Pardon? Or forgiveness?

Forgiveness2

The recent discussion of whether President Trump could pardon his family and himself got me thinking about how pardoning and forgiving are two contrary things.

A pardon protects someone from punishment for their behavior. Forgiveness seeks not to protect the one who has fallen short, but to touch them and to change them.

Pardoning erases an outward debt. Forgiveness transforms a person or a world from within.

A pardon moves on from the moment without requiring a price paid or a heart changed by the person involved. Forgiveness seeks to redeem and change the person and the moment.

Forgiveness isn’t about avoiding a punishment; it’s about reconciling and renewing relationships. Forgiveness transforms recrimination into reconciliation, division into unity. It replaces rejection with acceptance and hurt with healing.

A pardon? All that does is keep you out of jail.

Two different things

Forgiveness does what pardon can’t do because it originates in a totally different place. Pardon is rooted in the law and legality; forgiveness springs from the heart and is based on love.

Pardon keeps a record of appropriate punishment and then erases it. Forgiveness doesn’t count or keep track; instead, it offers unrestricted reconnection.

Pardon says you deserve punishment, and you should just be happy you’re not getting what you deserve. Forgiveness says you deserve love, and you are getting what you deserve.

It’s unfortunate that our concepts of pardon and forgiveness – two very different things – have been twisted around. We confuse one with the other, or we think that one substitutes for the other.

For example, we see it in the fundamentalist thread of Christianity. Forgiveness has been replaced by pardon, and legality rules instead of love.

It wasn’t that way in the beginning. Classic Christianity was much different, emphasizing love, compassion, reconciliation and unlimited forgiveness.

As Bible scholar Marcus Borg noted, the theory of “substitutionary sacrifice” didn’t become a main thread in Christianity until 1098. It was based on the feudal system of the time in which a lord couldn’t just forgive a servant who had disobeyed because it would encourage further disobedience.

Instead, a price was demanded to obtain a pardon. The substitutionary sacrifice theory reduced Jesus to a commodity in a business deal – someone dies, you get your pardon.

Essentially, God is depicted as a feudal lord who is incapable of actual forgiveness — if strings are attached, it’s not forgiveness.

Of course, the story of the prodigal son — proposed a thousand years earlier — reminds us of how forgiveness actually looks and acts. The ungrateful son returns home with no remorse – he’s not sorry, he’s hungry – and yet his father runs to him, embraces him, declares him a full son again and throws a lavish party in honor of his return.

Forgiveness has no strings attached

The son is warmly, passionately, happily forgiven. The father lavishes him with love and is ecstatic over their reunion. Why? That’s the nature of love. It seeks only to reconnect and transform.

The father also tries to transform the older son who complains that the wayward son is getting off without any sort of punishment. The father responds to the older son with nothing but love as well.

The parable’s point: No matter what we’ve done, we get forgiveness wrapped tightly around our necks like a hug. And there’s a party awaiting us with great food and drink and music and dancing.

The parable’s other point: Just as the father forgives both sons, we must forgive ourselves and each other the same way.

It means we pay attention to our shortcomings not to beat ourselves up or mete out punishment or earn some pardon; rather, we do it so that we can grow in love and learn how to join the divine party more willingly.

It also means that when we’ve hurt someone, we facilitate forgiveness by going to them and working it out. Those moments transform and heal.

Extending forgiveness is much, much harder than granting a pardon. Forgiveness involves great humility, vulnerability, and a willingness to heal anything that ruptures our relationships and ourselves.

A pardon spares someone from consequences without changing them. Forgiveness saves and redeems everyone involved by transforming them.

A pardon sidesteps love; forgiveness embodies it.

Forgiveness

On the same shelf

Same shelf

Young voices fill the old United Church of Christ building. More than 40 children energetically and noisily move about the basement room that serves as a cafeteria.

It’s another morning at the inner-city church’s summer youth program.

Kids from neighboring families come to the church each morning. Church members and college-age volunteers from AmeriCorps VISTA play with the children, teach them, and remind them that they are loved for who they are.

Then, everyone eats lunch together.

The church’s small kitchen brims with packages of food and all manner of pots, pans and utensils. Shelf space is limited. As you can see from the photo above, the communion cups are stored with the food offered that day.

Food and faith on the same shelf.

That powerful image sticks with me and reminds me that there are two types of religion.

Through us, with us, in us

One type is self-centered and future-oriented. You follow a code of conduct to get some reward when you die. Many Christian churches teach that you don’t get to meet Jesus until you die, and then only if you’ve behaved like a “good Christian.”

