Forgiveness Coming and Going

The folk singer John Prine wrote a song with the refrain, “Father, forgive us for what we must do.  You forgive us and we’ll forgive you.  We’ll forgive each other ‘til we both turn blue, and we’ll whistle and go fishin’ up in heaven.”

As with many things, my head and my heart were initially at odds with those lyrics, mostly around the idea that we could forgive God.  My head said, “That’s the ultimate in arrogance!  Who are we to forgive God?  God sent the Son into the world to forgive us, not the other way around.  We need to focus on receiving God’s mercy and surrendering our lives to the mysterious transcendent God whose ways we do not always understand but who always has our best interests in mind.”

And yet, my heart was deeply touched, inspired, by that song’s refrain, especially the part about forgiving God.  I think that’s because the concept of us forgiving God takes us right to the places of pain in our lives.  I think of an older woman I visited as a young priest.  She had a condition where any movement of her body or anyone touching any part of her body caused sharp pain.  She said, “You know, forgive me if this sounds irreverent, but sometimes I think, “Lord Jesus, I appreciate your suffering for me and everyone, but you only were on that cross for three hours and so far for me it’s been three years.”

I think of babies born to mothers whose milk has run dry due to famine.  I think of men and women who married spouses that turned out to be abusers.  I think of the profound rejection and suffering endured by people with different forms of mental illness.  Less intense, but also real and common, I think of the human condition of never quite being the persons we want to be.

What brought this topic to mind was a documentary I watched on Memorial Day called “Almost Sunrise,” about two veterans on a quest for healing after experiencing trauma overseas.  After many months of soul searching, one of them sought the counsel of a monk named Thomas Keating.  Keating noted that many veterans come home with “moral injury,” having done their duty but also having done things their conscience would not allow under normal circumstances.  “They struggle to forgive themselves, and by implication they struggle to forgive God for allowing this to happen to them,” he said. The former soldier said these words hit him like a ton of bricks on his chest.  His breakthrough to healing came when, during deep meditation, in his words, “I literally just said, I forgive you God, this was not your fault. And that triggered something inside of me that just came out and after that I felt completely like a different person.”

That’s the truth of the lyrics “You forgive us, and we’ll forgive you.”  This is why, despite my mind’s resistance, my heart joyfully sings along with John Prine.  After dipping into the waters of guilt and suffering, that song’s refrain is refreshing, even redemptive.  Granted, this is a process that can take years.  But if or when that moment of grace arrives when we accept the imperfection of the universe and hold nothing against anyone, even God, a great weight is lifted from our souls, and we are free to feast on forgiveness coming and going in both directions.   Light and free and fishing with God in heaven, who could keep from whistling?

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Access to the Heart: The Wisdom of Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier died on May 6; he was ninety years old.  I’ll never approach the depth of his spirituality, but I owe a lot to him for the little I’ve progressed.  After successful careers in the military and as a professor of philosophy, Vanier dedicated the rest of his life to living with people who have intellectual disabilities.  In 1964, he established the first “L’Arche Community.”  “L’Arche” means “The Ark,” which in the Noah story is a place of safety and covenant.  These houses are places of where people who in many cases have experienced acute rejection can find a safe place where love is freely received and given, and a loving God is worshiped.

 

Vanier saw and lived out an important truth that too few in the world see: Intellectually disabled people help us as much or more than we can help them.  They do this by giving us access to our own hearts.  When you cannot talk about abstract ideas with someone, you have two choices: you either run away or you learn to communicate with your heart.  That’s the gift.  You become attentive to each other’s emotions, soothing pain and sadness, dealing with anger, encouraging laughter and helping each other feel good and important.

 

I consider my friendship with a person who has an intellectual disability to be one of the greatest gifts in my life.  There are wonderful parts of my heart that would be undisturbed and unused, even unknown, were it not for this friendship.

