Archive for forgiveness

The fellowship of the weak

Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.

― Henri J.M. Nouwen


A quotidian task, the family’s work, this cleaning up the mess of living.
Washing what is soiled, repairing what is broken,
putting away what someone else has taken out and carelessly forgotten.
A thousand injuries healed not counted, in a world where, the hard truth is that all people love poorly, and we
the weak, are called to the great work of Love.


Prayers in the wilderness

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the wilderness this week: Christ in the wilderness for forty days. Moses in the wilderness for forty years. Moses interceding for the people so that God would not destroy them (pointing out to God that destroying his own people would look bad).

“So I lay prostrate before the Lord for these forty days and forty nights, because the Lord had said he would destroy you. And I prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord God, destroy not thy people and thy heritage, whom thou hast redeemed through thy greatness, whom thou hast brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Remember thy servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; do not regard the stubbornness of this people, or their wickedness, or their sin, lest the land from which thou didst bring us say, “Because the Lord was not able to bring them into the land which he promised them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to slay them in the wilderness.” For they are thy people and thy heritage, whom thou didst bring out by thy great power and by thy outstretched arm.’   Deurteronomy 9:23-29


I’d been pondering for a few days, and then my sister sent me an article by Kevin P. Emmert called “A Lent that’s Not for Your Spiritual Improvement.”  Emmert urges us to look to the example of Christ in the wilderness and use our Lenten disciplines as a means to better serve our neighbors. He argues that we shouldn’t see Lent as merely an occasion for personal holiness or drawing nearer to God.

While I might disagree a bit with Emmert’s use of the term “personal holiness” (I don’t think true holiness can ever be selfish), I do take his point about the social dimensions of Lent. He quotes from Isaiah:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?  Isaiah 58:6–7

Now, I have never been a faster, but I am a pray-er, and it occurred to me that I rarely pray for God to forgive others’ sins. I ask on my own behalf all the time (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”), but how often do I intercede for others in this way? Truth to tell, it feels a little cheeky, if you know what I mean. Judgmental. It feels like taking on something that’s not my job.

In Hebrews we read about the office of the high priest

For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. Because of this he is bound to offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not take the honor upon himself, but he is called by God, just as Aaron was.  

And we know that Jesus prayed for us, “Father, forgive them…”

I am not called to the priesthood. I am certainly not Jesus, but I wonder if, as we are all called to imitate Christ, we might not include in our intercessory prayers a request for forgiveness. Not just comfort and healing, not just the “let-this-cup-pass” kind of mercy, and not just “Spare thou those who are penitent.” More like “Spare thou those who are making the world a miserable place and who care nothing about you. Spare the ignorant and wayward and hateful. Forgive them.”

The one thing I know know I have in common with the high priest is that I am beset with weakness.  (Perhaps that knowledge will grant me the possibility of dealing gently with the clergy, as with all fellow Christians.) But here in this Lenten wilderness I am wondering about Moses and Jesus and praying for others.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…and please, God, will you forgive them too?

Praying for Pharaoh

 Pharaoh detail

The Exodus story is much stranger than I remembered. I read it again the other day and there was so much that just seemed odd and complicated.

To begin with, why do you think God wants Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go free? If you trusted vague memory, you might think it was because God is a freedom-loving deity and slavery is wrong. But what God actually says is, “Let my people go, that they may serve me” which sounds much more like he’s telling Pharaoh “You have something that belongs to me, and I want it back.” Oh.

And then there are all those plagues, and all that back and forth–essentially between God and Pharaoh, but with Moses and Aaron in between. In memory, the plagues create the mounting drama, and ensure that we are clear about how stubborn and wicked Pharaoh is. In memory (and the movies), the plagues are God’s way of wearing down Pharaoh’s resolve, but this time through it seemed to me that there was more going on.

Setting aside the whole question of “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart” and Pharaoh’s free will in this situation (we’ll have to save that for another time), each plague is both a sign of God’s power (witnessed by Egypt and Israel) and an opportunity for repentance. And every time Pharaoh repents and says, “Ok, you can go, just stop the plague,” Moses has to go out and intercede for Egypt.

