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 Forgiveness has been replaced by pardon, and legality rules instead of love.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.

Grams’ lesson in persistent love

Grams

My grandmother’s name is Ann, but we’ve always called her Grams – just Grams. Her birthday is today, so it’s made me think about her again. And smile again.

Grams has made me smile a lot over the years, often by finding humor in something when I couldn’t see it by myself. She’s taught me a lot over the years, too, like how to appreciate a really good cup of coffee (that’s one of her mugs above) and how to make pierogi from scratch so that that don’t fall apart when you cook them.

She was independent and feisty and lively, even when the arthritis in her legs slowed her. And she understood the importance of persistence, especially when it came to love.

Her husband died of cancer when her three daughters were young. Friends and relatives told her to find another husband to support her – that’s what women did back then. Uh-uh, not Grams. She found a babysitter and went to work at a business where women weren’t exactly welcomed. She didn’t care what they thought – she had a family to support!

She did it her way, raising her daughters and building a family that grew with each wedding and each birth.

Persistent about life and love

When I was young, my family had some tough years. I remember many times when Grams would recognize my worry, pull me tight and reassure me: “Don’t worry, Joey. It’s going to be all right.” She meant it, and so I believed her. She turned out to be right.

She liked to say that life is too short, so don’t shortchange yourself. Don’t waste it. Keep at it. Don’t let anyone mistreat you. Be generous. Help others. And when you care about someone, make sure they know it.

Be persistent about life and love.

And boy, she was persistent, all right. When I was in college and would visit home for a weekend, Grams always called to see how I was doing. She’d invite me over for a cup of coffee. Sadly, I was a busy young person and often turned her down because of other plans with friends. She said that was OK. She never sounded disappointed. She just seemed glad that we had talked.

How cool is that?

Grams was persistent, but not insistent. She taught me that important distinction. Love never insists, it just offers.

Thankfully, I got many more chances to spend time with Grams. We’d get together for holidays or just to hobnob about old times. We’d go to her apartment and make batches of pierogi for Christmas.

No matter what you were doing together, she made you know that she was happy to see you. Without even trying, she reminded you that you were loved.

She had her peculiarities, of course, and that was part of the charm of being Grams. Her apartment was filled with tacky knickknacks from various places she’d visited. She wore wigs over her thinning hair and would keep them arranged on Styrofoam heads. She kept a votive candle burning on her bedroom dresser in front of a small likeness of Jesus. The candle rested on a tray with an image from John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

I miss those things.

Love offers but never insists

Grams died in her apartment from a heart attack years ago. As I was driving home from her funeral, I thought about how incredibly blessed I’ve been to have her in my life. And in the years since, there have been lots of little reminders that she’s still there.

Grams occasionally shows up in dreams – mine and other family members’ — with some guidance. For instance, my sister was taking a nap one afternoon because she’d been up all night with sick kids, and Grams showed up in the dream and told her to go pay attention to our mom. My sister knew not to discount a dream with Grams, so she called my brother and they got to my mom’s apartment just as she was having a stroke. It saved her life.

Pretty freaky, huh?

I’ve share that story with many people, and they’re shared their own stories about dearly departed friends and family showing up in dreams and in other ways, reminding us that they’re still dear but not so departed. We don’t understand how it all works, exactly, but we know there’s something there, something beyond our comprehension.

And none of it is really surprising. After all, persistent love would never let a little thing like death get in the way.

I’m right here …

Umbrella

There’s no good day for a funeral, but this one was especially bad. An hours-long downpour had swamped the streets. I wondered how many people would be able to get to the church for Emily’s family.

Her father had died suddenly – one of those moments that suck the life out of you and turn your world upside-down. Her family needed support. And now, rain was coming down in buckets, resulting in road closings.

I arrived at the church and was heartened to see a full parking lot. People scurried inside with umbrellas as shields, determined to comfort Emily and her family.

I’m right here for you, they wanted to say. And nothing was going to stop them.

Inside the church was a long line of people waiting give their love to the family. A friend from my church was with me.

When we reached Emily, I hugged her, held her tightly for a few seconds, and reminded her that we’re all here for her and will help her get through it. She said thanks and blinked back a tear.