And the code-of-conduct for being a “good Christian” varies significantly among denominations and is constantly changing. What was deemed unacceptable yesterday is tolerated today. It’ll change yet again.

Often, these codes of conduct ignore or contradict Jesus’ passionate teachings about how we must treat each other and care for one another, especially for those who are needy, lowly and hurting.

That’s one approach.

Many other faith communities are committed to living the message of incarnation — God feeding, healing and transforming the world through us.

People of incarnation recognize God’s presence through us, with us and in us. They try their best to embody the love, grace, forgiveness, peace and healing that the world so desperately needs.

Through love and love alone

People of incarnation recognize that the kingdom of God isn’t some reward that you get when you die, but a place you can enter now. Your heart is the door. Everyone is invited to enter and enact God’s kingdom through love and love alone.

That part never changes.

The inner-city UCC church has a picture that sums it up. Across the street from the church is its food pantry. There’s a drawing on the wall that shows a line of people waiting to get into such a food pantry.

Waiting in the middle of the line is Jesus.

Churches of incarnation take Jesus seriously when he says he’s right here with us, especially in the poor and the needy. Faith is about recognizing and responding to that presence.

So they respond by feeding the hungry as close family, listening to the troubled and offering help, providing a hug and a moment of hope to someone who’s feeling despair.

Hope, a plate of food, and an experience of God. All coming from the same shelf.

Moments of awe and wonder

Lake Erie sunset

As the sun slid slowly toward the horizon, the clouds above and the lake below sparkled in brilliant, changing colors. I was back home in Cleveland for a few days this week and went to the beach to watch a sunset.

It had been a long time since I experienced one of my favorite things.

There’s something about standing on a beach at sunset that makes me feel both very small and very important at the same time. Being connected to the sky, the water and the earth gives me a sense of belonging and gratitude.

Others walked along the beach and splashed in the waves as the sunset performed its magic. I stood there and watched with a sense of wonder and awe.

All I could think was: Wow!!! Just wow!

When the sun slipped below the horizon and the sky’s colors started dimming into shades of gray, I turned and headed away. And I asked myself why I don’t do this more often.

The sun rises and sets every day in such spectacular ways. Why don’t I pay more attention?

Caught up in wonder

I’m bad at math, but by my calculation I’ve been given the gift of 22,570 sunsets and sunrises in my lifetime. Think of that – more than 22,000! Yet, how many of them have I actually noticed?

Very few, to be honest. I get so busy and caught up in the everydayness of life that I don’t remember to stop what I’m doing, look up and go: Wow!

And I’m the one missing out.

Deeply spiritual people remind us that those moments of awe and wonder bring us an experience of the Creator as well as the amazing creation. Such moments are drenched in holiness. They’re always right with us and available to us; we just need to notice them and allow ourselves to be swept away by them.

Why don’t we do it more often?

One of my favorite quotes from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is a reminder that such moments are at the core of what it means to be truly alive.

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted,” the rabbi wrote. “Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible. Never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

And those moments aren’t just individual experiences, either.

Such sacred moments

A few years ago, I was walking along Siesta Key in Florida as the sun was setting and transforming the color of everything around it. Perhaps a couple hundred people were enjoying the beach sunset with me.

Some of them were jogging. Others walked along listening to their music. Each of us was in our own little world, caught up in our own thoughts, doing our own thing.

People ahead of me stopped in place and started pointing toward the gulf. I stopped and looked as well. A pod of dolphins was playing in the sunset-tinged waves, splashing about in a way that made you smile.

Soon, most of the people on the beach had stopped to watch and talk to one another and marvel. It was a true “awe” moment that made you go: Wow! Look at that!

This diverse group of people – different ages, different backgrounds, different religions, different political outlooks – stood on the beach together and shared a collective moment of wonder. Strangers smiled at one another and talked to each other.

Our sense of awe overcame our differences and brought us together. It was a sacred moment in every sense.

We need more of those moments, don’t we?

Our collective awe

There’s so much frustration and division in our societies. It’s easy to feel like nothing can bring us back together and help us remove the walls and artificial divides we’ve spent so much time and so much energy erecting.

Maybe one way to do it is to get our heads out of the busyness of our daily lives and make ourselves aware of the wonder all around us. Allow ourselves to get caught up in the bright blessed days and dark sacred nights, as Louis Armstrong described them.

