Thursday, December 6, 2007

It's All About Forgiveness

Last post I was talking about daily meditations. A free on-line service I subscribe to is called Women of Grace. Each day I receive an e-mail like the one in green below. It consists, as you can see, of a quote and a few sentences to assist with reflection—both of which fall within a monthly theme. The theme for December, appropriately enough, is forgiveness.

December 5, 2007


"Our friends, then, are all those who unjustly afflict us with trials and ordeals, shame and injustice, sorrows and torments, martyrdom and death; we must love them greatly for we all possess eternal life because of them."~~St. Francis of Assisi

For Reflection:What a counter-cultural way of looking at the sufferings imposed upon us by others! How have those who have burdened me with pain and suffering become conduits leading me to eternal life? Can I, then, refuse, to forgive them?

LHLA and Women of Grace 800-558-5452 · ·

Forgiveness. This seems the perfect thing to reflect on as we prepare to celebrate the anniversary of Christ’s birth. After all, that is why He was born into our world, to save us from our sinful selves. We are a forgiven people. . .

. . . a forgiven people who are in turn expected to share that same gift of forgiveness with everyone around us. One of the first things I figured out about Jesus—when I was just a little girl attending Mass and listening to the Gospel Sunday after Sunday—was that whatever He does for us, He expects us to pass on to our brothers and sisters.

Recently my youngest daughter entertained us with a bit of family history which was unknown to all except her, and which, I hope, pertains to this topic. Here is the story she related. One evening, quite a few years ago, when she was at the tender age of six or seven, she snuck down the hall after her bedtime and eavesdropped on my husband and I discussing her behavior that day. In particular, she heard me comparing her to the young man in the parable who initially says, “no” to his father, but then has a change of heart and eventually does his father’s command. (See Matthew 21:28-32, sometimes referred to as The Parable of the Two Sons.) In other words, I was making the wry observation that although my daughter may have been disobedient verbally, her actions belied her true nature, which was good. Perhaps she didn’t hear all of the conversation, or couldn’t understand the loftiness of the Gospel story comparison, but in any event, she thought she was being criticized, rather than praised. In her juvenile mind, life in our home was terribly unfair and she needed to run away . . . that night.

She gathered up her treasured possessions (a stuffed rabbit, a blanket and some toys—all the essentials) and went to sit by our garage door hoping (or so she says) that “someone would find her and ask her to come back.” She laughed at herself when she told this part of the story saying, “Isn’t that silly?”

My husband disagreed. “Not at all. It’s a perfectly natural human longing. We all want someone to go after us and to call us back.” Silently I mused, that is the universal appeal of The Parable of the Lost Sheep—that someone would love us enough to go after us. (Luke 15:3-7) I remember someone coming after me once and I remember how 'loved' I felt.

My dear spouse went on to tell a similar story of almost running away as a boy. Only in his case, his mother helped him pack! We all laughed again—although we’d heard this story many times.

Later my daughter said something which I think was highest compliment she could have ever paid our family.

“You know what I love most about this family? I know that here I will always be forgiven.”

Yes. Me too. That is the best part about our family. It’s the best part about any relationship—the sure knowledge that no matter what foolish things you do, how dirty and destitute you become, how abominably you speak, you will always be taken in, washed up, fed and loved again—warts and all. A rare and precious thing indeed.

All of my favorite parables are about forgiveness. Besides the one above about the Two Sons, I also love the one about The Sinful Woman in The Gospel of Luke. ‘Therefore, I tell you, her sins which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ (Luke 7:47)

And then, of course, there is my all time favorite, The Parable of the Prodigal Son, or as Father Henri Nouwen likes to call it, The Parable of the Loving Father. Very soon I must reread his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, for the fourth or fifth time. It is awesome.

When I was younger, my empathy used to be for the Prodigal. He traveled to a distant country, used up all of his Father’s money and fell into a state of terrible degradation. I have suffered his shame many times over—the humiliation, the awakening, and finally the long road home to beg forgiveness. Other times in my life—when I’ve been in more self-righteous modes—I’ve had greater compassion for the Elder Son. I mean after all, he does have a point. Why be good and follow the rules, if Little Brother is going to break them all, come crawling back and get off scot free? What is the motivation for being good? Might as well join him in the cesspool, right?

But lately, my whole heart belongs to the Loving Father in the story. When we sin, we leave God (as the Prodigal Son did) or we ask God to leave (as the Elder Son did). Either way, we are saying, "I don’t need you anymore God".

Have you ever been told to leave? Dumped? Told you were extraneous to someone’s existence? Probably there isn’t a person over the age of five who hasn’t experienced this heart-rending and life-changing phenomenon at least once. It can be devastating. Depending on how much you love the person in question, you will know the depth of God’s pain when we do the same thing to Him.

