondering how the three shepherds would ever be able to identify their own sheep, Judith waited until the men were ready to say their goodbyes. She watched, fascinated, as each of the shepherds called out to his sheep. At the sound of their shepherd’s voice, like magic, the sheep separated again into three flocks. Apparently some things in Israel haven’t changed for thousands of years.
Just like these sheep, what distinguishes us is not so much the “pen” we inhabit, but the shepherd we follow. Some sheep come running as soon as their shepherd calls, but some struggle to obey his lead, going astray whenever temptation strikes. It takes a lot more energy to follow a wandering shepherd than to be cooped up in a pen!
But we are called to be disciples of a Rabbi who is always on the move, one who wants us to go with him, making disciples to the ends of the earth. We need to learn how to recognize his voice, to go where he wants us to go, and to serve and imitate him so that we can share his good news with the world.
Many of us see disciple-making as something that only happens at the “fence.” We view our primary job as getting people into the fold. But a lot of sheep are inside the fence, but just milling about munching on grass. They need to be brought closer to Christ by becoming his true disciples.
And what about people who aren’t at all interested in Jesus, or those who are downright angry or hostile toward the church? How are we supposed to relate to them? Perhaps the solution is to live transparently around everyone regardless of their faith or lack of it. We can share openly and sensitively about our own struggles and what Christ is doing in our lives without worrying so much about where people are, relative to the “fence.” Then every bit of our lives will become a source of witness, no matter who our friends are.
shepherdSometimes we’ll open the gate and let someone in. But just as often we may find ourselves helping other believers become more effective disciples. In the process, we will discover ourselves being discipled as well. The key is to stay close to Jesus, living transparently as we seek to follow our rabbi.
—  A couple favorite excerpts from Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus (Zondervan, 2009)

Friday, October 25, 2019

A Rough Day

When my son was small, after a series of ow-ies and mishaps I would say to him, “Oh, are you having a rough day?” As time went on, when things went awry for him, he’d come find me, look up with his sad eyes, and tell me, “Mom, I’m having a rough day.” I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes just remembering the way those words made my heart feel like one of those luscious chocolate molten cakes you get at fancy restaurants. Love oozing out of a soft spongy heart.

I recently read Miracles and Other Reasonable Things by Sarah Bessey.* A passage on page 171 (hardcover, Howard Books, c. 2019), says:

Whenever my children have a fall or catch a cold, I often bundle them up into my arms and say, “Oh, you poor wee lamb.” It was a joke at first--I did it with my big kids when I thought they needed an overexcess of sympathy. I always said it with a thick Scottish accent and grandiose affection, so they would laugh and cheer up. But by the time our youngest was born, it had evolved into a tender phrase (still in a terrible Scottish accent) whispered over them in times of pain or grief...I saw how they melted and exhaled when I said, “poor wee lamb,” in recognition of their suffering, how they leaned in to receive my soft warmth before they could rise again.

One day, when she was only two, Maggie fell and scraped her knee quite badly...When I saw her…, she turned to me, bottom lip quivering, and lifting up her pudgy arms, she said, “Mummy, please call me a poor wee lamb.” There was something about the tender acknowledgement of her pain that she was craving. And in the same way, I feel God as that mother-shepherd whispering acknowledgement of the pain just as well as the path to life.

God loves us and cares for us as a mother would. On the page before the above passage Bessey wrote, “I discovered God’s metaphor as a wise, capable, strong, patient, kind, no-nonsense, deeply loving mother.” I like that description. Although a mother’s heart can turn to mush, as mine did when my son told me he had a rough day, we also need to be strong and no-nonsense. My daughter once told me she felt almost scared as a child when I would give her medicine. I knew when I gave them medicine that the kids would not want it, but I also knew I could not “cave” and let my sympathy dictate my actions. So I was no-nonsense about it, using a firm voice to tell them to take the medicine. Of course, I did not mean to scare them, but I knew there needed to be “no argle-bargle” (another favorite family phrase) about it.

