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 Forgiveness has been replaced by pardon, and legality rules instead of love.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

Trying to make hate look pretty

love-hate

I was reading a story about the rise of hate groups, and a quote jumped out at me. The Columbus Dispatch interviewed the leader of a Ku Klux Klan organization about its plans to expand.

Near the end of the story, Amanda Lee defended her group’s actions as something other than hate.

“We don’t hate anybody,” she says in the story. “God says you can’t get into heaven with hate in your heart.”

Wait, what?

How can a group that reveres its history of lynching, bombing and terror contend that it’s not driven by hate? How can anyone think that there’s no hate involved in demeaning and hurting people who are different from you?

If that’s not hate, then what is?

Wait, what?

We’ve heard a lot of similar lines in the last few years from people trying to redefine hate into something more acceptable:

“I don’t hate black people. I just think they’re not as good as white people. And they should stop complaining about how they’re being treated. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate gay and transgender people. I just think they’re horrible sinners – unlike me – and I should be free to discriminate against them in any way I wish. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate Muslims. I just think they’re all dangerous and they should be prevented from practicing their religion in my country. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate women. I just think they should be submissive and accept that they’re not equal to men. And they should be quiet when someone says it’s OK to grab them by the crotch. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate refugees. I just don’t trust any of them – not even the starving babies – and I don’t want them near me. They make me uncomfortable. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate poor people. I just wish they’d get off the street corners so I wouldn’t have to see them. I think they’re all lazy and undeserving of help. But that’s not hate.”

There are many variations on the “I don’t hate (fill in the blank) people” theme. I suppose much of it involves people trying to justify their prejudices rather than confront them. Or maybe they’re trying to dress up their ugly ideas so they can gain a following.

Fill in the blank

But I also get a sense that some people who make these statements might actually believe what they’re saying. They think that because they don’t feel all angry and hateful and vicious toward others, then it’s not really hate that’s involved.

We need to talk about this.

Love and hate aren’t about emotions. They’re about attitudes and our actions. Love and hate aren’t about how we feel toward someone, but about how we treat them – what we do or don’t do to them.

To love someone means to treat them as we would want to be treated, regardless of how we feel. When we’re told to love our enemies, it doesn’t mean we feel warm-and-fuzzy about them; it means we respect their inherent human dignity.

Love recognizes that everyone is an equally beloved child of God and must be treated as such by our words and actions. Love values everyone’s dignity and worth as equal to my own.

By contrast, hate rejects another person’s equal value and worth. It sees those who are different from me as less than me in some ways. It creates the conditions for people to be abused and mistreated.

Hate is about attitudes and actions, not emotions.

Choose love instead

One of the most jarring parts of Viktor Frankl’s description of his time in a Nazi extermination camp was how people did such savage things with so little emotion. Hate becomes truly dangerous when human empathy is stripped away.

Let’s also remember that hate has an evil twin – indifference. Hate is given approval to do horrific things when people shrug and say, “Not my problem.”

And let’s not forget that hate and love exist within each of us. That’s what it means to be human. Spirituality involves an ongoing examination of our attitudes and actions to see whether they convey love, hate or indifference, and then choosing to do the most loving thing as best we can.

We need to challenge those who try to dress up hate and misrepresent it as something other than what it is. To do anything less is to give cover to hate and allow it to clothe us in its robes.

Choose to put on love instead.

Earth dust and star dust

stardust3

Growing up Catholic meant that Ash Wednesday was a big deal in our school and our church. Personally, I never cared for it all that much.

Part of the reason was that Ash Wednesday marked the start of giving up something until Easter. Usually, it was the start of doing without candy or soft drinks or ice cream. I recall that one year, a family on my street decided they would give up television for Lent, which seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.

The ashes never thrilled me, either. The pastor of my immigrant church in Cleveland loved the ashes and would make a HUGE, messy sign of the cross on everyone’s forehead, turning them into a giant hot-cross bun for the rest of the day. Of course, we weren’t allowed to wipe off the ashes until we got home, so the little black flakes ended up on everything.

(By contrast, the younger associate priest in the parish would just leave a thumb-print mark of ashes on the forehead. We tried to gravitate to his line.)

Ashes on everything

What bothered me most about the day, though, was the message. It was so dark and seemed to be about beating up people simply for coming up short – which, of course, is the total opposite of the original message.

