Forgiveness, Gospel of Mark, Lent

Forgiveness (Mark 11:20-33)

My son, Peter*, is engaged, and as we have started talking about plans for the wedding next year, I’m reflecting on forgiveness.

Early in the morning, as Jesus and his disciples were walking along, they saw the fig tree withered from the root up. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look how the fig tree you cursed has dried up.” Jesus responded to them, “Have faith in God! I assure you that whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea’—and doesn’t waver but believes that what is said will really happen—it will happen. Therefore I say to you, whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you will receive it, and it will be so for you. And whenever you stand up to pray, if you have something against anyone, forgive so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your wrongdoings.” (Mark 11:2o-25, CEB)

Jesus is dropping important messages as time grows shorter, trying to cram into his disciples’ noggins all the things he may have said before but is worried they will not remember.

Remember what I said yesterday about not wanting to look up what scholars say about that fig tree until after I had written my blog post? My friend, Esperanza, who is preaching a Lenten series on Holy Week, taking some inspiration from Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s The Last Week, tells me that the fig tree in Mark 11 represents the Temple. So it is fascinating to me that his imperative to forgive follows on his instructions about how to call on God’s power after Peter (not my son, the disciple) has pointed to the withered fig tree. I’m reminded of a story in chapter 9 that I didn’t focus on here, in which the disciples fail to heal a boy who has some kind of seizures. Jesus reminds them that some actions require being particularly in touch with God.

Jesus answered, “Throwing this kind of spirit out requires prayer.” (Mark 9:29)

Powerful work on God’s behalf requires being as connected to God as we can possibly be, then, and holding onto something, anything, that you cannot forgive another person gets in the way.

This is not the Jesus who will say “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” This is the Jesus whose only words from the cross are “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Which brings me back to the wedding. I wrote in my book – Denial is My Spiritual Practice, which you can preorder here – about forgiveness and letting go, and it’s one of the chapters I feel most nervous about sharing with the world. Have I really forgiven the people in my life who have harmed, or simply hurt, me?

In talking about the guest list with my son, I said there might be some people who just did not need to be on the list. And he responded, “Knowing you, I thought you might want to use this opportunity to be the bigger person.”

Oh.

I’m not sure how I feel about letting people who have already hurt me have a chance to do it again. Maybe, if I’ve really forgiven them, I won’t have as many expectations as I had in the past. Maybe.

Surely, this kind requires prayer.

Help me, God, to get right with you, so I can know how to get right with others. Amen.


*Longtime readers might remember him as Snowman, and even longer-time readers might recall his original blog nickname, #2 Son.


I’m reading and blogging about Mark for Lent and using the Common English Bible because it messes with my expectations of familiar passages. I also sometimes refer to NRSV-based resources including The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, as well as the online Greek interlinear Bible.

You can find the full schedule here, including links to earlier posts.

 

Disaster, Forgiveness, Mothering, Politics

On my ball cap

imageLast week, while the world focused on Boston, I drove to another part of Massachusetts with my high school Senior daughter. At our destination, we celebrated her college choice with a trip to the bookstore to purchase flag swag for the whole family. I came away with a ball cap clearly identifying me as a “Smith College Mom.”

Meanwhile, two other ball caps drove the search for the Boston Marathon bombers. The white cap, in particular, stood out in photos. In a scene out of the movies, the FBI and other authorities gathered in a hotel to scour thousands of images and videos from private surveillance cameras, professional and amateur photographers, and the offerings of ordinary people much like me who can’t stop snapping pictures with their phones. In this time-stamped world, some picture would surely show enough to make a case. Some image would reveal the perpetrator’s identity.

My identity is multi-fold. I am a Christian pastor (UCC flavor), a writer, a wife and mother, a Bernese Mountain Dog obsessive, a knitter of mostly socks, a Virginian by birth, an adoptee, a recovering Southern Baptist, a coffee drinker, a lesbian latecomer, a lover of books and music, a Volvo owner, a registered Democrat and a soon to be Smith College mom. Observing me on last week’s trip to Northampton might have provided insight into a few of these things. I drove the Volvo. I bought the ball cap. I shopped at WEBS, America’s Yarn Store. I pretty much chased down a woman walking a Bernese puppy.

If you asked my new neighbors in Pennsylvania about me, they might be able to get as far as the Volvo.

Since last week, we’ve heard stories from classmates and neighbors, car repair clients, guys at the gym. We’ve seen school pictures and boxing profiles and heard about a scene made at the mosque. In Cambridge, people proud of their diverse community cannot understand. They include everyone. There is so much variation of language and culture, religion and national origin. How could this happen?

We don’t know all the pieces. I left some off my list: raisin hater, New York GIANTS fan, trained Interim Minister, short, grey-haired, brown-eyed. On a hot dog, I like all the condiments. My ears are pierced, but it took more than one try.

