“What if I Can’t Forgive?”

I was facilitating a discussion in a group of people who have survived emotional and physical damage as children, including me. We were talking about how important forgiveness is to our emotional wellness. The discussion was not going well.  Some in this group are rooted in fear and anxiety because of what others did to them when they were helpless; they have no interest in trying to forgive what seems unforgivable.

I told them that forgiveness and apology have not been my first instincts.  When I hurt someone, overwhelming guilt choked an apology. When someone hurt me, my thought was: “They should pay for what they did.” As an example I told two stories from my life – one as an 8-year old child who refused to forgive and one as a forty-something woman who couldn’t forgive.

In the first story, a group of kids and I were playing with a thick strand of twisted rope in a neighbor’s back yard. I can’t imagine what we were doing with it, but when a younger kid from across the street wandered over and wanted to play, I didn’t want him around. When he persisted, I  whipped the rope at him to make him go away.  It hit him in the face and he let out a scream. All of us were scared when we saw the red welt on his face; we took off running. 

By the time I got home, the boy’s mother was on our front steps. She and my mother were looking at the crying boy’s face. I tried to escape into the garage, but my mother saw me. She told me to apologize. I refused. “I’m not sorry,” I said. The upshot of our (loud) conversation was that I could not come in the house until I apologized. Finally, hours later (after dark) I was still sitting on the front step when my mother came out and let me in the house. I never  could make myself apologize. 

This stubbornness continued into my 40’s when my very wise counselor told me that I needed to forgive my mother for her role in our very poor relationship or I would never be emotionally healthy. After several weeks of continued discussion, I finally came home from yet another appointment, sat on my bed, and yelled at God, “I don’t want to forgive her, so if you want me to, you’ll have to do it!” Years later I realized that God had done just that work in my heart. 

And then, just this week, I read this true story about an incident of grace told to Walt Wangerin, pastor and writer. A woman had been raped for years by her father as a small child. When he finally stopped, her brothers took over. Years later she was leaving a church service trying not to be noticed. At the door, the pastor took her hand and said gently, “I’ve seen how you sit crumpled in the last pew.” He asked if he could visit her the next day. She eventually revealed her story of despair. He looked kindly at her and said, “Diane, I think that you haven’t reached [an important part] yet. Forgiveness.”

She responded with the same reaction I had when my counselor recommended forgiveness:  “But what if I can’t forgive?”

“You don’t have to,” the pastor said. “Forgiveness is a free gift freely given. Its source is the crucified Lord Jesus. Listen, now. This is very important.  If forgiveness is forced on you, if churches demand that you forgive someone, then it becomes a law that must be obeyed.  It isn’t freely given. You see? I don’t doubt that the one who sinned against you needs forgiveness. But he is the one who disobeyed. So let him go straight to the source of grace. Let him go the cross and fall down before it and confess his sin.” 

Retelling this story to Walt Wangerin, Diane said, “It’s the not having to that set me free.  . . . . The morning of the twenty-third of December – I will never forget the date – I woke up so lighthearted I was like a feather floating in the air. And I knew why. I had actually forgiven my family! Can that happen in my sleep? Why not? Even that is a gift” (Walt Wangerin in Wounds are Where the Light Enters).

I plan to share Diane’s moment of understanding with my friends in the group: forgiveness is a free gift, freely given by Jesus. All we have to do is be open to receiving the gift and sharing it as needed. I hope this understanding will be freeing for them as well.

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Setting our Face

After recording the selfishness and ambi- tions of the disciples, Luke writes this  startling statement about Jesus: “He set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:41, NRSV).  Misunderstood, plotted against, laughed at, and in danger during the entire three years of his ministry, Jesus always “set his face” to do whatever God called him to do: heal on the Sabbath, raise one of his best friends from the dead, call out the religious leaders of his day, throw out merchants who desecrated the temple, eat meals with the worst regarded members of society.  And now, “when the days grew near for him to be taken up,” he set his course for Jerusalem and certain death.

Scripture records the stories of many people who “set his [or her] face” because of the call of God. Abraham uprooted his family and left his homeland with no idea where God was leading him; Abraham also headed up the mountain with Isaac, fearing that God wanted him to sacrifice this long hoped-for son. Esau faced a meeting with Jacob after having wronged him. Joseph faced life in prison. Moses reluctantly made his way to Pharaoh to demand the release of his people from slavery. David suited up in armor to face Goliath.  Hannah continually begged for a son; Esther risked her life to approach King Xerxes without being summoned so she could plead for lives of her fellow Jews; Jeremiah determined to speak for God no matter how he was perceived or received . . . . the stories go on and on.  

