A Model of Forgiveness

Do you have someone you have trouble forgiving? Is there some slight or injury done to you by another that you nurture some resentment about? If the answer to those is yes, you are not alone.

Forgiveness (a subject about which I’ve written before) is something that is often difficult for us. Yet is is something that is asked of us as Christians. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” When Jesus gives instruction for forgiveness, Peter asks how many times he should forgive his brother, Jesus’ response is seventy times seven.

I just read a homily by Oscar Romero that offers a useful lesson on this subject. Romero was preaching at the funeral celebration of Father Alfonso Navarro Oviedo, who was assassinated in the church where he was pastor. It was no isolated occurrence for Romero to be preaching at the mass of someone assassinated in El Salvador; just the previous day he presided over another one.

He began his homily with a story that he called a legend that became reality in their midst.

There is a story about a caravan that was traveling through the desert and being guided by a Bedouin. They had become desperate and thirsty and were searching for water in the mirages of the desert. Their guide said: Not there, over there. He had spoken these words so many times that the members of the caravan became frustrated, took out a gun and shot the guide. As the guide was dying, he extended his hand one last time: Not there, over there. He died pointing the way.

Even after they took an act that would mean his death, the Bedouin was still able to care about the wellbeing of his charges. Likewise the priest at whose funeral Romero was preaching, Father Navarro “died forgiving those who shot him.” Sharing the testimony of the woman who cared for the priest as he lay dying, Romero said

She asked him what hurt, and Father responded: I have no pain except the forgiveness that I want to give my assassins and to those who shot me and the only sorrow I have is sorrow for my sins. May the Lord forgive me! Then he began to pray.

Could I die with forgiveness on my lips if someone brought about my death? I want to say yes, but the more honest answer is probably, I hope so. But if Father Navarro was able to forgive those who killed him, is it really asking too much for us to forgive those who have done far less to us?


Definitions vs. Stories

I’ve mentioned that one of the books I am reading is The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, written by James Martin, S.J. This is one of those books that pretty much everyone will get something out of.

One of the things I’ve read in the book thus far that intrigued me comes from his chapter on Friendship with God. In talking about that fact that one comes to know God by learning more about Jesus, who “embodied God, and so anything you can say about Jesus you can say about God”, Martin talks about Jesus’ use of parables. For example, when asked who is my neighbor

Jesus offers not a precise definition but instead spins out the story of the Good Samaritan….Where a strictly worded definition closes down thought and can be shallow, a story opens the heart’s mind and is endlessly deep. Stories carry meaning without having to be converted into a rigid statement.

When I read this, it immediately reminded me of the way a close friend of mine always defined terms. Rather than give a specific definition, his approach was always to say the meaning of the word in question was somewhere in the intersection of three other words. His point was not dissimilar from Martin’s – the attempt to define was too constraining. To say, rather, that a word was somewhere at the intersection of some other words gave more space. I was always intrigued by that way of approaching definition and often continue to define words that way.

Martin’s point (and my friend’s) is an important one. We often look for clear statements, well defined rules, specific definitions. But there is a danger – rigid statements are limiting and have the potential to close us off to valuable truths. They can be comfortable – their very rigidity creates an allure of security. But we lose something when we gain that comfort – we lose the ability of the story to “open up [our minds] to new ways of thinking about God.”

The Son of Man Has Nowhere to Rest His Head

Like all of us, I have contradictory impulses. I find in myself seemingly opposed desires, and tendencies, which operate with greater or lesser strength at different times. One of those for me has to do with a sense of home and belonging. On the one hand, I have a strong desire to be free to go wherever God calls me. I have what one of my friends termed a strong missionary streak and that side of me likes the idea of being ready and able to pick up and go wherever I am led by the Spirit, be it Nepal and India (as I did in my younger days) or Minnesota (where I am now), without anything to hinder me. That is the side of me that sees my path as a series of pilgrimages. The side of me that gets nervous when I feel like I have too many belongings, too much “stuff.” For that part of me, notions like “home” and “belonging” have no place.

But there is also a part of me that desires to feel a sense of home, to feel like I belong somewhere. In most periods of my life I have not felt a sense of home and belonging, feeling, as like I didn’t (and don’t) fully fit in wherever I am. I have often experienced feelings of rootlessness and homelessness.

When I look at tension between those two tendencies, which is reflected over and over again in my journals through the years, I know that what I want most deeply is to be totally willing and free to go wherever God may want to send me.

In an episode in St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus answers the scribe who tells Him he will follow Him anywhere by telling him that “foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” I read that line and I want it to not matter where I lay my head.

When I reflect on that passage, I realize that there is a very fine line between no place being home and every place being home. What I hope to appreciate more and more is that wherever I am called to be is home because that is where God has asked me to be.

Getting Rid of the Noise

One of our excursions while in the northern part of the state of Minnesota was to the Soudan Underground Mine. The mine now houses the Soudan Laboratory, one of a small number of deep underground physics laboratories around the world. The lab is about a half mile underground.

