Forgiveness

Cropped shot by Felix Koutchinski, unsplash.com

The Christian practice of forgiveness is another one of those topics I approached with just a teensy bit of dread. I’m old enough to have learned a few things about myself in the course of a lifetime of forgiving, not wanting to forgive, asking for forgiveness, not being forgiven, and being forgiven when I felt unworthy of it.

I’ve learned, for example, that not wanting to forgive someone—thinking that they’ve hurt me so deeply or intentionally that they don’t deserve my forgiveness—can lead to an ugly sense of self-righteousness that blinds me to my own faults and failings. Unforgiveness quickly roots and grows into a huge plank in my eye. I’ve also learned that there’s a thin line between lack of forgiveness and self-deception; that I’m capable of being pleasant towards someone who’s hurt me—in an “aren’t I doing well to forgive them?” kind of way—then consoling my still-present hurt by talking about it to others. Like eating a bowl full of Hallowe’en candy, one peanut butter cup after another, such gossip feels good in the moment, but leaves me feeling sick afterwards.

These are not pretty things to acknowledge, let alone to put into writing.

But on the up-side, I’ve also learned a few things about the actual practice of forgiveness. Here are five of them:

  1. Forgiveness is essential: Christians believe people were made for relationship, but we are broken. Invariably, we hurt one another.
  2. Sometimes we need to forgive again and again. And then again. And again.
  3. Sometimes forgiveness is easy. Sometimes it’s so hard it can seem impossible.
  4. Even when it seems impossible, prayer, time, and deliberate acts of love for the one who has offended us can make forgiveness real in our minds, and in our hearts.
  5. True forgiveness requires acknowledging our own brokenness and need for forgiveness. It means resting in the fact that God alone is worthy to judge both the other person and me, and that God can be trusted to judge fairly because He loves us both equally, whether we both love Him back or not.

Small potatoes

Those are five things I’ve learned. But when I read L. Gregory Jones’ essay, “Forgiveness” in the tenth chapter of Practicing Our Faith, I was reminded of a few more.

The first thing Jones reminded me of is that the things I’ve had to forgive over the course of my life are small potatoes. “Thinking about forgiveness—to say nothing of finding the courage to practice it—can be difficult,” he writes. “Merely to consider this practice causes us to think about horrifying evil: slavery in the United States, or the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, or individual acts of rape, child abuse, and domestic violence.” Or, we might add, acts of terrorism against defenceless victims. “It is difficult to comprehend the depths of pain and suffering in such situations,” Jones says.

There was a time in my life when I thought that even considering the possibility of true forgiveness in such cases was inconceivable.

I don’t any more.

I’ve read about Truth and Reconciliation in Rwanda and about the Charter of Forgiveness issued by Canada’s Indigenous peoples. I’ve visited an Amish community in Pennsylvania where a deranged shooter took an entire school hostage, killing children and himself, only to have the parents of the victims express forgiveness within hours of the tragedy. I’ve read about Corrie Ten Boom and interviewed people like Kim Phuc. I’ve seen that forgiveness leads to healing, restoration, and hope, like sunshine in March leads to the buds on my magnolia bursting into beautiful blooms in May.

But I honestly can’t fathom what it means to forgive in such circumstances. I feel a little afraid to even think about it, to be honest. Afraid that I might one day find myself in a big potatoes kind of situation. And that makes me realize I’ve still got some learning to do, that learning the practice of forgiveness—that practicing the practice of forgiveness—as Jones points out, is a lifelong process.

The alternative, in Jones’ penetrating words is leading a life of “chilling apathy … loveless indifference … where people rest content with low-grade bitterness rather than struggling to transcend it.”

However his essay also offers help for discerning a way forward. He writes, “If we are to grow in the practice of forgiving one another, we need also to come to a better understanding of the shape of Christian forgiveness, of God’s practice in forgiving us.”

I’ve learned that forgiveness is shaped like a cross.

