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.

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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.

What’s saying “yes” and “no” got to do with it?

Neon yes sign

As I was getting ready for church on Sunday, I heard my husband singing through the bathroom door. He was singing loudly, which is unusual for my him; Doug rarely sings loudly unless he’s doing Elvis impersonations.

His song of choice on this particular morning wasn’t “Love Me Tender,” but an old, old Christian hymn, one I haven’t heard sung in years. I don’t know from where in his subconscious this song suddenly surfaced, but I couldn’t help singing along:

            I have decided to follow Jesus!

            I have decided to follow Jesus!

            I have decided to follow Jesus!

            No turning back. No turning back.

That song has been a brain worm in my mind ever since, perhaps because it dawned on me that its simple, repetitive words are an example of the next Christian practice I have been reflecting on from the book Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People. And that practice is: saying yes and saying no.

Through the words of this song, my husband was affirming that at one point in his own history he said “yes” to Jesus. He has said “no” to walking away from Christ ever since.

Chapter 5: Saying yes and saying no by M. Shawn Copeland

It struck me as odd, though, the first time I heard of the premise of the fifth chapter in this book through which I am thinking and blogging my way. How could saying yes or saying no possibly be considered a Christian practice? Everybody says yes and no. But as Copeland makes clear in her essay, “Saying yes and saying no are companions in the process constituting a whole and holy life.”

She writes:

“If we are to grow in faithful living, we need to renounce the things that choke off the fullness of life that God intended for us, and we must follow through on our commitments to pray, to be conscientious, and to be in mutually supportive relations with other faithful persons. These acts take self-discipline. We must learn the practice of saying no to that which crowds God out and yes to a way of life that makes space for God.”

Every yes means a related no or series of noes. They go together—like marshmallows and chocolate on graham crackers. Every turning away  from one thing is a turning toward another.

When a couple says yes to marriage, they are also saying no to intimate relationships with anyone other than each other. When a person says yes to church on Sunday morning, they must by default say no to sports or the gym or shopping or any number of other activities during that particular time each week. When a student says no to preparing for an upcoming exam they are likely saying yes to a poor result.

My first big yes

The first big yes of my Christian life was a yes to God Himself, when as an adolescent, I sensed He wanted me for His own. I couldn’t really comprehend why He would want me; I felt unworthy of His desire. And yet, I have a clear and vivid memory of saying yes to Him one night as I prayed alone in my bedroom.

That first big yes to God was followed by countless other, smaller yesses, to things that I thought would add up to a life that would please Him. But it also led to countless noes as I refused things I thought would take me in a direction that would lead me away from Him.

It’s easy to look back on my life and see where my various yesses and noes led me. But “learning when and how, to what, and to whom to give our yes or our no is a lifelong project,” observes Copeland.

So, what might it mean to deepen my Christian practice of saying yes and saying no right now, at this point in my life? That’s been the question occupying my thoughts these past few days.

But I’d like to hear from you, reading friend. What have been your biggest yesses and noes? Are there any you would change if you had them to do all over again?

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Practicing My Faith, Part 6 – This post is sixth 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.

 

 

 

And so I begin. Again. (Practicing my faith, part 2)

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I came across some words this week by the 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth, that spoke truth to me:

“One can never  be a Christian; one can only become one again and again: in the evening of each day rather ashamed of one’s Christianity of that day and on the morning of each new day content that one may again dare to be a Christian.”

I first made a conscious choice to dare to be a Christian in early adolescence, and my life since then has been marked by a series of decisions—one after another—to either affirm or deny that choice. I’ve had moments, periods, even whole stretches of time, when God was unwanted, felt distant, doubted, or not to be trusted, and I’ve considered giving the whole thing up. Like a dieter who falls off the wagon by scarfing down an entire pan of brownies, but who knows she’ll be happier and healthier in the long run if she can just stick with it, when I tried to envision a future without Jesus, I didn’t like where I saw that future leading me.

And so, I would return, daring to “become” a Christian for another day.

