FORGIVE ME

By: Maggie Leonard

THE PROBLEM

I think I might be too churched. Not in a I’m-too-institutionalized kind of way, but rather in the well-duh-of-course-God-and-Jesus-forgive-us kind of way. In Matthew 9, the legal experts are offended by Jesus’ IMG_20150831_171826forgiveness, and somehow I am completely unimpressed by Jesus ability to forgive sins. It is odd how blasé we can view the amazing things God is at work doing. These are the two responses—indifference or offense—I have seen time and again in different Bible passages about Jesus forgiving sins, and physically healing someone in the process. Every time I read them, I remain unimpressed.

For the first time ever, I have realized that there is a third response to Jesus—one different than indifference or offense, it is the response of the crowd. After the man leaves, the witnesses ‘were afraid and praised God who had given such authority to human beings.’ Not authority given to the Human One—the Son of God, the Christ, the Messiah.—God’s authority of forgiveness was given to human beings, to us. The crowd saw the implications of Jesus’ authority, and it terrified them. They saw that they were called to follow and do likewise, to forgive others.

What would it look like to live in a world in which only God forgives? I shudder to think of it.

What is truly offensive is not that Jesus forgave the man, but that God has the audacity to call us into a life that includes the hard work of forgiveness as well. Jesus does not just forgive sins because he is God and can do nearly impossible things, but because he is forging the path we are so resistant to take.

Writing this article has been challenging for me, and so absolutely necessary. As is true of many of us, I have had a lot of experience in my still young life with forgiveness—sometimes more successfully than other times. Probably like you, I have been the one who needs to be forgiven, the one who forgives, and sometimes the one doing the work all alone. In all its complexity, I think that forgiveness is one of the most important things that we can learn to do—and one of the things that as a society we often quip proverbs about doing but rarely engage in reality.

In preparation for this article I was curious, so I googled, ‘how to forgive’ just to see what would come up. I found most of them lacking. Almost all of the hits involved lists of reasons that pointed to the philosophy of why we should forgive, as if we needed to be convinced that forgiveness is ultimately a good thing.

I hope all of us can agree forgiveness is good.

If the advice went any deeper than ‘this is why you should forgive,’ it was entirely based on self-work. Now self-work is incredibly important for forgiveness, and sometimes our only option. Sometimes, however, we need to forgive people with whom we would like to maintain connection. This is even trickier and something very few articles try to tackle. None of the articles I found tried to take on forgiveness as a joint effort, in large part, I suppose, because it is work that is half-way out of our control.

With God, forgiveness is always there, so it gives the illusion of being something that only we, as the offender, need to engage. Jesus is so good; he lets go of things so quickly. I wish it were so easy for me.

I have started to think of forgiveness as the work we do in our hearts—both the inward look of self-reflection, as well as the outward look of understanding the other person with whom our relationship is broken. True reconciliation—the work of forgiveness between humans—requires inner work and outer conversation. To bring about reconciliation much work and willingness to sit with discomfort is required, but with two willing parties, reconciliation can be truly incredible.

WHERE WE MESS IT UP

Below I have outlined some of the pitfalls of forgiveness and reconciliation that we fall into, both as the forgivers and the offenders. It is not an exhaustive list by any means, but a working list that I am sure I’ll be updating all my life. I hope you will explore the different dimensions of forgiveness with me and in your own life. I will warn you, reading this list is a bit of a bummer and is a little dry. Hopefully, it will help us all become more aware how we might hope to engage forgiveness and reconciliation differently the next time around.

We hide behind God’s power

We are comfortable with God forgiving us, but if someone else hurts my feelings, you’ll be lucky to be forgiven—and I’m surely not going to forget! We often add that last part just for good measure.

By telling ourselves only God can forgive sins, we excuse ourselves as participants from God’s work of reconciliation in the world. We philosophize ‘sin’ to the point that we no longer see sin as the real ways in which we actually hurt one another. As we hear the call in Matthew 9, we are called to give others the same gifts God gives us.