Some time ago, I was struggling with a deep sense of betrayal as a result of the actions of someone else. As I was journaling and praying about what to do with my feelings, I got a mental image of Jesus on the cross, praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Suddenly, I knew in a way that I’d never known before that his prayer concerned me, because it was for my sins, too, that he died. “They know not what they do”  applied to me. How often had I gone about my day-to-day life not thinking about the full impact of my words or actions on others, and so sinned against them and against God? How many people had I betrayed, without realizing the impact of my betrayal? “You don’t become a Christian and stop being a jerk overnight,” as one writer friend puts it, and we’re often incapable of knowing what we don’t know. It’s harder to see the jerkiness in ourselves than it is to see it in others. But that day, I saw it in myself anew, and recognized that I had been forgiven, which caused me to realize that I, in turn, could pray, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,”  on behalf of others.

That’s surely why Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” It’s intended to be a daily confession and request for forgiveness because Jesus knew we’d need to offer up such prayers every day.

So it was that on that particular day, in that moment, the plank fell out of my eye and I confessed the way I’d been nursing my hurt by ruminating on it. And for the first time in a long time, I felt truly free.

*

Practicing My Faith, Part 11 – This post is eleventh in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

Shaping communities

hands by Tim Marshall, unsplash.com

My intent today was to blog about the Christian practice of “shaping communities,” the subject of the ninth chapter, by Larry Rasmussen, in Practicing Our Faith.

I was going to write about “the perennial Christian strategy,” as Rasmussen calls it, “to gather the folks, break the bread, and tell the stories.”

I was going to say that my own particular expertise was not in how to shape such a community, but in how the Christian communities—of which I’ve been a part over the course of my lifetime—have shaped me.

I was going to write about the United church congregation in which my parents raised me, my memories of sitting on the floor at the feet of my Sunday School teacher, taking in the stories and lessons told with flannel graph Jesus.

I was going to write about coming to genuine faith there, about learning important Christian doctrines, about being confirmed, participating in the Lord’s Supper for the first time, and then learning to serve by teaching Sunday School classes, and writing skits to be performed by little ones during the Sunday service.

I was going to share my memories of the Pentecostal church I attended in university, where I heard apologetics and learned to study the Bible, and where I experienced the practice of Christian hospitality like I’d never seen it practiced before, when one particular family invited me to their home for a roast beef lunch on a Sunday after church (it was their habit to open their home in this way every week to university students who found themselves away from their own homes) and offered me a place to lay my head after the meal.

I was going to write about the little Christian and Missionary Alliance church my husband and I have called home for 30 years. I was going to tell you about the lifelong friendships I’ve made there, the mentoring, teaching, and counselling I’ve received, the support and help in raising my three children. I was going tell you about the hugs I get there every Sunday. I was going to reminisce about serving throughout all those years—in the nursery, or in Sunday School, or in Pioneer Girls, or Kidz Kamp or in the kitchen—even when I didn’t really want to, and how such service molded me and taught me things. And how I watched as my children also learned to serve and how proud of them I felt as I watched them learning sometimes hard but always character-forming lessons.

I was going to tell you about the fact that I study in a Baptist seminary, and work part-time in an evangelical Anglican one, and how both places offer community that is shaping me in other profoundly important ways.

But then I heard about the cold-blooded mass murder of so many families in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand that happened yesterday. And my heart felt heavy. So I checked in, via Facebook, with a Muslim friend. And I saw comments on her profile there that made me realize that she feels about her mosque community the same way that I feel about the all of the Christian communities that have shaped and that continue to shape me.

And then I did the only thing I could think of to do: I dropped to my knees and I prayed for my friend, for her community, and for the victims. And I prayed for those who are growing up without the benefit of loving, shaping communities, for future perpetrators who are just waiting-in-the-wings, for those who struggle with mental illness, and for those whose anger and outrage and sense of injustice leads them to hate.

May God have mercy on us all.

*

Practicing My Faith, Part 10 – This post is tenth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

On discernment

forest paths by Jens Lelie, Unsplash

Our culture thinks it’s cool to be discerning, or at least, to be thought of that way.

