Tag Archives: forgiveness

Families and how to survive them

So, as I was saying in yesterday’s post…..

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10: 37 – 39)

Later in this gospel (chapter 12 verses 46 to 50) there’s the story of Jesus’ mother and his brothers wanting to speak to him. When someone tells him they are waiting outside Jesus replies: “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” Pointing to the crowd he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers!”

Some of us never properly grow up. We remain attached to our parents’ apron strings. On the other hand some of us older parents find it difficult to let our adult children go. Often it’s not obvious to us. The attachment lies at a deep level so we are not aware of it.

The question is, what do we expect of family life? Trying to make it carry all our emotional and spiritual needs is asking too much of our parents, our siblings and our children. As always, for Jesus, the primary source of strength and satisfaction is in what he called the Kingdom of God. Entering the kingdom can mean a painful process of breaking or healing those immature emotional bonds. Perhaps that is why Matthew couples Jesus’ words about family relationships with the familiar advice to take up the cross and lose one’s life. Forgiveness is almost always involved. I mean forgiving our parents, our siblings, our adult children for their failings. ‘Forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing’. I certainly mean forgiving ourselves for our own failings in our family network.

My wife and I used to help run weekend conferences for couples. Called Marriage Enrichment (those were the days before unmarried partnerships were common) they weren’t meant to be therapy for troubled relationships. A highlight of each conference was an exercise in which we asked each couple to tell one another ‘the story of my marriage’. Almost always, as we introduced the exercise, people would ask, “Don’t you mean the story of our marriage?” We would explain that each partner was to take turns to tell the other the story of the partnership from their own personal point of view. The rule was that the listening partner was not allowed to interrupt and say, “but that’s not how it happened!”, or “I can’t believe that’s how you see it!”. They were simply to listen. Almost without exception people found this to be an illuminating and often healing experience.

Few writers have expressed the true nature of family relationships better than the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran:

But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. And if they don’t, they never were.

Forgiveness

Matthew’s gospel chapter 9.

Chapter 9 begins with two stories about forgiveness. It’s obvious in the first one about the healing of a paralysed man. Jesus says to him:

“Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”

But what about the story that follows in verse 9 when Jesus calls Matthew to be one of his disciples? What’s this one got to do with forgiveness? Matthew was one of a hated group of people: tax collectors. Two thousand years later their reputation hasn’t improved much has it? Maybe it was some of Matthew’s professional friends who sat down with him and Jesus for dinner (verses 10 to 13). I wonder if Jesus was using some gentle sarcasm when he responded to the Pharisees who criticised him for daring to eat with such pariahs? He says:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’. For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

I don’t think Jesus is saying, ‘I have come only to help those who have problems or are desperate’. Surely he is saying, ‘I have good news for those who want to grow.’

The virtuous are self-satisfied. They do not hunger and thirst for righteousness. Jesus is not interested here in the moral question of tax collecting. He is light years away from the Pharisees’ obsession with ritual and ethical purity. He is focussed on the power of forgiveness but even here he upsets our somewhat mean, narrow understanding of it. For Jesus, forgiveness has almost nothing to do with the past. Forgiveness is all about new life. ‘Today is the first day of the rest of my life’, as the saying goes. When the future looks like a promised land to be taken by storm, forgiveness is at work. And we are talking here about the sense of release that comes when it dawns on us that we are forgiven; all those past failures, including our failure to forgive others who have wronged us. Brother Roger, founder and Prior of the Taize Community in France, wrote:

“In order to live for Christ in the midst of others, one of the greatest risks is forgiveness. Forgiving again and again is what wipes away the past and plunges us in the present moment. To forgive: this is as far as love goes. Human beings are sometimes harsh. God for his part comes to clothe us in compassion. God is never, never at all a tormentor of the human conscience. God buries our past in the heart of Christ and has already taken care of our future. The assurance of forgiveness is the most unheard of, the most unbelievable, the most generous of God’s realities. It makes us free, incomparably free.”

Who needs religion?

Only in chapter 6 does Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount get round to religion. Almsgiving, prayer, fasting: apparently we should do these things secretly –

  • verse 3: “But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
  • verse 6: “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret….”
  • verse 18: “….so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret….”

So why do we make prayer such a public activity? Lots of people find it difficult to get a rhythm of private spiritual practice going. They do most of their praying when they go to a church service. If we look at Luke’s account of Jesus teaching his followers to pray we might think he had to be persuaded to do it. Luke chapter 11 has one of the disciples saying, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples”. Luke seems to suggest that they had watched Jesus at prayer and wanted to know how to do it. If John could teach his disciples, why couldn’t Jesus do the same?

What the sermon on the mount seems to suggest, what Jesus seems to suggest, is that there is something more important than simply going to church. Religious practice, going to church (challenging and uplifting as it often is), may not deal with the junk in our personal cellars (see my last two blog posts). Indeed this junk, often labelled ‘the ego’, gets in the way so much that our religious practice may actually encourage it. Think of Luke’s story of the Pharisee and the tax collector at prayer in the temple (Luke chapter 18 verses 9 – 14). This is why the basic stance of prayer is confession, by which I mean, no deception (of myself or anyone else). Confession is nothing to do with grovelling guilt. It is the simple, honest, acknowledgement that this is me, warts and all, at this moment. No ifs, no buts, just me with all this junk in the cellar.