Can God suffer? Do we?

If you have ever received a ‘Dear John’ or ‘Dear Jane’ letter, you know that you have no choice; you have to go. You may not want to, but you have to go. You cannot stay where you are not welcome. So you leave. Then all you can do is wait . . . and hope.

When I got married, my Mom wrote and gave me a letter which I still have. In the letter, she told me that Forgiveness would be essential to my marriage. While I still had St. Paul’s elevated and poetic words of 1 Corinthians 13:4, ‘Love is patient; Love is kind,’ echoing in my ears and newlywed bliss blinding me to all else, my Mother, much wiser, knew the score. She also knew me. At the time, I thought she was being overly pessimistic. Forgiveness? Of course we'll forgive each other . . . when we need to; but we're going to have such a wonderful marriage, so loving, so patient, so perfect. Yes, well, what hopeful new bride doesn't have such fantasies?

God bless St. Paul and all the other ambitious idealists out there. Don’t get me wrong. We need flawless concepts and high-minded values like, 'Patience' and 'Kindness' to aim for—just like old-time sailors needed the stars to steer by. But if abstractions are the night lights, then Forgiveness is the Ship we humans sail in. We wouldn’t last a day in the marital waters – or anywhere else for that matter – without it.

Because we so often fall short of the 'Patience' and 'Kindness' St. Paul set us up to expect from loving relationships, we need Forgiveness all the more. Who in their right mind – even at his best – can get through an hour, even with the most perfect person and still manage to meet all the criteria set out in those four power-packed verses of that loaded Epistle? (And on that score, let me just add that living with a so-called 'perfect person' - according to an extremely reliable, but for obvious reasons unnamed, source – has its own unique crosses.)

It’s as clear to me now, as it was to my Mom twenty-three years ago, that St. Paul was never married. He did, however, have some rather notorious run-ins with people himself. So the author, of ‘All Things Ideal in Love’ didn’t manage to live up to his own sky-high standards either. Thank Heavens!

But then I think St. Paul was describing God’s Love for us—the kind of Love that goes searching for us when we are lost. The kind of Love that won’t let go; which cleans us up when we are dirty; feeds when we are hungry; comforts us when we are sad; forgives us when we don’t deserve it and takes us back again and again and again. I want that kind of Love. I want to emulate that kind of Love. I want to learn how to give that kind of Love.

Am I there yet? No. Not even close.

The other night my daughters had another group piano lesson. They came out from their lesson and I asked them how it went? “Oh about like the recital last year—a public humiliation,” sighed one.

“I do so well at home. I practice and practice and I know the pieces, but then I get out in front of everyone and I mess up. Why is that?” my other daughter asked. Maybe because at home is where you feel safest, I pondered silently to myself. We always do and give our best where we sense the greatest security.

“I don’t know, except that I do it too," I answered aloud, "I know what I should do, but when it comes right down to it, I don’t do it either.”

Wait a minute, I thought to myself! St. Paul said the exact same thing! ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . . For what I do is not the good I want to do; no the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing . . .waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.’ (Romans 7:14-15, 19, 23)

Sorry St. Paul! I guess I was harsh and hasty in judging you—two more of my faults—where is that list of my sins so I can write these down as well?

“All I know,” I went on, “Is that I’m glad God is more forgiving than most people, because I sure need it.”

After some more silence, another thought came to me. “I think the real value in failure is that it teaches compassion. If all you ever do is succeed - like those who play the piano perfectly - you don’t understand how it feels to mess up. But since you have experienced public failure, now you can be more understanding and loving and sympathetic to other people when you see them have a bad day or a lousy recital or even . . . something much bigger. There are plenty of times when things like that got me down and no one understood how I felt—which only made me feel worse.”

“And when we do finally get it right, they are going to be so surprised, aren’t they?!” said one of my daughters.

We all laughed. “You’ll amaze and impress them all!” I agreed.

“It’s a little bit like Life. You certainly don’t set out to make mistakes or to be ‘bad’, but sometimes we all fail. I know I have. I can never hope to be a Saint or even a saint—some days I’m just happy to get through. Maybe the best I can hope for is, ‘Most Improved Player’. I pray that when I finally get up there and face God, He’ll lean His head to one side, raise an eyebrow and say, ‘Well you had me going there for awhile. The first seventy years or so were really rocky, but you turned things around after that.”

With His Grace, maybe I won’t even have to wait for twenty more years.

‘A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not; but later he repented and went.’ (Matt 21:28-29)

If you have the time, read this blog writer; he says what I was trying to say--twice as well and in a third as many words.

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