Guidance on becoming discerning is everywhere. A recent article on Forbes.com counselled business leaders to seek discernment. News headlines pay homage to “discerning foodies” and “discerning shoppers” as well as “discerning investors” and “discerning audiences.” The lifestyle section of the newspaper offers horoscopes and advice columns for those who seek help in discerning how to live their lives.

Discernment for the Christian is different 

But for the Christian, discernment takes on another dimension, according to the essay by Frank Rogers Jr. titled “Discernment,” which is the eighth chapter of Practicing Our Faith. That’s because Christians believe that “God is present, hoping and urging, in the midst of all the situations of life.” In light of that, discernment becomes the practice “by which a community or an individual seeks, recognizes, and intentionally takes part in the activity of God in concrete situations.”

The Apostle Paul teaches us in his first letter to the Corinthians that there are some things that come from God that can only be spiritually discerned. But, as Rogers points out, “The history of the church is littered with the stories of people who have claimed guidance from the Spirit when the prejudices of self-deception reigned instead.”

So, it was out of a desire to deepen the practice of spiritual discernment in my own life that I signed up for a course by that name at McMaster Divinity College. I wanted help not just with making wise decisions and choices, but with rightly understanding the on-going call of God in my day-to-day life.

One of the required texts for the course immediately challenged me that the process of spiritual discernment must begin and end in prayer, for as Henri Nouwen writes in Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, “the discipline of prayer and being in God’s presence … is the starting and ending place out of which guidance emerges.”

Practicing the discipline of prayer

Prayer has come easier at some times in my life than at others. And I realized that unless I found a way to make prayer more of a discipline, then I would always struggle with it.

So one of the practices I’ve incorporated this semester is that of the Daily Examen. The Examen is an exercise developed by Ignatius of Loyola, who lived from 1491 to 1556. It’s essentially just a technique that helps to focus your prayers at the end of the day, such that you learn to better detect God’s presence in the day just over, and to anticipate God’s presence in the day to come.

It typically involves five steps, and need only take about five minutes. My course text book, The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert, outlines the steps as follows:

  1. Give thanks for all God’s gifts and benefits: Jesus, you have been present today throughout our world … I rejoice in …”
  1. Ask for light: Be near now. Let us look together at my day. Let me see through your loving eyes …”
  1. Review the day: thoughts, words, deeds, desires, consolations, desolations*: When did I listen to your voice today? When did I resist listening to you today?”
  1. Express gratitude, sorrow, and purpose of amendment: Jesus, everything is gift from you. I give you thanks and praise for the gifts of today … I ask your healing in … I ask your forgiveness and mercy for …”
  1. Ask for the graces you desire for tomorrow: Jesus, continue to be present with me in my life each day …”

I don’t pray it perfectly.

Sometimes I forget one step or another, and sometimes I forget to pray the Examen altogether. But when I have taken the time to pray in this way, I’ve found it to be helpful.

I like to read in bed each night before sleep, and I try to remember to pray the Examen once I’ve put my book down for the evening, but before I turn out my light. (Praying with my light on helps to ensure I don’t fall asleep in the middle of my prayers.)

Just beginning my night time prayers with, “Jesus, you have been present everywhere in our world today and you have been present in my life …” focuses my thoughts and causes me to feel gratitude for his presence. That sentence has been a powerful reminder to me of God’s goodness and grace—daily to our world and to me.

And then when I reflect on my day, the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, I’m reminded again and again that He has been with me. I see Him more clearly when I pause to take the time to reflect in this way. Confessing my failings during the course of the day through this exercise also relieves my conscience, and helps me to fall asleep; it helps me to resolve to do better, to be more attentive to signs of Him “tomorrow.”

I’ve found that reliving my day in my mind—step by step—in a conscious effort to look for evidence of His presence and help has not only made me more aware of Jesus in my life, it has made me more alert to his image in others.

