Essay, Faith

The mechanics of forgiveness

First published July 15, 2013. $400 bought my resentment and scorn.

Roadside flowers 2010

When I was in college, one of my roommates had a girlfriend who still lived in his hometown. He missed her a lot, and spent a couple hours on the phone with her every night. One day he abruptly quit school and moved back home to be with her.

The next phone bill was for $400. (Remember when we paid by the minute for long distance?) He’d left me no way to contact him, so there I was, left to pay this enormous bill. Oh my goodness was I ever angry.

After a couple months, he called and wanted to talk with me. With a huff, I said I wouldn’t take the call. He called a couple more times but I still wouldn’t have anything to do with him. But then he sent me a check for $50. Another small check followed, and later another, and then another, and after about six months he’d paid me back in full. And then I was able to let go of my anger. I forgave him, and I was willing to be his friend again.

And I had it all wrong. All wrong.

Roadside flowers

For those of us who follow God, it’s clear that God wants us to forgive and be reconciled when others fail us. Jesus even made it part of the model prayer: forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. The whole point of Jesus going to the cross was so that God could forgive us and be reconciled to us. Forgiveness and reconciliation are simply core to the Christian life. Yet the Bible is maddeningly silent on why (other than because God said so) and, especially, how we should do that.

To fill in some of those gaps, I’m going to have to invoke the Nazis. Please bear with me.

When I lived in Terre Haute, a woman named Eva Kor was frequently in the news because she built a holocaust museum there. Terre Haute might seem like the last place you’d expect to find such a museum. But that’s where Eva ended up after she was liberated from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Eva had a twin sister, Miriam. When Eva’s family arrived at Auschwitz, the girls were separated from their family, whom they never saw again. They certainly all died in the gas chambers. Meanwhile, Eva was injected with something – bacteria, a virus, something deadly – and was left to die. This was the practice of Dr. Josef Mengele, who gathered twins in the camps to experiment on them. He would inject one twin and wait for death, then quickly kill the other and autopsy both bodies to compare them.

Hello, Spring!

Unexpectedly, Eva survived her injection. At about the same time, the camp was liberated and Eva and Miriam were freed. But can’t you imagine how Eva must have felt? Her anger, resentment, and emotional pain had to be off the charts.

Yet in time she chose to forgive. In 1993, Eva flew to Germany to meet with one of the doctors who worked at Auschwitz. They went together to the camp, which still stands as a memorial to the slaughter. And there, in front of reporters and cameras, she said it: “In my own name, I forgive all Nazis.”

You would not believe how angry this made many of the other concentration-camp survivors. Their pain and anger was just too deep for them to let go. But Eva Kor is certain that she did the right thing. She will tell you that her forgiveness does not mean she has forgotten what happened. She just chooses not to hold it against the Nazis anymore, so that she can be at peace.

Peace – this is why we should forgive. Holding on to anger, resentment, and bitterness harms us. Like a loving parent, God does not want to see us harmed. And when we harbor those feelings, it can lead us to treat others poorly, or to retaliate against the one who harmed us. God doesn’t want to see us harm any of his other children, either. Even if you don’t follow God, peace is an incredibly compelling reason to forgive.

First color

To forgive means simply to let go of resentment, to no longer hold something against someone. It means that you accept what happened to you. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean that you agree with what happened or think it is right. It also doesn’t mean that you automatically have to restore the relationship with the person who harmed you. It means only that you take the hit, suffer the loss, bear the pain, and give up your right to get even. The pain will eventually subside, and you will be left with peace.

Sometimes it takes a very long time for the pain to subside. Consider Eva Kor, who announced her forgiveness almost 50 years after the fact. I haven’t had anything as monstrous happen to me as happened to Eva, but I’ve learned a few things about how to forgive, and here they are.

