Saturday, June 25, 2011

Forgiving Yourself

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13).

A reader asks: What can you tell me about self-forgiveness?

That’s a good question. So often we focus on our need to forgive others or our need to ask forgiveness, but we haven’t really addressed our need for self-forgiveness.

That’s important, because sometimes we feel guilty about things done and left undone, and it’s hard to know how to deal with those issues. I can be amazingly lenient with myself at times, and amazingly harsh at other times.

That is one reason why people are encouraged to make confession. It isn’t because one must make their confession to a priest (as opposed to making it directly to God), but because we are often so close to the problem that we can’t deal with it effectively.

So what can we do?

The first thing is to recognize that we are God’s children. God brought us into being so that we could enjoy being in the presence of God for all eternity. God also delights in us. That is sometimes hard to believe, but it is true.

One thing the Bible makes clear is that God is Creator of the universe and the Source of all being. We exist because God exists.

We also know the world is no longer the way God intended it to be. There is evil and there are disasters. Bad things happen to us, and sometimes we do bad things. Most people have a conscience, and so most people are aware when they do wrong.

I never tossed a cigarette out the window of the car (back in my smoking days) without knowing it was wrong. I didn’t do it often; less than once every ten cartons I would guess; but I never did it without feeling guilty, and knowing I was littering and making a mess someone else would have to clean up.

That may be an act of piffle as world evil goes, but it was still wrong.

Most people with a conscience know when they do wrong; consequently, they choose to do those things anyway because the short term reward is greater than their desire to exercise self-control. In other words, the ego gets in the way. They want something and they want it now, no matter what the cost.

An addict, for instance, will do whatever is necessary to satisfy their craving – no matter what. It doesn’t matter who gets hurt; they will lie, cheat, and steal to get what they want when they want it.

A woman and her boyfriend left their three year old child alone in their motel the other day while they went gambling down at the casino – for hours. What was her excuse? They lost track of time and her boyfriend won a big jackpot! So did she; she’s in jail and we’re footing the bill as the state takes care of her child.

I have no doubt she hates herself for what she did. I have no doubt she is pleading for a second chance to be a good mom. She may get that second chance. That’s not up to me.

Can she forgive herself? Will she forgive herself?

That’s hard to say. Her real challenge won’t be asking for and obtaining forgiveness; her real challenge will be to change. Will she do what is required to become an adult – a thoughtful, productive member of society?

She needs to be willing to examine her life carefully, and to do so within a community that will hold her accountable for her actions. People need to be willing to say nine magical words (from the heart): I was wrong; I am sorry; please forgive me.”

It isn’t the words that are magical, of course, but the work one does to make them real. It’s a process. It may require jail time or making restitution, but one needs to take the wheel and get it done, because that is what genuine adults do.

God has high hopes for you; let’s make choices that do him proud.

What about the victims of abuse, neglect, or other crimes? Where is the satisfaction – justice – for what they’ve gone through? How do we address their needs? We’ll look at that next time in this, our world.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Forgiving Grace

“Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not hold against him, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32).

Last week we talked about forgiveness, and particularly about how it requires an open and honest exchange if there is going to be genuine forgiveness and not just a sweeping of problems under the rug.

The beginning of forgiveness is recognizing that we aren’t always right, even when we think we are.

Not everything we do wrong is a sin, of course. The word “sin” primarily means to miss the mark. It is an archer’s term. When you miss your objective, you’ve sinned. You haven’t broken a law (check local ordinances – this is not a legal column!), but you’ve either come up short or gone wide of your intention.

Most of us are law-abiding citizens; we’re not law-breakers, so for purposes of this column let’s leave aside the issues of crime and punishment. Our focus is one of spiritual health and spiritual growth; improving our relations with God, neighbor, and self.

The fact is that when we are at odds with anyone, including ourselves, our spiritual health suffers. You can sense it emotionally in feelings of anxiety, depression, or loneliness; you can sense it physically as your breathing becomes more labored and your chest tightens up or your stomach churns; and you can sense it spiritually in estrangement – in distancing yourself from people and things that once delighted or energized you.