It has also given me a deeper sense of contentment, gratitude, and yes, joy, as I go about my days. That has been a surprising but welcome by-product of the exercise and of my quest to deepen my practice of spiritual discernment.

*

* Note: according to Rogers, “Feelings of consolation are those that give rise to life, love, peace, joy, creativity, and communion. … Feelings of desolation are those that give rise to despair, confusion, alienation, destructiveness, and discord.”

Practicing My Faith, Part 9 – This post is ninth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

 

A new way to think about home economics

Globe photo by Kyle Glenn Unsplash

Just reading the words, “Household Economics,” which compose the title and focus of the fourth chapter in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, conjured up memories of my grade 7/8 Home Economics teacher, Miss Precious. (Yes, that was really her name.) With her beehive hairdo (she had one) her pince-nez glasses (those too) and her stern face, she was, for many reasons, unforgettable. I was one of her favourites: my mother had taught me well; to cook simple things and to sew, and by my parents’ strong example and good teaching I had already absorbed a lesson or two about managing limited resources.

So when I picked up the “Household Economics” essay by Sharon Daloz Parks, I admit I felt just the teensiest bit smug; this is one area of Christian practice in which the lessons of my lifetime have come a little easier. My husband and I are at a stage of life where we can breathe a bit; our children are educated and launched, our home is paid for, we have no debt. We may not have accumulated as much as some people we know, we’re driving a 13-year-old car, and the kitchen needs a renovation that may never happen. However, we’ve always managed to prioritize charitable giving in the belief that our giving was really just giving back from out of the abundance that God had given to us. As we look behind us at a lifetime of managing our household in the ways that we have, we feel good about what that has all added up to. We also know we’ve made some mistakes. But we are content. We are in a good place, and we are grateful.

Thinking bigger

But the “household” that Parks writes about is much bigger than just what goes on within the four walls of our private abode. She does begin there, noting that “Our households are anchoring places where, over time, we craft the practices by which we prosper or fail to prosper.”

“Like the words ecumenical and ecology, economics is rooted in the Greek word oikos, meaning household, and signifies the management of the household—arranging what is necessary for well-being,” she explains. “Good economics practice—positive ways of exchanging goods and services—is about the well-being, the livelihood, of the whole household.”

That’s where she begins. But she doesn’t end there. Rather, Parks points out that every one of us is a member of a “planetary commons.” In other words, we all share a communal household—planet Earth—and we also have a duty to manage the resources of this much, much larger household to the benefit, the well-being, of all its inhabitants.

And suddenly, I realized, chagrined, that I had no reason to feel self-satisfied.

I’ve been to the developing world. I’ve travelled its deeply rutted roads, and seen its hungry children. I’ve visited its hospitals and schools and wrestled with the inequities I’ve been confronted with between the lives of people there and our living standards here in the developed world. I’ve learned about injustice, because I’ve seen it firsthand. I know it exists, and I know that unless I’m actively taking even small steps in my life to counteract it, then I am, by default, contributing to it. If my personal household is flourishing, but our planetary household is not, I still have work to do.

So if I want to deepen my Christian practice in this area—and as I’ve meditated on this subject I realize that I do—then I need to think more about where and how I allocate my spending dollars. I need to do the hard work of researching where the goods I buy come from, and how they are produced. I need to be willing to pay the higher costs of fair-trade products. And I need to do a better job here in my own private household of adopting practices that mean better care for the planet, not only because it’s the one household that we all share, but also because it’s the only home we’ve got.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 5 – This post is fifth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

Some truths. About truth.

Truth. We teach children to tell it. Courts depend on it. Relationships suffer for want of it. Science and religion both claim to provide us with access to it.

Truth is absolutely essential for freedom, according to author and social critic Os Guinness, who describes truth as a “precious” and “fundamental human gift, without which we cannot negotiate reality and handle life.”

And yet, ours is a culture that plays fast and loose with truth. Disturbing evidence for that reality came to light in the March 9, 2018 edition of the journal Science, when M.I.T. researchers published the results of an exhaustive study looking at how English language stories—verified as either true or false—spread on Twitter. The data comprised some 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. Their findings? “Falsehoods were 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth.”

