What Is Forgiveness?

I’ve spent years, decades, really, trying to understand forgiveness.  As a little kid — well, I was never little, but you know what I mean — as a young kid, I heard Bible passages mentioning forgiveness, and I heard people say, “Do you forgive me?” or “Please forgive me.” It seemed to me that if person A would ask, person B would say, “I forgive you,” and poof, that was the end of it.

That bothered me. How could the matter be over, just like that? Person B would suddenly feel fine about person A, and A wouldn’t even remember having done something hurtful? A and B were, in that instant, friends again, as if nothing had happened? And I, the observer, was left still asking, Is this magic? How can everything be fine again so easily?

That’s the kind of kid I was.  Absent minded, very busy thinking Deep Thoughts.

Turns out, maybe everything wasn’t fine. Maybe they didn’t understand forgiveness any better than I did. I noticed A and B didn’t trust each other quite as much any more. They might act cordial, but slowly, they might drift apart. When I first tried forgiveness, giving or receiving it, it felt strange and unnatural, and the hurt didn’t simply vanish, as I’d expected. This forgiving business obviously wasn’t magic.

I put the whole matter away to wait for more information, experience, wisdom, maturity, or all of the above. Maybe I’d understand forgiveness when I got older.

I’ve been called a late bloomer, and I guess it fits, because I think I started getting a handle on this forgiving thing somewhere in my fifties.  Someone had hurt me profoundly, and the experience for me when we parted ways was traumatic.  I carried the pain for years, but then one day, I told a therapist that, to my astonishment, I could now think about that person without reacting at all. I knew that if we met, I’d feel relaxed, and I, at least, could have a friendly conversation. I never tried to make that happen, but I started to think, Maybe this is what forgiveness is all about.

Then I found this definition of forgiveness and copied it in my blog: “Forgiving you just means I no longer dwell on what a jerk you were to me. It doesn’t mean you’re no longer a jerk.” Listen to the first part again, the more important part. “Forgiving you simply means I no longer dwell on what you did to me.” Look at the wonderful freedom there. That’s life-giving. That freedom is what you get when you forgive. Hey, maybe forgiving is a bigger favor to yourself than to the one forgiven. Those wrongs against you are in the past, and you’re not lugging them around with you; you have set that burden down, and you can walk with a much lighter step.

But how about “forgive and forget?” Is that realistic? John F. Kennedy, Jr., said, “Always forgive them, but never forget their names.” And yes, why would we, or why should we, forget? We say God forgives our sins, but do you really think God forgets them? Would you really say God forgets things? I don’t.

If we forgive, we let go of the hurt and stop dwelling on it. The hurt is behind us. It may still exist, but it’s where it belongs, behind us. And whether it’s in front of us or behind us, if we keep looking at it, we won’t be watching where we’re headed, and we could walk into even worse harm.

But this isn’t always easy. Ceasing to dwell on the hurt takes strength and maturity. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Wow, is that ever true. If forgiveness is letting go of hurt from others, doing that can be really hard. To forgive, you have to grow up, and that’s hard, too. The media present us with mostly negative examples of maturity. Consider TV’s so-called reality shows, such as the “Housewives” franchise. Forgiveness is usually impossible for those poor women, because being shallow and immature, they fall for the slightest encouragement to make even more drama.

So who can we learn from about how to forgive? I first think of Bishop Desmond Tutu. After the official end of apartheid in South Africa, he formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In my view, this used trauma to treat trauma, but it had a positive effect. People who had suffered torture and other horrors could tell their stories and have them recorded by sympathetic authority. People who had committed atrocities could confess and request amnesty from prosecution. Bishop Tutu is a small man, but I see him as a tower of strength just for setting up and participating in that commission. What a lesson in discipleship.

I think of Doctors Martin Luther King, Senior and Junior, who both refused to let the injustices and ignorance of many white Americans poison their minds.

I think of Nelson Mandela, who said, “Forgiveness liberates the soul; it removes fear. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon.”

