Surrounded by Post-Its with lists of things to do, the sun shines and I am significantly happier than when the clouds were out. Tomorrow I will be heading to Salt Lake City to spend my spring break with my former youth pastor and his wife and their children. I stare at my planner and get excited as I wrote “Salt Lake City, Utah!” in all caps across Saturday and Sunday.
I was sitting at the gate in Minneapolis talking to my former youth pastor on the phone about everything that is going on at his new church. (He accepted a senior pastor position last July.) He told me what he has been preaching and the exciting things that God is doing within the lives of his congregation. He asked me if I would preach in his church while I was there. I never turn down an opportunity to preach, so I said yes.
I received this text from him two days ago: “I don’t know what you are thinking, but the more I think and pray about it, I like the idea of the ‘forgiveness’ sermon. Just throwing my two cents. It is all you.”
That’s good. I like that sermon. I preached it for my Introduction to Preaching class. (Maybe it’s cheating because I’m not writing a new sermon. Shh… don’t tell. I know it’s cheating.) But here’s the thing: I really love that sermon, but in that sermon, I share part of the story about how I forgave my father. That’s not really that surprising, because I share that a lot. I mean, I even made sure to remember the date of that particular phone call because I know Nazarenes like dates.
That brings me to something that happened this past weekend. During the funeral, the usher was ushering all of the family into the pews (go figure that an usher was ushering, right?). I was walking behind my mother and brother, right next to my father. The usher stopped after my mother and pointed toward the next pew, directing us to sit in a different pew than my mother and brother. So I sat throughout the funeral sitting next to my father.
I guess if you don’t really know me, you probably don’t know that I do not have the best relationship with my father. Actually, who are we kidding? We don’t really have any relationship with my father. Unless, of course, you consider only talking about the weather and what goes wrong with my car as a relationship, which I don’t. I was sitting next to him during the funeral, and I didn’t want him there. Afterward, he was still at my house, just standing in doorways (he won’t sit on our furniture), and I didn’t know why he was still there. I mean, I’m sure that he was sad that Grandma died. For as many times as I feel like he is heartless, I do think physically he still has a heart.
I texted complaints to my roommate about how I wished my father would just leave. She responded, “Don’t be rude. Maybe that’s his way of showing that he cares.” I told her that he doesn’t care. And if he cares, then he has a funny way of showing it. Because in my mind, he will always be the one who left. Every time he comes and doesn’t sit down, and he just stands in the doorway, I think about how he missed seeing me grow up. For almost five years when I was growing up, I never saw him. I was forming who I was, I was going through awkward stages where one side of my hair was noticeably longer than the other side (as document in that year’s school picture), and I was dating boys and learning to drive. All without my father there to see. And she punched me in the gut when she responded, “You are going to have to forgive him eventually, so stop saying that you forgave him when you haven’t.”
I preach it all the time—the message of forgiveness. I believe strongly in forgiveness. Gandhi said that “forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” I don’t have much strength, but I wear the strength I had when I called my father to forgive him like a pin. I proudly declare it over and over again, as the example of the prime time because I followed what God was calling me to do.
But what if I haven’t forgiven him?
Now, I do believe I forgave him in that conversation I had years ago. The conversation where I said, “I forgive you.” And then he said thank you and asked about the weather. I believe I forgave him, but when you forgive, you don’t really ever forget.
Each time I see him, it is like someone is taking a razor blade and slicing across my arm, reminding me that I was left, abandoned, unwanted by my father. I feel anger boil under my skin. It boils and boils until I break down.
You see, with forgiveness, we don’t forget. We pick up the hurt over and over.
I’ve never read The Shack, but I found this quote and I find that it is true:
“Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person’s throat.”
He goes on to say:
“Forgiveness does not create a relationship. Unless people speak the truth about what they have done and change their mind and behavior, a relationship of trust is not possible. When you forgive someone you certainly release them from judgment, but without true change, no real relationship can be established. […] Forgiveness in no way requires that you trust the one you forgive. But should they finally confess and repent, you will discover a miracle in your own heart that allows you to reach out and begin to build between you a bridge of reconciliation. […] Forgiveness does not excuse anything.
I remember standing in a classroom during a summer class I took in Europe. We were assigned to read the book by Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower. There is a point in the book where Simon is asked for forgiveness from a dying man, a criminal who had committed horrible crimes against the Jews. During our class session, we were asked to stand up. We were asked to stand in relation to how confident we thought we would forgive him—one wall symbolizing absolute, unquestionable forgiveness and the other wall symbolizing that there would be no way we would ever forgive that man.
I remember where I stood. I stood pretty close to the wall of forgiveness, not the closest out of the group, but there was definitely a clear distance between those who would not have forgiven him and me. We then all had to defend our answers. I obviously don’t remember my exact words, but I said something like, “I would forgive him. Maybe I would not be able to forgive him in my heart right there, but I would voice the forgiveness because I believe simply speaking the words ‘I forgive you’ could serve as a means of grace in that moment.”
So, what if I haven’t forgiven my father? I still get angry, which would point to unforgiveness in my heart.
“You may have to declare your forgiveness a hundred times the first day and the second day, but the third day will be less and each day after, until one day you will realize that you have forgiven completely. And then one day you will pray for his wholeness.” –The Shack
Peter asks Jesus in Matthew, chapter eighteen, “Lord, how many times do I need to forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Seven times?”
Jesus said, “Seventy-seven times.” Some translations say that it is seventy times seven times. Whatever the number, the point was that you should forgive so many times you can’t really keep count.
When anger burrows into your heart, building a camp and nesting inside, breathe out forgiveness. Maybe it does not push out the anger, not all at once anyway. But slowly, as you breathe out forgiveness, you breathe in grace. Then you forgive so much you can’t really keep count because forgiveness is a poison and it’s only hurting yourself. Forgive so you may not be weighed down by anger and bitterness, so you may fly. Forgive and forgive again.
I do not have it all together or all figured out, but I’m praying Lord, give me a forgiving spirit because my spirit has a bent toward bitterness.