Do you have a better picture of me now?

When I heard the news on Patriot’s Day – there’s another thing, for 25 years I lived in the only other state that celebrates it – when I heard the news, I first thought, “Please, whoever did this, let them not be Muslim.

Please, O God. Let it be someone else. Their perceived otherness is too easy, too reflexive and accustomed. Let it be a man whose wife left him for a marathoner, or a faux-Baptist or a white supremacist. We could identify with them instead of running the risk of condemning a whole religion. We could question our culpability, our resentments and prejudices and past injuries, all the things that can influence human behavior toward darkness.

For a short time, I felt close to the situation. I listened to the Thursday night press conference on NPR, in my Volvo, driving home from Smith. When I heard photos would be released, that they would be pictures of two young men, I wondered for a long, hard minute what it would be like to see my son in such a picture.

I have a son in Boston, age 22, studying at New England Conservatory. (There is no ball cap for a conservatory mom.) He was on the Orange Line with his clarinets, A and B-flat, when the bombs exploded. When he arrived at school, getting off the T at Mass Ave, he heard the news. His cellphone didn’t work, so we messaged on Facebook.

A few days later, for a long, hard minute, I pictured my son’s face. I had a heart for some other mother.

imageSoon we heard words associated with that mother’s family: Chechnya, Dagestan, places I’ve heard of but needed Google Earth to locate for sure. I hear Chechyn and remember a rebellion against the Soviet Union. I hear Chechnya and think violence. Despite my sympathy for people formed by countries where violence is so daily it is hardly news — imagine that — despite my sympathy for their suffering,I feel immediately free to take a big step back. Her cap says Marathon Bomber Mom. Not mine.

This change, this freedom, comes at a primal level, the one where I considered my own child’s safety last Friday morning, texting him before 6 a.m. to say the T was not running, learning he was already halfway to the station, breathing deeply again when he returned to his apartment. I would do anything to protect him, just as Dzhokhar and Tamerlan’s mother is trying to do in a press conference from Dagestan today.

In my higher mind, I continue to wish the bombers were not young Muslim men. I think about how it feels to have your name mispronounced, an experience familiar to me. I listen to Robin Young’s nephew talk on “Here and Now” about his high school friend from Cambridge Rindge and Latin; I see the picture of the two boys dressed up for prom. I reflect on the desire to celebrate his capture, certainly understandable and especially in Watertown, and the celebration of law enforcement. I feel relief that the tone of the local conversation is less about Islam than one might expect. I note the uniquely local ritual acts, Neil Diamond’s appearance at Fenway Park and the Red Sox in their uniforms proudly and simply reading Boston.

imageI wonder if either of the brothers ever wore a Red Sox cap?

I ponder the very small differences between first century Jews and Samaritans, and how from those small differences grew an abiding hatred. Jesus told a story about a Samaritan, encouraging his listeners to look beyond the identifying marks that bias us to the actual hearts of people.

It’s hard to make ourselves want to look into the hearts of young men who set their backpack bombs down next to children. I can’t pierce that darkness. It’s so easy to condemn reflexively. People I know to be intelligent and thoughtful Christians murmur about Islam, “I don’t like the attitude toward women.” “Isn’t there something … violent … there?”

But wait! Isn’t there something violent about many practitioners of *our* faith? Aren’t their people wearing our team colors who also oppress women? I don’t like to be identified with them anymore than imams in Boston want to be identified with the Tsarnaev brothers.

After a week of listening to news and commentary, here’s what I know about the young man in the white cap. He is 19, and in the hospital. He is in terrible, terrible trouble for committing a horrific act while automated cameras unwittingly made a record of it. His identity will forever be Murderer, Terrorist, Bomber.

I admit, I find it hard to pray for the young man in the white cap and his mother. I’m interested in the psycho-social mysteries that beg for solving. Deservedly disgruntled immigrants? They wouldn’t be the first. Displaced persons who never found a sense of home? Sleeper agents? Pursuing these theories keeps me at a distance, and that dark distance of perceived differences breaks the world in pieces.

I find it hard to pray for him, for his dark heart. If he knew what he was doing — how could he not know what he was doing? Yet the hope of forgiveness extends to him, by God’s grace.

My heart is pierced, but it took more than one try. God can pierce our darkness. Forgiven. It would look pretty smug on a ball cap, but it’s assured for all who open their hearts to God. That’s my hard-won prayer for Dzhokhar, that someday he will wear a different cap. I have a picture of it in my head, a white cap with red letters, a sign of the hope and grace we all need, an identity God grants to every one of us.

(Also posted at There is Power in the Blog.)

