Friday, July 10, 2020

Forgiving Good News: Making Peace Through the Divine Dance of Forgiveness

The divine way is that the forgiver pays the cost of forgiveness, even when the forgiven is unaware of the price. God paid the cost of my forgiveness. While I was still a sinner, Christ died for me (Romans 5:8). If forgiveness is the heart of the gospel, it is the center of the church's mission as well. It is up to you to make a choice: either forgive and let Christ take care of the rest or fail to forgive and give up your freedom, joy and peace. + Celestin Musekura

The statement above by Celestin Musekura is enough to pack a wallop and stop me in my tracks. Jesus' Gospel or Good News is decidedly marked by forgiveness. And those who receive His never-ending, unfailing, always and forever forgiveness are those who understand the great gift and great need of forgiveness in their own lives as well as in the world to bring about the healing each of us needs.

But do we practice and choose forgiveness as if we are killing ourselves if we don't? Often we think we have a right not to forgive someone depending on how severe their actions are. 

In L. Gregory Jones and Celestin Musekura's compelling book, Forgiving As We've Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace, I continue to discover from Celestin – a Rwandan Hutu who chose to forgive those who murdered his father, his wife and two children, his stepbrother and new sister his mother had recently adopted, as well as his neighbors, friends, and the members of the church he had pastored for four years – that:

Forgiveness must be lived out, must be taught and learned in the context of our lives. Most importantly, it must be received and granted continuously and humble because it is not our own. Without it, we are dead. But in receiving it as a gift and learning to embody it in communion with God and others, we are born again to eternal life. This is, indeed, the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. + pg. 33
In the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he emphasized the daily practice of forgiveness as a way of maintaining and sustaining relationships (Matthew 6:9-13). Just like food, forgiveness sustains our lives in the community. Just as we cannot live without bread, we cannot fully live our life in communion with each other and with God without the ability to grant and receive forgiveness. + pg. 28

And here is an outline for how we do that provided by the other author of the book, Gregory Jones.

Practicing for the Big Dance of Forgiveness

Because forgiveness is at the heart of the God whom we worship as Trinity, we are swept up into that movement of God's love when, by the power of the Spirit through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, we join the divine dance by being forgiven so we can also forgive.

But learning the dance of forgiveness is not easy. Our hearts, souls, minds and bodies are deeply formed by the habits of sin and evil. Despite our destiny for communion, we human beings do not typically give and receive freely with one another, and certainly not with any trusting expectation. Instead, we often attempt to secure our lives at the expense of others. In short, we are well practiced in the steps that lead to mutual destruction and death while we know precious little of the steps that make up the divine dance of forgiveness. Learning the alternative life-giving way of forgiveness takes time and involves hard work.

| 1 | Truth Telling: We become willing to speak truthfully and patiently about the conflicts that have arisen.

We need not only honesty but also patience, the virtue that the ancient theologian Tertullian called "the mother of mercy." When we try to be patient and truthful, we can discern more clearly what is going on. We must take the time to talk to one another about the things that divide us.

This is an urgent task – Jesus insists, more important, even, than our offerings to God: "So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24). Wherever we are, we must begin now. But we cannot assume that every conflict will be resolved by sundown. While we must be quick to take the first step, the response we hope for requires patience. Forgiveness takes time.

| 2 | Acknowledging Anger: We acknowledge both the existence of anger and bitterness, and a desire to overcome them.

Several years ago a woman enrolled in my course on forgiveness while she was in the midst of a trial as the victim of a rapist. I suggested that she might want to wait to take the course, as it would undoubtedly open wounds for her, but she wanted to stay. After the session on loving enemies, she came to my office. "You know, that sounds good, and I know Jesus said it," she told me, "but I want the guy to rot in hell." I told her I understood that. "You talked about people praying," she said. "What did you mean?"

I answered by asking, "Would you be willing to let me pray for him for you?" There was a long silence. Then she said, "Well, I suppose." A couple of months went by. She stopped me one day on campus and asked, "Are you praying for him?" I said yes. She said, "Okay." Six more months went by, and she came to my office. She asked, "Are you still praying?" I said yes and she said, "Yes, I am too." I asked what she was praying, and she said, "I don't know. I just call out his name." Two years later she wrote me a letter and said that she still could only call out his name. "But," she added, "I hope you are still praying for him." Her anger and bitterness are still real, and she's not ignoring that. As a Christian, though, she wants to overcome them and has entered into a practice of prayer in community. It may take a very long time, but we believe that the power of God is what draws us into and sustains this dance. 