We usually think of God as our Father. My father was one of the most Christ-like persons I knew, and I find it very meaningful and personal to begin my prayers with “Our Father who art in heaven.” I also find it meaningful and personal to think of God as my mother--”Our Mother who art in heaven.” God, who like my mother, loves me in a nurturing, sympathetic, strong, I’ve-got-your-back kind of way. 

May you know the maternal love of God with all your heart, soul, and mind.

*Sarah Bessey also wrote one of my favorite books, Out of Sorts, Making Peace With an Evolving Faith. I recommend it highly!


What is this?? A while back, I had an idea. I was thinking of some friends I wanted to pray for, but I didn't have a specific thing to pray about on their behalf. I decided to pray that they would feel God's love. I decided to send them an email when I prayed, so they'd know and be encouraged. Then I thought about my many other family and friends who I would like to encourage with prayer, and decided to start this email.
    Two things I try to do:
-- Encourage you with a reminder of God's love. My goal is to avoid anything where the response is "I should..." Just a short reflection of God's love.
-- Pray for you. I'll pray with each email, and please reply to me with anything you'd specifically like me to pray for you. I'll keep it confidential, don't worry..
.     If you would like to be added to the email list or send me specific prayer requests. I will gladly add you and pray with you. Email me at mavis at I'll keep all communication confidential.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Total Depravity

How I learned to love the doctrine of total depravity
When unremitting human sin is something I expect, I can face evil without despair.

October 2, 2019

My great-grandfather, Anthony J. Haverkamp, was a Dutch Reformed minister. At the height of his career, he was senior pastor of First Reformed Church and a board member at Central College—both in Pella, Iowa, and both flagship institutions of his denomination. He helped shepherd both of them through the Depression and the Second World War.

He was a different kind of pastor than I knew as a liberal Protestant kid growing up in a major city in the late 20th century. His parishioners called him Dominie (“Lord Pastor”). He always drove a black Buick. He did not receive a newspaper on Sunday. He mowed his lawn in a suit and tie and declined to play catch in the yard with his son, telling him something to the effect of, “I’m afraid I can’t be that kind of father for you.”

The Lord Pastor did mellow as he got older. When he re­tired, the new Buick he bought was not black but baby blue. His grandson—my dad, then in middle school—had begun a paper route and approached him about his subscription level, and so it was that my great-grandfather finally received a Sunday paper. As an elderly widower, he moved in with his son’s family and was known to play card games and to dry dishes for my grandmother when there were no children around to help.

The Dominie’s six grandchildren all attended his church in Pella for at least a part of their childhoods. Today, however, not one of his descendants is Dutch Reformed. I am the only one who is an ordained minister, and I’m an Episcopalian. Few of my extended family have much to do with church these days. What is left of our ancestral Calvinism is a strict sense that there is a right way to do things, a best way. To fail to choose or discover that way invites quiet but sober judgment—if not from God, then certainly from family and friends. We, like many Americans, believe in a secular way that worthiness is a visible, consistent, and demonstrable trait—a sort of cultural Calvinism.

In the university neighborhood where I grew up, it was well-established orthodoxy that people are basically good and that the best sort of life is lived trying to make the world a better place. The motto of our neighborhood churches could’ve been that familiar phrase, “The question is not why God allows evil to exist in the world, but why human beings do.” This lesson was reaffirmed both in the gentle Pelagianism of my Catholic schooling and in the sunny work ethic of my mainline Protestant Sunday school classes. Being created in God’s image meant we could change the world, that we could be good and happy people who did the right thing, serving and loving one another.

We didn’t talk much about things like sin, atonement, or the crucifixion. (Our liberal parents probably would have complained.) We didn’t talk about how to deal with the enormous weight of evil and suffering in this world, or how insufficient human efforts can seem in their shadow.

As an adult and a Christian, I want to do the right thing. I keep mental lists of how I want to live more responsibly: eat less meat, recycle, call my representatives, buy less plastic, reduce my carbon footprint, speak up about racism, give to charities, show up at community police meetings. But it never seems like enough. Social media is always ready to help me count the ways I could do more, leaving me feeling more guilty than righteous, unable to keep up. As Paul writes, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it”—at least not consistently or very effectively. No matter what I do or how hard I try to be righteous, the world spins me to my knees at every turn with more evidence of cruelty, catastrophe, and waste.