Epiphany 7B, Forgiveness, Mark 2:1-12, Prayer, Rheumatoid Arthritis, When I was a little girl

They Removed the Roof

I’m terrible at artsy-craftsy things. Terrible. But I understand why we do crafts in Sunday School, because making the image of a story has the power to imprint it on us in different ways. There are some stories I remember because of the pictures in a book or a children’s Bible, but there are others that became part of my life through cutting paper or coloring or gluing things together or twisting pipe cleaners or some combination of the above plus or minus popsicle sticks and string (although I prefer yarn).

It must have been a group project. I want to think it was, because it’s hard to imagine I constructed the three-dimensional paper house with the removable roof and the man on the stretcher alone. I also hate to think of the poor teachers who might have been supervising a classroom full of kids all working individually, with scissors (I forgot those before) and crayons and string and all that paper.
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. (Mark 2:1-4, NRSV)
I remember the house, and I remember how fragile it seemed, and I can see the flat little man on the paper stretcher. I think the edges of the paper folded around a string on each side, the long ends used by the friends to lower the paper man into the house.
We children, of course, lowered him ourselves.
We were the friends who removed the roof.
There is a long discussion in the story about the difference between healing and the forgiveness of sins.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk?’  But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” –he said to the paralytic–  “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:5-12, and isn’t it a pity we don’t read it every three years?)
I don’t remember that part from when I was a little girl, sitting in the big Sunday School room at Court Street Baptist Church, where Mrs. Kersey, the minister’s wife, oversaw everything with grace and creativity and kindness and beauty, oh my goodness, such beauty in the eyes of this little girl. I only remember it was his friends who made sure he got to see Jesus.
They removed the roof of a house. Listen to that! Don’t just pass it by. Read it out loud.
They removed the roof!!!

And after having dug through it…dig that!
I have an unsurprising tendency, as a liberal Christian who also majored in English, to suck the reality out of Bible stories and teach them as metaphor. And there are surely many metaphors to be explored. But we need to hear this story literally.
(Make a note of the date. I asked you to read something from the Bible literally. This won’t happen often.)
We need to hear it.
They carried their friend on a stretcher, their paralyzed friend, and because the crowds were so enormous, they took him to the roof of the house and REMOVED THE ROOF and DUG THROUGH IT and lowered him into the middle of the room where Jesus was.
Sometimes I wish someone would do this for me, put me right in the middle of it with Jesus, put me right in front of his face and make it so he will look me in the eye and see me and fix what is wrong with me. And I’m not sure whether he would offer to heal me (my toe joints are pretty bad right now) or forgive my sins (they’re pretty bad right now, too), but I know I would take either.
And sometimes I realize that’s exactly what we’re doing for each other, friends, when we pray for one another. We see the crowded situation around Jesus, and we find a way to get on top of the house and remove the roof and dig through it, and we put our friends in need right where they need to be, in front of Jesus.
Thank you for doing that for me. I’m glad to do it for you, too.
50, Forgiveness, Jubilee, Leviticus 25:10

Year of Jubilee

It’s my birthday. I got a voicemail from The Father of My Children, otherwise known as my first ex-husband (X-1?) , because that’s how tacky my life became over the past year, and it was a nice call, wishing me a Happy Birthday, and when I called him back to thank him he said, “Is it 50?”

The words dropped hard.

Yes. Yes, it is.

Fifty. Halfway to Hockey and Virginia, the 100-year-olds in my congregation. Twice as many as my oldest child.  A landmark.

But in the mirror this morning, I looked the same as yesterday, a short woman in the back half of midlife, with hair regularly sweetened and skin almost as good as it ever was and only a few lines so far, with the addition of eyes puffy from an unsettled night’s sleep.

I have a lot to dream about, a lot the unconscious still needs to process.

Later I got a card from a college friend, quoting Leviticus (because that’s a birthday friendly book of the Bible, right?): “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you.” (Lev. 25:10)

And I find I sort of like this idea, though I grant my grasp on the whole Jubilee concept is slight. It means freeing slaves and forgiving debts, and I could use a bit of all that. I have a lot of forgiving to do, of others and of myself.

So I’m starting today. It’s been said by someone who knows me well that I am too inclined to let go of debts owed by men and equally likely to retain those of women in my life. This may or may not include myself.

Okay, it includes myself.

And this may or may not be a result of the way I was raised and a reflection on the person who hurt me most. Or the persons.

But I’m 50, and jubilation must ensue. Holding onto things I cannot forgive, refusing to trust again, seems foolish. Time is short. (Don’t tell Hockey and Virginia I said that; they would have to laugh. But it’s true for most of us.)

This afternoon I’m considering the possibilities, admitting I’m hard to win over again, thinking of debts I am ready to forgive and pushing on the way I want to hold them, tight, then gently bending my fingers back in hopes of proclaiming liberty throughout the land.