  1. Don’t wait for someone who has hurt you apologize or to make it right. They might never. Sure, it’s easier to forgive then, but if you wait for that, you will carry your pain until you do.
  2. Pour out your heart to God. Let him know the pain you feel. Ask him to heal you, to ease your pain. If you don’t believe in God, pour your heart out to a trusted friend.
  3. But try not to keep turning it over in your mind, because it can become a self-defeating bad habit. When you find yourself ruminating, distract yourself. Go to a movie, get out of town, call a friend – fill your mind with something else.
  4. Keep asking God to bless that person, to watch over and protect that person, and to lift that person up. Remember Matthew 5:43-45: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Again, if you don’t follow God, then decide within yourself to always wish that person well.)
  5. Cultivate compassion for the person who harmed you. Try to understand why they may have behaved that way – what happened to them that made them behave so badly toward you? We all have a backstory that explains who we are and how we behave. This isn’t meant to excuse their behavior. It’s just meant to soften your heart.
  6. Some days you’ll wake up willing to forgive but as the day goes on your anger and pain will be more intense than ever. This is just how it goes sometimes. Forgiveness can be a day-by-day thing. When this happens, just get up tomorrow and decide to forgive anew.

Can you see how forgiveness is a process? The bigger the hurt, the bigger the loss that must be grieved, and that takes time and attention.

What do you do to forgive that I haven’t listed? Please share in the comments. And in my next post, I’ll talk about reconciliation – why it’s a separate step from forgiveness, and when it may not be a good idea, even though it’s God’s ideal.

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Essay, Faith, Personal

Unrightable

First published Dec. 18, 2008. A friend has wanted to talk lately about the hard work of forgiveness, so I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned about it over the past few years.

No More Sake
Photo credit: Matt Reinbold

Not long enough ago I hurt someone pretty badly and was hurt back as badly in return. We had cast down the china teacup of our relationship and it shattered. The best repair we could manage leaked through its glued seams. It wouldn’t hold and we came apart for good.

That experience taught me a lesson that seemed paradoxical at the time but is now so obvious that it’s elementary: Getting over being hurt means accepting the pain. It doesn’t go away as long as you deny it. It doesn’t go away as long as you ruminate on it, where it builds resentment. Acceptance is the only way through; acceptance accomplishes most of the healing. As I worked at simply letting myself hurt – and it hurt a lot – the pain diminished and disappeared, and I came to no longer hold anything against that person.

Because I’m given to foolish fantasies of a harmonious world, I also learned a second, more difficult lesson. I always thought that when I forgave, it was to be as though the wrong never happened and that I should be reconciled to the one who hurt me. God says that when he forgives, he remembers our sins no more. He gives second, fifth, ninety-fourth, and seventy-times-seventh chances. But while God loves reconciliation, he also does not want me to keep putting myself in harm’s way. Two people can simply not be good for each other. Maybe one or both have a nature that’s toxic to the other. Maybe the number or severity of past hurts make it too hard to rebuild trust. Maybe their needs conflict in too many ways. So sometimes the best way I can care for myself is to let the other person go. I’m sure that a few people are best off having let me go, too.

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Essay, Faith

On reconciling belief

At church we’ve been having a discussion about whether baptism is necessary for salvation. I should say, the elders have been having that discussion, and I’m an elder. Where I go to church, we elders and the pastor are the church’s leadership. So it’s important for us to align on such matters.

St. Joseph Catholic Church

We elders all come from different faith traditions. The various branches of Christianity all follow God and Jesus, but there are so many branches because we don’t agree on all doctrinal points.

In my church, the elders have historically agreed on key doctrinal points. Crucially, we have also agreed that only a few points are key. When we don’t agree on non-key doctrinal points, we come to agree what we will teach on them so there is unity.

Over the last few years a couple elders have stepped down and a couple new elders have come on. It’s reopened some formerly settled doctrinal points. We recently realized that we might not agree on whether baptism is necessary for salvation.

There is no doctrine more central to the faith than that of salvation. It’s how we access God’s waiting forgiveness of our sins, and it’s how we are joined with him forever. We need to get this one right.