If Christ is risen, death is defeated. Even our deepest hatred can be transformed into love.

| 3 | Concern for the Other: We summon up a concern for the well-being of the other as a child of God.

Sister Helen Prejean concludes her powerful book Dead Man Walking by recounting a conversation she had with Lloyd LeBlanc, a man whose son was brutally murdered. LeBlanc, a practicing Catholic, told Sister Helen that when he arrived in the cane field with sheriffs' deputies to identify his son, he knelt by his boy and prayed the Lord's Prayer. "Whoever did this, I forgiven them," he said. LeBlanc did not deny that he struggled (and continues to struggle) with his emotions, mourning all that he lost when his son's life was cut short by an act of violence. But he knew from that day when he knelt by his son's body that his son's murderer was also made in the image of God.

LeBlanc's capacity to forgive did not come from spontaneous inspiration. We learn from Prejean that LeBlanc has for years gone to a small chapel every Friday morning to pray. He prays for "everyone, especially for the poor and suffering" – especially, we might say, for those in whom it is most difficult to see God's image. Prayer is not something LeBlanc decided to do in a time of crisis. The habits of prayer were, rather, already so much a part of his life before his son's murder that I suspect those who know him well would have been surprised if he had not responded by praying the Lord's Prayer. Prejean indicates that LeBlanc regularly prayed for the mother of his son's killer, and even went to comfort her before she died. Where she might have been left to face death alone, the dance of forgiveness made it possible for her to be accomplished by the most unlikely of friends.

| 4 | Recognizing, Remembering, Repenting: We recognize our own complicity in conflict, remember that we have been forgiven in the past an take the step of repentance.

This does not mean ignoring the difference between victims and victimizers. People need to be held accountable for their actions. Wrongdoers need to repent and ask for forgiveness, even as those who have been victimized struggle to forgive. Even so, in all but the most extreme cases, we also need to recognize and resist our temptation to blame others while exonerating ourselves. All too often we seek the speck in other people's eyes while not noticing the log in our own (Matthew 7:1-5). 

Repentance breaks the cycle of violence and creates space for God to do something new. How can the one whose family members were killed repent before the family of the killers? Because he has learned the grace of God's judgment. Jesus Christ is a judge whose judgment does not condemn but rather brings salvation. Because Jesus himself became a human being and a companion of sinners, he has subjected all human judging to judgment. He challenges our tendency to judgmentalism. We cannot ignore the need for judgment. Sin is the enemy of life and must be destroyed. But we deceive ourselves when we believe that we can name the sin in others or ourselves and stamp it out by our own strength. We learn to name our sin as sin through the gift of God's judgment, a judgment of grace. Our sin is both judged and forgiven by the One who laid down his life for us. Because we have been judged by this One, we need not judge others. Because we are forgiven in Christ, we must forgive. As Celestin says, "We have no choice." 

The desert tradition offers a wonderful image of what it means to be transformed by God's judgment into an instrument of healing in the world. Abba Moses, who had been a brigand in the Egyptian desert before his conversion, was held up as an example of repentance:

There was a brother at Scetis who had committed a fault. So they called a meeting and invited Abba Moses. He refused to go. The priest sent someone to say to him, "They're all waiting for you." So Moses got up and set off; he took a leaky jug and filled it with water and took it with him. The others came out to meet him and said, "What is this, father?" The old man said to them, "My sins run out behind me and I cannot see them, yet here I am coming to sit in judgment on the mistakes of someone else." When they heard this, they called off the meeting.

Our refusal to judge others is not about minimizing sin; it is, rather, as Abba Moses and Celestin demonstrate, about learning to see the need for forgiveness that we all share in our own lives. This is, in practice, the step that makes healing possible. "To assume the right to judge, or to assume that you have arrived at a settled spiritual maturity that entitles you to prescribe confidently at a distance for another's sickness, is in fact to leave others without the therapy that they need for their souls," writes Archbishop Rowan Williams. "It is to cut them off from God, to leave them in their spiritual slavery – while reinforcing your own slavery." Taking the step of repentance ourselves, we create space for the healing God wants to give, for the healing that each of us needs. 

| 5 | Commitment to Change: We make a commitment to struggle to change whatever caused and continues to perpetuate our conflicts.

