Twenty years ago
I had a four-month sabbatical
during which we camped at Smuggler’s Notch
and had a great hike up some
true-green lush mountain trail
carrying wee ones on our backs.
That’s just an ‘aside.’
The reason I mention it
is that one of the disciplines I practiced
during that sabbatical
was to use those closing verses of Psalm 51
as a daily mantra:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
I have always had trouble
using someone else’s words.
Even if I agreed with everything
in the Nicene Creed, for example,
I would still have trouble mumbling it
because it’s someone else’s language.
I realize that this is a stubburnness-of-mind
that not everyone struggles with
but for those of you who do,
you know what I’m talking about.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God.”
You see, right there is a really nice phrase,
especially to use repeatedly as a mantra.
But doggone it, in my head I’m saying,
“there’s no way to get that sucker clean.”
“Renew a right spirit within me” comes closer.
Yeah, I think God could do that,
has done that,
will do that –
although my thoughts bristle a little
at the word “right”
as if there is only one “right” spirit.
You see how I am.
But there is a blessing associated
with a mind as broken as mine is,
and perhaps you have discovered it as well.
Stuttering over such things
and being a curmugeon
about other people’s words,
no matter how exhalted the source,
sometimes turns up nuances
that go unnoticed otherwise.
Like the green blade rising,
forgiveness is born of a death.
We have to choose forgiveness
and it requires the death of a good friend inside.
Forgiveness requires grief
before any new fruit is produced.
Only then –
only after a death
and after its grief –
is forgiveness the healing of a wound.
“Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground and dies, it is never more than a grain of wheat.”
The first thing that needs to be said,
as obvious as it may seem,
is that we do NOT have to forgive anybody.
If you do not want
to through the process of forgiveness,
don’t do it.
Or perhaps we are willing to forgive selectively,
do it in regard to one offense by one person
but not for another. So be it.
If I understand Jeremiah’s proclamation correctly
God will forgive us either way.
From what we hear in Jeremiah
God will FORGET our offenses.
God will forget our dirty little hearts
and our unrenewed spirits within us –
not because we deserve it
not because we earned it
not because we made restitution
not because we bowed down
and said the right words in just the right way.
God forgives us because God forgets –
literally forgets our offenses –
because that is the nature of God.
That is who God is,
a forgetting God!
It is not that God is absent-minded
or has Alzheimer’s.
It is because God is merciful.
God can’t help it
because that is what God is.
God thirsts for justice –
longs for justice
as parched desert sands yearn for rain.
But God is mercy.
God is mercy.
God thirsts for justice
but God is mercy.
At least that is how it seems
if we listen to the prophets in their fullness.
So we can burn ourselves up
into a blackened cinder of resentment
and even hatred
if we choose
and God will forget how corroded
it makes us inside.
Not a problem.
God will forget.
Our choice not to forgive
won’t even hurt the person or people
toward whom we fan the heat of our hostility;
they won’t care
because it is not injurious to them.
It is only injurious to us.
Forgiveness is our choice
and it is for us, not them.Fully our choice.
Go through the process of forgiveness
if you want to, or not.
It’s all on us.
It’s all our choice.
Freely made either way.
I said “the process of forgiveness.”
We have all been dipped in the myth
which is the notion
that forgiveness is a momentary event
or an existential moment
when we do it
or refuse to do it.
We may imagine
that there is a single moment of forgiveness
when, with a softened shrug,
we bestow upon someone
Or more dramatically,
the last holdout juror in our heart
begrudgingly changes his or her vote to
“Guilty but Forgiven.”
Yet forgiveness does not happen all at once
nor once and for all.
Forgiveness happens over time
just as a grain of wheat
does not burst forth all at once
without first dying into the cold earth.
Here is something else
that good-hearted Christians
may not want to hear:
Hate is natural
and even hate
has a positive function
just like anger does.
Traditional Christian teaching
has done us a great disservice
by moralizing on something
that is morally neutral.
Hate and anger
are emotional responses
to an external stimulus.
They are as morally neutral
as a light switch.
A light switch is turned on
and it creates a stimulus
that produces an electric charge
and that brings about light.
Likewise, a human action or inaction
stimulates an internal human reaction
and sometimes anger or hate
is exactly the appropriate response.
