Forgiveness: It’s Complicated. It’s a Process. It’s Okay.

What does the word “forgiveness” mean to you?

A burden? Something we are obliged (but never really want) to do? Letting someone off the hook? Pushing down hurt and anger? Dealing with lingering guilt? Figuring out how to move on in a relationship?

Or, the lightening of a load? Freedom? New peace of mind? Gratitude? Joy?

Let’s just say, it’s complicated for most of us. And this is very very human. It’s not something we as Christians need to beat ourselves up about, thinking that because forgiveness is truly a process, we’re somehow failing if it takes on-going effort or attention in our lives. How we experience forgiveness matters for evangelization, because forgiveness isn’t truly good news if it’s a burdensome obligation or something that doesn’t actually bring us new freedom, peace, and joy! Forgiveness matters when we experience bitterness or suffering in ministry, because without giving ourselves permission to have a process of forgiveness, we can feel as if we’re failing to truly follow our Lord Jesus, who gave the ultimate forgiving act and words from a cross of crucifixion.

Starting Point: The Lord’s Prayer

Jesus’ exemplary words of prayer, often translated as, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” can sound conditional, as if our work of forgiveness is the cause of God’s mercy for us (Matthew 6:12). But, this reading is incorrect and misses true power of divine love. As Pope Benedict XVI explains, “the Lord is telling us that guilt can be overcome only by forgiveness, not by retaliation…but forgiveness can only penetrate and become effective in one how is himself forgiving” (Jesus of Nazareth Book 1, 157). “Whatever we have to forgive one another is trivial in comparison with the goodness of God, who forgives us” (158). We as humans cannot limit God’s forgiveness, but we can cut ourselves off from it, refusing to let God in and forgive us.

What to do when we struggle with forgiveness?

First, know that the struggle is okay. It’s often part of the process. The place to begin is not with our own difficulties, but putting ourselves in the position of being known and loved fully by God. Seeing ourselves, broken and torn up as we are, as God sees us. We will never have the power to forgive a wrong done to us, if we do not first allow our own debts, our own guilt to be forgiven by our Lord who is Love. After we have allowed ourselves to be bathed in God’s love, then we can ask God for more of the supernatural grace we need to be able to forgive someone else.

 

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Image: “.sarahwynne.” CC BY-NC-2.0

 

Next, be affirmed that “forgiveness must be more than a matter of ignoring, of merely trying to forget” (158). Work through pain, hurt, and loss of trust. Honestly acknowledge to yourself the people and actions that have caused sadness or grief. Seek healing.

Then, comes the point of surrender–letting go of any desires to retaliate, to get even, to be proven “right.” We can decide to feel differently about a situation, even if it’s not yet our gut instinct to do so. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “when you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” We can decide to behave as if we feel positively (or at least non-retaliatory!) toward a person, even if we’re not fully there yet. This is a time for growing closer to Jesus, asking for more and more of his grace and gifts of the Holy Spirit to make this healing and transformation possible, to renew our inner selves and help us in living out, with resolve, our decision to see a person who wronged us, who was “enemy,” as one who is loved by God and us.

In doing this, we can know that we’ve done as God desires for us. We’ve forgiven. Even if the process of healing is on-going, forgiveness has happened. Even if the consequences of an evil act are still apparent, we’ve forgiven. God continues to be with each of us, even as we struggle day-to-day or are “ambushed” by evil spirits wanting to remind us of past guilt, to stir up feelings of anger or aggression.

This is forgiveness. It’s complicated. As humans, we’re powerless to fully forgive another, on our own. But, with supernatural help from God, we can forgive and know that we’ve forgiven another–even as we work through the process of healing. To be still in the process, doesn’t mean we’ve failed to forgive. It means we’re human. But when we open ourselves up to God’s grace, mercy, and love–anything is possible with God and in God’s time.

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Scarcity in Ministry

Does scarcity impact your planning and leadership in ministry?

As Brene Brown explains:

“Scarcity is the ‘never enough’ problem. The word scarce is from the Old Norman French scars, meaning ‘restricted in quantity’ (c. 1300). Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyper aware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking…Nostalgia is also a dangerous form of comparison” (26).

