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?