As we know from evolutionary biology,
in more primitive times and circumstances
it was a survival response:
Threat engenders anger,
taps into adrenaline,
and the burst of chemicals in the brain
enhances strength and performance.
Like the hair on a dogs back
or the lion’s mane
or a bear raising up on its hind legs,
makes us look scary
to the opposing party
and causes them to think twice
about further aggression.
That is the function of anger
while hate is reserved
for only the most deadly of threats:
those who we once loved
or who threaten someone we love.
Anger is a shotgun while hate is an assassin’s rifle.
any reserve of human decency
toward another person,
reducing them to a black hole of nothingness
in our heart and mind
and so freeing us
to expunge them
and all trace of them if we are able.
But we have a compensating function
that mediates anger and hate
when we are in proper working order.
are almost always of two-minds –
sometimes more than two minds.
We have at least two minds
about almost every subject.
We have high functioning brains
that analyze and show us
the pros and cons of almost everything.
The more mature we are,
the more educated we are,
the more sophisticated we are
the more two-minded we are.
Hate relieves us of double-mindedness;
that is its function.
is a terrible handicap
and hate cures the problem.
But most of the time,
our doube-mindedness dissipates hate
and moderates anger and that is as it should be.
So, you see,
anger and hate have their place
and we need to give them their due
even though we fear them both.
Mostly, we need to stop moralizing
about having such emotions
and such cause-and-effect reactions
that are perfectly normal
and sometimes terribly important.
We need to understand
that anger and hate
are part of a stimulus-response system
not a moral failure.
moral and otherwise,
emerges when the event
that stimulated the anger or hate is over,
and yet, there we are
still holding on and reliving those feelings.
The event that caused injury
and the perpetrators of the injury
are all in the past
but our resentment is in the present.
That word, resentment,
comes from Latin meaning, “to re-feel.”
Resentment is to re-feel something,
over and over and over and over again.
Resentment is a teat
upon which we suck the bitter vile of anger
and sometimes hatred.
It sounds disgusting
but like alcohol or coffee
that we learn to laden with all kinds of sweetener
so we actually enjoy it,
resentment is intoxicating
and deeply addictive.
We really do love it.
We can even suck on anger and hatred
and when we do
it fills us with bile
from the tips of our toes
to the tops of our brains
and eats at us from the inside out.
But here is the dastardly thing
about not forgiving
and stoking the embers of resentment:
Whether our anger and hatred
is toward someone else who deserves it
or someone else who does not deserve it
whether we deserve or not,
it is all the same.
It is all the same.
is an equally poisonous sepsis
whether pointed outward or inward
whether deserved or undeserved.
The nectar of anger and hatred
equally poisons all who nurse from it.
And it is always our choice.
God loves us either way.
In fact, as Jeremiah says,
God forgets how much we have nursed
the breast of our own undoing.
We are promised that God is merciful.
It is us that are fixated on the demand for justice
like a needle stuck in a scratch
on an old vinyl record.
So we need not worry about God
and what God is thinking about us,
is a work of self-healing;
a process that begins
when we allow our old friend,
Forgiveness is a process
when we stare into the moment
or into the event
that stimulated our anger or hate
and then acknowledge
that it is a moment that has passed…
a moment that has died.
It is a decision to allow that moment to die
and become dead to us too.
is a process
that begins when we finally recognize
that our resentment
is only destroying one person
and it is ourselves.
But here is a user warning:
While I can tell you where forgiveness begins,
I cannot tell you
where the process of forgiveness
or where it will end;
because it is a sacred process
and we follow it
more than we direct it.
All I can tell you
is what you know already,
that forgiveness is as life-giving
as resentment is death-dealing.
It is paradoxical
in the way that divine wisdom always is:
Forgiveness begins with a death,
dying to what we have been holding onto,
and it leads to new and re-invigorated life.
Likewise, resentment begins
with the pleasure of nursing
the nectar of our own woundedness
but it leads to the eventual death
of all that has health and goodness.
And either way,
it is always our choice.
We get to choose:
a process that leads toward healing
a process that leads to sepsis.
But you and I both know
that we are creatures
that lust for autonomy
and so it is good remember,
and even celebrate,
that either way it is our choice;
and that either way we choose, God forgets.
Allahu Akbar! God is Great.
Thanks be to God.