FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES AS…

Sometimes, as I prepare to write, I sit and stare at the blank page and wonder.  Why won’t the words come?  Is this writer’s block?  Or am I refusing to face something myself that I would rather ignore?  I’ve come to the conclusion that the silence is usually occasioned by my obstinacy to listen to the inner voice.  I’ve also concluded that that voice is usually the Spirit trying to get through to me.

So it was today.  I had sat to my task with great enthusiasm.  That is usually how I feel when I write.  I imagine this process as a conversation with friends who are on a similar faith journey to mine.  We’re in this together, after all, on this trek with the Lord.  When the words wouldn’t come, I paused and reflected.  That has worked in the past.  And it did today, too.

I had been reading about a great man whom I have admired and long considered to be a saint – even though he is not a Catholic.  But then I have long thought that there are non-Catholic saints that should be included in our Calendar of Saints.  I hope that isn’t heretical.  Today I had been reading about the recent publications of sermons by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  These many years after his execution in a Nazi prison camp, his sermons remain powerful and applicable to our times. He had been arrested for his participation in an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler.  That was a strange undertaking for a man who had pressed for fighting oppression and violence only with kindness and Christian forgiveness.  The trespass cost him his life and resulted in his martyrdom.

One of Bonhoeffer’s themes has to do with trivializing the Gospel message.  He spoke about preachers who endeavor to entertain from the pulpit in order to ensure their popularity with their congregation.  Make them laugh or bring them up to date on sports’ trivia and you have them.  Bonhoeffer refused to do that.  His desire was to rouse a renewal of commitment to Christ’s challenging call to discipleship.  There is a lot involved in taking up your cross everyday and following Christ.  Bonhoeffer made that quite clear.  And people listened.

Here’s the quote that caused me pause: Do not believe that you know what is good or evil, or otherwise human beings will devour each other…. Who would need our love more than the one who hates?  You repudiate the poorest of the poor when you repudiate your enemy.  Think about that for a moment.  How does it make you feel?  It made me uneasy because I couldn’t help but wonder if I could do that.  Did I believe that?  No wonder in the Gospel we read about would-be disciples who in stead go away sad when the implications of discipleship are spelled out for them.

Just before the above quote, Bonhoeffer had said that most preachers fail because they have spiritualized the gospel – that is, we have lightened it up.  What he meant was that when the implications of the parables are softened and made more palatable, we trivialize the message and compromise Christ’s preaching and teaching.

What if I did that?  What if I believed the softened version of the Good News?  So you see why there was silence as I sat to this task today.  My problem had to do with forgiveness.  Can I forgive in such ultimate circumstances as Bonhoeffer describes?

I have come to believe that we don’t really know what and how we believe until we are brought low and nearly broken.  My reason for thinking that is the result of meditating on the Passion and Christ’s ultimate moment of darkness when, in spite of all that he was experiencing, he had to believe that the Father’s love endured.  Just as we could trivialize the temptations in the desert by ignoring the struggle that Jesus went through before resolving each one, so can we trivialize his agony and desperation before he leapt into the void of death hoping in the Father’s faithfulness, that he would be caught up in the Father’s arms and brought safely home.  I think that is what the parable of the Prodigal Son is all about, by the way.  But that discussion is for another time.

How many times have I prayed, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us?  That’s what confronted me as I read that quote from Bonhoeffer’s sermon.  I can be very confident going before the Lord and pleading for forgiveness, confident that the Father forgives me because I pray in Jesus’ name.  But if I hear Bonhoeffer correctly and pay attention to the words in the prayer I can’t be so sure unless I am adept at forgiving even the harshest offense suffered.

When you think about it, Jesus gave us the example.  As we say, he practiced what he preached when he forgave Judas and when he forgave Peter and all the others who deserted him in his passion.  And that forgiveness came even before it was sought.  Was it easy for Jesus to forgive?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  The point is that is what he did and what we are supposed to do as disciples in imitation of him.

Bonhoeffer’s challenge and Jesus’s command to his disciples that we forgive as we are forgiven and love as we are loved gave me much to ponder and pray about.  Was it a moment of grace?  I suspect so when I realized that my tendency is to put offenses out of mind, live with the hurt, and expect to heal and go on without ever thinking about forgiving.  That’s not good enough.  If Bonhoeffer believed that oppression and violence should be fought with kindness and Christian forgiveness, what would he say about my tendency to ignore and put the other out of mind?  Who would need our love more than the one who hates?  You repudiate the poorest of the poor when you repudiate your enemy.  And I heard Jesus from the cross cry out, Father forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.

That is the frame of mind I was in as I began to write today.  I seized that moment of grace and I prayed for the ability to forgive the way I am forgiven, so that I can love the way I am loved.  It is amazing the peace that envelops when you pray: let it be.  In a moment I was able to know that I had forgiven and to know that I loved the offenders whose actions had hurt me.  I knew it because I went on to pray for them and for their peace.

Because I had that moment today doesn’t mean that I will never have to deal with the issue again.  In this walk of discipleship we are always works in progress.  I just know that I am another step along the way.  Maybe the next time something offends me I will not spend so much time brooding over it, nor will I ignore it or put it out of mind.  I will pray.  And as I pray I will come to forgive.  I’ll have to.  That’s the condition my prayer places on my own forgiveness.  And there will be peace again.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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