Archive for August 16th, 2010

Back in the day, when I was eager and thought it mattered, I used to subscribe to a number of theological journals. Among them was Interpretation a theological publication of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia. I enjoyed reading through the thoughtful essays and the ‘between text and sermon’ section near the back of each month’s journal. Each month covered a different topic ranging from exploring a different book of the Bible to serious theological propositions.

Last week I was perusing through some of my back issues and one in particular caught my eye. It was the April 2000 issue titled “Forgiveness and Reconciliation.” This was perfect given that my wife and I are currently praying and exploring how we can be forgiving people in some areas of our lives we believe need healing and reconciliation. Forgiveness used to come easily, but for some reason during the last year or so of my life, I have found it easier and easier to bear grudges and withhold forgiveness–especially towards brothers and sisters in Christ. I confess my weakness and failure in this regard.

This movement has been a terrible burden. It has made it difficult to worship. It has made it difficult to pray. It has made it difficult to think. It has made it difficult to study the Scripture. It has made being a man, husband, and father difficult. It has made relationships in general very, very difficult because in that place, that place of unrest and unforgiveness and bitterness, I found myself building protective walls–cutting off others so as to avoid all possibility of being hurt. I’m not offering excuses. I am saying that at the root of all that I have struggled with for the past year is, most likely, a terrible spirit of grudgery and unforgiveness.

If you have carried any such burden in your life, ever, at all, then you know full well the weight of the burden. Then that preacher at the church yesterday took out this gorgeous Katana, reached back, and drove it straight into my heart, without showing the slightest remorse: “When people love Jesus, they will love each other.” Why do preachers do that?

I have been living in that place; it is a cold, cold place. And I did all I could to douse the warm fires of the Spirit of Jesus with my own bitterness. Now the reservoir is empty. There’s no water left to quench the Spirit. Once again, I am undone, out of options. Jesus has cornered me and given me no other option. And it is that preacher’s fault. I think he is wise to allow us to use up all our water. It helps us realize that we have no other option but to forgive. It is also his way of loving us back into his arms. It is his way of saying, I’m not letting you go that easily. It’s his way of forcing us to name our sin and deal with it through prayer.

In the first essay in the journal from that month, Crafting Communities of Forgiveness, L. Gregory Jones who, at the time at least, was dean of Duke University Divinity School, wrote:

Could it be that in the capacity to discover what it means to be forgiven and to forgive depends on the richness of one’s communal habits, practices, and disciplines? Could it be that forgiveness is less a matter of the will and more a miracle that we discover by being found, and struggling to participate, in the practices of grace-filled Christian communities? (131)

In other words, the very thing that I needed in order to cultivate forgiveness and grace as a habit of my life, the very place where it was going to happen, was the very community I had cut off (or cut myself off from) in the first place. Forgiveness was ‘easy’ when I was firmly ensconced in the life of the church and rubbing shoulders with other people who were also practicing, but when I moved out of that place and began living among the Philistines–a people among whom grace and forgiveness is neither practiced nor prized–those things became more and more difficult and far more complex in practice. What I learned is that I am utterly incapable of being as forgiving as I had once imagined myself to be. That’s humiliating and humbling.

So, I have learned that I need the church (that is, the people of Jesus) far more than the people of Jesus need me. Jones concludes:

The questions raised earlier may now be stated in declarative form: the capacity to discover what it means to be forgiven and to forgive depends, in part, on the richness of one’s communal habits, practices, and disciplines. If we want to be faithful in our witness to God, then we ought to focus more attention on cultivating and crafting communities whose practices are marked by the crucified and risen Christ and bear witness to the eschatological work of the Holy Spirit. For, in so doing, we will discover with even greater power the active receptivity that makes it possible for us to learn the painful yet redemptive process of embodying forgiveness in faithful communion with God, with one another, and with all creation. (134)

Forgiveness is hard work best done within the community of God’s people–even when the forgiveness involves ‘all creation’ (that is, those who are not a part of the community). I believe we should be able to practice forgiveness in the church, but I wonder why it is so hard to do so? Why do I find it so painful to go to the people, the community of the crucified, and speak of forgiveness and grace and love?

Forgiveness is different and difficult for the people of God because it requires humility. We may end up having to ask for forgiveness before we ever dare assume the right of being forgiving.

Let me end with a question or two.

First, why do you think it is easier for us as Christians to forgive those who are not Christians than it is for us to forgive other Christians?

Second, how do we promote such a practice in our communities? Jones, in his essay (which explores this idea by explicating the letter of James) suggests that through the practices of singing, truthful speech, praying, anointing, confessing, and engaging in mutual admonition within the community, we learn to promote this practice. “…part of the gift of Christian life is that we do not learn to do any of them alone.” His idea is that in the practice of such things we learn to be a community of grace and forgiveness. What do you think?

Third, does such a community exist? Can the church be such a place?

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