As we do, we’ll get the attention of the person next to us – the one who might feel so alienated from us – and simply say: Wow! Look at that! Aren’t we blessed to be able to experience this together?

Our shared sense of awe can humble us and reconnect us.

Grace in aisle three

Food

We found the aisle with lentils — aisle three, as it turned out — and surveyed the many choices. Which type would a Muslim most likely use to break the Ramadan fast?

Clayton and I didn’t know. We’re not Muslim. We’d never done this kind of shopping before.

Clayton is the interfaith liaison for our church, which has a close relationship with the local Islamic center. Last fall, we partnered with them on a winter clothing drive for refugee families settling in the area.

Now the Islamic center was having a food drive for needy families, many of them refugees. Clayton mentioned the food drive at the end of our church service last Sunday, and people grabbed donation envelopes and stuffed cash into them.

In the blink of an eye, we collected $200. Now, we just had to buy the food. We found a halal market near the mosque and went with a general list of things that we found online – lentils, flour, dates, cooking oil and so forth.

But which ones? Which types? How much? We didn’t know. After a few moments of indecision, we went to the checkout register and asked the manager for help.

We told the man what we were doing. He smiled. He dropped everything he was doing and threw himself into the project. He went to the back of the store and pulled out a box of cooking oil, which would be easier for us to carry. He rounded up bags of flour and packages of lentils.

Yeah. Amazing grace.

While other customers waited patiently, the manager filled several carts with food items worth more than the $200 we’d given him. And then he helped us push the carts to the car for loading.

On the way, he paused, took out his wallet, grabbed a $50 bill and handed it to us.

“This is a personal donation for your church,” he said.

Standing there in the parking lot, all of us blinked back tears.

Yeah. Amazing grace.

There are so many loud and shrill voices in various religions today, ones filled with fear and self-righteousness and arrogance and judgement and hatred -– the very things that faith tells us to avoid. Those voices try to divide us and diminish us. They twist religion into the opposite of what it’s meant to be, hoping to advance their personal agendas.

And then, there are all those other people – most people, I like to believe. The ones who actually get it. The ones filled with a spirit that makes them try as best they can to love one another as equally beautiful and beloved children of God.

They understand that every act of love, no matter how small, is an encounter with the God who makes all people beloved and all things blessed. Such moments are holy and sacred, transforming and inspiring.

Like the one just now in the parking lot.

With our boxes and bags of food loaded in the trunk, we headed to the nearby mosque. Just a week earlier, the mosque had been picketed by an anti-Muslim group toting signs that were hateful and hurtful.

The Muslims responded by setting up a table and offering the protesters food and drink. Here’s a photo, courtesy of The Journal-News of Hamilton.

Table

When our church heard about the protests, we prayed for the Islamic community and emailed the imam a note of support and admiration for their act of kindness. The imam wrote back, suggesting we get together for lunch sometime soon.

“Thank you so much for your appreciated prayers and support!” the imam wrote. “Please continue to spread the message of kindness, respect, loving thy neighbor, and harmony.”

This week, refugees will break their Ramadan fast with lentils and dates donated by a local church. On Sunday, the donation basket at our church will include a $50 bill from a Muslim store manager who spreads the message of kindness, respect, harmony and love.

Another shared, sacred moment for everyone. Blessed by a few more tears, no doubt.

Keeping the faith

circle-of-hands

So now we know what we must do.

Sometimes it takes a stunning event to jolt us out of our complacency and realize that so many conflicting values are in play in our world, including our own backyard. And people can be easily swayed one way or another.

There are daily choices for each of us to make. Which will be our overriding values today? Power, or compassion? Hatred, or love? Greed, or gratitude? Selfishness, or service? Life, or fear?

We all vacillate between values. Our nation’s founders vacillated – they didn’t live up to their own beautiful words about how all people are created equal. They owned slaves and excluded women. Our nation has struggled to live up to those beautiful words since its founding, with spirit-filled people coming along in each age to challenge us to live them more deeply and inclusively.

A new day

It’s a never-ending process. And it’s never smooth or easy. Some values may carry the day, but that is only for one day. And now, that day is yesterday. Today is a new day, another chance to choose and champion those greater values.

We know what we must do.

We must be willing to put ourselves on the line and work with one another to make those greater values our greater good. We need to have courage and commitment and audacious hope.

We must be committed to making the world a place where everyone is seen and treated as an equally beloved child of God.

We need to be ready to bleed sacrificially to bring love and compassion and healing and peace to a world so wounded and fearful that it would build walls and let fear diminish us and divide us.