Scarcity in ministry might look like:

  • Ignoring a mission Jesus shares with the Church (i.e. “go and make disciples”), or not engaging in it wholeheartedly, out of fear that “we won’t have enough” for our other ministries
  • Allowing key staff and volunteer ministry leaders to become worn down due to time-demands or structures (i.e. aversion to flex-work schedules, etc.) that create a busyness and stress surrounding time
  • Not dreaming a true vision because “we don’t have enough interested people”
  • Becoming stagnant or inward focused, thinking “we can’t do what we used to do–be meaningful in people’s lives, relevant to the community, etc., because of today’s ‘problems’”

scarcitychapimage-1640Brown continues, “We get scarcity because we live it” (25).

This can and should convict us.

How do we contribute to a “hyper awareness” of lack?

An awareness that allows a “lack” in time, resources, or abilities to become a paralyzing excuse. Our attitudes certainly matter. During his earthly ministry, how often did Jesus operate out of scarcity–a “never enough” mentality? Not too often. And when the Twelve succumbed to the temptation (which happens to us all at times!) Jesus pulled them back. When the twelve disciples said, “dismiss them [the five thousand] so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat,” Jesus Led them away from scarcity to utter confidence and boldness in God’s power acting in their very moment, saying, “Give them some food yourselves” (Mk 6:36-37).

How do we avoid living scarcity?

A compelling clue comes at the very end of Acts of the Apostles. We see the words “boldly” (parresias) and “unhindered.” These are the Evangelist Luke’s final concluding words to us. Recall, this is the same Luke who in his Gospel, filled his early chapters with encouragements to not fear (i.e. Lk 1:75, 2:10). The boldness of the early believers demonstrated throughout the entire book of Acts flows from their trust in and relationship with God. This relationship is alive and possible because of their prayers in the Spirit.

They were led by the Spirit to closer communion with God, and the more I grow in my relationship with Jesus the Lord, the more trusting, confident, and ultimately bold, I will be. And, walking with Jesus, I can see the challenges, see the areas of objective scarcity, but not be “hyper aware,” not be frozen by it, not be dismayed. I can then move from operating out of scarcity, to leading, relating, planning, and ministering with trust and bold confidence in God’s abundance. That God who “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens” desires to share “his own blessed life” with us (Eph 1:3; Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1). This powerful reality should not be hindered by my own temptation of seeing and living scarcity the present.

To See as God Sees

I spent the second half of May in Accra, Ghana as part of United States Africa Command’s United Accord 2017 (and here’s the wrap up press release). Getting to our exercise location each day, I traveled the same route through the densely populated outskirts of Accra, Ghana, via charter bus, taxi, and once in a tro tro. Here’s a reflection I wrote during and after those trips:

There’s a tedium to this daily route, but it’s counter-intuitively captivating at the same time. Through the quiet of my window, I watch. Life is truly visible. So many people, of all ages, going about the business of daily life. Selling foods. Cleaning clothes. Taking children to school. Fixing vehicles.

This splendor of the ordinary brings to mind Fr. Thomas Merton’s recollection in  Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1968):

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people…that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate…now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun….If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.

But we can’t. At least not yet. See, these busy streets of Accra I travel are what the United Nations defines as a slum. Lack of toilets. Water shortages. Make-shift housing. Too many people crammed into small rooms.

Poverty in no way changes a person’s inherent dignity. No lack of resources makes a person any more or less made in God’s image. But poverty does obscure that image of God in the eyes of others. That “shining like the sun,” as Merton described it, that reveals our true origin and destiny can become obscured through our own sinful eyes.

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early morning photo of Nungua Beach

Our sins “give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness” and “pervert” our social climates (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1869, 1896). Our sins create a lens through which we struggle to be in communion with the poor, to experience love and joy together.

For Christians of the first millennium, sin was understood “as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division” (Spe Salvi, 14). Pope Benedict observed, “Babel, the place where languages were confused, the place of separation, is seen to be an expression of what sin fundamentally is. Hence ‘redemption’ appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers” (Spe Salvi, 14).

Begins to take shape. What powerful words! When we see the world as Merton did, redemption begins to take shape. God’s plan “to unite all things in Him” moves forward (CCC 772, cf. Ephesians 1:10).

