Forgiveness

We have been meditating on the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father as it is found in the Gospel of Luke. Prayer is one of the ways we experience the presence of God. In today’s passage we will be reminded of the importance of forgiveness, which action, I believe, is another significant way to know God.

This month we have come to “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” This does not have the words “transgressions” and “transgress” that many of us have used over the years. Neither does it have the words “debts” and “indebted” that others are used to. The word “sins” and “transgressions” are close enough to be used as synonyms. And in Luke’s version the prior word “sins” must be used to interpret the phrase “indebted to us.” So, to make it clear, in praying Luke’s version we are asking God to forgive us our sins because we are forgiving those who have sinned against us.

So, two ideas are at work. On the one hand, we have a need to be forgiven because of our own sins–doing wrong against God and others. And we have a need to forgive others who had done us wrong. I would simply point out that in this prayer, we are basically asking God to treat us like we treat others!!?!

While that sounds frightening, it need not be, as long as we understand what forgiveness entails. Forgiveness is seem most clearly on the cross. There, God in Christ was forgiving the world for its sin. This involved two types of acceptance. First, God in Christ accepted the pain of our sin without retaliation. The pain stopped on the cross. Second, God in Christ accepted the responsibility to help those who had caused the pain. (Remember Christ praying, Father forgive them.)

In forgiving others we accept two things. First, we accept the pain without trying to get revenge. We absorb the hurt as it were. Second, we accept the responsibility to help the other person. This can be most easily done by praying for that person’s own well being.

Forgiveness in it’s most basic elements does not involve forgetting (which we can’t will anyway!) nor the emotions of liking or loving.

Paul understood the connection between our forgiveness and our forgiving: “forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 5:7).

May we know the presence of God as we pray even for our enemies that God’s mercy would prevail in their lives.

The Mystic Path: Purification

Last time we considered the occurrence of awakening in the mystic path–that happening in our lives when we become awake to the divine or God’s presence all around us. Today’s topic is not as exciting, but I hope not to lose any readers!

According to the mystics once we are awakened to the glory of God, we can become aware of our own imperfections. The path to ultimate union with God leads through a period (or probably periods) of purification.

Some of our imperfections are caused by our environment. Another way to say that is that we are impacted by sin. On the other hand, some of our imperfections are the result of our own bad choices. Or, we commit sin, e.g. we nurture wrong desires or do wrong things.

Our imperfections may appear in a variety of forms. Not being able to distinguish right from wrong is an imperfection in our intellect. When we can’t seem to make a decision or stick to those resolutions we do make, this is an imperfection in our will. Regularly struggling with unhealthy feelings points to an imperfection in our emotional center.

I have largely avoided talking about ‘sin’ because the word has been wildly misused over the years. When I was a young person growing up in rural Alabama in the 50s and 60s, dancing was considered a sin in some circles! And going to the movies on a Sunday was a definite taboo.

Nevertheless, the word sin still has value when we consider the imperfections in our moral center. Jesus taught us to love one another, which means seeking the other person’s welbeing. When we fail to do that, we are imperfect or we are sinners.

Mystics have suggested a threefold way of purification that can help us along the path to union with God. First is contrition–a sense of sorrow for our imperfections or sins. Second is a full confession–acknowledging, at least to ourselves, that we are not perfect. Third is the resolve to change. Of course, for Christian mystics, all of this is done in the presence of God who is ready to forgive and to help us grow into the divine nature.

A More Peculiar Practice

I have recommended three practices that have helped me to grow spiritually. They are silence, journaling, and holy reading. These three can be found in many books on the spiritual life. Today’s practice is more peculiar to me.

Some 20 years or so ago I began to see a spiritual adviser. It was a time when I was considering a change of vocation and/or denominational affiliation. It was recommended that I begin seeing Rev. Steve Holzholb. One thing he advised changed my life. He suggested that I not read quite as much scripture in my morning devotions. At that time I was reading an Old Testament passage, a Psalm, a New Testament passage, and a Gospel passage. He said, “LaMon I want you to read only in the Gospels for awhile and nothing else.” 20 years later, I simply cannot omit reading in the Gospels everyday I do my devotions.

As a Protestant Christian, I had interpreted Scripture and life largely through the writings of Paul. This is the normal Protestant pattern. Paul’s writings become the grid by which we understand everything else.

