Recent travels gave me the privilege of dropping in on a lively Bible study (not an oxymoron). Turns out I needed to be there. The topic du jour was forgiveness, based on the gospel read yesterday in church. The topic of forgiveness has been coming up a lot on Sundays. It’s also been brought to my attention in other settings recently, which reinforces my own need to do spiritual work in this area. I’m not that good at forgiveness.
I’ve been wondering why forgiveness gets so much biblical and liturgical airtime. Not only did Jesus talk a lot about it. He practiced it at the crucial moment of his life. On the cross he prayed: Father, forgive them.
In our worship, forgiveness seems to be the threshold we must cross to grow in relationship with God. When we gather for eucharist, we precede Holy Communion with the confession, recognizing we have been forgiven. Before we receive bread and wine, we claim forgiveness as we have forgiven others. The Lord’s Prayer, repeated in every liturgy in our tradition, holds forgiveness at the center.
As the discussion about forgiveness unfolded at the Bible study, one person mentioned Anne Lamott’s well-circulated insight about resentment. She compares withholding of forgiveness to drinking rat poison and hoping the rat dies. I have a photo by my office door, a reminder in my comings and goings. It’s a picture of the small jail cell where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years. Soon after his release, he spoke of how he had forgiven his captors. Someone asked how he could possibly do that. He said if he failed to forgive, they would still have him in captivity.
That principle was echoed by Desmond Tutu who affirmed that there was no future without forgiveness. The study group noted recent examples in Amish communities or in Charleston where unspeakable injury was met with forgiveness. Amazing grace.
Our discussion ranged to include the challenges around forgiveness, the myth that you can forgive and forget, the annoying (or worse) difficulty of forgiving someone who is clueless or careless about the injury that person has inflicted, the depths of injury human beings inflict on each other, often most painfully in families. And sometimes in churches.
In my work, as we explore movement in the spiritual journey, a key topic we consider is forgiveness, beginning with the good news that we have been forgiven. We observe that an inability to practice forgiveness can be a stumbling block, an obstacle thwarting spiritual growth. I have a feeling that Jesus knew that, when he said (as we heard yesterday) that we are called to forgive, not just once, not just seven times, but seventy times seven. He calls for limitless forgiveness. Which of course, makes no sense.
Which brings me to the comment made by one of the participants in the study. This wise person (also wise guy) said that, in the end, he was committed to being a forgiving person just because Jesus said to do it. He compared it to his own family when he was growing up. At certain points, his parents instructed him to do something he wasn’t inclined to do. In lively adolescent rebellion, he asked why. They said: Just because.
From his point of view, Jesus’ call to forgiveness had little to do with whether we wanted to forgive, whether we felt like it, whether it was just or fair, whether it even felt possible. It was a matter of listening to our teacher who said that forgiveness is good for us. It was a matter of obedience. As followers of Jesus, we sometimes are led to practice forgiveness just because Jesus taught us to do it, trusting that Jesus knows stuff we don’t, trusting that Jesus knows who we are, trusting that Jesus knows what it means to build loving, liberated lives.
No one is incapable of forgiving and no one is unforgivable.
Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.
– Oscar Wilde
To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.
Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.
– Mark Twain
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
– Nelson Mandela
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Discipleship Matters Conference 2017
Oct. 16-18, 2017
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