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.

When a desk is more than a desk

It may sit in my office, but it will always be “Wendy’s desk.”

It is only a desk, a piece of furniture, an inanimate object. And yet, this desk—which came into my possession over the holidays, and which my husband, our son, and I set up in my office on New Year’s Day—feels like so much more.

It belonged to a friend who passed away in July. Wendy was 63 when the cancer she’d fought for four years finally claimed her.

When I visited Wendy’s mom, Lois, one afternoon just before Christmas, she offered the desk to me, saying it was one of the few furnishings remaining from those that had once filled her daughter’s artfully decorated condo in midtown Toronto. Lois expressed gratitude that family had been able to absorb most of Wendy’s possessions—many of which were, like this desk, antiques that had been in their family for generations. “But no one could use her desk,” she explained.

Wendy was a writer and editor who cared passionately about writing from a Christian perspective. Committed to excellence in all she did, she spent untold thousands of hours at this desk, carefully crafting written pieces for publication. She and I became colleagues and then friends over our mutual passions for words and family, and our shared Christian faith. 

As I looked at the lovely little desk, empty and gathering dust against a wall in the large garage on her family’s farm, I yearned for my friend. I thought about all the time she had spent working on its flat surface. I ran my fingers over its scratches and wondered to myself if somehow, the very grain of the wood of which it is composed might have absorbed some of the essence of who she was. 

Wendy was a woman of strong character and of equally strong opinions, and both of those things came through in her writer’s voice. Since her cancer diagnosis, we had emailed each other almost daily, sharing news of our lives, our hopes and fears, and our prayers. After four years of that kind of contact, her death left a significant hole in my life. I miss her vibrancy, her friendship, her voice. I miss her

More times than I can tell you I’ve thought since she died, “I should write to Wendy about this!” or, “I wonder what Wendy would say about that?” My thrice-weekly commutes in to Toronto for work have felt lonelier; I used to use my commuting time to compose lengthy emails to her or to read her replies. The city is emptier without her in it.

The last six weeks of Wendy’s life, she was in hospital, and I was privileged to be a part of a circle of her close friends who helped to provide care for her there. We took turns visiting—all coordinated through a spreadsheet in Google docs—in order to feed her tiny bits of home cooked food, comb her hair, fetch her ice chips and warm blankets, read to her, sing hymns, and pray. And in the process of caring for Wendy, that circle of her friends became friends with one another. 

It was as if in allowing us to care for her, she completed her life’s work by giving us all one final gift of friendship, through making it possible for us to connect with each another. 

My life is richer for having known and loved my friend, in her living and in her dying. 

So, on that December afternoon, I told Lois I would love to have her daughter’s desk as a remembrance of the friendship we had shared. 

I like to think that Wendy would be pleased to know that her little desk now graces my own office, and that I will be using it to continue the kind of work to which she devoted her own life: writing and editing for various markets from a Christian perspective.

Later, on the evening of our visit, I called Lois to tell her that we had arrived home safely, and to thank her again for Wendy’s desk. I told her that there was nothing of Wendy’s that could possibly mean more to me, to which she replied, “It’s almost as if it was passed over by everyone else because it was just meant to be yours.” 

A new day

Photo by Cristina Gottardi

The poet Luci Shaw has observed that “There’s immense power in small things. An atom. A seed. A word.”

I would add, “A realization.”

You can live a lifetime with one understanding of a thing, and then in a moment, that understanding changes. And the power and potential for transformation is almost unlimited.

I have a person in my life I have found difficult to love. Years of offences both large and small, of hurts and wounds I felt as a result of that individual’s words or actions towards me, the necessity of having to forgive again and again; it all added up to a certain hardening of my heart, and to my expressions of love toward that person being done out of duty.

I have had to exercise deliberate—rather than spontaneous—acts of care for them, because I knew I was supposed to love. And I confess that I long ago concluded that my heart would never follow.