Following my adviser’s suggestion, I began reading a passage from the Gospels daily. It took months, but eventually, my grid changed. No longer did I see everything through the eyes of Paul, but instead through the eyes of Jesus. I interpreted Paul by way of Jesus and not visa versa. If I am a better person now that I was 20 years ago, one of the reasons is that I immersed myself in the Gospel stories and teachings of Jesus.¬† I believe this Gospel reading has made me more compassionate, forgiving, and welcoming.

It can work for anyone. Simply determine that, except for some vocational necessity, e.g. teachers, preachers, etc., you will read only in the Gospels for awhile. Do not read whole chapters. Read shorter selections. Read slowly, listening for a word from God about which you might write and pray in your journal. As I said, I started doing it “for awhile” and continue to do it some 20 years later–though I do now add some other readings from time to time.

May Jesus himself be your teacher.

[As always, if you find what I have written helpful, you may share it with others. You might encourage them to ‘follow’ these blogs as well.]

Healthy Growth

How an organism responds to its environment determines, in large part, how it will grow. Human organisms are no different. C S Lewis affirmed in various places that we are shaped by the choices we make. So it becomes vitally important how we respond to incidents like the one that recently occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia.

When we are confronted by people who espouse racism or any type of racial superiority, how can we or should we respond? Violence begets violence. Hatred breeds hatred. I think I understand the angry responses of some who opposed the marchers supporting a philosophy of white-supremacy. It was easy for me to get swept up in that anger as well. In most of these cases however, anger simply increases anger. We may feel righteous after it is all over, but have we grown in a healthy way in those moments? Have those responses caused us to be more loving, kind, and generous? I suspect not.

I don’t always make Christian choices, but as a Christian, I live under sweet constraints that have been placed on me. Restraints that call on me to love my enemies, speak the truth¬†in love, and pray for those who would persecute me.

There are other options than screaming words of hatred. Choirs could coalesce along the marchers’ parade route and sing “they will know we are Christians by our love” or “Jesus loves the little children”. Groups of men and women could join together and in unison pray aloud over the marchers, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I am certain that there are better loving responses that can be given than the two I have just mentioned! But my point in all of this is to affirm that we can respond to bigotry and racism in ways that will promote love, compassion, peace, and understanding. In so doing, we grow in the image of Christ.

 

 

 

A Counter-Cultural Policeman

Baseball season has begun, so I tuned in to the first Braves’ game. They were playing the Mets in New York. Before the game the announcer asked for a moment of silence to honor some persons who had died in the past year. Among those named was former New York city cop, Steven McDonald. The announcer noted that he had been shot in the line of duty and paralyzed for the rest of his life.

Oh, but that is only the context for the story of Steven McDonald. In 1986 at the age of 22, McDonald had stopped three teenagers to question them about a stolen bike. One of them, Shavod Jones, pulled out a gun and shot him three times.

After he was rushed to the hospital, the surgeons told his wife that he would be paralyzed for the rest of his life. She was 23 and three months pregnant. Six months after the shooting, Patti Ann gave birth to their son, Conor. At his son’s baptism, McDonald publicly forgave the young man who had shot him. Later reflecting on what he had done, McDonald said,

I wanted to free myself of all the negative, destructive emotions that this act of violence awoke in me–the anger, the bitterness, the hatred. I needed to free myself of those so I could be free to love my wife and our child and those around us. I often tell people that the only thing worse than a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. Such an attitude would have extended my tragic injury into my soul, hurting my wife, son and others even more. It is bad enough that the physical effects are permanent, but at least I can choose to prevent spiritual injury. (Plough Quarterly, Spring 2017, p. 13)

McDonald spend the rest of his life–some 30 years–promoting the importance of forgiveness.

I call this counter-cultural. In America today, the majority of citizens (including many, many Christians) believe more in retributive justice than in mercy and forgiveness. In promoting the death penalty, they refuse to follow the example of Steven McDonald. And more importantly, the teaching of Jesus who clearly disavowed the ancient law of retribution–an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a death for a death. (Leviticus 24:19-21 and Matthew 5:38-48)

If I ever face an experience as painful as that of Steven McDonald, my prayer is that I will follow his example and the teaching of Jesus Christ rather than our present American culture. Jesus calls us to forgiveness over vengeance.