Bots are not to blame. “False news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth,” write the study’s authors, “because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”

It all adds up to increasing cynicism and scepticism. Can anything be trusted as true? Indeed, scholars say that the notion of any kind of metaphysical truth is collapsing. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary says that when people no longer believe that there is a truth to be known, a crisis of meaning occurs. The emerging generation wonders, he says, whether there can be “a reliable revelation from God.”

Young people, it seems, are choosing to put their faith in the truths that can be known through science instead. Recent research by the Barna group into “Gen Z”—those born between 1999 and 2015—confirms it. Exploring some of the major barriers to faith for non-Christian teens, Barna reports 20% of nonbelievers polled cited their belief that “Science refutes too much of the Bible” as a barrier to faith. Barna further relates that “the perceived conflict between science and Christianity is also a factor for Christian teens. More than one third of engaged Christian teens (37%) and more than half of churchgoing teens (53%) say that the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world.”

But it is a fallacy that science and faith conflict at the level of observable facts, says M.I.T. chemistry professor, Troy Van Voorhuis in a video lecture. “Science and faith are both in the business of interpreting evidence,” he explains.

In other words, when asked, “Why is the sky blue?” a scientist might expound on light waves and the Earth’s atmosphere. But a theologian might respond, “because God, the Creator, delights in beauty.” Two different interpretations, but both would be true.

That science and faith are both in the business of interpreting evidence is a truth that the Church can and ought to proclaim.

After all, Jesus described himself as “the truth,” said he came into the world to testify to the truth, and that truth would set us free. Those of us who try to follow him need to pursue, uphold and defend truth—wherever and however it may be found.

 

 

 

Counting the cost

Is there anything you would give your life for?

I’ve been mulling over my personal response to that question recently. With Remembrance Day fast approaching, it’s a timely one to ponder. Because, of course, I might not have the luxury of being here to ponder it in the freedom that I do, had others not given their lives to preserve that freedom.

Today, there are lots of people who give their lives to things—namely, other people, ideals, or causes—that they think worthy. There are far fewer who give their lives for things.

That is as it should be. Life is a priceless gift and we’re only given one. The relative scarcity of time we are each allotted should alone make us aware of the gift’s inestimable value. You don’t voluntarily give up something so precious.

But over the past few weeks, I’ve been learning about some people long ago who determined that they valued truth more than life itself. And when faced with a choice to renounce the truth and live, or testify to the truth and die, they chose the latter. They were martyrs.

While researching stories of Christianity’s earliest martyrs for a course I am taking, I learned that the Greek word for martyr originally meant “witness.”

Today, the word “martyr” connotes everything from a person who pretends to suffer as a strategy to gain sympathy, to a person who commits an act of terrorism—killing them self and others—as a strategy to gain paradise. (Although one expert I read said that to apply the word martyr to terrorists, “is to evacuate the meaning of the term in any Christian way of understanding.”)

But at the dawn of Christianity, a martyr was simply a person who professed that they acknowledged Christ as Lord of life, and therefore refused to offer sacrifices to Roman gods. Because of that refusal, they were seen as atheists and dangerous subversives. Untold numbers of Christians lost their lives when they openly confessed their faith, and were put to death as a result of that confession. It was those innumerable Christian witnesses (many of whom were subjected to the cruelest of tortures and humiliations as they died) who were responsible for giving the word martyr its traditional association with death. They were flayed, beheaded, devoured by wild beasts before stadiums filled with roaring spectators, crucified, and nailed to stakes before being burned alive.

Those same witnesses would also become the first people to be revered as saints, so much so that in the earliest days of the Church, the words martyr and saint were almost synonymous. Admired for their courage and boldness in proclaiming their faith (even when they knew that doing so would mean paying the ultimate price) the martyrs were mere human beings like us who lived, loved and who were loved. But they chose to sacrifice their lives rather than their convictions—even in the midst of grave suffering. As a result, they were held up as examples for others to emulate.