We doubt forgiveness or think it is something to be earned

We really do doubt forgiveness when it is given—either because we do not believe it is truly a gift or we do not see ourselves (or others) as worthy of it. Perhaps this is why Jesus had to visibly demonstrate the healing that had occurred. We put so much more stock in truths that we see—proof, data, and pie charts are crucial to our buying into a vision. Forgiveness is something earned, or so it seems sometimes. It comes with strings—real or perceived. For many of us, forgiveness is something that someone else has held as a carrot in front of us, always out of reach. Other times in our guilt we feel that we must make amends but don’t believe that we have made up for what we did in the first place. We do not believe that a gift can be freely given or that we can freely accept it. When we are unforgiven, we are downcast with hurt or guilt, turning our eyes away from hope. Maybe this is why Jesus told the man, ‘be encouraged’ or ‘take heart.’

Forgiveness is a gift. It is freely given by the person who has been hurt. It is not a tool for manipulation nor is it something we can earn. There may be other consequences for our actions, but the gift of forgiveness is free.

We define ourselves by our hurt, believe we are a martyr, are lonely, or wear our hurt like a badge

Sometimes we tell the story of how we were hurt again and again to our friends, remaining angry about the nerve of the other person. We cling to the hurt. We ban together with others who have also experienced our hurt. We push it in the face of others. We want others to know how hurt we are.

When we feel hurt and lonely, we wish to have company where we are—which is most easily done if someone Cody, Arnold, Genaroelse also feels lonely or even just lowly. We dwell on the negative and tear down the other person in or conflict—or even lash out at unsuspecting passersby. In a way, we are comforted by someone else feeling what we feel.

Too often we are so focused upon our pain that we forget that the person who hurt us may already feel hurt too. In fact, some of their prior hurt is probably at the root of their action.

Finding solidarity with others who have been hurt is not a bad thing. However, eventually, the healing process takes us outside of our hurt. We have to do the hard work of letting go that Jesus makes look so effortless. We liberate both ourselves and others when we forgive. This work takes time. It is hard. But it is also good to be defined by something other than hurt.

We say it is too hard, avoid it, or believe others should just ‘get over it’

The truth is that forgiveness is hard, so we frequently gloss over it or avoid it entirely. True Christians forgive, we say to the person we hurt. Or we decide it’s really their problem if they don’t like what we did, they should just get over whatever ails them.

Sometimes we even engage the process of forgiveness for a little while, then stop and abandon the relationship entirely—it really was not working out anyway and I don’t have the energy for this.

Some of us believe conflict is to be avoided at all costs, and so we avoid the elephant in the room or even the person if we think that they will make us talk about our difference of opinions. Or perhaps, we tell ourselves, if we turn a blind eye to a problem, it will cease to exist. Even when the other person is eager to put in the work, we step away and make excuses like, ‘I am stable, my life is stable, and those who rock my placid stability do not maintain a lifestyle that I wish to further engage.’

Talking about hurt feelings is always hard and uncomfortable, but it has to happen. Never will we find someone else who agrees with us all of the time. We will find ourselves lonely or without real, intimate relationships if we always run away when conflict arises.

Yes, there are times when the healthiest thing we can do is take time away from a relationship. But at the very least, we should directly name our intention to stop the conversation for a time and express our hope for the health and well-being of all involved.

We get defensive

Defensiveness is not an emotion or a tactic that we are taught early on to identify, like happy or sad or angry. I literally had no idea what the term meant for years. When we are defensive, we all make excuses for ourselves and our bad behavior based on what we intended. When we hear that we have hurt someone, we defend what we did—after all, ‘I am a good person’ or ‘I didn’t mean that.’ Even if we can admit fault, or that we should have done things differently, we forget the simple power of two words: ‘I’m sorry.’

Without blaming the victim, it is important to see how both parties always play a part. Learning happens for both the offender and the offendee—perhaps I need to learn to control how I express my anger, perhaps I need to leave an abusive conversation more quickly, perhaps I acted without consulting someone. Not only will humility be your friend in this process of self-reflection, but it will also help you hear and honor the experience of the other person.