Yet how can I–a resident of the United States with vastly greater material wealth and quality of life in terms of healthcare, education, security, etc.–be in union with people in the outskirt slums of a city in the developing world? I can’t answer for unjust practices of the past and present. I can’t answer for “social sin” (CCC 1869). And as Pope Benedict reflected, “No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering” (Spe Salvi 42). A unity, an undoing of Babel that was purely spiritual, purely in my mind or heart, simply would not be complete. “God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace” (Spe Salvi 44).

This sense of void or yearning for something more points us toward God. We experience that dissatisfaction human divisions, that yearning for perfect union with all because it’s what we’re made for. Each of us is made in God’s image. Created in the image of perfect love. Living in eternal life with God “presupposes that we escape from the prison of our ‘I’” to freely love (Spe Salvi, 14). To see God “as he is” and to see one another the way God sees each of us (1 John 3:2).

Working On the Wrong Bread

Today’s Gospel reading ends with a convicting line from Jesus: the work of God is believing in His Son (Jn 6:29). If I’m to do the work of God (and I want to in my life, right?) it’s not cleaning the house, writing emails, or organizing files–it’s believing “in the one he sent.”

To understand it more fully, let’s put it in context. This whole series of related events starts when a large crowd is follows Jesus because of the physical healings they’d seen him perform–signs of his true identity. Jesus then asks one of the Twelve disciples, Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” Philip bluntly responds that there’s no way they’d possibly have enough money to buy food for that many people (Jn 6:7).

This provides the occasion for another sign from Jesus. Instead of buying food, Jesus multiplies five loaves and two fish such that over five thousand people were fed.

The next day the crowds catch back up with Jesus and he explains to them, “I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”

They’re thinking too concretely. Too concerned with the earthly details. Seeing the trees but not the forest. Perceiving that being around Jesus is working out okay for them, right now, but not interested in the broader implications. We can develop a similar outlook. It’s not a bad thing to recognize and be fed by the tangible blessings God provides for us. But, if we start to view God as some kind of cosmic-Easter-bunny who sprinkles tasty treats in our life, then we’re missing the fullness of who God is and His plan for all humanity.

See, God doesn’t want us as His consumers. We’re not in some kind of contractual relationship with God where we do good, and God gives us good things–material blessings, health, etc. We don’t seek God merely hoping for more loaves and fishes. Through Jesus, God’s Son, we receive the Holy Spirit and are supernaturally empowered to be co-workers with God, co-heirs, beloved children–members of a Body, in genuine, intimate relationship with God.

This is how belief and work come together. When we believe, we see what Jesus’ signs point to. When we believe, we share in God’s work, rather than laboring on our own. We might be doing the same activity as before–but now our activity is joined to God, we share in Jesus’ priestly, prophetic, and kingly identities in the world, and if we’re open, God’s love overflows through us, through our work.

Today is also the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, reminding us that the Church affirms the dignity and co-creativity we engage in with God through our human labors. Let us pray that all of our work flow more and more from ardent belief in the Son of God, so that we might behold, more and more, the fullness of God’s mission we partake in. As today’s Office of Readings, Feast of St. Joseph the Worker (cf. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, no. 33-34) notes:

“By his labor and abilities man/woman has always striven to improve the quality of his/her life…In the face of this vast enterprise now engaging the whole human race, men/women are asking themselves a series of questions. What is the meaning and value of all this activity? How should these benefits be used? Where are the efforts of individuals and communities finally leading us?..Where men and women, in the course of gaining a livelihood for themselves and their families, offer appropriate service to society, they can be confident that their personal efforts promote the work of the Creator, confer benefit on their fellowmen, and help to realize God’s plan in history.”

Amen.

Belief–>Work.

And when in doubt, the work is to believe, to be attentive to Son’s signs, and let the Holy Spirit take care of the rest!

Christian Unity: Can It Be Anything But Personal?

Closing out this year’s Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, I wanted to share this older reflection of mine from 2011. My gratitude only continues to grow. Let us join with Jesus’ prayer, Ut Unum Sint. 

Growing up in northern New Jersey, I had little contact with the Evangelical culture common in parts of “Bible Belt,” exurban, rural America. Prayer was not commonly uttered in the public sphere, there was no presumption of church attendance, and large, modern “mega-churches” did not dot the landscape. All of these things I would observe later in life, as service in the Army took me to other parts of our nation.