Brazil, IN

I’m in a Restoration Movement church. You know us as the Churches of Christ, independent Christian Churches, and the Disciples of Christ. We believe that a person must make his or her own decision to follow Christ. We link baptism to that decision (in different ways, as I’ll explain in a moment). Therefore, we don’t baptize infants.

If you decide to follow Christ in one of our churches, we’ll ask you to publicly confess your faith: “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and I accept him as my Lord and Savior.” If you’ve never been baptized, or if you were baptized before you could choose for yourself, we will baptize you. It’s quite a spectacle, as we dunk your full body into a pool of water. Bring dry clothes.

(We believe that baptism, by the way, is a sacrament any believer can administer. I baptized one of my sons. Read that story here.)

North Liberty Christian Church cornerstone

The Bible says in Ephesians 2:8-9 that we are saved by God’s grace through our faith in him. I believe that you’ll hear this preached in every Restoration Movement church. We agree that we must confess our faith to be saved.

We are not all aligned on baptism’s role, however. Some of us also say that unless you are also baptized you can’t access that saving grace, for the act of baptism washes your sins away. Acts 2:38 is usually cited in support. Some of us say that baptism it is a necessary step of obedience to God, but in itself does not accomplish salvation. The rest of us say that baptism is nothing more than an outward sign of the grace you have received, and a public declaration of your changed mind and heart.

This is tricky stuff. Many learned and earnest people have carefully and prayerfully studied the Bible on baptism’s role in salvation, and yet my faith tradition is still divided by these three positions. I hew to the middle one: we are saved entirely by grace through faith, but baptism is a necessary step of obedience.

St. John Lutheran Church

I’m just a man serving as best I can, fallible and imperfect. I’m always open to looking at scripture again, and again, and again. My study and prayer, as open-minded and -hearted as I can make it, has certainly expanded, refined, and outright changed my understanding of other doctrinal matters many times. But this is where I stand today on baptism.

We said goodbye to my mother-in-law not long ago. She was 90; her time had simply come. She and her husband are deeply faithful Catholics. I had little contact with Catholicism before marrying their daughter Margaret. I watched firsthand how the beliefs and traditions of the Catholic faith comforted this family through this loss. The funeral mass was powerful. The priest was fantastic. He modeled Christ at every moment, with every turn, as he helped this family grieve. He materially helped me grieve as a non-Catholic. I’ve never been to a funeral that so thoroughly helped a family say goodbye to a loved one.

Christ Lutheran Church cornerstone

My mother-in-law was baptized as an infant, before she could choose. I know that there is a path of preparation in the Catholic Church, that a young person at a certain age can choose to continue, to be confirmed. My mother in law chose confirmation.

She deeply loved God and Jesus. She obeyed and served to the best of her ability throughout her life.

I don’t find the Catholic pattern in the Bible. But do I think my mother-in-law is saved? Oh my goodness, yes. She was a human being with shortcomings, but I saw every one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) in her. She belonged to God. It would be a miscarriage of God’s grace and justice if my mother in law is anywhere other than with God in his Kingdom today.

Woodruff Place Baptist Church

All of us who try to figure out what God asks of us misinterpret or misread something somewhere and believe — and therefore act — wrongly. I’m highly suspicious of anyone who says they’re certain they’re right, or that they know the one proper way to think, believe, or act.

Yet I have to believe something, especially when it comes to crucial matters like how one is saved. I have come to believe that salvation is by grace through faith, chosen freely, and that baptism is a necessary step of obedience to that saving grace. But I cannot bring myself to criticize any soul who earnestly follows God and, thoughtfully and prayerfully, believes and practices something different.