Now, here’s the miracle, the good news. We discover that this basic stance turns out to be not just confession but confession/forgiveness: a dynamic, perpetual process. Look at verse 14 and compare it with Mark chapter11 verse 25 and John chapter 20 verse 22/3. Clearly, for the Gospel writers, forgiveness is central to whatever we mean by prayer, indeed for the whole Christian way of life. As the American novelist Saul Bellow wrote, “The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required”. Amen to that.

Salt and light

Matthew’s Gospel chapter 5 verses 13-16

How did Jesus read the scriptures (what we Christians now call the Old Testament)? The answer must surely be: with an entirely fresh and startling (not to say revolutionary) insight. There are clues, for example in Luke’s gospel 4: 14-21 when Jesus reads from Isaiah in the synagogue and comments on the passage. Or think of Psalm 37 verse 34: “Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land,” and compare that with, “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”

So what are we to make of, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfil….” (verses 17 – 20). Jesus is inviting us, not into an ever stricter legalistic approach; he’s saying make the shift from your head to your heart, see into the heart of things. In other words, repent, that is enter into an entirely new and revolutionary way of being in the world. When we make this shift, this change of consciousness, we become those who are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.

That’s why those who make this shift are blessed. They (we) become part of a much wider shift in human consciousness, a river you might say, that is sometimes little more than a trickle, sometimes a broad steady flow. It is not confined to any one religious tradition. In my tradition today some call it emergent Christianity.

The collection of pithy sayings we call the Sermon on the Mount explores some practical consequences of this shift in consciousness. Whether or not Jesus actually uttered them in this order as one sermon doesn’t matter. What really matters is to read them as clues to what happens when we discover who we truly are. Of course they often show us how we have forgotten who we truly are; when it comes to anger, for example, or our ‘enemies’. The good news, the gospel, that also emerges in these chapters of Matthew’s Gospel is that failure is always an opportunity, an invitation to return home to that centre and ground of our being. More on the sermon on the mount next time.

Mark’s Gospel – interlude

I am a broken man who happens to be a bishop.

One of those present at a gathering I attended last weekend uttered those startling words. Somehow I knew that the speaker knew this was not the ultimate truth about himself. I was reminded of the  story of the Pharisee and the tax gatherer who went to the Temple to pray (Luke 18:10). One boasts of his spiritual and moral practices. The other sees himself as a sinner in need of forgiveness. Jesus reminds his hearers that it’s the second person who is closer to  God.

Christianity and especially the institutional expression of it we call the church frequently gets a bad press. I suspect this is usually because too many of us too often forget what the bishop remembered last weekend. We are all broken people, just like the rest of humanity. And yet – and yet – as I hinted, the bishop spoke his words with an authenticity that suggested he understood an even deeper truth about himself. The church can also get a bad press when its members never get beyond the knowledge that they need forgiveness. Wallowing in the ‘miserable sinner’ syndrome is missing or misunderstanding the good news that Jesus proclaimed, almost as much as boasting about our spiritual prowess.

Now here’s the thing: there never was a golden past in the history of Christianity, apart, that is, from the life, teaching and death of Jesus of Nazareth himself. It was always, from the beginning a history of broken people. I am not one of those who believes that the Bible is the inspired ‘Word of God’ – in the sense that inspiration somehow overrode the ‘brokenness’ of its authors.

Jesus never wrote anything down – so far as we know. If he did, it didn’t survive. What happened around him was an outburst of spiritual energy that has transformed world history, in ways both good, not so good, and just plain bad. From his life, teaching and death has flowed a river that millions of people are part of now.

Things happened because of the energy of this river of life.  Some of them altered the course of the river’s flow – Paul’s letters, the Gospels and other bits of the New Testament (all written by broken people); the emergence of an ordained ministry, priests, bishops, Popes (more broken people, as the current Pope would, I am sure, acknowledge). Every now and then there’s a major upheaval as the river gets forced into a canyon, becomes turbulent, even falls over a cliff; the split between eastern and western forms of the church, for example and the Reformation. Most of these crises happened because broken people either forgot their brokenness or forgot the deeper truth about themselves.

The waters have been getting pretty choppy again over the last 150 years or so as the Bible is subjected to scholarly criticism and scientists begin to describe a universe that profoundly challenges the way we think about God, the world we inhabit and the people we share it with. Think of gay people, the ordination of women, abortion, contraception, the misuse of our home planet, poverty and plenty.