I do not feel theologically equipped to handle the enormous weight of evil I see in the world. After all, I was raised to believe that humans are capable of stopping it.

In recent years, the doctrine of total depravity has caught my imagination. It’s the first tenet of the notorious “TULIP” acronym, which came into popular use among Calvinists around the time of my great-grandfather’s retirement as a way to summarize the five main points of the faith. If you’ve never heard the term before, “total depravity” might sound like a joke or the name of a high school metal band. It is, in fact, an astoundingly dire theology. Total depravity frames humans not as good people who sometimes mess up but as messed-up people who, with God’s help, can do some good things—but nothing completely free of selfishness or error. We are unable to make a choice that is unquestionably, entirely good. None of our actions, loves, or thoughts can be truly without sin.

I find a surprising grace in the bleak, unflinching outlook of my Calvinist heritage. Total depravity matches the sin-sized hole in my belly in a way that “all people are basically good” never could. Of course the world is full of evil and suffering. Of course people are unjust and cruel to one another. Of course I feel like a completely inadequate Christian. Of course it’s hard to avoid living as a complicit consumer, pollution enabler, and ineffective activist. Of course I feel paralyzed by despair. It’s because of total depravity.

Total depravity speaks to sin in our personal lives. More importantly for me, it also gives theological definition to corporate and societal sins. It’s not just that I am unable to love everyone I meet or to live a life that is plastics-free. I have also found it impossible to untangle my individual life from systems of injustice—institutionalized racism, pollution of the air and land and water, cheap clothing and food supplies that depend on the exploitation of laborers, banks and corporations that bend the economy toward their profit. A contemporary Episcopal prayer of confession includes this line: “We repent of . . . the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” There is a lot of suffering and a lot of evil in this world, and I find I cannot consider myself entirely innocent of it.

But why go to the extreme of a doctrine like total depravity? Why not just go attend a workshop on community organizing or on setting boundaries?

It’s just that the more I make the salvation of the world a rational, solvable problem, the deeper I seem to sink into futility. But when unreasonable, unremitting human sin is something I expect, then I can face the headwinds of evil without despair. When I believe that human life—including my own—will never be without sin and suffering, I have a greater ability to tolerate pain and horror and to keep on doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly. I can, as Anne Lamott would say, keep singing “Hallelujah!” and looking for grace anyway.

But could this approach numb me to injustice? It may be that numbness is just what I need in order to crawl out of paralysis. I have taken anti-anxiety medication. I find total depravity nearly as effective a remedy for crippling anguish. I can shove my shock and despair at human evil into Calvin’s theological Hefty bag and find more room on my soul’s kitchen table to work on hope and a plan.

I have little evidence of my great-grandfather’s theology in his own words, because his son, my grandfather, threw away the box of handwritten sermons he’d carefully filed after his retirement, not imagining there might someday be a great-granddaughter who’d want to read them. It’s likely, however, that he would have believed in the total depravity of humanity and of himself. Not that his ministry was driven primarily by condemnation or fundamentalism. He was a man of rules and order but also of graciousness and humility. He knew human depravity, and he knew human limits.

He certainly had looked them right in the face in his own life. His first call was to a South Dakota farm town, with a clapboard church that must have groaned and shuddered out in the prairie winds. My grandfather was born there, and my great-grandmother suffered from terrible postpartum depression. She was hospitalized multiple times, which couldn’t have been easy in the 1910s on the northern plains. They left as quickly as they could. After a few years, my great-grandpa took a new call in western Iowa, closer to family.

Years later the Dominie was driving to a meeting with his young adult son (my grandfather and my source for this story) and another clergyman. All of a sudden, the other minister insisted that my great-grandfather pull over to the side of the road, whereupon he jumped out of the car and marched to a nearby telephone pole, ripping down a poster advertising an upcoming dance. (Dancing was not Christian behavior.) The minister crumpled the poster, threw it to the ground, and got back in the car.