The function of confession, contrition, and absolution (or forgiveness) is healing of the soul – the person.

What keeps us from healing and being healed? For many, it is simply a lack of skill. We haven’t learned how to forgive or how to be forgiven. This is largely because we don’t know how to talk to one another honestly and openly. We are afraid someone will think we’re stupid or careless, so we hide what we think or what we’ve done. We go through life like chameleons, hoping against hope we won’t be noticed.

One thing that needs to change in our relationships, I believe, is for us to be able to tell others what we think, how we feel, and what we’ve done without having to defend ourselves. “Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord (or loved one) does not hold against him …”

We need to be able to listen to the “other” without judgment or condemnation. People are not honest because often we don’t want to know what others are thinking, how they are feeling, or what they have done. We talk past one another and sometimes feel that the louder we speak the easier it will be for others to hear what we are saying.

In reality, our ability to raise our voices or toss around lots of words is about as communicative as banging garbage cans is musical.

So we need to learn to listen to one another; we need to be willing to hear the other person’s story; we need to stand in their shoes, even if only for a minute. Remember, each of us has a story that has been shaped by what we have experienced, and which shapes who we are, and which contributes to the shape of who we are becoming.

When we tell our story openly and honestly with another person, we are able to honor who we are, and part of our heart’s desire is to be honored by those around us. When someone listens, that’s a powerful statement in itself, isn’t it? It says, “You are important to me,” and that simply feels good.

Honoring one another is what we’re talking about. Why does God forgive? I suspect it is in order to encourage us to do better, work harder, listen more intently, and to simply do what we can to be better citizens of heaven. God has an incurable optimism about us, despite everything we have done to convince God otherwise – God believes in us and refuses to give up on us.

Maybe if we were to act as if we are the people God sees through those rose colored glasses, we would begin to see the world improve just a little bit. That would get us just a little bit more on target and, ultimately, that would nice to see in this, our world.

Monday, June 13, 2011


“Bless the Lord … He forgives all our sins and heals all our diseases; He ransoms us from death and surrounds us with love and tender mercies.” Psalm 103

This past week we have seen yet another politician tripped up by things he’s done, making up stories, and finally coming clean with confessions and signs of contrition.

He’s not the first, of course, and sadly, we know he will not be the last.

The line of miscreants is growing long in America. We’re finding them in the hallowed halls of Congress; in the back rooms of Wall Street; at work, school, and church; and everywhere else we look.

Why? It is because human beings are everywhere, and no one is innocent or without guilt.

Events of the past few weeks, months, and years give us a good opportunity to explore what it is we mean by terms like confession, contrition, and forgiveness.

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others …” we pray. It is a double edged sword, isn’t it? It ties us to those we hurt, and to those who hurt us.

We want God to forgive us our misdoings. Maybe we even expect God to do that – that’s his job isn’t it? Isn’t that in God’s job description? King Herod put it this way: God loves to forgive sin; I love to sin; my, isn’t the world admirably arranged!

We want God to forgive us our sins, trespasses, and debts. The prayer Jesus taught his followers adds a marvelous touch: “as we forgive those who have sinned against us”.

In other words: God, treat me the way I treat others. If I hold a grudge, You hold a grudge; if I forgive, You forgive. Properly understood, that’s our prayer.

Forgiveness, however, often comes too quickly and easily in our world. We know what to say and we know how to hang down our heads when we are caught. We do so, expecting others to acknowledge our contrition and to move along hastily; but how does one measure the sincerity of the admission?

The answer is not to be found in the words. Forgiveness is not about finding the right incantations or using the proper wand – or knowing when to use the wand and when to keep it sheathed.

The answer is found in action. “Forgive” is a verb – a word describing an action or state of being – and requires either an action or an honest change of essence. Forgiveness is not a cheap parlor trick, but what comes out of the hard work of reconciliation. Forgiveness results in the change of both parties; requires a capacity to have an honest, open, and genuine conversation. Americans aren’t good at that. We have attention deficit when it comes to the hard work of making peace with others.