And we see what a truly powerful weapon forgiveness is in the fearless Yeshua ben Yusef, whom we call Jesus. He was executed by the slow, sadistic method the government loved to use for criminals they wanted to make an example of, which they certainly did. Hardly able to breathe from the pain, Jesus asked God to forgive his torturers. Talk about being strong…

One more example, though, one really close to home: family members. Parents can have terrible things happen thanks to thoughtless, careless, or just inexperienced children and yet love them and care for them just as much. Forgiveness can happen just as often, maybe more often, between spouses. And sibling rivalry can get ugly, but as children mature, forgiveness can flower.

I remember thinking, as a youngster, that my parents were so cruel, so unfair, and so unreasonable. I promised myself that I’d remember, and I’d grow up to be a better parent, who would really listen to my kids.

Then I grew up. My parents became real friends, and I heard their words coming out of my mouth when I dealt with my kids. My brother and I fought viciously as boys, and as adults loved each other deeply.

See, dwelling on what a jerk somebody was to us is carrying the pain, nursing it, keeping it alive and active. What healthy person would do that? It’s a way to create one’s own hell.

Speaking of which, I read of a wise woman who thought that God did not create Hell for people, or people for Hell; she said that Hell was always chosen. Many chose to have their reward on earth: they chose money or power over God. “There’s a parable in the Bible about a rich man, who, while he was alive, had all good things,” she says. “The finest of wines, or whatever. And there was a beggar who would sit at the table of the rich man, and he would get the crumbs. They both died, and the poor man, Lazarus — he had a name by the way; the rich man was just the rich man — Lazarus was taken to Heaven, to the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man ended up in Hell. From Hell, the rich man looks up — apparently, Hell is nearby — and he sees Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham, and he says, ‘Abraham, can you send Lazarus with something wet, just to ease the thirst I’m feeling?’ And Abraham says no. “There’s a great chasm that cannot be passed once death happens; there’s no more traveling back and forth.” When I read this, I saw a connection with forgiveness, which is our chance to cross that chasm while we’re alive.

Setting the anger down and walking on took me a long time to learn, but what a privilege it is, and what a reward you get in walking lighter. I wish I could tell you more about how to do it, because forgiveness is a demand of discipleship. Comedians are some of our brightest thinkers, and Lily Tomlin offers a hint about this: “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.”

How NOT to do it? Stay with people who encourage drama and carrying a grudge. Just as chronic anger is a symptom of mental illness, refusal or inability to forgive is sentencing oneself to a personal hell.

To meet this demand of discipleship, prayer and wise friends help immensely. Give yourself time. Keep a journal. Each day, write down something you’re thankful for. That’s huge. Send thank you notes. Developing an attitude of gratitude is a magical mental medicine.

Something my brother told me seems to fit here, too. As a pastor, he went to lots of funerals, and he might see people overcome with grief, out of control. “You know why people cry at funerals?” he said to me. “Unfinished business.”

While we’re still here, we need to do our best to learn all we can about giving and receiving forgiveness, and thus make our souls lighter. No more unfinished business. One day, maybe soon, it’ll be too late.

Copyright ©2016 James L. Evans

Luke 16:19-31, Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message

There was once a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, has been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.

Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, “Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.”

But Abraham said, “Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.”

The rich man said, “Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.”

Abraham answered, “They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.”

“I know, Father Abraham,” he said, “but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.”

Abraham replied, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.”

Christian Lifestyle Choice

I hope you remember late June 2016, when our great country was shocked, again, by yet another mass shooting, this time at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. I’m sad that shocked may now be too strong a word. After the child murders in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, we were shocked, but we did virtually nothing about it, and these shootings continue, and become part of the evening news to be quickly covered so we can all move on. Each time, the shock becomes somewhat less. As long as it happened to someone else, the farther away the better, we could get back to our real lives, especially the ones we live on line, safely segregated from people who might disagree with us.

The day after this Orlando shooting, a United Methodist Church pastor was notified by her bishop of pending charges against her, for a very different crime. She had given her all to her congregation, and they loved her deeply. She had done nothing illegal, nor anything to hurt any of her parishioners. They knew she was gay, and it didn’t matter. She was just Pastor Anne, and she did her job very well. Like the female disciples, preachers, and healers in the book of Acts, some of whom might have been gay, she embodied the spirit of Christ.

