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You are a forgiving God,

gracious and compassionate,

slow to anger and 

abounding in LOVE.

Nehemiah 9:17

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I have been to a lot of celebrations and ceremonies during my ten years in Mexico.  Weddings, funerals, graduations, and birthdays.  You name it and they celebrate it, big time, and I have attended many.  I thought I had seen it all, until Saturday.  Saturday I attended a “Forgiveness Ceremony”.

Initially, Anita, my wife, and I, thought we were going to a wedding.  A young lady who had lived at the home for needy children, where Anita and I serve,  was going to tie the knot, at least that’s what we were told by her younger sister who still lives at the children’s home. We were invited.  We were told it was to take place at the Catholic church in the small town where the mother and daughter lived.

Anita and I started out for the small town early in the afternoon and upon arriving at the town we began to look high and low for the church.  In most small Mexican towns, the Catholic church is the easiest thing in the world to locate as it is normally the biggest building in town, and centrally located.  This church was an exception.  After asking half a dozen people where the church was, we finally found it toward the edge of town, surrounded by trees.  We also found it empty .  Nobody was there!  We called the mother of the bride and she said everyone was at her house and told us how to get there.  We made our way there, and the younger sister of the supposed bride met us on the street and informed us that there was no wedding.  Somehow she was confused about the purpose of the event and thought it was a wedding, but it was something else.

A lot of stuff that followed was confusing to me, and even to Anita, who has grown up Mexico.  She tried to explain what was going on as events unfolded.

We went into the place.  I say place because most Mexicans who live in small towns don’t live in houses so much as they live in family compounds with a few dwelling places in which immediate family members live, as well as extended family members like grandparents, aunts and uncles and sometimes in-laws. There is normally a relatively large common space or courtyard in the middle.  The mother of the young lady who had lived at the mission, is poor, her husband is in prison, and she lives in a tin shack on the edge of the compound, which is owned by her husband’s brothers.  This is why one of  her daughters lived at the mission and another still lives there.

The mother explained all too briefly what was going on, and then led us to a table where we were served pozole, a common soup served at celebrations.  We were halfway through our bowl of pozole when the action started.

At this time the only people there was the family of the mother.  All of a sudden, the family of the Jpegboyfriend/groom, started filing into the compound, led by an elderly woman carrying a censor from which burning incense smoke was filling the air.  Close on her heels were men carrying a couple loads of firewood, a couple of bound turkeys, large baskets of food and ten cases of beer.  Anita told me that in an ordinary wedding the groom and his family bring gifts such as these to begin a long (sometimes seven days) wedding celebration. But on this day, it was more of a peace offering brought by the boyfriend’s family to help make amends for an offense.

It seems the offense was that the 25 year-old boyfriend had “taken advantage” of the 17 year old girlfriend, and to add insult to injury, he had already fathered two children out of wedlock with another lady.  All this didn’t seem to bother the girl who had lived at the mission so much, as she was clinging to his arm as they were the last to enter the courtyard and then walked to the front and stood between the two lines of family members; each line consisting of about 20 people.

Then the dialogue began.  A man from the boyfriend’s family began by admitting that the young man had done wrong and asked forgiveness.  The mother of the young lady accepted the apology and forgave the boy and ostensibly the entire family who, it seems, was considered somewhat culpable in the affair.  I thought, “That was easy enough”.  But the mother was not done.  In fact, she was just getting started.

She exclaimed to the other family how painful the whole episode had been to her and her family and to her husband in prison.  It was wrong what the young man had done and her and her family felt terribly offended by the ordeal.  She was shaken by the event and her voice began to rise.  Other members of the young man’s family chimed in.  Members of the mother’s family spoke their piece, in tones that were less than peaceful.  Discussion continued for a few minutes as the two families considered what was the best way to ameliorate the situation.  Some suggested a “shotgun” wedding.  Others said the couple should work it out on their own.  The conclusion, as far as I could understand, with Anita help, was that they would wait until the young lady turned 18, and if they were still “in love”, then they would get married.  Most people seemed to think that was the best solution, and the heart of the “forgiveness ceremony” began.

Mexico is about 95% Catholic, and most Catholic homes that I have been in have a little “shrine” in someJpeg part of the house with a virgin Mary figure, some baby Jesus’s , and a crucifix.  This place was no different.  In fact this whole process took place in front of the family shrine.  At this point in the ceremony, the young man and young lady knelt in front of the shrine; in front of a burning candle.  Then a kind of blessing/forgiveness thing took place starting with the mother and her family.  The mother crossed herself before the shrine, and then made the sign of the cross over her daughter and the young man.  Then she put her right hand on her daughter’s head, and left hand on the man’s head, and slowly brought the heads together until they gently touched.  When I was young, I remember a person talking to a couple of children that were misbehaving, and he told them to stop or he would knock their heads together.  This thought ran through my head as each member of the mother’s family, and then the young man’s family repeated this process of making the sign of the cross and then bringing their heads together.  A part of me thought that both parties had acted badly, with total disregard of the scriptures, and that they did indeed, need to have their heads knocked together in hopes that it would knock some sense into them.