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Faith

New pastor

West Park Christian Church

Our church’s longtime pastor retired, and we found a new pastor. The ease with which we found this fellow was not a given. We were quite worried that it would take months or years. In our fellowship of churches, the independent Christian Churches, there is no central governing body that issues new pastors, as the Methodists do. When a Christian Church wants a new pastor, they have to advertise the job just like a company does. Frankly, there isn’t much interest in little urban churches like this one. You’re not going to build a big career here. You have to want to do this difficult service.

But we all know that this neighborhood needs this measly one-horse church if only to have someplace where people can come without crawling to the many vices easily found here.

While our new pastor didn’t have a heart for the urban mission when he first visited us, that flame lit while he got to know us. Bit by bit he’s bringing a more modern church experience to us. Frankly, it doesn’t work for me. But I’m not who we’re trying to attract. Millennials and Gen Zers make up more than half of our neighborhood and they aren’t coming to church. Our old-fashioned ways repelled them when they did visit.

What isn’t changing is how accepting we are. People come to West Park from any number of backgrounds and challenging life situations. We seldom know what to do that will materially help them. We’ve learned to just love them and let God sort their lives out later. Sometimes our acceptance and how we interpret Scripture create a bit of a tangle for us, but we’ve chosen to bias toward acceptance. It creates a space where people feel safe, and where they feel they can let their guard down and be who they are. That’s when the Holy Spirit can get in.

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Faith, Vintage Television

Channel 16, Father Hesburgh, and the Prayer for Peace

Kids today don’t know how good they have it, with Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network delivering animation to their living rooms 24x7x365. During my 1970s-80s childhood, we got cartoons on Saturday mornings and for an hour after school, and that was it. My brother and I liked animation so much that we’d rise early on Saturday morning to not miss a single show.

We started on Channel 16 because they aired the Japanese anime Battle of the Planets right after sign on. Channel 16, WNDU-TV, was our local NBC station. We had no idea how unusual it was that it was owned by the University of Notre Dame. All we knew was that during sign-on they played a recording of University President Father Theodore Hesburgh reading of the Prayer for Peace of St. Francis of Assisi.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

I heard that recording so often that even today I can recite most of this prayer from memory. I haven’t heard that recording in 30 years until someone recently uploaded a 1985 sign-off that included it. Here it is!

I wasn’t raised in the faith. What I saw of Christians as a kid tended to repel me. (Here’s a story about how.) But hearing Father Hesburgh read this gentle prayer on those Saturday mornings gave me hope that perhaps somewhere people lived their faith in these ways. That’d be a faith worth following. When I sought God, I looked for him in people this quiet and humble.

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Faith, Film Photography

Hot dogs on Holmes Street

You might not think free hot dogs are a good way to meet your neighbors, but they worked fine for us at West Park Christian Church on Indianapolis’s Near Westside.

Church event

Our church is in the Hawthorne neighborhood, just steps off old US 40 and the National Road. Its houses were built in the first couple decades of the last century. Our building is on Addison Street, but our parking lot is on the lot behind us and it empties out onto Holmes Street. As cars and pedestrians passed, we called them in. Many stopped.

Church event

Rob, the husband of our youth pastor, manned the grill. Here he is talking to our lead pastor’s wife, Sue.

Church event

On the left is Wanda, who brought one of her friends. At right is one of our neighbors who stopped by with her children.

Church event

Jay brought his DJ gear and provided the soundtrack.

Church event

He has quite a nice little setup.

Church event

He and Phil (right) are our sound engineers on Sunday mornings.

Church event

Our little church has its challenges. We’re small in number and often lack enough people to carry out our plans. Sometimes we don’t collect a large enough offering to cover expenses. Heck, sometimes we show up on Sunday morning to find we’ve run out of communion supplies. Frankly, we count our blessings every time our worship service happens without any glitches.

But we are good at just being easy-to-approach people in our community. People find quickly that we are the most non-threatening, easiest to talk to Christians they’ve ever met. The hot dogs were just our clever ruse to let our neighbors find that out.

Nikon FA, 50mm f/1.8 Nikon Series E, Agfa Vista 200

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