I was raised in the Catholic Church, faithfully attending weekly Mass with my family, preparing for sacraments, and even helping out in small ways as a church musician and altar server. Yet my outward “faith” was rather empty. I had had the initial conversion of baptism, but not the second conversion of heart of which the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks.

Then in high school, a friend invited me to her church ”an independent fundamentalist Baptist church, to be precise. This was an entirely new experience. Read more here…

Coming to Faith: 10 Years Later

As I hurried around the house last night gathering the “essentials” (water bottle, books, and a snack to take the place of an uneaten dinner) for helping our two tots remain content during our parish celebration of the Vigil Mass of the Immaculate Conception, my mind wandered back to this same liturgical celebration ten years prior, when in silent prayer after Mass, I believe in the Church, fully and freely.

This happened at St. Patrick Catholic Church, in Fayetteville, NC, in the “old” church (as I suppose it’s now called, as a building campaign kicked off as I was leaving the area). I was sitting on the left side, probably about 8 rows from the front. The sanctuary had a large baptismal font with circulating water on that left side, and in the quiet after Mass, one could hear the water trickling and bubbling. I’d likely come straight from work in military uniform (and one of the delightful things about living in a military town, is that that is normal–nobody looks at you oddly, makes awkward comments, etc.).

I don’t remember anything about the Mass. Nothing about the music. Nothing about the homily. It’s a total blank.

But, what I do remember so well, is that prayer time afterwards. Through the Holy Spirit, I was able to tell God, confidently and with great peace, I believe it is possible. I don’t know why it needs to be, but I believe it is possible. 

What was this “it”? In the moment, it was the doctrine of Mary existing without original sin. In retrospect, it was a lot more.

I’d been in a period of great spiritual upheaval for the middle two weeks of November. I’d become convicted (through the Holy Spirit, concretely through the question of a friend) that I needed to decide if what the Catholic Church believed was true. I’d had my initial life-changing conversion into relationship with Jesus Christ about eight years prior, and an experience of joyful consolation and expression of the Holy Spirit five years prior. All of that time, across four states, I’d always found a home in two churches–one a Catholic parish, and the other a Baptist congregation. I was Christian, but was I really Catholic? I didn’t know. And it didn’t bother me, until the Holy Spirit came knocking in force those two weeks.

Okay, so what I had done during those two weeks? Well, I did what any very logical, rational person would do if they suddenly needed to figure out if they were Catholic–I went to the nearest Barnes & Noble book store and picked up the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and decided to read it in prayer, with a notebook in hand to record any objections. It turned out to be a page-turner. I couldn’t wait to get through it and “figure out” what I thought. So what happened? My plan failed (so to speak). Part 1 articulated Christian truth so fully, so in accord with what God had already given me the grace of faith to believe for most of my life as a Mass-going Catholic and intentional disciple since the teenage years, that my notebook of objections didn’t seem to hold weight.

But what to do wasn’t obvious. I experienced my own reality of Simon Peter’s reply to Jesus: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68). I knew in my heart there was nowhere else to go, but I couldn’t “go” because I had that list of objections (it wasn’t a long list, but the Immaculate Conception of Mary was on it). God had showed me my destiny, but how that would be a reality for me, spiritually–on the inside, was not clear.

That spontaneous prayer after Mass a few weeks later showed me the how. Through that graceful gift of faith, I could trust in the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit makes the Church. I wasn’t in the least bit rationally convinced that God protecting Mary from original sin needed to happen, but I believed that it was possible. And that it was possible that this should be believed. And that this possibility was certain.

Quoting St. Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal John Newman, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (para. 157) explains it this way:

Faith is certain…To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but “the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.” “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

And this is what I experienced–albeit in a less formally articulated, Romans 8:26-kind of way. 🙂 It was a moment that I’m extremely grateful for.

So, getting back to last night. When we came home from Mass (in case you were wondering how the water bottle and books worked out–they didn’t prevent us from having to take the younger son out crying, numerous times) I was thinking–hmm, maybe I have some notes on the homily from that night ten years ago.