In church on Sunday, our pastor preached a sermon in which he spoke about the new commandment that Jesus gave to his friends as his life was nearing its end. “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said. (John 15:12)

But what does such love look like? In defining it, our pastor turned to the Bible’s famous love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, and its words appeared on the large screen at the front of our church. Although I have read and reflected on that chapter so many times I could almost recite it from memory, as our pastor read its verses aloud, one sentence jumped out at me. And it was as if I was seeing and hearing the words for the very first time.

“Love keeps no record of wrongs.”

In an instant, I realized that the record of wrongs I have been keeping against this person is years long. And I understood that love, real love, would let that record go, would tear it up into tiny pieces, burn it to ashes, and scatter those ashes to the wind, never to be thought of again.

I woke up this morning sensing a new beginning, and a new feeling of love (yes, a feeling!) in my heart for that person. And while the sun has not yet started to peek over the horizon as I write these words, I know that a new day has dawned.

 

 

A small gesture, with great meaning

“No, no, no! I’m fine,” she insisted when he stood up to offer her his seat. But he had already vacated it, and was moving out into the aisle of the lurching commuter train to make way for the pretty young woman.

He gestured to it. But she hesitated. He was old; what was left of his hair was thin and grey. And he was stooped. He held his left hand aloft, his left elbow bent at a 90 degree angle as if it was hurt. Maybe it had been – in an accident or as the result of a stroke at some point in his past. She must have noticed.

But he was also dapper – if ever the word applied to a man it applied to him – dressed in a tidy, if mildly ill-fitting (ever so slightly over-sized) jacket, button down shirt and tie that looked like they might have fit him 20 years ago. When they would have been fashionable. When he wouldn’t have been stooped. When he wouldn’t have favoured that arm.

“I insist,” he said gently, but firmly. And even as he swayed with the rocking of the train, his voice was steady, solid, resolute.

And so, she weakened. “Are you sure?” she asked, probing, inviting, no – willing him to renege on the offer. But he merely nodded, and reached out for something to grasp, steadying himself.

So she sat.

It was the simplest of exchanges, the smallest of gestures, all over in the span of less than a minute of measured time. But I watched it happen.

And I marvelled. Was it my imagination, or was he standing just a little bit taller and straighter than he had been a moment earlier – before she had accepted his modest act of chivalry?

Or was it just that all of the other men on that train, the younger men than the one now standing solo in the aisle gripping the handle on the seat back for support, seemed to get a little bit smaller? To shrink down in their seats. To stare straight ahead, or out the windows, or at their phones. Anywhere but at the man who, through a kind gesture, had reminded us all of another time. A time when self-sacrifice was valued above self-interest, and when things like manners and gentility mattered.

***

“Either life is holy with meaning, or life doesn’t mean a damn thing.” – Frederick Buechner

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

 

 

 

 

Reality … augmenting not required

Geese

It was Saturday, and a beautiful day for a drive and a picnic, so we packed some sandwiches, loaded Percy (our border collie) into the car, and found a small town park located on the bank of a meandering river.

Scoring a table under the canopy of a large maple tree, we settled in to visit and nibble our lunch. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves. We had to hush Percy repeatedly for not-so-gently barking his excitement at the passing dogs, geese and people strolling by. The geese and the people seemed to be out in droves, but were, for the most part, ignoring one another.

Nearby, 15 or 20 young men and women stood clustered under an ancient oak. To a person, they stared intently at cell phones. Throughout our visit, others approached them – walking alone or in small groups of twos and threes – but each in a similar posture: cell phone raised, head tilted down, eyes focussed intently on the tiny screen.

It didn’t take us long to realize we were witnessing the Pokemon Go game in action, and like amateur anthropologists, amused ourselves watching those who’d come to the same park that day seeking to capture mythical creatures rather than a picnic spot.

Soon a young mother approached, arms outstretched pushing not a cell phone’s buttons but a stroller. Her baby wore a white bonnet and sunsuit, tied at the shoulders, the colour of the sky. The baby kicked her legs in that happy way that babies do when they’re anticipating something lovely, then leaned forward, straining, yearning to escape the confines of her seat.