Why operate a physics lab so far underground? Basically, the earth acts as a shield controlling the amount of cosmic rays that reach the sensitive machinery in the lab designted to study neutrinos. Or as the guide said simply: it is just too noisy on the surface to hear what we need to hear. The difference between a facility above ground and one underground, he suggested, is like the difference between trying to carry on a conversation during a rock concert and hearing classical music playing in the background.

Moral of the story: It is important to filter out the extraneous noise to hear what we are trying to hear.

The analogy to our spirtiual life is a pretty obvious one. God speaks to us all of the time, but we often don’t hear what God is trying to say to us. James Martin, S.J., in his newest book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, writes, “Being silent is one of the best ways to listen to God, not because God is not speaking to you during your noisy day, but because silence makes it easier to listen to your heart… If your environment (inside and outside) is too noisy, it might be hard to hear what God, your friend, is trying to say.”

What it means to get rid of the noise will vary from person to person. For most of us it doesn’t require something as drastic as moving a half-mile under the surface of the earth. It may be as simple as unplugging from our cell phones and internet now and then during the course of the day. But whatever you do, think about how you might give yourself the gift of silence.

Failure to Bother

One of the books I’m currently reading is James Martin, S.J.’s most recent book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. In one of the early chapters, he talks about the Examen, a prayer that is part of my daily prayer and about which I’ve written before.

Talking about the step of the examen where we ask for the grace to know our sins – to know where we have turned away from God, he talks about why reflecting on our sins is neither unhealthy nor an invitation to guilt. He then shared a way of thinking about sin that he learned from his moral theology professor, James F. Keenan, S.J. Keenan explained that Jesus never had impatience with sinners “struggling to make amends.” Rather, his condemnation was for those “who could help if they wanted, but don’t bother to do so,” illustrated by the story of the Good Samaritan; the priest and the Levite are fully able to help the Samaritan, but pass him by. In Father Keenan’s words, Martin reports, sin is often a “failure to bother.”

Such an ordinary phrase – failure to bother – but it seems to me a helpful way to approach the examen. Martin suggests that we might confront our sins of omission by asking ourselves where we failed to bother. Father Keenan’s insight

can help you to see where you failed to respond to God’s invitation in your day. Where did you fail to bother? Where could you have been more loving? Perhaps you neglected to help a friend who needed just a few minutes of your time, or a sick relative hoping for a friendly phone call. You could have, but you didn’t – you failed to bother.

If your prayer includes a daily examen see if Keenan’s formulation is helpful to you. If it not a part of your daily prayer, consider making it one.

Our Judgment vs. God’s

I heard a really powerful sermon at Mass this weekend that focused on the lesson of the reading I spoke about yesterday – Abraham’s argument with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. The priest began by saying that it is not rare to hear preachers in this country (he singled out some parts of the country where the message was mostly likely to be heard) issuing dire warnings about the punishment in store for America: railing against homosexuality, abortion, sexual permissiveness and a host of other sins and warning that God will strike us down the way he destroyed Sodom and Gomorroah.

But, said the preacher, when you look at the Genesis reading carefully, you see that six times God says “I will not destroy it.” Six times he says he will spare the city. God’s desire, in other words, is reconciliation. God’s desire is to bring all people to God’s self. The priest then went through a sobering litany. To give a few examples:

We execute criminals. God doesn’t.

We kill innocent babies in a womb. God doesn’t.

We settle our differences through armed conflict. God doesn’t.

We destroy the poor, the disabled, immigrants – by pushing them outside of us. God doesn’t.

God doesn’t hate sinners. We do.

God doesn’t commit acts of racism or sexism. We do.

God doesn’t marginalizes the undesirable. We do.

He continued in this vein, covering the myriad of ways in which our judgment is so much harsher and more divisive than God’s. He then suggested that instead of hating people and threatening them with God’s wrath, we are invited to model ourselves on Jesus, who died asking his father to forgive those who tortured and killed him. To show God’s compassion and love to all who we meet – whatever they have done and whoever they are.

Our God is a God of love, not vengence and destruction. That is the message we ought to be conveying to the world.

Abraham’s Argument With God

In today’s first Mass reading, taken from the Book of Genesis, Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. God is determined to destroy the city because of having heard of the gravity of the sin of the people there. When God tells Abraham His plan, Abraham challenges him not to “sweep away the innocent with the guilty,” and proceeds to haggle with God. Will you spare the city if you find 50 innocent people there? Great, then will you spare it if you find 45? Terrific, what about 40? Wonderful, do I hear 30? Abraham doesn’t cease his argument until God agrees that if there are ten innocent people in the cities, the cities will not be destroyed.

Scripture scholars and others have written a lot about this passage. Some call it the first instance of intercessory prayer. Some suggest the point is to demonstrate that God always acts justly. Some point out that the purpose of the dialogue was not to change God’s mind but to help Abraham grow in his understanding of God.

There is something else that puzzles me, however. Four chapters after this episode in the Book of Genesis (Chapter 22) is the episode where God instructs Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a holocaust. God gives no explanation or reason. He just says, “do it,” and Abraham proceeds to follow the instructions he has been given.