See, my Christian formation had included being immersed in a culture where people hung on God’s Word. And so taking notes during preaching was something I did at Baptist and Catholic churches alike. I still have my notebooks from most of those years, and so I pulled out the one dated “June 11, 2006 to March 25, 2007” and turned to the first week of December. To my disappointment, no notes from Mass on Dec 8th. But, on December 3rd, something very interesting–a Sunday School teaching (from my Baptist pastor) on a passage from Ecclesiastes. Here are some of my verbatim notes:

  • “If we want knowledge to work for us we need to seek it through God.”
  • “Why we know is more important than what we know–God gives us knowledge to know of eternity and serve Him accordingly.”
  • “Nothing that we can ever know will substitute for the power of God in our life.”
  • “What we do with what we know is more important than what we know–we don’t need to know everything about God before we take action on what we do know about God.”

What a discovery! Truly blessed to get a glimpse of how the Holy Spirit was preparing me for the grace and supernatural gift of faith later that week. As the proverbial saying goes, “God writes straight with/through crooked lines” 🙂

Happy Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception! As we pray, I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe in the Church.

 

 

Leaders Cultivate Holy Humor

Today is the feast day of St. Thomas More, commonly known for his refusal to approve Henry VIII of England’s divorce and remarriage (and establishment of the Church of England).

St Thomas More

In Redeeming Administration, Ann Garrido connects his life, witness, and noted humor to the spirituality of administration.  Garrido asserts that for an administrative leader, humor is not merely a coincidental (or random!) personality trait, but cultivated in the process of leading and managing. How so? Well, to put it bluntly, it’s because leading places us in an “increased number of absurd situations” (123). 

I’ve found this to be quite true in my life. As an Army officer, early on in my career I noticed just how much the extreme scope and scale of seemingly-absurd situations created an environment where humor was a part of daily life.

But how should we as ministerial leaders view humor, is it virtuous? A temptation? Something else?

Garrido offers two guideposts for discerning how humor functions in our spirituality of work and administration.

First Cautionary Guidepost: Avoid Humor as a Defense Mechanism

For some ministerial leaders, humor is a defense. A way of avoiding acknowledging other feelings, and/or avoiding addressing situations that should be addressed (125). While we as leaders can be tempted to laugh somethings off as a quick morale-booster, this is a way of avoiding actual leadership. Of failing to “confront the brutal facts“–a necessary step in effectively leading any organization. 

Second Cautionary Guidepost: Avoid Humor as Scapegoating

Sometimes, laughter or joking indicates an “everyone minus one” mentality. A type of scapegoating process, whereby a group [seemingly ] “bonds” over the exclusion or marginalization of one (or a few) members of the organization or team. This can be an enticing temptation, I mean, who doesn’t think “teamwork” is a good thing? But, the reality is that a team with unity flowing from humorous scapegoating can only go so far. Vision. Mission. Clarity. These are the real elements of teamwork–not joking about “the problem” or scapegoating an individual, rather than working towards real solutions and changes. 

Instead, Growing Holy Humor

So, what sense of humor should administrators seek to grow? Jesus used humor, not to attack persons, but to call attention to circumstances or situations that were not being seen or understood correctly (127). Holy humor is “laughing with” rather than “laughing at”–calling attention to, not attacking (127). 

This humor that helps us grow in holiness as leaders resists cynicism. As Garrido explains:

Cynicism is the sign of too narrow a worldview, a constriction of vision that only notes the negative absurdities of life, whereas the most mature, holy administrators that I have known are people who have the capacity to also see and draw attention to the infinite positive absurdities of life. (128) 

Not only is cynicism too narrow, but it resists hope. Even when cloaked in humor, cynicism prevents us from leading with vision in ministry as administrators.

Ultimately, St. Thomas More faced a choice of  “mitigating bad effects or going along”; of “laugh[ing] it off or taking a stand” (133). As we remember him, let our laughter be holy–drawing attention to things that need changing, yet never providing an excuse for inaction or tolerance of what should not be tolerated. 

Note: This post is part of a year long series. To learn more about the saints who illuminate this spirituality of administration, of work–check out this free small group guide from Ave Maria Press. 

Image Credit: Fr. Lawrence Pew, O.P. via Flickr, CC BY NC ND 2.0