Forgiveness does not merely refer backwards to the absolution of guilt; it also looks forward to the restoration of community. Forgiveness ought to usher in repentance and change. It ought to inspire prophetic protest wherever people's lives are being diminished and destroyed. Forgiveness and justice are closely related.

To be forgiven is to experience the release and love that enables us to join God's movement to set others free – the captives, those who have been condemned to die and all of us who feel we are trapped i death. Learning the dance of forgiveness in a broken and divided world will always mean learning a subversive step that challenges anything that perpetuates brokenness and division. We must not forget that Jesus was executed outside Jerusalem not for revolutionary violence but for forgiving sins. Only God could forgive sins, and the religious leaders of Jesus' day knew that such an act was a subversion of their power system. This is why they accused Jesus of blasphemy and, along with all of humanity, condemned him to die. In a world where so many people have been crushed by condemnation – even condemnation "in God's name" – the dance of forgiveness requires a step that leads us to stand up for justice and extend the word of God's forgiveness to all who suffer. In the words of the freedom son, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes." If, as Martin Luther King taught us, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, then the work of a church that has learned the dance of forgiveness will include working to extend the freedom we have experienced in Christ to all God's children everywhere. We do well to remember that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who reminds us that there is "no future without forgiveness," struggled for decades against the injustice of apartheid in South Africa. He has also embodied faithfulness and superb leadership in the positions of authority in which he has been entrusted.

| 6 | Hope for the Future: We confess our yearning for the possibility of reconciliation.

Sometimes a situation is so painful that reconciliation may seem impossible. At such times, prayer and struggle may be the only imaginable options. However, continuing to maintain reconciliation as the goal – even if this is "hoping against hope for reconciliation in this life – is important because it reminds us that God promises to make all things new. We respond to God's forgiveness in Jesus Christ by "preparing the way" for the final, ultimate word of God's forgiveness.

Every concrete act – every prayer prayed, every apology offered, every meal shared across dividing lines – is a sign that our history and habits of sin have been definitively interrupted by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is why the rhythms and practices of forgiveness in community life are so important. They do not wash away all bitterness into a sea of forgetfulness or guarantee that animosity will not erupt in angry words or thrown chairs. Christian forgiveness assumes, rather, that the Christian community, just like any human community, is broken and in need of healing. We do not gather because we're already perfect. We gather to learn the steps of faith from a God who is faithful and wants us to join the eternal dance of life abundant in communion. Good habits of forgiveness matter. 

Looking to Jesus for Practices of Forgiveness and Communion with God and Each Other

The practices of forgiveness do not serve primarily as a means to absolve our guilt but as a reminder – a gracious irritant – of what communion with God and with one another can and should be. We confess our sins to one another before we receive the body and blood of our Lord because we trust that God's self-giving love in Jesus Christ has broken apart the logic of vengeance and violence, of repression and depression. Confessing our sins and receiving communion, we remember not only that we are sinners, but that we have been and are being redeemed in Jesus.

There's a bit of advice that a master dancer will sometimes give to a novice: "Don't look down; just keep your eyes on mine and follow my lead." If we think our only partners in the dance of forgiveness are other broken and bitter people, we will inevitably become frustrated, stumbling over one another's missteps until we conclude that it's not worth the trouble. But the good news is that we've been invited into the eternal dance of Father, Son and Holy Spirit by the One who showed by walking among us that he is master of every step. The key, you might say, is this: don't look down. Or, as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, let's keep looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. 

Previous posts: 

Praying Good News: Believing the Simply Good News of Praying the "Our Father" or Lord's Prayer 
Sharing Good News: Getting Beyond the Awkward and Talking about Jesus Outside Our Comfort Zones 
Working Good News: Discipling for Monday through Friday in Our Work and Workplaces 
Reconciling Good News: Moving with God in Welcoming Justice and Building Beloved Community 

Next post: Befriending Good News: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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