When we stand alone

And when one of us cannot, for whatever reason, engage the process, we still have to separate out what we contributed to the situation from what the other person contributed. Sometimes we will have to learn to forgive someone without conversation. Other times we will have to forgive ourselves for our poor choices in engaging another.

It is such a relief when we offer forgiveness to one another, but we should never remain ensnared in guilt or shame or hurt or anger because someone continues to try and punish us. In every painful situation, there is much more there than is ours alone.

OUR HOPE

I am grateful to say that I have some truly remarkable colleagues, friends, and family members with whom I have the privilege of sharing the gift of life. Things are not always easy, but they have helped teach me how to live in love and work through both my hurt and their hurt.

We need to have the courage to say ‘I’m sorry.’ We need to have the courage to say, ‘I forgive you.’ So often we say everything else.

Some things are a big deal. Some things are a small deal. But all the things need to be dealt with. To journey through difficult times together, we must be dedicated to our relationships and trust that what is said is said in love. We will both have work to do along the way. When we are healthy, we can allow ourselves to feel the full spectrum of emotions—grief, anger, hurt, kindness, and compassion—toward a person with whom we are in 64681_865416436388_2703986_47956248_1169912_nconflict. In forgiveness and reconciliation, we acknowledge our hurt and anger, but more than that, we learn to respond to our feelings from a place of kindness rather than rage. Working through hurt requires both parties to be vulnerable—vulnerable about weakness (I was hurt) and vulnerable about fault (that happened as a result of what I did). We will both feel exposed.

We have to learn to name what we need after a conflict—not to hold another person for ransom, but to help speed the process of reconciliation. Naming needs can help us establish new boundaries or regain trust. Sometimes we just need to sit in silence, to take a break from anger and sadness, or to return to the situation later. Eventually, we are called to learn from our mistakes, to move forward, and to make memories.

Thanks be to God that God offers us the gift of forgiveness and empowers us to forgive each other.

Mercy AIDS WALK

By: David Swank

My two pastors, a bunch of Mercy members, friends from St. John’s Lutheran Church, and I recently had the opportunity to be involved with a fun and worthy fundraising cause.  We participated in Atlanta’s annual AIDS Walk and 5k Run to increase awareness and funding for DSCF5562AIDS research.

I have no problem telling anybody that I participated in a walk for this cause.  For years it was a taboo subject.  While no longer taboo, I think it is still pretty hush hush as a conversation topic.  Lots of people have AIDS and do not talk about it.  In the twelve years that I have been homeless, I have had multiple friends die of AIDS.   It was really hard to watch them waste away before my eyes.  At one point I could literally see my friend’s ribs poke through his skin.    I have abundant hope and enormous faith that God will guide all our scientific researchers in the lab to find a final cure for this dreadful disease.

On the day of the walk, the weather was great—the temperature was comfortable and the sun was bright.   We joined  thousands of others on the walk.  The AIDS walk started and ended in Peidmont Park and wove through the surrounding neighborhoods.  People were having a good time, there was an air of celebration—lots of cheering and laughter.  You could tell that folks were happy to be supporting a good cause.

Lusha, Steve, Justin, Terry and I walked the race together.  In general I am a fast walker.  The crowds did not slow us down during this walk—we were trying to catch up with the front.  At the water stations, they were playing funky music and I passed by each one dancing and swinging my arms above my head.  By the time we finished the race I was sweating like a pig.

At the end of the walk we were happy to learn that our very own Matthew Hyatt won first place in the 5K run for his age group.

I had a great time and am looking forward to next year’s walk.

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Tubs, Suds, and Glory

By: Alan Mackie

Last month I was having breakfast with Chad and my pastor, George Tatro of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church. Over the grits, Chad reminded us of a conversation that we had had some months previously about Memorial Drive washing the clothes for the members of Mercy. IMG_2514

As the need had become quite urgent, the solution was seemingly straightforward. I rather boldly committed Memorial Drive to doing the washing twice a month, starting within the week.