 

When asked about the process of forming friendships with intellectually disabled people, he once responded, “They were not very interested in my knowledge or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being.” He also spoke of his initial fears in forming these friendships. He was intimidated by their physical appearance, difficulty in speaking, and, mostly, by what he perceived as their “bottomless need and incurable loneliness.”  Rather than run away from their need, he realized it was a reflection of his own neediness, fragility, and inevitable death.   This led to one of his most important insights:  In order to best serve broken people, we need to be in touch with our own brokenness.  When we are at peace with our own fears and fragility, we can be at peace with the brokenness of others.  When we know we are loved in our own brokenness, we can love broken people.

 

As a result, Vanier rejected a form of Christian service from above, where we see ourselves as the “good strong guys” helping out those “poor weak souls.”  Rather, he invited us to see our service as walking together as friends who are in essence not that different from each other.  We all need love.  We are all blessed, all broken, and all fulfilled when we give our love away.

 

I would love to go on a retreat led by Jean Vanier.  I have miles to go in developing a heart like his.  He is no longer here to lead a retreat, however.  But any of us can do what he would advise.  Do not be afraid of people who are different from you.  Know that everyone needs love, including yourself.  Know that everyone has wounds in life, including yourself.  Trust that you are precious to God and realize that everyone else is also.

 

When we follow this advice we will learn over time some wisdom for life.  When you are in touch with your own need for mercy, you will show abundant mercy.  When you are aware of your own deep need for love and friendship, you will not ignore your lonely neighbor.  When you dare to feel the pain of your own failures and rejections, you will be kind to the failed and rejected.  Together we find salvation.

The Guardians of Sixth Avenue

I woke up last week above the very ground where I played “Kill the Guy with the Ball” during second and third grade recess time at St. Anne’s school.  Since those days in the 70’s, a priest residence was built on that ground and I was staying in one of the first floor guest rooms.  If I were to put my ear to the floor of that guest room, I bet I could hear faint echoes of young boys laughing and screaming and straining to put into play their budding masculinity.

 

But I didn’t put my ear to the floor.  Instead, I listened to the early morning rain tapping the windows and the sound of cars spraying rain water in all directions.  I guessed that these were cars of parents dropping their children off to school.  Indeed, as I peeked through the window shades, I saw that it was so.  Then, beyond the drop-off zone, I saw my heroes for the day, two of them.

 

I was so taken by their appearance that I got dressed, opened the shades, and sat down to watch these two children on opposite sides of the street.  They were standing and still.  If they had crimson jackets and tall bearskin hats I could not have distinguished them for the Queen’s guards at Buckingham Palace.  Each about five feet tall, they wore yellow ponchos with hoods in full use.  Instead of holding the guns of a palace guard, they each held, vertically, a six-foot pole with a foot-square plastic yellow flag lying wet against the top part of the pole.  If the pole were extended horizontally, the flag would have dropped into place with its identifying words clearly seen:  SAFETY PATROL.

 

I admired them instantly. I couldn’t tell because of their ponchos whether they were male or female.  I could tell, however, that they were virtuous.  If not standing at military attention, neither were they slouching or leaning on their poles.  Most cars noticed them and slowed respectfully, but some did not, and their spray hit the pant legs and shoes that were not protected by the yellow plastic.  Either way, they simply stood at the ready. This crosswalk spanning sixth avenue was their territory to watch.

 

As the minutes passed, my admiration grew because, to my astonishment, not a single person, adult or child, walked across the street that day.  Here were two of St. Anne’s finest, ready to shepherd to safety all who approached their path, and no one came.  I suppose the kids who usually walked to school got rides that day because of the rain.  Whatever the reason, our yellow-poncho-clad guardians of sixth avenue stayed at their post until the bell rang, wet and cold for seemingly no reason.  I wondered if they complained about that when they were inside.  Honestly, I don’t think so.  I had built up quite an image of them and was sure that their Stoic virtue would not have allowed them to whine about a little water.

 

How often in life do I stand prepared to serve the next person who comes my way?  And when no one comes and I’m left unused and unthanked, do I continue to stand at the ready? Or, do I grow bored, find something to complain about and seek my own comfort?  I watched those children with such fascination because they were being how I want to be.

