I have been thinking on and off for a long time about words that we often use or hear in a religious context but that we may not understand in their fullest and deepest meaning and that we may not therefore be able to apply to our daily lives. They are beautiful words that have a kind of mystical power to touch our hearts, yet I suspect that we do not think of them often. And where do we go to find the "true" meanings of these words? How do we learn to live lives of humility and compassion, to recognize and accept God's grace, to truly forgive our "enemies" (who sometimes include ourselves)?
Let's think about forgiveness, for example. I have almost finished reading Wm. Paul Young's The Shack. In case you are not familiar with this book (and be warned, I will be giving away some of the elements of the plot here), it is the story of a man, Mack, whose daughter is abducted from the campsite where she and her father and siblings have been spending the weekend and is taken to a remote mountain shack and brutally murdered. The family is of course devastated by this tragedy. A few years after the death of his daughter, Mack finds a note in his mailbox. The note is from "Papa" and suggests that Mack make a visit to "the shack" as Papa will be there. Papa is the name that Mack's wife uses for God. While Mack suspects that the note is some kind of sick joke, perhaps on the part of his daughter's murderer, he is somehow compelled to make the trip to the shack.
As it turns out, it is not only Papa (God) who is at the shack (in the form of a smiling African-American woman) but also Jesus, and Suraya, a somewhat ephemeral Asian-looking woman who is apparently the Holy Spirit. During the time he spends with this Trinity at the shack, Mack learns a great deal about life and death, about humanity, about God, and about himself. Near the end of Mack's time at the shack, God (who has changed into an older, outdoorsy-type man with long white hair pulled back into a ponytail) takes Mack up into the mountains, and before showing him the place where his daughter's body lies, firmly but lovingly nudges Mack into forgiving her killer.
But Mack must first acknowledge the malice and bitterness he feels toward this man:
"Son, you need to speak it, to name it."
Now there was no holding back as hot tears poured down his face, and between sobs Mack cried, "Papa, how can I ever forgive that son of a bitch who killed my Missy? If he were here today, I don't know what I would do. I know it isn't right, but I want him to hurt like he hurt me... If I can't get justice, I still want revenge."
Papa tries to explain to Mack the true nature of forgiveness: that it can lead to redemption for the one forgiven, that it is not about forgetting or excusing, that it does not require the establishment of a relationship with the one forgiven. But Mack cannot let go:
"I don't think I can do this," Mack whispered.
"I want you to. Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver," answered Papa, "to release you from something that will eat you alive, that will destroy your joy and your ability to love fully and openly. Do you think this man cares about the pain and torment you have gone through? If anything, he feeds on that knowledge. Don't you want to cut that off? And in doing so, you'll release him from a burden he carries whether he knows it or not - acknowledges it or not. When you choose to forgive another, you love him well."
"I do not love him."
"Not today, you don't. But I do, Mack, not for what he's become, but for the broken child that has been twisted by his pain. I want to help you take on the nature that finds more power in love and forgiveness than hate."
Papa finally gets through and Mack starts to cry.
He wept until he had cried out all the darkness, all the longing, and all the loss, until there was nothing left.
With his eyes now closed, rocking back and forth, he pleaded, "Help me, Papa. Help me! What do I do? How do I forgive him?"
Mack looked up, half expecting to see a man he had never met standing there.
"Just say it out loud. There is power in what my children declare."
Mack began to whisper in tones at first halfhearted and stumbling, but then with increasing conviction. "I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you."
Most of us do not have as much to forgive as Mack does. Yet we do carry anger and resentment around with us, usually for far too long. Often we do not even acknowledge it until some new offence perpetrated by the one or ones we need to forgive causes it to flare up again. And I do think Papa is right: unforgiving anger will destroy our joy and our ability to love fully and openly.
Some of us carry great anger and resentment toward our Church for how it treats gay people - and the children of gay people. These feelings have been expressed vehemently and often in this blog and in others. Some will say that the anger we feel and express is righteous (like Jesus' anger toward the moneychangers in the temple) because we are so keenly and profoundly aware that what the Church teaches and the actions precipitated in the name of that teaching are terribly wrong. They might say that anger fuels action and action fuels change. They are, I believe, right in what they say.
After Mack has forgiven his daughter's murderer, he asks Papa: "So is it alright if I'm still angry?"
Papa was quick to respond. "Absolutely! What he did was terrible. He caused incredible pain to many. It was wrong, and anger is the right response to something that is so wrong. But don't let the anger and pain and loss you feel prevent you from forgiving him and removing your hands from around his neck."
The modern Church is not a murderer, but I do feel anger and pain and loss (I had a sad dream last night about the parish I recently left in protest). I must somehow recognnize, however, that loving her (which I still do) and forgiving her (which I am having great difficulty with) will free me to creatively use the anger I still feel to help change her.
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