In today’s passage, Abraham puts his all into an argument with God aimed at saving a depraved city, a guilty people. Yet when God instructs Abraham to take his only son, who he loves more than anything and who presumably is innocent of any wrongdoing, and kill him, Abraham raises not a word in protest.

How do we explain the difference in Abraham’s behavior? Is it that he knew he was being tested when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac? Did he feel some greater responsibility toward an entire population of people than toward his son? Is there something in how God spoke to him in one instance that is different from the other? Is there something else? And, if Abraham’s behavior in the two situations can not be reconciled, which of them are we to take as the better reaction? Just a few questions to ponder today.

Kayaking With God

After our morning of visiting an old iron ore mine (the “Cadillac of mines” in its day) and an underground physical lab south of Ely, and an afternoon wandering at a crafts fair, Dave wanted a rest (which I suspect had more to do with the length of yesterday’s hike than today’s adventures). So I decided to take advantage of the fact that our B&B supplies kayaks and canoes for its guests and go kayaking for an hour or so before dinner.

There are many communal aspects of my Catholic/Christian faith, but nature is not one of them. When I’m out hiking, I don’t really want to see anyone else on the trail. Indeed, I usually walk at least 50-100 years ahead of my husband on the path…only checking now and then to be sure I haven’t lost him completely. I want to hear the movement of the leaves on the trees, the sounds of the birds, the crunch of the leaves and twigs beneath my feet and I want to just be alone with God.

My kayaking this afternoon was perfect given that desire. Despite the fact that I didn’t go too far out from where I got into the water (I realized only after starting to paddle that I had forgotten a life vest and I’m an incredibly poor swimmer, so I decided caution was in order), there was no one to disturb my peace. No one standing on the shore. No one nearby in the water. (I spied another boat off in the distance, but it never came anywhere near where I was.) No one anywhere.

I paddled at times and at other times just let the kayak drift. The sky was blue, the clouds arrayed like paintings in the sky, the water lapped gently against the kayak. All was silent, except for the occasional sound of a bird. Although I did disturb the silence at one point to phone a friend (just because I thought it was cool to say “hi” from a kayak in the middle of a lake) for the most part it was just me and God enjoying the serenity of the place. Just being together in the peaceful tranquility of the water.

In moments like that, gratitude arises spontaneously in my heart. Sometimes, I’d look and exclaim, “God, this is so wonderful.” At other times, I’d simply say, “Thank you.” And several times, I felt myself express the most basic reaction: “I love you, Lord.”

Do yourself a favor. If you haven’t done so in a while, go kayaking with God…or take a hike with God. Just go off somewhere, you and God, and enjoy the water…the sky…the trees…the birds. Enjoy all that God has gifted us with in this world in which we live. You’ll be happy you did.

Always Run Them Out

Hall of Fame Baseball Manager Joe McCarthy (who managed the New York Yankees from 1931-1946) had a “Ten Commandments of Baseball” that I recently saw posted somewhere. Commandment #7 was: “Always Run Them Out. You Can Never Tell.” Sound baseball advice: you don’t have to watch too many baseball games to know that you never can tell when an off-the-mark throw from an infielder or a funny bounce of the ball on the infield will allow a runner to be safe at first base on what looked like an easy ground ball.

It is also sound advice off the ballfield. We are sometimes tempted to give up too easily when things don’t go smoothly. We anticipate failure and give up the effort. The task seems impossible so we stop trying. This temptation arises as easily in our spiritual journey as it does in other aspects of our lives; sometimes it just seems impossibly difficult. (Think of the many disciples who went home shaking their heads, deciding that following Jesus was just too hard.)

Yet, we also know that in any number of situations if we keep at it, if we give it our all, we can make headway, even in situations where we didn’t think it would be possible.

I heard a different version of McCarthy’s commandment at a graduation talk one year. The speaker’s advice to the graduations was to remember this: If you think you can, you may be right. if you think you can’t, you will almost certainly be right.

Always run them out. You can never tell.

To Feel the Earth Under My Feet

There was a book I read in high school. I remember neither the title nor the author, but there is one line in it that I always remembered. The author shared his response to the question often put to him about why he walked. His response was: I walk to feel the earth beneath my feet.

I thought of that line this afternoon. One of the first things we did after settling into our room in a bed and breakfast in Ely, Minnesota was to tak a short hike on one of the trails on the B&B’s property. As we began the hike, we walked through an area of white pines. Then the trees changed. Before my eyes even registered the change or my nose picked up the new scent, my feet knew we had passed into an area of pine trees.

Like the author of the book whose name I can’t remember, I love walking. And his explanation is as good as any others I’ve been able to come up with. I love to feel the earth beneath my feet.

There are few things I love more than walking in a pine forest and what I love most about walking in pine forests is the feel of the bed of pine needles under my feet. It is hard to put into words the quiet softness of the feeling. It comforts me and it slows me down. My foot – even shod – makes contact with the needles and I instinctively stop, close my eyes and breathe deeply, savoring the moment.

And I smile, and say: Thank you God, for letting me feel the earth under my feet. And thank you especially for pine forests and the bed they make for my feet to walk on.