 

After the school bell rang, and with nothing else to watch outside, I walked out to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of juice.  The man who was staying in the other guest room joined me shortly after.  His first words were not “Good morning,” but rather, “Did you see those kids in the yellow ponchos?”

Fifteen Seconds Can Be Long Enough

I heard rain against the window before I knew I was awake.  It was February and I thought it was too early to rain.  Then I remembered.  Jerusalem.  Olive Tree Hotel.  I was in the Holy Land, and it would be our last day.  After many sunny days in the 60’s, that day our luck ran out.    By unhappy coincidence, this was also the day we would be outside walking the Via Dolorosa, the Way of the Cross.

Two of our group were sick and stayed behind.  The rest of us were on board the bus and ready to go at 6:00 AM.  The idea was to walk the narrow streets of Jerusalem’s Old City before the coins of the money changers and the aggressions of souvenir hawkers would distract pilgrims at prayer.

Half of the group, the smart ones, had umbrellas.  I did not.  Some were fearful of falling on the stone pavement made slippery by the rain.  They wondered if there might be some accommodation so that the group could get to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to venerate the places of Crucifixion and Resurrection, without the walk in the rain.  For their sake, I wish there had been a way, but there was not.  It seemed fitting, though, that there was no shortcut to this place.  There is no easy way to Calvary and the Tomb, in Jerusalem or in our own lives.  We would have to watch out for one another.

Some were more wet and cold than others, but no one was warm and dry.  Two or three of the stronger ones stayed in the back to make sure the cautious walkers were not left behind.  We stopped fourteen times to hear the story of the one who made this path holy, who fell three times and got up, who was mocked by some and received encouragement from others.  All arrived safely but dripping to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the crown jewel of pilgrim destinations. If ever there was a walk that was worth the effort, it was ours that day.

We got in line to touch the rock of Calvary where the cross of Jesus was raised.  A chapel was built over the rock, and in the chapel there is an altar, under which there is a hole in the floor that allows pilgrims to reach down and touch the actual rock. One pilgrim was very in tune with the sacrificial love of Jesus as he approached the altar.  He told me that when his fingers touched the stone surface, a prayer burst from his heart: “Ask me anything, Lord, and I will do it.”

The line for the tomb (sepulcher) was much longer.  Before taking our place in line, we gathered for mass in another small chapel tucked away from other pilgrims. I had the privilege of proclaiming one of the biblical accounts of the empty tomb.  I literally lost my breath when, not sixty feet from the tomb itself, I read, “Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed.” Stronger than death and anything else that could steal hope from the human heart was that moment of faith. It was then, and can be now.

After breaking and sharing the Body and the crucified and risen one, we joined the line at the tomb of Jesus. There is room for only three or four people at a time to enter. We waited for over two hours to have our fifteen seconds inside the tomb.  I will always remember the faces of the pilgrims as they emerged from it. Tired with little sleep, worn by the cold and rain, they were also fixed with the stunned silence of holy encounter.  When it was my turn, the fifteen seconds seemed long enough.  Even in that short time, I sensed the presence of the power that raised Jesus from the dead.  I felt called to trust in the power of God at all times. I believed with certain faith that staying faithful to God is all the matters, and that all sacrifices we make for the sake of love are worth it. Then we walked back into the rain.

The next morning, I woke up and looked out the window.  There were snow banks eight feet high.  I was back in Eau Claire.  I crawled back under the covers with renewed appreciation of being dry and warm, and remembered the walk, the story, the fifteen seconds in the tomb, half a world away now and yet closer than my pillow.

Being Different Together

I never enjoyed myself so much in an orchestra hall than I did in early December when both the Chippewa Valley Symphony Orchestra and the Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra shared the stage.  In one sense they did not play together; each ensemble played their pieces separately (at least before intermission when I had to leave).  They did play together in another sense, however, because they were playful with each other.