We want our peace the way we want our coffee: hot and fast. We want the slate wiped clean when we say we’re sorry, even when we go on doing what it is or was we say we’re sorry about.

That is not good enough for God and, when you think about it, it shouldn’t be good enough for us. We shouldn’t have to just settle for half-baked and second rate admissions of wrong doing from others, no matter who they are.

“God forgives all our sins” isn’t a job description but a God description. It says we have a God who thinks enough of us to do what is necessary to save and preserve us. We are like two-year olds running in and out of traffic, dodging cars and causing chaos and mayhem for those trying to avoid collisions.

The trouble with toddlers is they have no idea what havoc they’re causing. The solution isn’t the death and destruction of the world’s intellectual or emotional juveniles, but taking them by the hand to direct and guide them towards maturity.

That’s what forgiveness is. It is courageously taking by the hand those who hurt us (because they are important), and not letting them go until they understand what they have done, what they are doing, and how that has been affecting the relationship.

Without that honest talk, there can be no reconciliation, there can be no absolution, and there can be no forgiveness. What then? We’ll discuss that next week in this, our world.

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Friday, June 3, 2011

A Struggle With Prayer

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“Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name” Psalm 86:11 (NIV, UK).

A few years ago a woman and her family went on a trip for a long-awaited and much anticipated vacation to a cottage out in the country. It was a long hot drive early in the summer and her husband, as was his custom, did all the driving. He liked to drive and she liked to let him.

They arrived at the cozy little cottage out there in the country and Ian, her husband, carried the luggage up from the car (overloaded, as was his other custom), found the bedroom, plopped the bags down and said, “Ah, this is lovely; we’ll enjoy it here.”

With that, he crumpled onto the floor in a heap, succumbing to a stroke.

Needless to say, the vacation became something quite different as Janet had to call for paramedics to come take Ian to hospital where he was diagnosed, treated, and finally transported home for his recovery.

Janet, a long-time woman of faith confesses, “The strange thing was, that in all this terror and confusion and dreadful anxiety, I was unable to pray. I couldn't get my mind past the horrors of the moment. I couldn't begin to think beyond Ian and the family and what might happen. I wanted to pray, I desperately wanted to pray, but I couldn't. So I rang up my vicar back home and asked for the prayers of the congregation. And I very soon felt surrounded and upheld and strengthened by the prayers of friends and family.”

Sometimes it is just plain hard to pray. Sometimes prayer feels more mechanical than human, more like a duty than a pleasure. Sometimes the heart and soul just find themselves so plunged into the depths of despair and fear that there are no words that will rise to the surface to make their way to God – if there is a God.

It is at times like that it is so important to have a community of faith to which one can turn, to which one can hope against hope that the heavy lifting of prayer will be carried out in faith, hope, and charity.

There are times I cannot pray; times where I am so estranged from God, or from myself, or from those I love that I need others to do that praying for me. God knows it. God knows it good and well.

God created us: strange, social creatures; called to gather ‘round the fire to share our stories, to speak our dreams; giving voice to the terrors that assail us, and holding hands as we lift each other up to God in prayer, either silently or aloud.

Sometimes we think of spirituality as our personal and private contact with God, and I will admit that spirituality is deeply personal, but I have come to believe that true spirituality can never be private.

A private faith would require confining the Spirit, and I have learned over the years that God will not be corked!

I have found that the times it is hardest for me to pray are not the times when I am under stress, but the times when I am imploding – collapsing in on myself, isolating myself from the world of family and friends.

In the psalm (86), we find one solution to struggling with prayer is to look beyond the confines of our own skin and to ask God for instruction: “Teach me, O Lord!” To be taught, we’ve got to be open. That means we’ve got to be willing to get out of our own skin and open to letting God in through others.

Secondly, the psalmist prays: “Give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name.”

Our struggles with prayer, as often as not, are the result of knowing what we ought to do, but about which we would rather do something else. It is the conflict of a divided heart that strangles one’s capacity to pray; so our “need” is to discern God’s direction – that which fulfills God’s honor – and go for it; God’s desire, after all, is our peace and welfare, our capacity to live in harmony with God and one another – without stroking out – in this, our world.