So when, in my next blog post, I return to Mark’s Gospel, please remember that I start from the assumption that I’m reading something written by a ‘broken’ human being who nevertheless was profoundly inspired by all that Jesus of Nazareth had said and done, especially his message of forgiveness and love. Like the bishop, Mark and his fellow New Testament authors could write with an authenticity springing from a deeper place within them

Mark’s Gospel chapter 2 verses 1 -12. Forgiveness

The colours of the rainbow are beautiful but without sunlight they would not exist. The teaching of Jesus is pure, undivided sunlight but it helps if we pass it through a prism so we can see all its rainbow colours. This is what Gospel writers do. In my first blog post I looked at Mark chapter 1 verse 15 which gives us the themes of time, kingdom and repentance. Now, in this story at the beginning of chapter 2 we get a fourth vibrant colour of Jesus’ teaching – forgiveness. The story appears in all four gospels which is unusual. In John’s version the Scribes object to the healed paralytic carrying his mat on the Sabbath. For the three synoptic Gospel writers it’s Jesus’ claim to forgive sins which upsets the Scribes. Here is Mark’s version (which Matthew and Luke have borrowed) but I’ve shortened it for the sake of brevity in this post.

3. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. 4. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and …they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’  …. 10. ‘But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority of earth to forgive sins’ – he said to the paralytic – 11. ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’

Several of Jesus’ parables shed light on the power and primacy of forgiveness. He had infinite compassion for those who felt they were no good at following in his way. Paul of Tarsus understood the power and necessity of forgiveness. “Wretched man that I am”, he writes in his letter to the Romans, “who will deliver me from this body of death?” His answer follows immediately: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

What inhibits my ability to follow the way of Jesus is the power of my mind to drag me away from the present moment in which the kingdom lies hidden. I am booby trapped with land mines of the past and sometimes consumed with fear about the future. I have experienced the trauma of being a vulnerable infant in a world which is blind to the kingdom. Then there is that primitive, animal part of my brain which still, after millennia of evolution, tries to ask of any unknown situation, ‘Do I fight it? Run away from it? Eat it? Mate with it?’

Beset by all that paralyses me, forgiveness is the dynamic key that sets me free to pick up my mat and follow the path that Jesus has mapped out for humanity. Forgiveness has very little to do with the past, except when guilt, resentment, and pain cripple me now in the present and so blind me to the power and Presence of the kingdom. Most writers on the practice of contemplative prayer urge gentleness as we deal with all that distracts us from the reality of the Presence. To observe without judgement but with gentle awareness all the antics of our minds is to practice forgiveness.

Some people, of course, have been so deeply hurt by the brutality of others that forgiveness does not come easily to them even though lack of it prevents them from moving on. The press often suggests that a public enquiry will bring closure for child abuse victims, for example. Of course public enquires into child abuse are an essential tool but they do not enable the victims to move on into abundant life. Only the practice of forgiveness can do that.

And here’s a startling truth. Forgiveness cannot be practiced without confession. What?! A child abuse victim should ‘confess’?!! Yes, if by ‘confession’ we mean a total, unconditional, non-judgemental acceptance of myself just as I am now in this present moment, with all my pain about the past; all my hope for the outcome of an enquiry into the abuse or the trial and conviction of my abuser. When I adopt this attitude of total acceptance of the way things are for me at this moment, suddenly forgiveness is at work. For deeply hurt people the process will take time and outside help may well be needed but sooner or later the truth will dawn that the dynamic of forgiveness is always, unconditionally available. Then the outcome of any enquiry becomes irrelevant at least for the victim’s spiritual and psychological health and wholeness. They are able to ‘take up their mat and walk in the pure sunlight of the Presence which Jesus called ‘Abba, Father’.

Forgiveness is not a mental activity that I can exercise at will, just by thinking about it. I enter into it when I ‘repent’ and discover that it is part of that total, ongoing experience which Christians have called the Resurrection, the ever present, pure sunlight of the Presence.

Mark’s Gospel, chapter and verse – did you know?

Did you know that the earliest manuscripts of Gospels that we have were written in Greek capital letters with no gaps between words, no punctuation, and no division into chapters and verses? The earliest manuscript is a small fragment of John’s Gospel dating from about 125 CE.

So, the end of chapter one of Mark’s Gospel marks an artificial division that some later editor has imposed. So far as we know Mark didn’t put those divisions in his original manuscript which is lost. (Incidentally, if there’s any reader of this blog out there who knows when  chapter and verse divisions were introduced and by whom I would be glad to hear from you.) The Gospel writers weren’t just stringing together sayings of Jesus and stories about him. They weren’t writing a biography of Jesus of Nazareth. They had a plan, a message they wanted to get across. They were part of that great onward flow of the river ‘Jesus Event’. They were helping to shape what we now call Christianity and the Church. Whatever facts they knew about the history of Jesus of Nazareth, they took and shaped according to the purpose they had in mind. Later editors noticed what the Gospel writers were trying to do and introduced chapter and verse divisions to help readers see what they could see.

So far, I’ve been publishing a post more or less every day but things cannot go on at this pace. I’m retired and I’ve got plenty of time but I’m aware that many readers are much busier than I am, so I’m going to limit myself to two posts a week. Actually it will be slightly more than a week before my next post which will focus on the fourth fundamental part of Jesus’ teaching – forgiveness. I dealt with the other three in my first post.