We return because we yearn: for something better, to be better, to live more faithful lives. Thus, the title of the first chapter in Practicing Our Faith (edited by Dorothy Bass) jumped out at me: “Times of Yearning, Practices of Faith.”

As I embark on this little project of deepening the practices of my faith to see where it leads me, I wondered why these times of ours are times of such yearning? I spoke to Bass a few days ago and asked her the motivation for the original book (first published in 1997).

“It was an awareness that we live in a time of such rapid social change,” she said. “Many of our basic, fundamental activities­—who we eat with, how we use our time—were really starting to change.

“There was a sense of fragmentation,” she added. “What does my religion have to do with my work? What does social justice have to do with my personal life? We were trying to find an approach that would address rampant individualism, and that would heal the fragmentation, help people find the connections between their lives and their faith.”

The “we” she refers to is herself—a former professor, practical theologian and church historian—and her colleague, collaborator, and co-author, Craig Dykstra.

“The community of people gathered around Jesus Christ has explored the contours of a faithful way of life over the centuries, and it continues to do so all around the world today,” the two write. “This community, like everyone in it, is flawed, and there has been much stumbling and sinning along the way. But wisdom and skill have also emerged as members of this community have tried to understand and live in response to the mysterious grace of God in creation, the redemptive presence of Christ, and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.”

“The need to figure out how to walk aright in each new time and place is one that we all share.”

In the 22 years since the first edition of Practicing Our Faith came out, that need, it seems to me, has become more urgent. Why? It is a widely acknowledged fact among Christian scholars that we live in a post-Christian (or post-Christendom) society. In a talk delivered late last year, historical theologian Ephraim Radner defined a post-Christian society as one that offers no support for Christian life and witness, even though it once did so. “There are threads of Christianity running through post-Christian societies,” he explained, “but they now are visible only as an unravelling, not as a weaving together.”

I’m old enough to perceive this unravelling, and it only contributes to my longing to live my best life in Christ. I yearn that within my own tiny sphere of influence, the fragrance I bring might be the fragrance of Jesus. But even as I type those words, I’m tempted to despair, because I know how far short I fall from that goal.

And yet, I was heartened by Bass’s response, when I asked her what should be the goal of Christian practice. “We’re practicing life in the kingdom of God,” she said, and it seemed so simple when she described it that way.

Often, when people hear the word “practice,” she told me, they might think that our object is to master or control whatever it is we are practicing. “But in Christian practice, we add the spirit of Christ. These practices clear room to become channels of God’s grace.”

“So, we’re not trying to master time,” Bass went on, “we’re trying to receive it. It’s a matter of receptivity, of getting out of the way so God can do his work.”

The Christian life is meant to be lived in community. I believe this, and Bass counselled me to “find companions” as I set out to deepen and document my engagement with the 12 historic Christian practices outlined in Practicing Our Faith.

So that’s where you, dear reading friend, come in. I am buoyed and thankful that you are my companion just by the fact that you are reading this post, but I also want to learn from your thoughts, experiences, and feedback as we go along. Whether you’ve long considered yourself a Christian, or never done so, if you are a person who is intrigued by the idea of deepening your own spiritual practice, I hope that you will join me and the others who have committed to coming along on this journey, and then commenting from time to time so that we can learn from each other.

At the end of our call, Bass encouraged me. “I find it very helpful to get people to think about where they are already practicing,” she said. “Every Christian person is probably already doing these practices in one way or another. It just might be a little bit; it might be pathetic. So, look at where the practice already exists in your life, and ask, ‘what’s the next step?’”

The first of the 12 practices is: “Honouring the Body.” Over the coming week I invite you, reading friend, to think about how you are doing that. What does it mean to you to “honour the body” today, in your life, in your world? And what’s the next step for you to deepen your practice of that? It’s a question I’ve been reflecting on for some time now, and God willing, I will share my thoughts and discoveries with you next week.

I’ll end with another delicious word from Barth, to send us on our way:

“The Christian church is agreed on one thing: that it consists purely of beginners—and that this is truly a good thing: to become small again, to begin from the beginning, and thus at no point to stand still. … It is a question of faith, because all of that depends on Jesus, who alone is now able to make people into such simple, but happy beginners.”