 

The symphony orchestra would play a classical piece, and then the jazz orchestra played the same piece but with a jazz arrangement.  The conductors, Nobu Yasuda for the symphony and Bruce Hering for the jazz, teased each other throughout about the flaws in the other’s performance.  After conducting Beethoven’s Fifth, Nobu warned Bruce, “Beethoven was German.  What he wrote was very clear.  Da da da daaaa.  There is no room for swing!” Bruce noted that the symphony played Beethoven quite well, except for the part when everything just fell apart.  “Thank heaven for the oboe player who kept playing when everyone else stopped!”  Later, Nobu noted that Mozart wrote perfectly—just the right amount of notes.  Then, after the jazz orchestra played Mozart to a Latin beat full of improvisation, he came out from side stage shaking a notepad and blowing a police whistle, and proceeded to give Bruce a ticket for using “too many notes.”

 

It was a joyful and inspiring performance.  On stage were opposites.  While the jazz orchestra was playing, the players themselves and the audience with them were bobbing their heads and tapping their feet, while the symphony musicians, almost all, sat stoically still with their bows or instruments propped neatly on their thighs.  When it was the symphony’s turn to play, the jazz musicians kept bobbing their heads, tapping their feet and smiling.  The music and the personalities were clearly different.  Yet, these two ensembles enjoyed the stage together and the concert was better because of their difference.  There was, as we like to say in the Church world, “unity in diversity.”

 

I left the performance feeling light as air.  I think it was because it offered sweet relief from the tension I often feel when considering all the conflict in our society.  Questions of economic justice, immigration, sexual ethics, guns, and many other life issues seems to divide the body politic in half with increasing hostility on both sides.  After hearing that concert, something deep inside me had gained hope that people could be different and think differently and still get along.

 

I so often think of President Reagan’s practice of having his political enemies over to the White House for drinks in the evening because “There are no enemies after six o’clock.”  I would love for that spirit to increase in my heart and in our world.  People who belong to churches know that we promote moral principles with political implications.  There are lines we cannot cross, but there are also bridges to be built.  Can we find a way to fight hard for what we believe is right, while still at the end of the day be at peace with those who opposed us during the day?  It takes a mature soul to see the common precious and vulnerable humanity in people who made us angry two hours earlier, and yet it is true that we are simply people with different backgrounds, all needing love and all trying to do what is right.

 

One of the most beautiful parts of Sunday worship for me in my church is when it comes time to share Communion.  Churches, you may have heard, can be places of conflict and division.  There can be everything from intense doctrinal disputes to even more hard feelings over who left the dirty dishes in the common area. And all pastors know that any suggestions of change will make some people angry.  Monday will come and we will engage the challenges of being different, but on Sundays, at Communion time, when all come to share of the one bread and one cup, none of that matters.  What matters is that we all need God and God is reaching down to feed us. That’s why I leave church feeling light as air.

Courage From a Holy Night

I attended a pre-Christmas concert a few weeks ago.  It was performed by a community choir made up of people with physical and cognitive disabilities and their friends.  I have friends in that choir and so I go to these concerts as often as I am able.  The choir director commented throughout the concert that this year new talent had been surfacing among the choir members and that many of these singers courageously agreed to sing solos that were scattered throughout the program. One young man, maybe thirty years old, stepped up to perform “O Holy Night,” alone.

Technically, it was, to be honest, not good.  The notes he sang were not the notes any of us in the audience expected to hear.  But no one giggled, of course, and no one raised their eyebrows.  We appreciated the young man’s mettle, standing on that podium and singing in full voice despite all the reasons not to.

Even amidst my admiration for this man, as the song neared its end, I began to brace my ears for the super high note I knew was coming.  You know, “Oh night…dee-Viiiine….”   To my surprise, despite missing every other note in that song, he absolutely nailed that one.  It was loud, it was unwavering, and it was right on pitch.

It would have been fine if he had not sung that note perfectly.  But it was very moving that he did.  In the midst of all the mess in the world that was weighing heavily on my mind that day, this one perfect moment made me smile and brought a tear to my eye.  It gave me hope.