In a horribly ironic coincidence, that day after the Orlando shootings, Pastor Anne stood to lose her job, her credentials, her space of spiritual belonging, her vocational calling, her faith community, her faith home, and her pension. Not for her gender — everybody in her life knew that already — but for being honest about it and letting it be publicly known to her conference, and saying publicly that the United Methodist Church is instilling in some people the feeling that they are unloved, unloveable, unworthy, incompatible, shameful, sick, sinful. This begs the question, Who’s being unchristian here?

I’m wading into this for three reasons: One, because it’s important to us, our friends, and our relatives who may be struggling against facts. Two, because I can. Not just because being very tall, I can wade into deeper water than most, but because I have less to lose than a pastor, and as a straight person, I can say what I’m about to say without being self-serving. And three, because it matters how we deal with all of this as Christians.

By the way, with apologies, I’m using the term “gay people” to avoid tiresome repetition of the politically correct string of letters. Yes, God made us in its image on all points of the gender curve, and we might like to be inclusive with our labels, but instead of repeating L,G,B,T,Q,X,Y,Z,+, whatever, let’s just stipulate that when I say gay people, I mean everybody who’s not created exclusively straight and identifying that way.

But I can’t apologize for the facts, which many of us are just catching up to. We now know that gender is bewilderingly various, and each of us is born somewhere on the bell curve. Yes, as the song says, we’re born this way. Anyone who works with animals knows, or should know, that gay cows, cats, dogs, penguins, or whatever, did not make a “lifestyle choice.” What a sad, ignorant,  and hurtful term.

However, in the face of these facts, we have Biblical verses that appear to condemn and forbid what I’ll call complete and intimate expression of intragender affection. I’m putting this circumspectly to maintain a G rating, for the sake of the age range of listeners here and readers of my blog. Yeah, I know, those of us who’ve raised kids know how hard this circumspection can be. As parents, to have private conversations, we spell out words, or we use long, fancy words. Of course, meanwhile, young listeners become good spellers with precocious vocabularies.

Anyway, intragender relations do get mentioned a few times in the Bible, and not with approval. Paul wrote of it a few times, saying that the people involved deserve to die. Being Jewish, he got his information from Leviticus, the same book that forbids tattooing, cheeseburgers, bacon, lobster, shaving, and wearing blended fabrics.

Yes, I know Leviticus also says to tell the truth, don’t cheat, keep the sabbath, and “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This book is a collection of regulations of that time, and these rules had three obvious uses. One, they helped a young nation keep order and agree on what was good or bad behavior; two, they helped this nation identify itself as unique and distinct from its neighbors — those neighbors did some pretty wild things I’ll carefully mention in just a minute —  and three, they helped the nation stay healthy and multiply without modern science. Population was power in those days.

Remember, even the laws that now seem silly made good sense at that time. Also remember, science and education weren’t the same back then. For instance, take seafood. We know it’s safe to catch a fish and eat it later, maybe much later. But the ancient Jews noticed the occasional correlation between eating shellfish and illness or death. The educated class (the rabbis), with no refrigeration or microbiology, needed a rule uneducated people could understand; so to prohibit shellfish poisoning, they declared that only seafood with fins and scales was safe to eat. So goodbye clams, oysters, lobster, and calamari. Never mind that fresh shellfish from clean water are OK; never mind that eels and sharks are OK, even though they don’t have scales. Let’s not quibble, it’s just not kosher. So lives were saved. See? Kosher makes perfect sense in context.

Neighbors of the Jews were known to practice elaborate body modification and decoration, human sacrifice, and gaudy, shall we say provocative outfits at certain festivals. But the rabbis didn’t want their people to be tempted to assimilate and dilute their Jewishness, so they mandated plain bodies and plain clothes. No shaving, no piercing or tattooing, no exciting outfits.

This way, the Jews could know they were Jews and be proud, because they looked and acted like Jews and no one else, and they worshipped a single god, which was a radical idea. And unlike their neighbors, they required strictly male-female intimacy, and not between close relatives. This not only helped preserve Jewish identity, it also increased the birth rate of healthy children, and, you remember, population meant power. So no intragender fooling around.