My friend then hugged her, held her tightly for a few seconds, and said something humorous. Emily laughed out loud – which was exactly what she needed in that emotional moment.

She got the message: I’m right here for you, in the hug and the reassurance and yes, also in the laugh that you need to get through it. I’m right here.

Where have we heard this before?

I’m right here

The heart of Jesus’ message is that God is always right here, working through us, with us and in us to bring love, compassion and healing into the world.

God isn’t the old, white guy with grim face who lives somewhere in the sky and must be begged for what we need. No. Instead, God is right here, living in us, with us and through us. And when we lose sight of God, that’s where we need to look.

Seek, and you will find. But you have to look in the right place.

Often, I lose sight. My most-asked question for God is: Where are you? I have trouble recognizing God in situations.

While my pot of coffee is brewing in the morning, I get on my news apps and catch up on the world’s happenings. Often, there’s so much craziness that I say to God: Where are you in all of this?

It’s easy to lose the sense of God’s presence during the ordinariness of each day: the avalanche of emails, the challenges of dealing with different personalities, the setbacks and the time wasted getting simple things accomplished.

Where are you in all of that?

Then there are the big moments. Someone dies. A job ends. A child struggles. A medical test comes back positive. A parent seems to be slipping away. A relationship is ruptured.

Where are you?

Through us, with us, in us

It’s comforting to me that Jesus – this person who deeply experienced God’s presence — felt the same way. There’s the passage in two of the gospels where he’s dying and says to God: I feel like you’ve abandoned me. Where are you right now?

And at that moment, there are people who have risked their lives to be with him until the end. He gets his answer in their love and their courage.

I’m right here with you. You are never alone.

When we lose sight of God’s presence, it’s good to remember where to look. We find God right here in the people who parent us, who mentor us, who love us, who nurture us, who challenge us.

Sure, those people do all those things imperfectly, but that’s OK. Imperfection never diminishes the divine presence. The answer is still the same.

I’m right here, giving you what you need. Always.

I’m right here in the warm hand that holds yours when you feel alone, in the arms that enfold you when you need a hug, in the voice that reminds you of your purpose and your calling when you feel confused.

Always

I’m right here in the people trying to make peace amid all the conflict, in the people trying to heal all the hurt, in the people serving the least while those with the most try to get more.

I’m right here in those who treat everyone as an equally beloved and beautiful child of God, reminding them of their infinite worth.

I’m right here. Always.

When we recognize God that way, we see ourselves differently, too. We understand that every encounter is a chance for us to bring God’s loving, compassionate, and healing presence into the world a little more fully.

When someone feels they’ve lost sight of God, they encounter us and come away saying: Oh, there you are!

Standing up to our friends

potter-friends

I’m fascinated by what’s happening in one of our major political parties. So many lifelong members are breaking with the party and saying they can’t support its candidate.

What intrigues me is this: Why did they wait so long to speak out? If they’d spoken up during the primaries, perhaps they could have changed the outcome and wound up with a different nominee.

So, what held them back? Why wait until it was too late to make a difference? Perhaps it’s because they’ve been raised to believe that good party members don’t challenge their own party.

There’s something here for all of us to consider, regardless of how we vote or worship or work or raise families.

We all know from experience how speaking up and taking an unpopular stance with our inner circles – our friends, our family, our political party, our business, our religion, our country – is extremely unnerving and risky. Also, extremely necessary.

Challenging our own circles

It’s easy to challenge those who are in another circle – just look at the food fights on social media. There’s no real cost to challenging someone who is in a different circle from us. But it becomes a whole different thing when we do it with those closest to us.

For one thing, we take the risk of getting pushed out of our circle. And that is truly frightening, as it should be. Some people will say we’re sounding like one of them and they’ll start treating us that way. We could lose friends, affiliations and part of our identity.

Ouch!

It’s so much easier just to keep our concerns private and go with the crowd, even when we’re convinced it’s heading off a cliff in some ways. And maybe that’s part of why the world goes off its axis so often. We don’t have enough people courageous enough to try to bring about change from within.