And so our laundry ministry was born. Chad delivered nine large bags of dirty laundry to Memorial Drive.  In committing our new endeavour to God, a bag of the dirty laundry was brought into the sanctuary and dedicated as a part of our weekly offering in our Sunday service. By Wednesday, I had three other volunteers to join me at the Medlock coin wash to sort, wash, dry, and fold.  We had fun and fellowship with each other, so much so that some of the other patrons became curious to know what we were up to.

At the end of the first evening, before leaving the laundry, we stood, held hands and said the grace together. Then one of our number pointed to the ceiling and said, “To God be the Glory”. It made me think: can the simple and practical task of washing dirty clothes be described as “glorious?” I don’t know for sure, but I believe that in God’s hands it can. And God will be glorified, if doing the laundry softens our hearts and makes us more loving towards those who live on the hard edges of society. As the laundry ministry gets underway, I believe God has much to teach us amidst the  “tubs and suds.”

The other week, we read together the late Lynda Baker’s homeless psalm and considered our own struggles and connivance with the ‘System’ that could not break Lynda.

We like to think of the laundry as a ministry, because it sets it apart from our routine chores and helps us to be mindful that we are doing the washing in simple obedience of Christ’s injunctions to love our neighbour and make sure that “the naked are clothed.” We even have a short reflection on Scripture, sitting there on the benches in the coin wash while the washing cycle is underway.

I am also delighted to say that friends from North Decatur Presbyterian Church are joining our laundry ministry and a local mosque is committed to donating clothes. We all believe, you see, that the God of Abraham is a God of promises and God is working through all God’s children.

A Bad Pray-er

By: Maggie Leonard

I have a confession to make.  For most of my life I have not been good at praying—I do not mean that I did not pray well, I mean that I did not pray.

During church service prayers I colored loudly (according to my parents).  I groaned and protested at going to youth group.

In college, I hid when asked to pray aloud at the campus ministry.

In seminary, there was no room for heart in my formal prayers, beautifully crafted words of hope that pointed to a carefully plotted theology of God’s promises.  ch51Moreover, I learned about spiritual formation and spiritual direction and thought it to be a boring practice for self-indulgent, lazy, and/or privileged people.  I knew that good Christians, and especially pastors, prayed, and I felt sort of bad that I did not, but there was too much to do and prayer felt trite.

When I was a chaplain at a local hospital, because it was my job, I prayed with people and asked for things—but never too much, just in case a healing was not in God’s plan, and carefully choosing my words so not to offend my own theology.

Yes.  I was a bad pray-er.

Or at least I was bad at what I thought it should look like.

When I first started at Mercy, we prayed unscripted prayers before meals and once during the Sunday service.  That was it; and it suited me just fine.  After a few months the hives I develped from having to pray without warning, on cue, and without specific theme, had almost started to disapate. We Presbyterians have prayers of confession, for illumination, of intercession, of Great Thanksgiving, before the offering, after the offering—each one separate and spoken at the appropriate time during the service.  When we first decided to switch the schedule and Chad suggested that we have an hour of prayer every time we met, I almost quit—or at least gave him a look of disbelief and skepticism.  To spend long periods of time in our little noisy church each day in prayer?  He must have gone crazy.

The hour was boring enough, but I had to act like it meant something to me, and I had to herd others who were equally uninterested  and skeptical into the room.  Together we started to explore the Psalms, the Rosary, “silence” (Chad playing music in the background, bags rustling, food being eaten), and Ignatius’ Examen—which I thought of as looking at the highs and lows of the day.  Most days, words felt empty and, if I were doing the Examen, I was so aware of my failures—when I spoke in a harsh voice, acted in spite, paid less attention to someone than they deserved, or took something personally that was not meant with ill-intent—that I forgot about grace.  Reviewing my day only brought guilt.