That’s where Paul got his information, and the same source, plus his endorsement, led to the laws on our books today, and the attitudes in many of us. In me, too, until I learned more of the facts of life. But please notice, we’ve come a long way. For instance, thanks to science, we know the trichina worm’s life cycle, and that feeding pigs spoiled food can lead to infected pork. Otherwise, pork is safe medium rare.

We also know that gender has infinite shadings, and each of us is born somewhere on that bell curve. Maybe the only “lifestyle choice” we have is whether to honestly face our true natures, or self destructively deny them.

A friend of mine once said, “Lifestyle choice!? Did I choose to be gay? If I had had a choice, would I have chosen this? Are you kidding?? And go through the bullying and prejudice and loneliness I’ve suffered my whole life? Never!”

This from a devout Christian, one of the holiest people I’ve been privileged to meet. The Dalai Lama says his own religion is very simple: Kindness. This friend embodies kindness so completely that the air around him seems to glow.

Yet this great country has people in it who call themselves Christian but still agree with the ancient Jewish condemnations in Leviticus and elsewhere, and would wish even death for my friend. And not just this country. We don’t have a monopoly on ignorance. For example, some cultures, such as Hispanic, may also often have a dangerous, ingrained, machismo tradition that the largely Puerto Rican clientele of Orlando’s Pulse nightclub knew all too well.

OK. We may know that the Old Testament laws have to be considered  in the light of knowledge. Thanks to science, we know it’s OK to sow seed mixtures, eat bacon, breed mules, or to cross cattle breeds, and that gender orientation is not a choice. As Dr. Neill DeGrasse Tyson says, the great thing about science is that even if you don’t believe it, it’s still true.

So why don’t we simply update our Book of Discipline to match the facts? Well, it’s not that simple. The United Methodist Church is a world-wide denomination, and that can make things difficult. Some countries in Africa, for instance, are almost as primitive and undereducated as many of our fellow Americans. In Uganda, for instance, newspapers print pictures of suspected gay people, with names and addresses, and not so subtlely invite readers to “cleanse” the population. It doesn’t help that some white missionaries, so-called Christians, who I suspect are in deep denial about themselves, preach virulent homophobia there today. Other countries have the same problem, not just against gay people, but also against albinos and twins. Many Methodist bishops there, and here, either have the same attitudes, or they’re afraid to defend these people against  misguided violence, or getting killed themselves.

That’s why our Discipline still contains language from before we knew better. This prevents Methodists from officially acknowledging the truth and openly welcoming all who want to come to Jesus or serve as clergy. But many African bishops just can’t deal with this. Neither can some bishops from elsewhere, including the USA. We need to respect that.

But I give thanks that change is in the air, change that can make the United Methodist Church less hypocritical and more completely Christian. Or, it might split the church. I hope not. I see no need for that. It seems to me that we could simply remove the sentences in our Book of Discipline that deny gay people the right to be fully loved as Christians and fully functioning children of God. Let’s not put in language requiring what is sometimes mocked as political correctness, let’s just take out what’s not true. I see this as a Christian thing to do.

I see this congregation as a model. We’re a long way from perfect, and we may see politics and living fully with God in different ways, but we worship here together and love each other. I celebrate that. We can learn from each other, if we listen. I love that, too. Without those old kosher-style sentences in the Discipline, we can be free to stop pointing fingers and start learning more about ourselves, about our neighbors, and about the universally welcoming message of Jesus.

I also give thanks that the UMC isn’t the only denomination that’s trying to face facts. Pope Francis is pushing his world wide flock to weed out the guilty and find an adequate way apologize for its damage to children. The Presbyterian Church in America is trying to atone for its foundation on slavery and racism. It’s time for us United Methodists to join in making our churches more truly Christian. Our motto, “Open hearts, open minds, open doors,” can be made closer to the truth. We can never be perfect, but as God’s hands and feet, we can at least try.

May it be so. Amen.

Copyright ©2016 James L. Evans


Galations 3:23-29 (The Message translation)

Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with whom you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.

But now you have arrived at your destination: By faith in Christ, you are in direct relationship with God. Your baptism in Christ is not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe — Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise.

In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us, you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are in Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises.

Galatians 5:14 The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Muslim saying: You will not enter Paradise until you have faith, and you will not have faith until you love one another.