We know what we must do

We must stand against those who want our world to be a place where people are judged based upon the color of their skin or the lineage of their ancestry or the way that they love.

We must stand against those who see women as property or playthings that can be dominated and grabbed and violated.

We must stand against those who believe that religion is a tool of exclusion and condemnation.

We must stand against those who believe that bullying and violence are our only solutions.

We must stand against those who want fear of one another – instead of love for one another — to be our defining trait.

We know what we must do.

Give ourselves to the struggle

On the day before he was assassinated, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told a gathering at a church in Memphis that “the world is all messed up, the nation is sick, trouble is in the land, confusion all around. … But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working …

“We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. … Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make American what it ought to be.”

We know what we must do.

Although wounded and disappointed, we must not give up. We must give ourselves sacrificially to the struggle.

We must awake each morning renewed, ready to put our hands back on the moral arc of the universe and tug on it so that it bends a little bit more toward justice. And we must remember to feel for that set of hands on top of ours, the hands of Someone who is pulling along with us always.

Fight the fight. Run the race. Keep the faith.

That’s what we must do.

Flying the flag

cubs-windians

I’m enjoying this World Series match-up – two teams that haven’t won a title in, well, practically forever. It’s perfect.

First to reach the World Series were the Indians, who haven’t won the championship since 1948 – before I was born. They’ve made it to the World Series a few times since, and lost each time. Once, they were within three outs of winning it, and they blew it.

And then there are the Chicago Cubs, whose litany of coming up short goes back for more than a century and defined them as lovable losers. They haven’t won the Series since 1908. They got there a lot in the first half of the last century, and lost each time.

The Cubs, too, have their long history of heartbreak and goat curses, foul balls and excruciating endings.

Next week, one of them will be celebrating a title they thought might never come in their lifetimes. The other will start thinking about next year … or maybe next decade … or century.

We’re all about hope

Either way, it will be about hope finally fulfilled, or hope still striving. Hope will be front-and-center, as it always is.

As humans, we’re all about hope.

Hope is as crucial to us as food and oxygen. When we lose hope, we wither. Parts of us die. Faith, hope and love are woven into our nature; to lose one of them is to lose an important part of who we are.

It’s like a trinity. Or, a double-play combination – shortstop to second base to first. All three are needed.

Faith pulls us outside of our narrow selves into something much grander. Hope energizes and nurtures us. Love fulfills us and unites us. We need all three.

I think there’s a common misconception about hope. We tend to think of it as dependent upon a certain outcome. We hope for that final out, raising that final pennant. But that’s not really what hope is about.

Hope isn’t about what happens someday. It’s about what we do today and why we do it.

Hope is about today, not someday

One of the things that struck me about the Cubs is how they took the time to celebrate each of their 103 victories in the regular season. Their clubhouse pulsated with music and cheers and dance for 10 or 15 minutes after the final out. Their manager, Joe Maddon, called it a key ingredient in their overall accomplishment – taking the time to fully relish each day’s small victory.

Good advice for all of us, no matter our circumstance.

Life is so big and full of so much – smiles and tears, steps and stumbles, confusion and clarity, accomplishment and failure. We can fall into the trap of setting long-term goals and losing sight of the importance of today.

Hope is always about today. It’s about savoring each small victory, absorbing each setback, and moving forward to make our world a little bit better in some way.

Savoring each day’s small victories

Hope embraces all of it and keeps going. It’s never contingent upon a certain outcome.

One of the most telling vignettes of hope comes from Nazi camp survivor Viktor Frankl. He vividly describes the importance of hope in what seemed like a hopeless situation. Those who lost hope quickly died. Others held onto hope as long as they could and tried to help other prisoners in whatever way they could. They made their lives about each moment, each day.

They lived with audacious hope, knowing that their lives might soon end.

Of course, there are those who spend a lot of time trying to extinguish hope. They try to foster a sense of hopelessness so that they can manipulate us. They tell us that they’re the only ones who can save us.

It’s so toxic.

Instead, we need to live in hope.

When this World Series ends, one city will be delirious over a long-awaited achievement. The other will start thinking about next year. Two sides of the coin of hope.

Same for us.

Flying the flag

Maybe we’ll get to hold the trophy or fly the ultimate victory flag someday. Or maybe not. In the end, that part doesn’t really matter all that much. What matters is putting ourselves fully into today: Celebrating the small victories, absorbing the setbacks, and moving on to the next glorious moment.

Flying that flag every day.