I prayed, like a good Christian, about once a year, and it was not while I was at Mercy.  I had a stirring in my soul when I journeyed to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico to help facilitate conferences or retreats.  The worship services on those retreats always filled me and left me with a great energy and sense of peace.  The one time I journaled that year would be while there—in the quiet of that place, staring off into the expansive plains behind which majestic mountains and cliffs stood, I could see how God had been at work in my life that past year.

I always felt refreshed after my time in New Mexico, but, at best, that opportunity only came around once a year.  The other 360 days a year, I would try to calm my anxiety with action, doing something about the problem.  God was busy—and only helps those who help themselves—so it all depended on me, I thought.  My call was set before me; I already understood it, so I set to work.  I would return to herding at Mercy.  The fix was temporary, it was not sustainable, nor would my work be if I did not change something.  I had to find ways to incorporate what I did at Ghost Ranch in my everyday life—being unplugged, journaling, praying, silence, hiking, reflecting.  I realized that many of those things could be done at home.

I started hiking on Saturdays and realized that they were indeed walking prayers.  I read a chapter on a book of spirituality toward the beginning of my hike which gave me a framework for my thoughts. The processing I do, an opportunity to reflect on my week, allows me to imagine new ways of engaging old problems, and see where God has been at work.

I also found myself sitting in my bedroom, lighting a candle and meditating.  Perpetually, I am in my head—worrying, analyzing, dreaming.  Breath prayers became crucial for my sanity; a break from the business, a break from the anxiety, a break from the fear that I hold.  In those moments when I bring my attention to my breath and slow it down, I start to become aware of the energy in my body.

I recently visited a little house of prayer in south Georgia called Green Bough, excited to see a dear friend.  I was surprised to discover that I left not only with a full heart from seeing a kindred spirit, but also with an awakened sense of rhythm.  At Green Bough we prayed together multiple times a day—midmorning, evening, and night—and I also had short devotions by myself first thing in the morning and last thing before bed.  Upon returning home, I yearned for those moments of communal quiet and the rhythm of stopping to appreciate what God was doing that day.  I actually wanted to come back and pray at, with, and for Mercy.  I wanted to make a regular and nightly ritual of prayer and remembrance.

The funny thing is, when one starts to feel the rhythm of prayer, its hard not to discount where prayer is.  I may have been bad at praying the way I though prayer was supposed to look—mountain-top experiences every day—but I was, by no means, a stranger to prayer.

Maybe there was prayer in those early years too.  Toward the end of high school, my heart would flutter at certain scripture passages, and I found myself stirred when reading the word “BEHOLD!”

While in campus ministry, I found myself more confident in myself than ever before and love just seemed to pour out of me in all kinds of wholesome directions.  I also started to see the scriptures in an unfamiliar light and became curious and excited to put into action the new challenges I heard.  Faith started to have real life consequences.

During my volunteer year in Guatemala, I wept.  And I cried.  And I boo-hooed.  And I was broken beyond words.  And I was lonely.  And I had a hardened heart.  And I felt rigid.  And I was loved. And I was sung to.  And I had to try and listen because I didn’t know how to speak.  And I softened.  And I learned.  And I laughed. And I loved.

In seminary, I learned that my emotions were okay, even good, and that I did not have to stifle or apologize for them.  I learned my limits and was liberated by the realization that saving the world did not depend on me—God was at work!

While I was at the hospital and miserable, I clung to my yoga practice.  I learned about grace and flexibility and breathing and process and gained an appreciation for silence.

I suppose the softening of our hearts takes time.  As we get older, I think we also come to appreciate more our humanness, our limitations—not just that we are mortal and therefore must be careful, but that we cannot and should not think that we have to do it all.  It is only in being aware of our limitations that we can truly be forgiving of the limitations of others.

I have heard it said that we are not human beings trying to become more spiritual, but that we are spiritual beings trying to become more human.  I think this to be true.  Our flaws present us with opportunities for us to grow, a reason to offer grace to others—they are just as broken as we are— and to turn to God because God is working in a much bigger way than we can imagine.