After all the family members had their turn to bless and forgive, and then they all applauded and pointed their fingers at family members across the little isle that separated them, as athletes sometimes do when shouting, “You’re the man!”

Then, out came the adult beverages.  The mother’s family poured a little bit of mezcal, a tequila like drink that is popular in Oaxaca, into small plastic cups and gave one to each of the young man’s family, and then to her own.  And if that wasn’t enough, she opened some cases of beer, and gave each person a bottle.  So, with both hands holding an intoxicating beverage, they lifted the drinks in honor of the other family, as if to say, “let bygones be bygones”, and everyone took a drink.

That was enough for me.  The ceremony seemed to be over and the families were setting out tables and chairs in preparation for what would undoubtedly be a long afternoon of celebration with lots of food and inebriation.  We bid the mother and daughter farewell, but not before Anita had a heart to heart talk with the young couple about living responsibly before each other, their families, and especially before God.

Thinking about this strange ceremony on the way home, I thought that overall it was a good thing.  All concerned parties came together to air their grievances in hopes of finding an appropriate redress to the problem, and reconciliation before God and man.  They found neutral ground and a hopeful solution to the situation.  Both families ultimate concern was for the well being of the young couple.  The couple took it all in, was made aware of the pain and turmoil that their irresponsible behavior had caused, and then humbly knelt, while each member of both families forgave them and blessed them.  It is much better than carrying around a hateful grudge the rest of their lives like the infamous Hatfields and McCoys.

I also thought of the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  After the prayer, Jesus emphasized the importance of forgiveness by saying that if you do not forgive others from your heart, your heavenly Father will not forgive you.  God loves us and wants us to be happy.  We are most happy when we live in acceptance of God’s forgiveness and an attitude that easily forgives others.

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English: Lord's Prayer A tablet behind the alt...

English: Lord’s Prayer A tablet behind the altar in St Mary the Virgin showing the Lord’s Prayer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Lord’s prayer is a happy prayer.  When I pray it and meditate on it I am filled with joy because it is filled with good things. God wants us to ask him for good things. Most of the Lord’s prayer is about asking God for stuff.  There was a time in my life where I stopped asking God for stuff.  I stopped praying for people.  I figured that God is sovereign and all powerful and all knowing  and full of love a and that he would handle all situations and circumstances perfectly.  I thought it ridiculous to think that God was up there on his celestial throne waiting for me to send up a prayer before he would act.  “You know, I was planning on healing George of his cancer, but Santiago never prayed for him, so poor old George died.”  I didn’t think God needed my prayer before he did the right thing.

And I was right.  He doesn’t need my prayer.  I need my prayer.  I finally realized that by taking a good look at the Lord’s prayer. Most of the Lord’s prayer is petition.  Not adoration or thanksgiving, but petitions, requests.  I need to ask God for stuff, for things, for help, to remind myself daily that I am totally dependent on God for everything!  For all my physical needs and spiritual needs.  In the Lord’s prayer I am reminded over and over that God is good and loving and wants me to be happy.

The Lord’s prayer starts off with “Our Father” and a bit later “thy kingdom come”.  The first piece of happiness we find is that our Father is the king.  As a youth I went to Bible camp every year in the mountains of Colorado.  One year the guest speaker was from Tennessee.  He had never seen the Rocky mountains.  One day, on a hike he stopped and exclaimed, “My daddy made those mountains!”  Sometimes I want to stop and exclaim with joy, “My daddy is the king!”  The Lord’s prayer is part of the sermon on the mount where Jesus has been mentioning the kingdom.  He began His ministry proclaiming the kingdom of the heavens or the kingdom of God.  In the Lord’s prayer we happily discover that our daddy is the king.

In context of  “thy kingdom come”  Jesus gives us the first thing that we should ask for.  The most important happy thing that we should ask for.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  When you think of heaven, do you think of sadness, misery, and pain?  Of course not.  We all think of a joyous existence where we delight in the presence of God and his will being done perfectly.  God’s plan from the garden of Eden in Genesis to New Jerusalem in Revelation, is for people to experience unbelievable happiness because they are are doing his will.  In this petition God not only invites us to enter into his joy, but as individuals and as the body of Christ, to bring this joy to a hurting world and thus grow the kingdom of the heavens.

As Jesus further instructs about things to ask for, he seemingly moves from the most important thing to the most mundane.  “Give us today our daily bread.”  I would 4126611734_993d897939venture to guess that most of us rarely if ever ask God to supply our bread for the day.  One reason we don’t ask for that is because in our innermost being we think we are self sufficient.  We think we can handle that one on our own.  The reality is that we can’t.  I was reading Moses’ speech to the Israelites this morning in Deuteronomy chapter eight.  Moses told the people that it is God who gives you the ability to produce wealth.  Who gave you the ability to earn that paycheck that enabled you to buy your bread  (which is symbolic of our daily needs)?  Where did you get the physical and mental ability to work, make money and buy food?  God gave it you and me and all of us.  So when we pray for daily bread, we are praying for God to maintain and grow our physical and mental abilities.