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Part 2 – This post is second 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.

Practicing my faith

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As part of my Master of Theological Studies program at McMaster Divinity College I’m doing an online course this semester on Spiritual Discernment. Of course, I am loving it; without exception, I’ve devoured every course that’s been part of my program. But a couple of weeks ago, our prof delivered a lecture on practicing the Christian faith that captured my imagination in a way that made me ravenous for more.

Using the book Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (edited by Dorothy C. Bass, published by Jossey-Bass) as one of her primary sources for the lecture, our professor mentioned that this book, which was first published in 1997, “spawned practically an entire discipline in itself of people—pastoral theologians, academics—who are contributing to this discussion of practices of faith.”

Practices are simply a means of connecting our faith with our living. I may be a late comer to the discussion, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued.

I’ve learned through my studies that Christianity is always shaped by its surrounding culture, but there have been times when I’ve wondered if my culture shapes me more than it should. “How is it,” observes author David Dark in his book Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, “that we’ve come to expect so little of people who call themselves Christian?” And twang goes my conscience.

As a person who like rules and boundaries—because they help to make life simple and clear—I’ve sometimes wondered if the way I live my faith, which seems to lack such rules with its emphasis on the grace of God, is “Christian enough.”

I know Muslims, who pray a prescribed number of times each day in a prescribed way. I know Jews who eat kosher and who faithfully honour the Sabbath and the high holidays. Such things are easily observed by someone outside of those faith groups like me. But what practices set apart the Christian life? My Christian life?

I’m not seeking a whole new “to do” or “to don’t” list. But sometimes, particularly as I ride the train en route to my part-time job, ear buds in, listening to the latest podcast, or scrolling news headlines on my phone surrounded by a sea of other commuters all doing precisely the same thing, I can’t help but wonder at the differences that exist in how I choose to lead my life from how my non-Christian friends and neighbours lead theirs. Outside of the hidden things—my prayer life, habits of Bible reading and study, personal moral choices, customs of church-going and charitable giving for example—would anyone who didn’t know me, be able to tell that I try to follow Jesus Christ just by observing the externals, that is, the practices of my life?

And again, Dark challenges me: “Will it turn out that you belonged mostly uncritically and unthinkingly to a particular cultural context? Did you wrestle with it or was your life one of automatic obedience, a series of unfortunate events in which you carefully ascertained what values you were expected to appear to have from one moment to the next and dutifully did so, aping along as it were along the path of least resistance?”

According to Bass (and the 12 authors who contributed to Practicing Our Faith) there are 12 “time-honored practices of faith, shaped by the Christian community over the centuries, yet richly relevant to contemporary experience.” The 12 practices are:

  1. Honouring the body
  2. Hospitality
  3. Household economics
  4. Saying yes and saying no
  5. Keeping sabbath
  6. Discernment
  7. Testimony
  8. Shaping communities
  9. Forgiveness
  10. Healing
  11. Dying well
  12. Singing our lives to God

What does it mean to live the Christian life in 2019? And am I living it well, as well as I could be? After a few days of pondering such questions, I ordered Practicing Our Faith and have begun immersing myself in its pages. Like sinking into a delicious tub filled with warm water at the end of a tiring day, it feels like I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time.

In a recorded lecture delivered at Yale Divinity School, Bass observed that, “What people are searching for is a way of life that adds up to something in the midst of the fragmentation and the multiple pulls that we experience as contemporary people.”

A way of life that adds up to something; this is my yearning, my deep desire. I suspect if you’ve read this far, that the same is true for you.

I hope to write about my learnings here on this blog as I deepen my understanding of the 12 practices in the weeks and months ahead. “Discerning the contours of a way of life abundant proceeds best,” writes Dorothy Bass, “when we give analytical, imaginative, critical, constructive, theological, prayerful attention to one practice at a time.” So that is what I plan to do. And I’d love for you to journey with me by reading along.

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