A heart that shrivels or grows…

thoughts from sunday…

Some years ago now the singer songwriter Peter Katz came to stay with us at the manse in Stonehouse while he was over playing the liquid ship in Glasgow. This is one of his songs.

From one Peter to another…

Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven? Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.

Matthews Gospel (the message)

Many of us are kept prisoner by memory. What we’ve done or has been done to us becomes a kind of permanent captivity. We can’t imagine a life free from constant reference to what once happened. Forgivness sets us free. But who finds it easy to forgive?

Peter thinks he can hold out maybe 7 times. Jesus says there’s no limit on the number of times Peter should forgive.

How do we hear Jesus’ answer? Do we hear: “Whatever is done to you just let it pass – forget it?” Because permitting people to treat us badly and then not holding them to account sounds like an invitation to become a victim.

the memory of forgiveness…

Forgiveness is much more than letting someone off and trying to forget. Forgiveness doesn’t immediately forget what’s happened. What happened matters. Forgiveness wants to name what’s been done because only then can we begin to find a way of moving on. Forgiveness invites us into an honest conversation with God, with ourself, with someone else. A conversation that leads into a way of being free.

The forgiveness Jesus embodies and teaches is a way of being free…

Free from the past as final judgement

Free from memory as constant accusation

Free from the burden of anger, hate, guilt and shame

Forgiveness, as Jesus lives it out, brings freedom.

But this way to freedom is not a cheap, painless or easy road to take. And sometimes we are so wounded that we don’t feel we have the strength to walk the way of forgiveness. Forgiveness as the road to freedom doesn’t come easily for us.

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness

it took me years to understand

that this too was a gift.

Mary Oliver: the uses of sorrow

What do we do with the box full of darkness given to us? If we allow forgiveness to happen, however slowly, we grow into something more than the darkness has allowed.

When we forgive, an incredible power for new possibility is released. That possibility doesn’t forget the box of darkness, less excuse it, but finds a way of being free – no longer confined and defined by the darkness I becomes more than the box allowed. My life is no longer a victim of it’s power.

Mercy- who needs it anyway?

Jesus follows Peter’s question with the parable of the unmerciful servant. He tells his disciples about a hard human heart that wanted release from it’s own debt but refused to release the indebtedness of another.

It doesn’t turn out well for the hardend heart. It’s a story full of massive exaggeration about the debts involved (in the untranslated Greek) and the punishment meeted out. At the end of the story Jesus says:

“…that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.”

Matthew 18: the message

It might be hard to forgive someone who asks but not forgiving has a cost to our humanity. It imprisons and tortures us. It shrinks our heart.

Mercy intuitively knows the complexity and contradiction in the world finds a similar complexity and contradiction in us, mercy knows its own complicity. My life needs mercy too. And doesn’t that widen my heart just enough to offer that to you.

a community of forgiveness

It was in Ireland, at Corrymeela, I began to better understand. I was at a conference given by the theologian James Alison. The Corrymela centre is Nothern Ireland’s oldest peace and reconcilliation organisation. It’s history stretches back before “the troubles.” and they describe their community as:

teachers, writers, people looking for work, retired people; we are young, middle–aged and old; we are people of doctrine and people of question. We are people who seek to engage with the differences of our world.

We are people who disagree with each other on matters of religion, politics and economics. We are people who wish to name our own complicity in the fractures that damage our societies. We are people of dedication and commitment.

We are people of prayers, conversation, curiosity and questioning. We are people of truth telling and hope. We are Corrymeela. And you are always welcome. 

Corrymela community: who we are

That’s soil out of which genuine forgiveness can grow.

It was here in the course of a group conversation I began to better understand how as I receive forgiveness from God, and offer forgiveness to another, the power of God’s forgiveness comes to and through me: Blessed are the merciful, they will be shown mercy…

the nature of forgiveness…

I receive forgiveness from God as I give it away -that’s not a clause in a contract: “If you don’t forgive then God will refuse to forgive you.” I think it’s more like this. We will struggle to hold forgiveness for ourselves if we refuse to give it away to someone who asks for it.

Forgiveness gives the freedom of God a place to stand in the world. As we receive mercy we become a source of mercy for others. It’s not a transaction. It’s just the nature of how forgiveness works. In the same way if I throw a ball up the nature of gravity will always draw it down. That’s how it works.

Jesus is not saying, “if you don’t forgive then I’m going to withhold forgiveness from you.” That’s not how forgiveness works. Isn’t it more as I am forgiven by God, that forgiveness comes to me and through me wants to reach out.

forgive us our debts…

So where are you with this forgiveness thing? Have you ever given someone the slow torture of accepting their apology? I’ll forgive you but I’ll make sure with every gesture, silence, we don’t forget what you did and that I am forgiving you.

That’s not releasing someone that’s making them indebted. Forgiveness is a release from debt: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

Forgiveness helps us be honest with one another in a way that opens up a future that the past closed off. It’s not easy. It’s not pain free. But it is life giving.

No one can force you to forgive or has the right to even try: ” Your a follower of Jesus so you better forgive...” Forgiveness won’t come by way of that kind of moral blackmail.

How are you doing with this forgiveness thing – I don’t find it easy. But neither is it easy to live with the torture of a heart indebted to anger, hate, guilt and shame.

the flower of mercy…

Somedays it’s all we can do just to be willing to forgive, willing to move in the direction of forgiveness and to say have mercy on me because I’m struggling to forgive, because the person who hurt me doesn’t care or isn’t around. To say to someone I’m willing but I can do it yet.

Sometimes forgiveness is a flower that slowly opens and needs plenty of time and space and nurture, before it gradually opens up it’s beauty to the light. You can’t force it’s petals open.

learning to forgive…

The beatitudes say that in the company of Jesus we will find people learning the power of forgiveness. Learning how to practice it with one another. Making space in their heart for mercy to grow. Learning is not an insignificant word here.

Church gives us plenty of opportunity to practice forgiveness and find ourselves on the road to freedom. Church is committed to practicing forgiveness. We have received mercy and that mercy works on us and through us. We become a place where God’s forgiveness finds room in the world.

it is no secret…

Jesus says one day what was kept secret will be shouted from the roof tops.

One day the whole human story will be told and known for what it is: where the hurted get to say what was done to them and what that meant; where the hurters are shown what they did and what it cost someone.

And then we shall all fall silent as we are shown how God reconciles the debt between hurted and hurter and himself…Jesus body hung on cross. The price and gift of God’s forgiveness cancelling our debt -the debt of hurted and hurter. And who is not at one and the same time both of these.

Blessed are the merciful

For they shall be shown mercy

And they shall show the mercy of God who died that we might be free.

There’s always more to be said. So these words are no more than pointing in the direction.

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