In one of my favorite “Harry Potter” scenes, Neville Longbottom challenges Harry and Ron and Hermione to stop sneaking out of the castle and getting Gryffindor in trouble. At the end of the episode, Professor Dumbledore awards Gryffindor extra points – and the house cup – because of Neville’s actions.

“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies,” Dumbledore says, “but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.”

It takes great courage

Amen, right? My courage has failed me many, many times when it comes to challenging friends. And yet, I’ve come to appreciate how vital it is.

Every human undertaking gets off track regularly, simply because humans are involved and it’s part of our nature to get sidetracked. And it takes courageous people from within the circle to get things back on track by speaking up.

That’s what keeps us healthy in our relationships, our families, our endeavors.

A recent example is the pedophile scandal in the Catholic church. One of the most shocking things to me was how many members of the clergy at all levels knew what was going on but didn’t speak up and stop it.

Why didn’t these good people stand up? Because other church leaders would have been upset with them and punished them. And because they’d been told that “good” church members don’t challenge their church leaders in any way. They just zip their lips and obey.

Told to pipe down and go along

I’m not picking on Catholics here. There are scandals in all human endeavors, and there’s always people who knew there was something wrong but heeded the warnings to pipe down and go along.

We need people on the inside who have the courage to challenge us, regardless of the consequences. Some people will consider them traitors. Or whistleblowers. Or prophets. And as the saying goes, a prophet is honored everywhere except in their own town and among their own family.

Is it any wonder why we’re all more inclined to nod and go along than raise our hands and ask pointed questions? It involves great risk.

And we haven’t even gotten to the really risky part.

Opening ourselves to challenges, too

If we raise questions about what’s going on in our circle, we also open ourselves to questions about what’s going on inside each of us. And that’s healthy and holy and good.

We’re forced us to think about what we really value, what’s really important, and whether we are committed to our values enough to stand up for them, even within our own circles.

We encourage others to challenge us, too. We start a conversation that could change everything, including us.

And that takes great courage.

The many firsts and daily I-dos

balloons

A couple in our church hosted an anniversary party at their home last month. Everybody brought food and drink to celebrate relationships and give couples a chance to renew their vows if they wished.

It’s a tricky thing.

These kinds of gatherings can leave single and divorced people with mixed feelings. How do you balance both? I had to try to find a way because I was giving the reflection about love.

Eventually it occurred to me: Love is never limited to a couple. It never grows in a vacuum. It involves all of the people in our lives who love us and help us grow. Love is always a group project.

And so we went with it.

We talked about the little, everyday moments that build upon each other and form our relationships. If you’re a couple, you certainly know those moments. You’ve had so many of them.

For instance, the first time you met. Did you look at the other person and think, “Hmm, who is this person?” Or did you barely notice them?

Do you remember your first date? Were you nervous? Was it wonderful? A disaster? A little of both?

How about the first time that you held hands, how they just felt like they were a perfect fit.

The first time you stayed up deep into the night talking without realizing it was so late. You just had so much to say to each other.

How about the first time you snuggled in each other’s arms and thought: There’s no place I’d rather be than right here, right now, with this person.

Or the first time you thought: This person is really remarkable. And more than a little weird, too.

The first time you had an argument over something ridiculously silly and it went on for, oh, two days because neither one of you wanted to lose the silly argument.

Do you remember the first time you thought that this relationship isn’t going to work out because you are so different in some ways. And then the first time you realized that this relationship is actually the answer to so many prayers.

How about the first time that you realized that you wanted this person to be a part of your life going forward, and that feeling scared you because you’d never felt that way before.

What about the first time you said: I do.

I’m not taking about the wedding I-dos. I’m talking about the daily I-dos, the ones you’ve been saying to each other right from the start:

You seem like an interesting person. Do you want to get some coffee sometime? I do.

That coffee thing went well. Do you think you’d like to go on an actual date? I do.

Do you want to see that new movie that just came out? I do. (Even though I hate those kinds of movies.)

I’ve had a horrible day. Do you think you could make some time for me tonight? Of course I do.

I’ve had a wonderful day. Do you want to celebrate with me? Absolutely, I do.