What does it mean for us to “set our face?”  Speaking out even though we know we will not be heard or understood? Speaking out when we may suffer consequences? Going to job we do not like in order to support our family? Dreading the need to ask forgiveness? Taking care of a sick or needy family member? Facing our own illness or increasing weakness? Sometimes just getting up in the morning with a hopeful outlook on the day requires setting our face. Whatever the task God sets before us, we are called by the example of Jesus to “set our face” and persevere.

Perhaps imagining the brave and determined (although sad) face of Jesus at the Last Supper or in the Garden of Gethsemane or during his trials or carrying his cross to Golgotha or being mocked as “King of the Jews” or looking down at his precious mother and best friend from the cross can give us the courage to set our face to deal with our own experiences. 

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How We Do Life

This blog is quickly building up to 800 posts!  Here is a post on sacramental living from May 16, 2015 that never gets old .

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How you do this moment is probably who you are.” This title of a daily devotional by Richard Rohr really got my attention this morning. Fr. Richard goes on to say, “The full now is always a taste of something really real. It therefore entices us to imagine the eternal and live in an eternal now. We are just practicing for heaven. How we do anything is finally how we do everything.”

What a lovely summary of the philosophy behind “sacramental living” or “One day at a time” reminders!  I remember living so far in the future that I would say in March, “I can’t wait until it’s June when all this _____  (and I would fill in the blank with a variety of “to do’s or events) will be over and I can relax.”  When I’m too busy or have left myself with-out margin,  I find myself lapsing into that thinking again.  I also remember times when I lived more in the past than in the present.

I finally became able to focus more on the present when I really understood that God lives only in the present moment – outside of our artificial construct of Time. When we step outside the present into the past or the future, we are stepping outside of the kingdom.

Rohr now adds another piece to the puzzle:  how we act in each present moment is who we really are. So here’s a fascinating soul-training exercise for today. Try to step outside yourself many times during the day to see if how you are acting in that moment is who you want to be. Reminding ourselves that how we do this moment is probably who we are might create some startling awarenesses. . . and lead to changes in attitude and behavior.

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Wayfaring Strangers

Recently, the Spiritual Formation Handbook that a small group of women is studying together asked us to reflect on the question: “Have you ever been a stranger?”  One woman shared her time as a minority member of a staff of nurses in a large urban hospital. Another spoke about her first months of living in Singapore where the language, the culture, the food – everything – was strange, as was she. A third told about teaching in a poverty-ridden area in Los Angeles. But the first thought that came to me was: “I have always been a stranger.”

As the others spoke, I wondered if I dared give this answer. It is raw and personal and painful, but I didn’t want it to invoke pity or concern. Finally I did share it. I talked about never knowing my father, my mother’s emotional breakdown after his death when I was three, her re-marriage and the births of four other children. I shared that at best I felt invisible and at worst unwanted – a stranger in my own home. As I talked, the sad faces of my friends reflected my pain.

Then I excitedly spoke about what being a “stranger” has taught me. How I can quickly identify and feel commonality with “strangers” I meet on our travels through “this world of woe.” How I can share my unique experience of the blessings God brings to people who feel invisible and alone. How I can learn from Jesus, a stranger in a truly strange land. As always, I reminded them, if we choose to learn from our experiences, the Holy Spirit empowers us to become wounded healers – of those same people who intimately know our pain.

At the end of our discussion, one member said, “This reminds me of the “wayfaring stranger song.” I made a mental note to look up the song. (Click on the first line of the song below to hear Johnny Cash’s soulful version.) When I did, I was stunned. My experience as a “stranger” in this world might be a bit deeper than others, but I was reminded that we are all roaming strangers on a journey through life, looking for the promised land. 

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger

 A traveler through this world of woe

But there’s no sickness, toil nor danger

In that fair land to which I go

I’m going there to see my father

I’m going there no more to roam

I am just going over Jordan

I am just going over home

This song is the story of each of God’s children struggling to find our way in a foreign environment (famously labeled “enemy territory” by C.S. Lewis). Our world is very different from the Garden of Eden where we were intended to live in harmony with God, our fellow humans, our environment, and even within our own souls. Of course, we feel like strangers!

The song goes on to explain that this world will be difficult but the promise of a new Garden of Eden makes “wayfaring” tolerable and even fulfilling.  