Here at the home for needy children in Mexico, that petition takes on a different flavor.  We depend on the generous gifts of faithful supporters and friends for our daily bread, or daily tortillas, as the case may be.  While we always give thanks before each meal, we rarely ask God corporately  to supply our food.  It is a different story in the accounting office.  Those who look at our daily financial records,  daily ask God to supply our needs.  God answered those prayers in a special way a couple of weeks ago.  We went to a store where we regularly buy food, and they donated a lot of  juice and crackers to us.  After that we went to the fruit and vegetable market and a complete stranger saw our van saying that we were from Christ For The World, Home For Needy Children.  He came over and gave us four boxes of fruit.  The next day a big truck from a governmental social service agency showed up unexpectedly and unloaded the largest food donation we have ever received.  Huge bags of rice, beans and lentils. Cases and cases of milk and tuna. Our pantry, which had looked like old, Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, was now stocked with enough food to last us six months.  Everyone rejoiced and was glad for God’s incredible provision.  Indeed, everyone who has food to eat and water to drink should happily rejoice in God’s faithful and miraculous provisions.

Now Jesus moves from our most basic physical needs, to our most basic spiritual need.  Forgiveness of sin.  “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those that sin against us.”  The angel told Joseph to name Mary’s baby “Jesus” because he would save his people from their sins.  Peter told Cornelius in Acts 10 that everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name.   Paul told the Romans in chapter four that Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to  life for our justification.  In Galatians one, Paul told his readers that Jesus gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age.  The author of Hebrews says that Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people.  John proclaims to his  audience that Jesus appeared so that he might take away our sins (1 John 3:5).  The one teaching on the mountain about forgiveness, was the one who died on a cross so that such forgiveness of sin could be possible.

So what’s the big  deal with  sin?  Nothing much, except that it causes a lot of pain, suffering, separation from a right relationship with God, turmoil in relationships with others, anxiety, guilt, depression and dysfunction, just to name a few things.  We are saved from all that when we do two things.  One ask God to forgive us of our sins, and two, we need to forgive others who  sin  against us – people who have hurt us, physically, mentally or emotionally.  1 John 1:9, and Jesus’ parable of  the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18:21, shed a lot of light on the concept and reality of forgiveness.  With our sins forgiven, our relationship with the Giver of Joy is made whole, and our souls are filled with a whole lot of happiness.

The final two things Jesus tells us to  ask for, is that God, our Father, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.  When I think of God  leading  us into temptation, I  am reminded of the movie DodgeBall, where Dwight Goodman, the muscle bound owner of GloboGym, was waving a chocolate donut in front of his face, saying to himself, “Go ahead.  Eat it.  You know you want it.”  He goes to take a bite of the donut, and about the time the  chocolate delight touches his lips, he presses a button that sends an electric jolt into his body.  God is not in heaven, dangling an enticing temptation before us, waiting for us to succumb, and then gleefully sending a lightning bolt our way as punishment.  It is more accurate for us to pray that God would save us from the time of trial, because in times of trial we are tempted to sin by getting angry, or frustrated or worried or worse.  Dallas Willard writes in The Divine Conspiracy that “this request is not just for evasion of pain and of things we don’t like, though it frankly is that.  It expresses the understanding that we can’t stand up under very much pressure, and that it is not a  good thing for us to suffer.  It is a vote of ‘no confidence’ in our own abilities.  As the (Lord’s Prayer) begins with with the glorification of God, it ends with acknowledgement of the feebleness of human beings.”  I will be the first to admit I am feeble and I will be the first to thank God and rejoice and be happy that He regularly saves me from the time of trial.

“Deliver us from the Evil One.”  The Evil One is Satan.  The Bible says Satan is like adevil roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.  Scriptures say that the Devil comes around with one purpose in mind – to kill, steal and destroy.  Basically, he doesn’t like  Christians very much.  To him, the only good Christian is a dead, dying or suffering Christian.  Happy Christians really tick him off.  Jesus knows this, so he tells us to pray for protection from the Evil One;  to recognize the reality of Satan and his hate for us; to recognize our weakness, that we are like dust compared to the Devil; and to recognize that the Devil is dust, compared to God.  When we pray to God to deliver us from the Evil One, we are acknowledging that “greater is He that is in us, then  he that is  in the world (1 John 4:4).  That, for me, is a happy thought!  Amen!

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” ‘Just the way we want it’ is not a bad paraphrase for ‘amen.’  What is needed at the end of this great prayer (Lord’s Prayer) is a ringing affirmation of the goodness of God and God’s world.  If your nerves can take it, you might (occasionally?) try “Whoopee!”  I imagine God himself will not mind.”  Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy.  This book has helped me more with having a happy, healthy prayer life than any other I have ever read.

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Next blog – Joy and Terror in the Kingdom of Og