Do you realize that when I’m with you, I like the person that I am? That you bring out the best in me? Yeah, I do. And you do the same for me.

Do you realize that annoying little habit of yours really drives me up the wall? Yes, I do. But do you also realize that I’m working hard to try to do it less?

Do you know that I love you? I do. And I love you back.

Do you want to keep doing this remarkable thing we have together for as long as we can? I do.

And then come the vows, which get renewed every day in many ways. You say “I do” to cherishing this person. You appreciate the joy and laughter they bring into your day, as well as the challenges and struggles. You try to love each other as deeply as you can, in as many ways as you can, for as long as you can. You look forward to the many “firsts” yet to come. And you are thankful that so many people want to be part of that adventure with you, every step of the way.

And those many other people in your life say “I do” to you, too. It’s a group project.

After we did the the I dos at the party, we thanked the Creator of life and love for the many people who help us become better lovers – lovers of each other and lovers of life. We asked for the grace and the courage to continue saying “I do” to each other.

And then we went outside and released 36 helium-filled balloons into the gray sky, adding a little color and love to the world. We did it all together.

Whose crayons are they?

crayons

I was sitting in a restaurant booth waiting for my food to arrive. A couple and their two small boys were seated across from me. The boys were about 5 and 3, I’d guess. The restaurant provides a bowl of crayons and drawings to occupy children until their food arrives. My attention was drawn to how the two boys went about coloring so differently.

The younger boy took a crayon from the bowl, used it, put it back, and swapped it out for a different color. By contrast, the older boy would use a crayon and lay it beside him on the table, keeping it handy for when he’d need it again. Then he would take another crayon, use it, put it beside him.

Soon the older brother had a big stash of crayons next to him and few were left in the bowl. The younger brother noticed and complained, “Hey, I need those!” The older brother put his arm around his stash protectively and said, “These are MY crayons!”

If you’re a parent, you’ve lived through this many times and you know what happens next. The mother intervened and told the older son: “Put those crayons back in the bowl! Those are not YOUR crayons. They were given to you to share.”

Yep. We have to share.

Sharing is challenging for all of us, isn’t it? We tend to build our stash and think it’s all ours. In the process, we lose sight of what underlies our life and our faith: Everything that we have and all that we are is given to us by God in order to share.

Instead, we worry about not having enough and build and defend our stashes. The truth is, we have so much! More than we need. We’re reminded when we have to move and we go through our closets and basements and marvel at how much we have. We wonder why we’ve held onto it when we could have shared with someone in need.

Or we’re walking down the street, worrying about how we’ll pay the bills, and we see a homeless person asking for help. We’re reminded: I have SO MUCH and this person has nothing. So what do we do? Stop, offer some money, a few kind words, a handshake.

We need to share.

Sharing doesn’t apply only to our stuff. In a sense, there’s something even more important to share – ourselves. Each of us has God’s DNA woven into us: The ability to love, to be kind, to heal, to laugh, to encourage, to forgive, to create. Each of us has a unique set of talents and abilities and life experiences. We have SO MUCH good stuff inside each of us, and we need to share it.

I think our challenge on this one might be in recognizing just how much we are and how much people need us. We can make a difference – in ways big and small – in so many lives.

And then there’s our time. We need to share that, too. Time is our fundamental gift, in a sense. The universe has been bumping along for a very long time without you or me being part of it. And it’s done quite well without us. You and me, we didn’t have to be part of human history. Ever. But at this point in time, God decided that creation was incomplete without us. We were given time. What do we do with it? How do we share it?

Understand, none of this is meant to cause anyone guilt. That’s not God’s way. Instead of being shamed, we’re offered an opportunity to love and to be loved. We’ve all had moments when we’ve shared – our money, our self, our time – and recognized how deeply it touched someone. In those moments, we feel good because we’ve had an experience of God, who is love.

Those moments remind us of who God is: An overly generous parent who gives us more and more of all this amazing stuff around us and inside of us each day.

Those moments also remind us of who we are, too: God’s equally beloved children, sitting side-by-side at God’s table, sharing an overflowing cup of God’s crayons.