At Mercy, we talk constantly about process.  Praying is not about arriving somewhere.  It is about being truly present to the moment in which we find ourselves.  It is about understanding our motivations—especially our fears and insecurities—so that we might respond in a less reactionary way.  It is about sitting quietly and listening, that we might put our worries aside for a few moments and sense God’s comfort and call on our lives.  All in all, we find the opportunity to be more human, more loving, and to open ourselves to true growth and transformation.  Now, when I neglect the rhythm of prayer and meditation in my life, I miss it.

I now see how broken and perfect my prayers have been.

Finding Grace in the Mess

By: Maggie Leonard

Fear and determination filled her eyes, I could see it as she looked from me, to her paper, to the crowd.  I grasped one shaky hand in mine and steadied the paper she held with my other hand.  Her voice quivered but she spoke with determination as the crowd silently coaxed and encouraged her from their seats.

“Maggie, you will need water in ministry—to drink when it’s hot outside, to make soup and coffee, and in cleaning up our space.  You have shown me that therembap10 is life inside of me, life that is like the water that Jesus promised to the woman at the well.  You have helped me to know how to drink water when I am thirsty—that is, how to ask God to help me.  Use this water both as you teach others and as you are taught by others.”

With that, she handed me a simple glass bowl filled with water.  A gift of ministry for me to cherish and utilize wherever God called me.

How frequently we try to limit where God’s grace works—declaring some water holier than other water. How wise Cheree was to offer me the simple gift of water at my ordination, so versatile and yet often overlooked in its importance in doing God’s work of mercy.

I did not think about it much at the time, but how precious it was for this symbol to make an appearance on my ordination day, just as it did when the church first proclaimed God’s claim upon my life and their promise to help nurture me that I might know God’s call.  In both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, water regularly marks both the beginning of a new journey at the bequest of God and salvation in general.

I love the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts, a castrated slave. Though he traveled a great distance to worship, there was, and always would be, rejected from the temple for his impurity—made “unclean” by his mutilation and therefore outside the “righteous” people of God. It was this man who asked, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  For him, the good news was not just of Jesus, but the promise of inclusion in God’s people. We read in Acts that they came up out of the water.  Following God’s call is not a journey we are expected to endeavor alone.

Every Sunday as we gather at Mercy, we ground ourselves by remembering the call God paces upon us in community. The reality is that baptismal water and the promises we make to those who are baptized is not limited just to cute babies.  We never age out of being those who the church promises to nurture and for whom we care.  We are each called into that beautifully broken people of God!  In our baptism we are not only claimed by God, but we are called to care for others and to share our own vulnerability.  Being baptized into a community is no joke.  We are a diverse people with many strong personalities and ways of living; our life together is frequently complicated and messy.

It is no mistake when the water poured into our baptismal font gathers energy and sloshes over the sides onto the floor.  God is there, right in the middle of the mess of our relationships.

Our church members, like many in other churches, fear the spray—I suppose some could say that I am to blame for our empty chairs on the first and second row—but I look forward to the day when the splashing water will be accepted as a delicious drop of grace on our skin.  How often we encounter the Holy Spirit in our midst and do not realize it!  If only we could see the possibilities the water holds—a puddle-time-warp in which to stomp and play and transport us to spryer days, a start in our mopping, a foot-washing, an illustration of the rippling effect of our actions, an escape from the summer heat…

It could be nothing less than God’s grace that brought Philip and the eunuch by a pool in the middle of the desert.  If only we found the same relief and joy in the water!  God’s grace spills out indiscriminately on the rocky ground, thorny patches, and church floors.  But it doesn’t stop there!  Each sip of coffee, rain storm, bowl of soup, newly cleaned floor, shower, or swimming pool can be a reminder of our baptism.  Like the Eunuch, our eyes become attuned to the water God places before us in dry places and help us to see how it might faithfully be used!