The person who started the movement went around telling people that they are blessed and beloved and beautiful and worth more than they can possibly imagine. He spent his life trying to build up those who were getting beat down by their religious and economic and social and political systems.

And he said that his followers must do the same. Forgive, embrace, include, heal and love everyone.

I totally get why so many people are turned off by Ash Wednesday, the way it has devolved over the centuries. We’re all bleeding in some ways, and the last thing we need is someone lecturing us on how we deserve to bleed. Instead, we need someone to take the time to stop, gently bandage our wounds, end the bleeding and start the healing.

That’s what the ashes represent – a reminder that every day is a precious gift and we mustn’t waste it. Day by day, we need to grow in love and shine more brightly.

The ashes also remind us that that we are intimately bound to everything and everyone, and we must live as such. The creation stories teach us so beautifully and poetically that everything — including you and me – is made from the same stuff.

In our diversity, we’re kindred creations. And it’s all very, very good.

The star that you are

One of the many cool revelations of science is that everything in the universe is built with the same divine tool box. Everything and everyone is made from the same set of elements, the same holy ingredients.

We are more than sacred earth dust. We are sacred star dust, too.

And like the stars, we are made to shine, each in our own way and in our own place. We’re meant to provide light for the world, and we can’t hide from our responsibility. We mustn’t build walls between ourselves and others and cower in the shadow of fear, insecurity and certitude.

Mostly, we need to stop listening to the voices telling us that we don’t matter, we’re not important, we don’t measure up, we’re not good enough or worthy of unconditional love.

That’s what we need to give up – paying attention to those voices.

Instead, be the star that you are. In your way, bring love and compassion and healing into the world as best you can. Let every speck of dust remind you of the Source of your light and your brilliance.

Go and shine.

No going back

moving-forward

With all that’s happened in 2016 – especially during the last two months — a lot of people are ready to say good riddance and let’s move on to a new year. One that hopefully won’t be so sad and discouraging.

We’re ready for change.

Well, kind of. Well, not really.

Isn’t it interesting how we have this love-hate relationship with change? We crave change in some aspects of our lives, and we do everything we can to block it in other areas.

None of us is totally comfortable with change, which is kind of surprising in a way, seeing as how it’s one of defining human and divine qualities. Change is deeply within us and all around us, who we are and what we’re about.

Our lives begin when two cells meet, create something new and spark a lifelong process of change. Even now, countless cells in our bodies are dying and being replaced by new ones. At our deepest level, we are constantly changing.

All around us and within us

We grow and develop mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And our lives play out in a world that’s also immersed in nonstop change. Life is born and dies and is born again, seasons come and go, our planet zooms through space without pausing for an instant.

Nothing stands still. Ever.

Each of us is a little vessel of change.

Given how change is woven into our very fiber, you might think that we would be a little bit better at accepting and handling it. We all know people who hate change of any sort, and others who crave change and get quickly bored with repetition. I’m guessing that most of us are somewhere closer to the middle of the continuum.

We like new gadgets and changes that make parts of our lives easier. We also have routines that are designed to create a comfort zone and limit change.

Many people resist change when it comes to how they act and think. That’s a tough one for all of us. Change always starts with open-minded questions: Why am I doing this? Can I do it differently and better? What am I missing? How are others doing it? What can I learn from all of this?

Such questions make us uncomfortable. We’re tempted to keep doing things the same way – our way – and pretend there’s no other way. Our minds become closed doors that keep everything in place and rule out any growth.

No going back

We might even fantasize about going back to sometime in the past – the “good old days” – when people who thought like me enjoyed more prominence and never had their ideas questioned. A time when we weren’t challenged to adapt to all the change that is the nature of life.

Of course, those olden times didn’t really exist the way we imagine them. Change has always been a constant. We really can’t freeze ourselves in time.

And the really sad part is that when we try to stay stuck in the past, we become an acorn that’s never planted. Our hard, impenetrable shell prevents us from becoming what we’re meant to evolve into.

We never grow.

Sadly, much of what passes for religion has become this way – heads in the past, resistant to change, devoid of the growth that is the signature of Life. So many “religious” people have abandoned a core trait of spirituality: Openness to a Creator who makes all things new every day and wants to transform each of us a little bit more each day.