On Christmas Eve, I remembered this moment.  Our world is so imperfect.  Violence and fear shake our confidence in life.  Rancor among leaders threatens the stability of the globe.  Further, none of us as individuals is perfect; we all have many abilities and many disabilities.  We have physical brokenness because of disease or aging bodies.  We have moral brokenness because of our failures to do as we ought.  And we have broken hearts, from the grief of loss and from the hurts others have caused by their failure to love us well.

And into this broken world made up of broken people comes pure love, a perfect moment, the birth of God. The song to the shepherds was loud, unwavering and right on pitch.  Peace on earth; good will to all.  It was indeed a Holy Night.  It remains a Holy Night in the nighttime of our uncertainty and fear when it inspires confidence that a loving God continues to reach out to us, and when it inspires our hearts to live and sing with full voice the song that God gives us to sing.

Peacemaking One Cup at a Time

“TED Talks” are short lectures on a wide variety of topics that you can watch online (TED.com).  Recently, one title caught my eye, “Why I have coffee with people who send me hate mail.”  I am always eager to hear how people deal with conflict, for two reasons.  First, I think it is probably the most important skill a pastor can have.  Second, I hate conflict and almost make a religion out of avoiding it; success stories motivate me to be better.  Maybe a third reason was also at play.  It seems like a lot of problems in our society stem from the inability to be at ease with people who think differently from us. So, I clicked the link and listened attentively.

 

The speaker, Ozlem Cekic, is a Turkish Muslim woman who immigrated into Denmark and was eventually elected to the Danish parliament.  After her election, hate emails full of racist language started flooding her inbox, most of them calling her a “Raghead.” She mentioned this at the dinner table once, and her young child asked why they wrote those things.  “Oh, some people are just stupid,” she said, thinking that was a pretty good answer.  Then a friend challenged her one day to have coffee meetings with the people who sent the offensive emails.  She rose to the challenge, and to her surprise the first man she called, one who had sent her over a hundred hateful emails, agreed to have her over to his house for coffee, if it was OK with his wife.  His name was Ingvald.

 

She was surprised he was married, and further surprised when she arrived that he had a neat house in a pleasant neighborhood, and that he had a coffee maker just like the one in her parents’ kitchen.  The coffee was good and went well with the cookies she brought.  They talked for two and a half hours.  She found that they shared some prejudices: when Ingvald had to wait a long time for the bus he assumed it was because of a “Raghead driver,” and when she had to wait for a bus she assumed it was due to a white racist driver.  Despite herself, she really liked him, but she also hated having so much in common with someone who had such racist views.

 

Since that conversation eight years ago, Ozlem has continued these meetings with many others who sent her hate mail.  She is not sure she ever changed the views of any of them, but the simple act of building a bridge through conversation was humbling and instructive.  She quickly came to realize that she had been just as judgmental of the hate emailers as they had been of her.  She said that the most important outcome from all these conversations was that she learned to distance herself from the hateful views these people expressed without distancing herself from the people themselves.   She is telling us that we can love our enemies.

 

I remember hearing the liberal journalist Chris Matthews speak of his admiration for the conservative president, Ronald Reagan.  While Reagan was President, Matthews worked for the Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, and so he witnessed a lot of what happened behind the scenes.  What happened was that the President and the Speaker and their staffers argued often and intensely.  Then, a surprising and lovely trend began when the President invited the Speaker to the White House for drinks in the evening.  Seeing O’Neill’s surprise, Reagan said, “Tip, we’re political enemies from nine to six; after six o’clock there are no enemies.”

 

Wow. It is now the season in the Church year when we recall the prophetic voice of Isaiah who envisioned a Peaceable Kingdom where the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, and the cow and the bear shall be neighbors.

I yearn for that.  But I know it won’t happen just by my yearning.  I have to heed the final instruction of Ozlem in her talk.  “Find your own Ingvald.”  It is only through the difficult work of reaching out and seeking to understand people who are different that we will become peacemakers.

 

Ozlem concluded her talk by quoting a Danish man whose child was killed in a terrorist attack in 2016.  “Evil can only be defeated by kindness between people.  Kindness demands courage.”  The sort of kindness that makes a difference certainly does.