I know dark clouds will gather round me

I know my way is rough and steep

But beauteous fields lie just before me

Where God’s redeemed their vigils keep

I’m going home to see my mother

She said she’d meet me when I come

I’m only going over Jordan

I’m only going over home

I’m just a going over home

As we “wonder as we wander out under the sky,” the reality of the birth and life of Jesus, God’s answer to our pain, gives us hope, fills us with love, and prompts the gift of our- selves to others.  

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Continual Renewal – The Renovare Way to Discipleship (Part 3)

This post is part 3 in a series based on the Renovare organization’s covenant and “best practices” – which are six Common Disciplines drawn from the six Traditions of Christianity explored in Richard Foster’s book, Streams of Living Water. (Find earlier posts in the Categories list in the right margin menu on the blog home page  home page under Continual Renewal).

Common Discipline #2:  By God’s grace, I will strive mightily against sin and will do deeds of love and mercy.  (The Holiness Tradition)

Holiness.  It’s a scary word! And the Holiness Tradition has been a difficult tradition. The traditional meaning for the Hebrew word for holiness is “set apart” or “dedicated” to God. But some church leaders throughout the centuries have focused on a secondary connotation of  gadosh or hagios: moral purity. (Joel Scandretti in CT, Feb. 12, 2012.) These religious leaders, (including the Pharisees in the time of Jesus), struck fear in the hearts of believers by insisting that  perfect obedience to “the law” and to the church’s  rituals and traditions is a standard they will be judged against. Sins against purity (especially sexual purity) were (and still are) viewed as most egregious by some – even today.

Joel Scandretti says that “prior to any consideration of morality, biblical holiness describes a unique relationshithat God has established and desires with his people. This relationship has moral ramifications, but it precedes moral behavior. Before we are ever called to be good, we are called to be holy. Unless we rightly understand and affirm the primacy of this relationship, we fall into the inevitable trap of reducing holiness to mere morality.”And Richard Rohr recently posited that “what we call sins are usually more symptoms of sin. Sin is primarily living outside of union; it is a  state of separation”(Daily Meditation, September 19).  

This Common Discipline from the Holiness tradition focuses on two tracks: things I will try not to do (sin) and things that I will try to do (love). Both of these mindsets will grow us in to people who have God’s moral standards and “love like God loves.” Jonathan Bailey calls this holiness journey “becoming an artisan of love.” He goes on to remind us that:

An artisan is someone who is highly skilled at creating, someone who has a personal knowledge and mastery of their craft. Becoming an artisan requires an intimate apprenticeship over many years. During this process, it’s not just information that’s imparted from master to apprentice, but his mindset, attitudes, habits, and ultimately character. The goal is not just to become an apprentice, the goal is to become an artisan”(jonathanrbailey.com.)

“Striving mightily against sin” to sin means making daily choices to feel and act the way Jesus felt and acted. Doing deeds of love and mercy requires an intense focus on our motivations and desires so we can make the best choices. I find it easier to not experience the “symptoms of sin” (as Rohr describes our bad behaviors) when I remember daily who I want to be. When I am focused on being like Jesus, I will have less need to criticize my husband. When I am focused on not criticizing my husband, I will act more like Jesus. My goal will be to become an artisan of love.

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Me Too

We are viewing the spectacle of the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans led by Charles Grassley and Orrin Hatch bullying a woman who has braved criticism and unbelief (and harassment and death threats) to publicly charge Supreme Court Judge nominee Brett Kavanaugh with attempted rape. Her treatment is reminiscent of the harassment and demeaning  27 years ago of law professor Anita Hill by these same two senators as she appeared at a “hearing” about her charges of Supreme Court Nominee Clarence Thomas  in front of the same committee. Whatever you think of the charges brought by these women, their treatment in public senate hearings is/was a travesty of “justice” and a belittling embarrassment justified in the minds of the Republican committee members (made up of 11 white men)  because they are women.

I have my own “me too” story which occurred just before my 14th birthday and caused life-long confusion and anxiety. But this ever-changing political story about women’s rights brought to mind an experience I had as a 21-year-old. I joined the teaching staff of a Michigan junior high school in 1964  at the same time as  two other new teachers, Joe and Gary (not their real names). As recent college graduates and first year 7th grade teachers, we were constantly thrown together. I taught Grammar and Writing, Joe taught Literature, and Gary taught Social Studies. We created a team-teaching situation in those three classes that went way beyond the teaching techniques of most of the staff. The students responded well and, though we worked terribly hard, we were pleased.