We have writers to thank for much of this state of affairs, because an entire literature developed—beginning in the second century—that was intended to keep the memory of the martyrs and their trials alive. Known as Acta, these written accounts recorded bits of the judicial process to which the martyrs were subjected, bits we can still read today.

Scholars say that these accounts have been edited, dramatized and embellished—although the extent to which they say so differs. Still, it is impossible to read the Acts of the Martyrs and not be moved. Through their stories, we see in these ancient men and women qualities that the early Church valued and wanted to teach, like: courage, integrity, truthfulness, trust in God, forgiveness for their tormentors, and a steadfast belief that death was not the end, nor was it to be feared as if it were. But the stories also reveal a fact that persecuted Christians around the world today know to be true: martyrdom is not something to be sought or wished for. It is an evil, wretched, bloody business.

And so when I read the following headline a couple of weeks ago, it made me pause: “Cairo bishop urges Church to be ready for martyrdom.” It reminded me that the founder of the Christian faith counselled people to “count the cost” before determining whether to follow him.

And it reminded me that for too many people, even today, that cost continues to be very high indeed.

Gratuitous and intentional insult

I am not a political animal. But there are some things that happen on the political stage that just cannot be ignored. Donald Trump’s self-described “locker room” talk is one of those things.

I am a Canadian. And U.S. politics have, typically, engaged me even less than the politics of my home and native land.

But I am a woman. And I have two daughters. And if writing about my experiences can in some way contribute to a wider conversation about the need for human beings to treat one another with courtesy and respect – regardless of gender – and for our political leaders to be people of integrity who model that kind of respect, then they will be words well written.

I was 16 the first time a man “moved on” me (to use the words of the U.S. presidential candidate). The man was in his 40s, and in a position of authority. He had offered to give me a ride home and while en route, he reached over and took my hand. I didn’t like it. But I didn’t pull away. I was confused; why would he want to hold my hand? He was married. I didn’t understand. But I didn’t pull my hand away. I remember being afraid I might offend him.

At the end of the ride he leaned over and kissed me. On the mouth. I remember getting out of that car as fast as I could, and wiping my hand across my mouth as I walked away. I remember feeling like I’d been covered in slime. But I told no one. I doubted myself, wondering if I was just misinterpreting his actions. I blamed myself for not pulling my hand away. But I tried to avoid being alone with him after that.

I was 18 the next time it happened. Just walking down the street in Toronto. A busy street. A teenaged boy walking with his friends approached from the opposite direction. I remember he was obviously younger than me. Maybe 14, 15. But as he passed he reached out and grabbed my crotch. I remember hearing his laughter. We were just two people, passing each other on the street. It was all over in a heartbeat. But I felt humiliated. Embarrassed. Horrified. What made him think he had the right?

The next time I was 23. A colleague at work – another married man (also well up into his 40s), made a pass at me. Shocked and revolted, I lashed out. I pushed him off of me. But I remember feeling betrayed. I had liked the man, trusted him. I avoided him after that. I doubted my own judgement. I wondered if I was too trusting.

Three separate incidents, each of which I’ve told myself over the years, was not a big deal.

And yet each one of those incidents is stamped on my mind, because each one left me feeling just a little bit violated. Those men (and that boy) deliberately “moved on” me, taking something from me – even if it was only a little bit of innocence – that they had no right to take. Apparently, your mind doesn’t let you forget things like that.

It causes me to believe every single one of the women who are coming forward now, saying that Donald Trump once made a “move on” them.

If he did what he is alleged to have done to each of these women, he may have long since forgotten about it. But they haven’t.

*

“The human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells. The human body has a different moral status than a cow’s body or a piece of broccoli. … Because we have this instinctive sense, we feel elevated when we see behavior that fuses the physical and spiritual. … We feel repulsed — a little or a lot — when the body’s spiritual nature is gratuitously and intentionally insulted.” – David Brooks