Too bad. They’re missing out on what life and love are all about. But they always have the chance to change, if they wish. That’s the great part of change – it’s always there to be celebrated and lived, even if we’ve wasted a lot of time trying to resist its all-inclusive embrace.

A New Year’s wish

So, in the coming year, may you experience many amazing changes.

May you have some new insights each day. May you grow into someone even more beautiful than you already are. Maybe your thoughts and your attitudes and your spirit be touched and transformed by Love.

May you be planted anew in some ways and sprout from the warm ground and reach up to the beautiful sky. May you be watered by all the change around you. May you bloom for all to see.

May you become wiser, more loving, more at peace.

May you change the world for the better.

Nothing but crackers and ketchup

Meatloaf

You know those days when you’re feeling on top of things? You’ve finally gotten a good night’s sleep. The sun is out. You have lots of energy. The inspiration flows. Life just feels so good.

Yeah, those days are pretty cool. And then there are those many other days, like the one I had last Sunday.

I was leading the discussion at our youth group. I decided to talk about discrimination. I brought a photo of women in babushkas so I could tell how I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood where people were very much alike – dressed alike, ate alike, worshiped alike, danced alike – but were fixated on their differences and pushed each other away in many subtle and overt ways.

I also had pictures of signs that were posted in public places throughout our country’s history. Signs saying that black people aren’t wanted here. Or Irish people. Or Catholics. Or women. Or Muslims. Or gays. Or Jews. Or Mexicans. Or refugees. Or … It’s pretty endless, actually. And eye-opening.

All was well with the lesson plan, until I woke up Sunday morning with horrible allergy symptoms. Headache. No voice. Distracted brain. Watery eyes. Misery in every cell of my body. I just wanted to go back to sleep. Let someone else take the kids.

A writer friend of mine has a way of describing those moments and those days. He says in his Boston accent, “I got nothin’ right now.”

Yep. Nothin’. I know that one. On most days, the needle on my inspiration gauge points decidedly more toward nothin’ than overflowing. And it’s easy to think that because I don’t feel on top of the world, I have nothing to give to the world. I just want to pull back the covers and sleep through it.

Can you relate?

Another friend and I were discussing this by email sometime back. She mentioned that we’re all “just bumbling along on our path, doing the best we can with what we have to work with.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I feel like I’m trying to make a meatloaf out of a few crumbled up crackers, water, and a splash of ketchup. And some days, I feel like I have fresh ground beef and onions and a good loaf pan and everything I need to make a pretty good one. And the trick, it seems, is to live in both times with as much self-acceptance and gratitude as I can and trust no matter what the outcome, it’s all good.”

All good. Even when we’ve got nothing but crackers.

Nadia Bolz-Weber describes how she organized a big event at her church and only 26 people showed up, the smallest crowd of the year. She felt like all of her hard work had amounting to nothin’. She was fuming and feeling sorry for herself. And in her self-absorption, she failed to recognize how many people were helped that day, though not in the ways she anticipated.

She had missed it. She forgot that God makes incredible things out of what we consider nothingness – a universe, a sky full of fireflies, you and me.

“I mean, let’s face it,” she writes, “’nothing’ is God’s favorite material to work with. Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as nothing, insignificant and worthless, and says, ‘Ha! Now that I can do something with.’”

Yep. We’ve all experienced how amazing things often come out of what we consider nothing and nowhere. The problem is that we get so full of ourselves that we miss it. For instance, I assume that because my head is on allergy overload that the kids’ program will be a disaster. Because, you see, it’s all about me.

(Since my voice was so scratchy on Sunday, I let them do most of the talking. And it was way better that way. The conversation started with: Why do you think people push others away? “Fear,” they suggested. Why are we afraid of them? “Because we don’t know them.” How do we stop being afraid? “By getting to know them.” Yes. That. And off they went.)

I forget that I’ve still got a lot to give. Even if it’s one kind word spoken between nasal-drip sniffles. Or a half-formed idea from a foggy mind. Or an imperfect gesture from a good heart.

I slip into the arrogance of assuming that I’m the only one involved in this process. There are always many others who have a hand in the recipe. I get caught up in thinking that I need to do it all, and do it all perfectly, or it won’t amount to anything. I don’t leave room for others to add their unique ingredients.

I make the mistake of thinking that because all I have to offer today is the crackers, it’s not enough. Sometimes crackers is enough. In fact, it might be the only thing missing.