During our second year of teaching Joe and I decided to start a master’s program at Western Michigan University. Since it was closer to drive to the early evening weekday classes from school than our homes, we decided to car pool. Joe and I became good friends and shared many stories and experiences about our growing up years and our home life during the 60-minute trips.  I remember saying to him in response to one of his stories, “I’m glad I’m not married to you!” 

One day several months into graduate school, Joe came into my classroom and shut the door behind him. He asked, “Are you still glad you’re not married to me?” I started laughing, but the serious expression on his face stopped me. “Yes, of course,” I asked.  “Why are you asking?” 

He sat down and looked at the floor. Finally he spoke, “The principal just accused us of having an affair.” 

“Is he crazy?” I shouted.  Then I burst into tears.  “Why?”

“Someone saw you getting out of my car after we got back from class last Monday night  and told him. That’s his conclusion.”

“We have to talk to him,” I said.  

“I just came from his office. I explained that we are taking graduate school classes and car pooling to Kalamazoo twice a week. He doesn’t really believe me. He said he was going to make a note in our files.”

“I want to talk to him,” I said.  “Maybe he’ll believe us if we both talk to him!”

“No, it’s better if you let me handle it. I’m going to meet with him again and demand that this does not go in our files.”

And that was that. I never spoke to the principal about his accusation.  The allegation did go in our files. There was no teacher union in Michigan at that time to support us. Joe told Gary, the other member of our three amigos partnership. He was furious, but also warned us to “be careful.” In the midst of a large outcry by the students who didn’t understand why we weren’t returning after summer vacation, all three of us left that school – and public school teaching – the next year. Gary went to work for the fledgling Michigan Teacher’s Union and spent his whole career working for teacher rights. Joe became a junior college literature teacher and eventually president of the college. I began a career in a variety of non-profits, including 20 years in adult literacy.  Many years later, I was told that the principal was fired for having an affair with a parent. I could barely breathe.

I tell this story because I finally realize how naive I was then. I was not allowed to face my accuser. I expected to share my story, but I was not allowed in the room. I could not argue against having this false accusation in my file. I know that Joe was protecting me, but even that now seems demeaning. I wondered for years why a good friendship and solid professional relationship was spoiled by innuendo and bullying. I was sad because the students we had motivated and educated were deprived of our teaching abilities and friendship.

It is distressing that 50 years from that time, women are still assumed to be and treated as weak or stupid or manipulative or liars – or all of the above. I can only hope that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford will be given acceptable terms for testifying and allowed to share her experience with the judiciary committee and get on with her life.

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From My Reading

“There was  a genius about the American Founding and the emergence of American democratic politics.  That genius lay in no small part in the recognition that the Republic was as susceptible to human passions and frustrations as human beings themselves. The Founders expected seasons of anger and frustration; they anticipated hours of unhappiness and unrest. Fear frequently defies constitutional and political mediation, for it is more emotional than rational . . . . Our Constitution and our politics, however, have endured and prevailed, vindicating the Founders’ vision of a country that would require amendment and adjustment.  That the nation was constructed with an awareness of sin and the means to take account of societal changes has enabled us to rise above the furies of given moments and given ages” (Jon Meacham in The Soul of America, the Battle for our Better Angels, p. 17.)

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“The spiritual journey moves us from recognizing that our group is God’s “chosen people,” even in our imperfection, to knowing that all people—in fact all of Creation—are God’s beloveds and are made in God’s image and are equally imperfect in that reflection. Don’t waste your time calculating degrees of imperfection! Imperfection is the pattern that draws forth the Divine Mercy” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, August 29).

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“Dallas Willard often said that the outcome of our spiritual activities far exceeds what we put into them. In this sense the disciplines are all about grace, God taking our little offering of time and action and using it to transform us into people we were previously unable to be; people who naturally live lives of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Certainly spiritual activities—things like prayer, study and service—become ingrained into the habitual structures of our lives, but the real outcome we are looking for is the fruit of the Spirit organically flowing throughout our lives. The disciplines are about the transformation of the human personality into the image of Jesus Christ. And in time, we become people able to respond to life as Jesus would if he were to live our lives” (Nathan Foster in Renovare Weekly Digest, August 22, 2018).

