Forgive God

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                               Sept 17, 2017

Matt 18:21-35, Rom 14:1-12

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

The most amazing thing happened to me this past summer. A young woman from El Salvador, who has adopted Nancy and I as her grandparents, was married in a Ukrainian Catholic Church in July. She asked her priest if I could offer a blessing at the end of the wedding ceremony. The priest’s reply blew me away. He said that, not only could I offer a blessing, but I could also co-officiate with him in my clerical vestments. He invited me to offer some of the prayers, lead in the bride’s vows, and lead a candle-lighting litany at the end. He also invited me to chant everything I said, as their custom is to chant everything. I politely declined the chanting, but graciously accepted the co-officiant offer. I was stunned that he would open his chancel to a female, Protestant minister. This was ecumenical ministry at its best.

Of course, they have different traditions than we do. They put crowns on the heads of the bride and the groom, and it is during the crowning ceremony when they are actually married. They also wrap a beautiful embroidered cloth around their hands and then have them walk three times around a little table on which the Bible is resting.

Each of our denominations has its own customs and traditions, rules and prohibitions. Some eat fish on Friday, some completely fast on Friday, and some have BBQs! Our passage from Romans talks about the different restrictions that Christians have regarding food. Paul urges them not to judge one another, but to respect the traditions and restrictions of others, even if we see no reason to follow them ourselves.

Respect for diversity also plays a role in forgiveness. God has created an amazing world. It’s beautiful, it’s diverse—and it’s conflicted. All’s not in perfect harmony. And so, our respect for God’s diverse world might begin with forgiveness for our reality—forgiving a reality that includes destructive hurricanes and earthquakes, fires and earthquakes, human weakness that fights fear with terror. This is not a reality that we wish, but it is our reality. To respect it, we may need to forgive it for being what it is.

Let’s take this one step further. We may need to forgive God for creating this reality in the first place. Why did God create a world of suffering and conflict? Why did God give humanity a freewill through which this reality could be either healed or harmed?

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk and theologian, refers to the story of Noah’s ark, suggesting that this was not meant to be a cute children’s story—it is a morality lesson for adults. The miracle in this story is not that a few diverse species survived a flood—it is that a few diverse species survived each other! Rohr points out that God told Noah to bring in “all the opposites: the wild and the domesticated, the crawling and the flying, the clean and the unclean, the male and female of each animal” and then God locked them in together. God held in one place all of the natural animosities in their “unreconciled state”.[1] For some reason unknown to us lowly humans, God chose to create a world full of unresolved flash points. As Christians, we therefore need to accept and respect this reality that is not perfect, just as we are not perfect. This may require forgiveness of our sometimes harsh reality—even forgiveness of our Creator.

Why do we need to forgive? Why not just stay mad at this disaster-prone reality of ours? Why bother working so hard to get rid of grudges that we might hold towards others? Our pain is real—so we have a right to be grumpy!

We all know people who hold resentment close to their hearts and have no interest in letting it go. It’s almost as if resentment is their protective shield against the never-ending pain. They may be mad at God or at the government or more personally at a family member or former friend. We know that the ones they hurt the most are themselves. But when you’re in the middle of it, when you are overwhelmed with hurt, you can’t see that.

Resentment cripples the heart and the body. It holds a tremendous amount of negative energy. Forgiveness is the key to freedom—to releasing this iron grip of hurt. It opens the tap to a flow of healing grace in the midst of our imperfect reality. People will still hurts us, the environment will still be harsh, but God’s grace allows us to breathe in shalom—God’s healing peace—that is able to hold together the antagonisms of our reality.

Richard Rohr recounts the story of his mother’s death. As he sat by her bed, she told him that there was a “mesh” that she couldn’t get through. He wasn’t sure what she meant, but assured her that he would miss her. She replied that she wanted to hear that from her husband. Of course, he had been telling her that for weeks, but he came over once again and said, “Oh, I’m going to miss ya.”

She replied, “I don’t believe it.”

Richard couldn’t believe his ears! He said, “Mother, you’re a few hours from death. You can’t say that!”

She persisted: “I don’t believe it.”

Her husband redoubled his efforts: “I ask your forgiveness for all the times I’ve hurt you in our fifty-four years of marriage, and I forgive you for all the times you’ve hurt me.”

Richard said, “Mother, isn’t that beautiful? Now say that back to him.” And suddenly she clammed up. She didn’t want to say it.

Richard continued, “Mother, you’re soon going to be before God. You don’t want to come before God without forgiving everybody.”

“I forgive everybody,” she replied.

“But do you forgive Daddy?” asked Richard and she became silent again.

Then her husband jumped in and said, “Honey, I never fooled around with any other women.”

“Well I know that, I know that,” she said dismissively.

Richard and his siblings still don’t know how their Dad had hurt their Mother. But any married person knows there are many little ways a couple can hurt one another over fifty-four years.

Then Richard said, “Mother, let’s try this. Put one hand on your heart, and I’m going to pray that your heart gets real soft.” He placed one of his hands on hers, over her heart, and held her other hand and started kissing it.

After about a minute she said, very faintly, “That melts me.”

“What?”

“When you kiss my hand like that, now I’ve got to do it.” After a pause, she continued: “I’m a stubborn woman. All of my life I’ve been a stubborn woman.”

“Well, Mother, we all knew that,” Richard said. “Now look at Daddy and you tell him.”

So she looked over to her husband and said, “I forgive you.”

Richard prompted her again: “Mother, the other half—I ask for your forgiveness.”

She started breathing heavily and rapidly. Then she summoned her energy and said, “I ask your forgiveness.” A few more moments of labored breathing, and she said, “That’s it, that’s it. That’s what I had to do.”

Richard said to her, “Mother, do you think that was the mesh?”

She replied, “It’s gone! The mesh is gone! And, God, I pray that I mean this forgiveness from my heart.”

Then she said, referring to Richard’s two sisters and sister-in-law, “Tell the girls to do this early and not to wait ‘til now. They’ll understand a woman’s heart and the way a man can hurt a woman.”[2]

This is the power of forgiveness. Without it, Richard writes that we “remain frozen in a small past.” I have found that it needs to done over and over—it’s not a one-time deal. But if we have the courage to step out from behind our protective shield of resentment, and seek over and and over to forgive God, forgive our reality, forgive one another, we will find a mesh removed from our souls.

[1] Richard Rohr, “Forgiving Reality for Being What It Is,” Wed August 30, 2017 from Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations (daily emails).

[2] Richard Rohr, “Forgiveness,” Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017 from Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations.