David Brooks, in his column “The Act of Rigorous Forgiving,” on Brian Williams’ misremembering of his Iraq War helicopter experience, critiques the contemporary tendency towards mass (social media!) condemnation with as an outcome complete cut-off (he uses the term “exile”). He offers instead 4 steps to a rehabilitating forgiveness, that leave both the offender and the aggrieved more whole. His steps are a very traditionally, even explicitly Christian formulation, it seems to me:
2 for the aggrieved
~ Offering mercy before it is even asked for (which might ease the asking).
2 for the offender
~ Confession and penitence.
1 for them both
~ Reconciliation that bridges the gulf that had separated them.
Wait, that’s more than 4? He counts confession and penitence as a single act, where to me they seem distinct. Or perhaps it’s because in God’s economy of blessing, our efforts put together equal more than their sum. You might say that God adds value to what we can muster.
Brooks makes a good case against cut-offs as the inevitable result of someone’s making a mistake, even a big one. He argues for forgiveness trumping punishment. Though I usually struggle with Brooks’ liberally-couched conservative opinions, I did appreciate his exhortation to forgiving as a healing of relationships and his challenge to community strong enough to embrace the offender. I clearly cannot always manage such grace, but I want it to remain my goal.
And I appreciated the schooling in the basic steps of a complicated dance we know as mercy. As we slide from Epiphanytide (the season I think of us looking around our world to recognize Jesus) into Lent (the season when we look inside ourselves to find not enough Jesus), we turn to the religious attitude of repentence. Not the most welcome religious attitude to have asked of us! Or the easiest religious stance to adopt. Surely rejoicing and celebration (our battles won) are easier to face than recognizng our shortcomings, contrition and amendment of one’s ways (along with losing the battle to temptation, these latter acts appear to be part of the struggle that is our war).
Ash Wednesday is next week, February 18. I invite you to join us in the sanctuary as we turn to God and ask for help with our debts, tresspasses and sins. Many of us will receive the imposition of ashes. If that’s not your personal tradition, you may forgo ashes. The service can still serve as some help for turning towards and leaning more heavily on God.
If you find yourself shying or even backing away from Ash Wednesday and Lent because they sounds so heavy and hard, I think Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son gets something right about it. Repentance is not primarily a load we have to lift. It is not some herculean moral and spiritual struggle or accomplishment. Rather, repentance is “coming to one’s senses.” It is something that happens to us. It is being given the grace to recognize one’s sin and the added grace to see there is another way, because enough mercy is available to make a clean start possible.
Ok, there are thing we might do, ways we can act in some ways to make reprentance more possible. We need to make room for or take in such an offer. And to live with the humility that we need help from outside ourselves.
I think that’s what religious occasions like Ash Wednesday and Lent offer– a time to slow down and listen and really begin to hear what God is saying, what God is offering. Time to stop running away so hard and fast (from God and from ourselves and from others) that there’s an space and a moment for “coming to ourselves” to happen.
Forgiveness is when by right you could call it quits for what someone has done to you, but, instead, you do not let what stands between you two stay there. You displace it with love. And forgiveness is allowing yourself to be loved back to wholeness by someone you’ve hurt. Allowing the injured party to take the lead may be the hardest part. Because needing forgiveness is confessing your need for someone else.
When Jesus teaches us to pray:
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who tresspass against us.
(You’ll hear all three translations used simultaneously in the Lord’s Prayer at worship at Old First)
…isn’t Jesus reminding us of the wiggle room God has made for us? God has not let our sins keep us cut off from God. Instead, God replaced them with love that becomes a bridge. God is the First Forgiver, whose forgiveness allows us to be forgiven and in turn to forgive.
In this sense, the whole prospect and process of Lent may not be as dreary and unenticing as we sometimes worry. At least that’s what my Ash Wednesday homily will try to suggest. Lent is a season that’s opens up space for us. Or opens us up. To try and live a little less unselfprotectedly.
A time to begin hearing what still sounds to us like a faint promise (even if it’s a whisper that’s been there all along, despite our missing it). That time before sunrise where it’s just beginning to dawn on you that there will be light and mercy and new ways to go. Space to breathe. Freedom coming. Because it turns out the consequences of our own misdeeds weren’t as bad as we anticipated and feared. So that we actually might be able to come to be more at peace in our own skin and eventually be able to rejoice again in each other’s prescence.
Broken down, Lent’s not an invitation to long shadows and ashen expressions, faces cast downward with guilt, tears dropping in the dry as death dust.
Instead, it’s God’s presence when we worry there’s no hope… that we’re all alone. It’s God’s invite to look for the new day just beginning to become visible… even as the dark isn’t yet light, but something is noticeably changing over the crest of the valley’s high and shadowed walls. It’s knowing we’re not quite there yet, but even as we wait, we are beginning to feel Christ approaching to wash our dirty face and feet, that God can still ready us again for a new day…
See you in church… on Ash Wednesday and every Sunday in Lent?