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“Standing erect, holding our heads high, is the attitude of spiritually mature people in face of the calamities of our world. The facts of everyday life are a rich source for doomsday thinking and feeling. . . . Let us be like Mary, the mother of Jesus, who stood under the cross, trusting in God’s faithfulness notwithstanding the death of his beloved Child” (Henri Nouwen in Bread for the Journey).

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“[Jesus’s invitation]” ‘Come follow me’ was intimately bound up with the practice of prayer. For prayer connects us with God and others, “part of this enterprise of learning to love.” Prayer is much more than a technique, and early Christians left us no definitive how-to manual on prayer. Rather, the desert fathers and mothers believed that prayer was a disposition of wholeness, so that “prayer and our life must be all of a piece.” They approached prayer, as early church scholar Roberta Bondi notes, as a practical twofold process: first, of “thinking and reflecting,” or “pondering” what it means to love others; and second, as the “development and practice of loving ways of being.”  In other words, these ancients taught that prayer was participation in God’s love, the activity that takes us out of ourselves, . . . and conforms us to the path of Christ” (Diana Butler Bass quoted in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, September, 7, 2018).

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Going Deeper with God – I’m First! (Selected Gospel Passages)

In Eat this Book, Eugene Peterson teaches us to chew on a passage of scripture, digest it, and then put it to use in practical ways. Our early Christian fathers and mothers called this process Lectio Divina. These passages show us that, much to the  dismay of Jesus, the disciples frequently thought about their role in his coming kingdom. “Who’s first?” is a question   with which we all can identify.

 Mark 9: 33-35;  Luke 9:46-48; Mark 10: 35-29;  “I Want to Be First!

“[Then the disciples] came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.  He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9: 33 -35).

They started arguing over which of them would be most famous. When Jesus realized how much this mattered to them, he brought a child to his side. “Whoever accepts this child as if the child were me, accepts me,” he said. “And whoever accepts me, accepts the One who sent me. You become great by accepting, not asserting. Your spirit, not your size, makes the difference” (Luke 9: 46-48).

“Then James and John, sons of  Zebedee, came to him, ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do whatever we ask.’  ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked.  They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at the left in your glory.’ ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We can,” they said” (Mark 10: 35-39).

CHEWING

Don’t you feel embarrassed for these disciples? Jesus tries repeatedly to explain life in his Kingdom and what they are worried about is their status in that kingdom. In Matthew’s account (Matt. 20:20), they even hide behind their mother as she asks them to do her the favor of giving her two sons the highest leadership positions in his kingdom. Even if Jesus were just another political leader looking for senior advisers in his government, mother and sons look really greedy. But this was the Messiah, the one who walked on water, who healed all manner of physical and mental diseases, who fed thousands with a child’s lunch basket, who dared to contradict the most important religious leaders in the country!  How did they have the nerve to push themselves to the front and claim the highest positions in the movement?  

We may sign in relief and say, “At least I wouldn’t be dumb enough to do to that.”  But can we deny that we never hoped, “I wish I could be first (or best-dressed, smartest, most well-read, most popular, most religious?)” Can you identify with friends trying to one-up each other (better car, bigger house, best vacation, smarter children, best tennis game, most books read, better landscaping)?  What is the common denominator?  “Look at me. See how great I am.” Usually we are less obvious or more ingratiating than these blatant requests of Jesus by his disciples.  But our motivations are the same. 

DIGESTING

Jesus gives three different (but the same) answers to these gold diggers:

  • It is better to be last than first.  Greatness comes through service.
  • Become child-like. Accept your status and your position. Pushing to get ahead will get you nowhere.
  • “Drink my cup.” If you can’t go through what I go through, don’t even dream of serving next to me.

Jesus helps us become his apprentices by pointing us to the model of service, acceptance, and sacrifice.  The next time you catch yourself want to be seen as the best – or even the better – choose one his answers to the disciples and put it into practice.

MORE FOOD FOR THOUGHT

“The context of Luke heightens the absurdity of this debate among the disciples. Jesus has just announced His impending death (9:44) and He is about to set His face to go to that fate in Jerusalem (9:51). Sandwiched between these solemn pronouncements, the disciples bicker about which of them is the greatest! We will again encounter a similar episode at the Last Supper (22:24). But before we shake our heads and say, “How could they do that?” we need to acknowledge that we are made of the same fabric as the disciples; we struggle against the same problems. The fact that they got into a similar dispute on the eve of the crucifixion should also warn us that this isn’t a lesson that you learn once and store away in your file cabinet. It is a lesson that we must constantly apply” (bible.org website)

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