For whatever reason, the other minister did not join them for the return trip. So, on the way home, my great-grandfather drove back to that same telephone pole. The Dominie pulled over, got out of the car, and hung that wrinkled dance poster back up. Then he got back in the car, without saying a word to his son, and they drove home.

It’s my favorite story about him. It reminds me that I cannot save the world (or myself) from sin or serve as its judge, jury, or savior. Did my great-grandfather put the dance poster back up because he believed it was wrong, even in the name of correcting sin, to destroy someone else’s property? Was it because he knew his own depravity all too well and believed only Christ could stand as judge? Was it just midwestern politeness? I can’t be sure, but I see him in this story facing a fallen world with humility and integrity—not condemnation, and not despair.
Heidi Haverkamp

Heidi Haverkamp is an Episcopal priest, speaker, and author, including of Holy Solitude: Lenten Reflections with Saints, Hermits, Prophets, and Rebels (Westminster John Knox). Her blog is part of the CCblogs network.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019


From "Christianity Today"
He Hugged the Woman Who Shot His Brother: The Power of the Gospel in the Botham Embrace.

He Hugged the Woman Who Shot His Brother: The Power of the Gospel in the Botham Embrace
Forgiveness, at the end of the day, puts the amazing power of the gospel on display.
by Ed Stetzer

Botham Jean was killed by Amber Guyger. The off-duty police officer walked into what she believed to her apartment and shot Botham. By now, many have seen the heart-wrenching story of Botham’s brother (Brandt) delivering a courtroom speech of love. He forgave Amber Guyger.

He overflowed with the love of God.

While this act of forgiveness is shocking to the world, it has been the centerpiece of the Christian faith for 2,000 years. When Christians are actually living out the truths of the gospel, they show the world a better way.

The etymology of “Botham” means “he who lives in a broad valley.” It means hitting bottom, or depression. Yet, his life speaks from the top—from the life-giving mountaintop of the gospel. From the testimony of Brandt, Botham’s brother, Botham’s life points to a better way, a life-giving way—the way of Jesus.

To much of the world, however, such a heinous act of violence would plant a deep seed of anger that would eventually yield the fruit of bitterness and hatred—leading one down the path toward depression and bitterness.

However, that wasn’t the way of Botham. That wasn’t how he thought. Although deceased, his life declares a radical forgiveness that could only come through the life and heart of Jesus.

When I was reading the story and watching the testimony, the only thing that came to my mind was #Jesus. So, that’s what I tweeted.

I understand there are other issues to consider. “What about justice?” “What about the issue of systemic racism, white supremacy, and the abuse of power” etc? I understand there are many underlying issues here.

Brandt, while on the stand, didn’t address everything—and neither will my article. While there will be other opportunities to discuss those important issues (and I’ve written on a number of them on many occasions), let’s not miss the heart of forgiveness manifested in the life of two brothers.

Brandt, who understood the heart and life of his brother Botham more so than anyone else, exhorts the world towards the radical nature of gospel forgiveness. It’s OK to dwell on that for a moment, while acknowledging that there are other issues to consider.

Forgiveness, at the end of the day, puts the amazing power of the gospel on display.

In his Essay On Forgiveness, C.S. Lewis picks up on how Christ’s forgiveness sets the tone for our own posture towards others:
Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night, “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.” We are offered forgiveness on no other terms. To refuse it is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves. There is no hint of exceptions and God means what he says.
Lewis boils it down to a straightforward yet difficult truth: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

In short, Brandt and Botham manifest forgiveness in the vein of Jesus.


First, forgiveness is countercultural.

One reason why acts of forgiveness such as Jean’s are so shocking is because they are countercultural.

Vitriol is winning the day. Our anger and bitterness result in the justification of “counterpunching.” The mantra, “Eye for an eye; tooth for a tooth” wins the day. People want to react to fire not with water but with fire.

Jesus’ insistence upon forgiveness is truly countercultural.

Jesus calls his followers to sacrificially turn the other cheek. Jesus puts no cap on the limits of our forgiveness—70 x 7. We can’t use another’s sin as an excuse for our own.