The mother parked the stroller not far from us, spread a blanket on the grass, then set her little one down on it with a sippy cup. Later, the mother carried her daughter in arms over to see the river, pointing out the ducks, geese and seagulls. They stayed there as long as we did.

When it was time to leave, I walked over to admire the baby and say “hello.” The little girl looked up at me as I greeted her and responded instantly with a broad smile. My heart melted.

She was a beautiful baby, 9 months old, her mother said. Pudgy and soft looking, with chubby thigh rolls, long eye-lashes framing big blue eyes, and white fuzz from now absent socks clinging to the underside of her toes, she positively sparkled with delight at my hello. Her mother seemed equally happy to engage, and told me her little girl loved being out-of-doors; that was clear, for she had seemed entirely happy and content the entire time.

I felt captivated: by the baby’s delight at my cooing, and by her innocence.

Packing up our picnic and walking past all of those people staring at all of those tiny screens, it occurred to me that maybe I had found the most precious of all the treasures hiding in the park that day.

*

“Our unwillingness to silence our phones often amounts to an effective silencing of our own insight as we edge out of our imaginations the time required to actually experience it.”

– David Dark, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious

 

A much-needed thing

Cave Quest VBS Logo

 

I admit I had mixed, somewhat ambivalent feelings going into this week. Feelings that combined thoughts of:

I know I need to do this,

with

but it will be hard, 

with

but it will also be fun,

with

but I’m getting too old for this.

It was Kidz Kamp at our wee little church – that five-day period that rolls around each summer during which scores of community kids descend on our church property for a fun-filled, day-camp-in-the-suburbs-in-their-own-neighbourhood kind of experience.

Our church has been staging Kidz Kamp for years. Known to an earlier generation as “VBS” (or Vacation Bible School) the week always includes songs (led by an energetic youth band) with lots of dancing in the aisles, games, crafts, videos, enough cheering and hollering to give even the most devoted leader a headache, and Bible stories told in thoroughly dramatic fashion. The planning, work and preparation required to pull it all off are enormous.

This year, 115 campers attended the camp which followed the Cave Quest curriculum. Offering oversight were some 60 leaders – including adults (“Senior Leaders”), teens (“Junior Leaders”) and pre-teens (“Leaders-In-Training” or LITs). An army of other volunteers (featuring many of our church’s most senior citizens) worked behind-the-scenes to provide everything from security to first aid, drinks and snacks.

Kidz Kamp today is a well-oiled machine; it is a wonder to behold and to participate in. The sheer organizational efficiency required to pull it all off in a way that keeps everyone happy and safe is breath-taking. From pre-planned traffic routes – moving the various groups of kids from station-to-station and activity-to-activity inside and outside the church at 25 minute intervals (from 9 a.m. to noon each day) – to the creative crafts that were pre-planned, pre-cut and sorted into bins.

Our group was the “Rubies” – six lovely girls ages 8 to 11 plus a Junior Leader, an LIT and me.

I realized on Day One that I was not the only adult who went into Kidz Kamp feeling tired, a bit overwhelmed, wondering what I’d gotten myself into, praying for the mental capacity to be able to remember all my campers’ names, and for the energy, good cheer and patience to get through it all.

And I realized today on Day Five – as I felt a surge of genuine affection for each of my young campers and co-leaders, along with a teensy bit of regret that the week’s end had come – that God had answered our prayers.

Ours is a challenging world, and these are trying times. Growing up cannot be easy.

Teaching kids that God loves them, and that He will be there for them through good times and bad is not just a good thing; it is a much-needed thing.

At the start of the day today, my LIT presented me with a hand-made card, thanking me for being her senior leader and saying she hoped we would work together again next year.

Hand made note card

Hand made note card to me!

I have to say: I hope we do too.

Here’s a link to one of my favourite songs of the week, “My Hope Is In the Lord.”