I am sure you heard the news about the armed man who took a one-room schoolhouse hostage in an Amish community in Pennsylvania. After releasing the boys, he lined the girls up against the blackboard and tied their feet. When police closed in, he shot the girls execution-style. Five died.
The whole country was horrified by this incident. After witnessing several violent episodes in schools this fall, we agonized over the fact that we can't protect children in a place where they have the absolute right to be safe. We despaired over all the hatred and anger in our world. We wondered why people hate so much. And then the Amish community did an incredible thing.
Can you imagine what it must have been like for the family of the murderer to hear, from the lips of those who lost their little girls, "We forgive you"? One Amish man was quoted as saying that forgiveness is what God wants them to do. It wasn't heroic or noble to them; it was simply what their faith required. They even said that it was better that the tragedy happened to them than to people who couldn't extend forgiveness! By tradition and culture, the Amish are a people who forgive, which is just what the Gospel calls for all peoples. By community and tradition they forgive!
I don't know about you, but I was deeply inspired — and humbled — by the witness to the Gospel message which this community so tragically and so beautifully lived. It led me to reflect on why it is so hard for some of us to forgive while others do it instinctively. What is the difference between people like the Amish and people who strike out? Why do some choose to hold grudges and refuse to forgive while others live the spirit of the Gospel?
Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven* times. (Matthew 18:21-22)
What about our community — family, parish, otherwise? Are we a people who forgive? Are we steeped in reconciliation? Can we call upon our tradition of healing when we've been wronged? Can we, as a people, be a witness of forgiveness in a secular culture that seeks revenge?
I don't know all the answers to these tough questions. What I do know is this: it is impossible to forgive others if we don't believe we ourselves can be forgiven. It is hard not to build up resentment and hatred if we cannot forgive ourselves. At its core, forgiveness only works for those who believe in it. When Jesus said, "Your sins are forgiven you. Get up and walk," the paralytic could walk only because he believed Jesus' words.
I was always taught that the only unforgivable sin is despair. And the reason it's unforgivable is because it prevents God's ever-present forgiveness from penetrating one's heart. We make a mistake when we focus on ourselves, our unworthiness, because it is true that we often don't deserve to be forgiven. But that's what is so awesome about our God. God forgives us unconditionally. All we have to do is be genuinely sorry and accept God's forgiveness with open hearts.
What we need is the openness to forgiveness and the faith that God will forgive which Johsua Blakesley expresses so powerfully in his song Healing Hands:
I've fallen, Lord, pick me up, hold me close.
I need forgiveness again.
Your healing hands will always embrace me.
Your healing hands won't let me go.
Your healing hands pour your love upon me,
Filling my heart, making me whole.
Let us pray for the grace to forgive and to accept the forgiveness of God and others: O God, I ask your forgiveness for the hurts I cause others and you. I know you forgive me no matter what I do. All you ask is that I truly regret the pain I cause. And I do. Help me to forgive others in the same way that you forgive me. Amen.
Spirit Compass reflections are developed in partnership
with the Center for Ministry Development.
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