Make no mistake, this is hard. But this is why forgiveness is countercultural. More importantly, this is why forgiveness–in the vein of Jesus—is supernatural.

Second, forgiveness does not eliminate the consequences of sin.

Does forgiveness condone or excuse sin? This is what we believe—why our culture—and even many Christians—struggles with forgiveness. We believe offering forgiveness negates accountability. But this is a lie.

Theologically speaking, this is not even biblical. On the cross, Jesus cried, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus wasn’t excusing the sin of humanity that nailed him to the cross—he was taking their punishment.

There were and are consequences to sin.

But forgiveness frees us from seeking vengeance or retaliation, Jesus took upon himself the ultimate judgment for their sin. We don’t have to express, “We hope they get what they deserved.” Jesus took it on the cross.

That is why Brandt could surprisingly say, “I don’t want you to go to jail… I want what is best for you.” In short, he wanted for her what Jesus desires for all—redemption and forgiveness.

There are present and temporal consequences to sinful behavior—regardless of how inconsequential or heinous they might be.

For Guyger, she received a sentence of 10 years. That was her consequence. Forgiveness does not negate consequences.

Third, forgiveness is a fundamental apologetic of the gospel.

What else can display the reality and power of the gospel of Jesus more than his followers living out his call to forgive? Its counterculture and supernatural nature confronts onlookers with their own limitations. It sets them in search for the source of such love beyond the idols of our material world.

Despite the power of forgiveness, Christians often don’t join in.

Sadly, Christians reflect the cultural attitude of vengeance rather than Christ’s countercultural posture of forgiveness. That’s the politics of 2019, for sure, but that’s not the call of the Christian.

Just as in Christ’s parable of the unforgiving servant, we have experienced unfathomable forgiveness from our king and promptly gone out into the world demanding what we owe. Forgiven a debt we could never pay; we squabble over pennies.

In this respect, these acts of forgiveness are even an apologetic to the church, a call to us to reciprocate the very forgiveness we applaud.

Don’t just share a forgiveness video. Go and do likewise. Forgive!

Fourth, forgiveness frees the soul of the one forgiving.

So many examples of forgiveness come out of the African-American church—from Mother Emmanuel to today. They have been longer on the margin of society and they remind us of the power of forgiveness. Many have been more wronged.

Tyler Burns made the observation:

Brandt Jean’s act of forgiveness was a moment of immense personal strength and Christ-like character. But we often magnify these gestures because we desire neat, tidy endings that help us make sense of tragic circumstances. We are real people who feel the full range of pain, anger, sadness, hope, forgiveness, and love.

ALL of these expressions are human and can be faithful to God. I’m not advocating that we withhold forgiveness, but that we should be reflective even as we extend it. And refuse to weaponize it against those who may not be there yet.

Burns’ observation has broader application. In any society, the most profound examples of forgiveness are going to exist in contrast to the deepest injustices.

While the enduring reality of racial violence certainly has many—and often highly publicized—examples of Christian forgiveness, other communities have had ample opportunity to voice similar struggles. This decade the majority of these examples of profound acts of forgiveness have come from Christian women, children, people of color, refugees, and similar disenfranchised groups.

Forgiveness makes the road to healing possible, but not instantaneous. It is the opening, not the conclusion. This is where the church needs to step in as agents of reconciliation in this ongoing process of healing for victims even after they’ve forgiven.

The ongoing act of forgiveness

There’s this misconception that forgiveness is a one-time act—forget and move on. What a wonderful world it would be if this were the case. However, we each have both our own and our collective memories that we carry throughout life. The pain others can cause us, although lessened by the power of forgiveness, may continue for decades.

But the beauty of the gospel is that we have the opportunity to continue to reflect God’s very nature of forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation through a heart and mind committed to forgiveness and understanding that we live in a fallen world.

When we are able to say with heartfelt words that we have forgiven those who have harmed us most, we have understood not only the power of transformation but also the gravity and enormity of what Christ did on the cross.

Brandt forgave Amber. It reminds us of who Jesus is, who we are in Christ, and points the world to a different way.
Ed Stetzerholds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.