Wait. Moses has to pray for Pharaoh? That must have been terrible. Why plead on behalf of the oppressor? “Stop the gnats. Stop the frogs. Stop the locusts. Forgive him. Have mercy on Egypt.” Do you think that what Moses wanted to say was “Wipe them out and let’s be done with this!?” Do you think that after a while he might have doubted Pharaoh’s sincerity? Why did God put Moses through that? Why was intercession required? Why couldn’t Moses just command the plague to end?

I wondered about this the other day as I read familiar verses in Romans 8

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Pharaoh didn’t know God, did he need Moses in this weakness?  I need to think about this more.

Intercession is a mystery–deeply strange and sometimes difficult. Why should God, knowing someone’s need better than we do, command us to pray for them? Why should we pray for our enemies? What does it mean that God, knowing our hearts, wills the Spirit to intercede for us?

I think it may have something to do with forgiveness. “And whenever you stand praying, forgive.”  Perhaps intercession enables forgiveness. Perhaps it is a sign of forgiveness. Perhaps the Exodus is not only a story of God’s mounting wrath, but also his repeated forgiveness. Perhaps we never really forgive anyone until we lift them up and stand with them in God’s presence.

Simultaneous contrast with withered plants

Simultaneous Contrast Image by Demi-Plum on DeviantArt

Simultaneous Contrast
Image by Demi-Plum on DeviantArt


When two colors appear side by side, it changes our perception of them. Graphic designers and artists use this effect called simultaneous contrast. Sometimes when I think about passages of scripture they seem to exhibit simultaneous contrast as well. Different aspects of the story will leap out at me depending on which stories I hold in my mind in close proximity. I’ll show you what I mean.

It started when I read Mark 11: 12-25, where Jesus is driving the money-changers and vendors out the temple. Wrapped around the cleansing of the temple is the cursing of the fig tree in two parts:  first the seemingly unjustified cursing, then, the following day, Jesus explanation of the withered tree.  Here’s how it goes:


On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.

And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and he would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple.  And he taught, and said to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”  And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him; for they feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city.

As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered.” And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”


I know I’ve heard this passage a hundred times, and I’ve always heard it as a story about the power of prayer (Have faith and cast that mountain into the sea!), but I’d never realized that the money-changers were inside a fig tree sandwich, so to speak. I wondered why Mark would write it that way. Then I noticed that the two incidents both involve Jesus teaching about prayer.

“Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”


“…Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

That phrase “whenever you stand praying” reminded me of the Amidah–the central prayer in a Jewish service, recited in services three times daily during the week, and also at Sabbath and holiday services. Amidah is Hebrew for “standing,” and this prayer is recited while standing with feet firmly together so as to imitate the angels, “whose legs were straight” in Ezekiel 1: 7.

But here is the bit that stood out for me, the Amidah is said during services–which would be held in the temple or in a synagogue–in a house of prayer. And the Amidah, which is also called the Shmoneh Esreh–the Eighteen Blessings–includes praise, petitions, and thanksgiving. The worshiper asks for God’s forgiveness, compassion, and justice, but the prayer says nothing about the worshiper forgiving anyone else. To say “whenever you stand praying, forgive” represents a change, I suspect, and that, of course, reminded me of these familiar words from Matthew 6:

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors

So maybe these incidents are linked because they are about prayer. Because we need to know how to pray and to be mindful about how we treat a house of prayer, and, yes, to believe in the power of prayer.

But why did Jesus have to kill the fig tree? Was it just to make a point? It wasn’t even fig season. Wasn’t he expecting a bit too much? Is this an illustration of his anger before he even reached the temple? It seems almost petulant.

And thinking about petulance and withered plants put me in mind of another story–this time from Jonah (Jonah 3:10; 4: 1-11)


When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it.

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “I pray thee, Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take my life from me, I beseech thee, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”  Then Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city.

And the Lord God appointed a plant, and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm which attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a sultry east wind, and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah so that he was faint; and he asked that he might die, and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”  And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night.  And should not I pity Nin′eveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”


“You pity the plant…”  I do pity the plant. Sometimes it’s easier to pity the plant than the people making money off of other people’s piety. It’s so painful when a tree is cut down. Do I feel that much compassion for the TV evangelist who encourages the faithful to call in their pledges?  Would it offend my sense of justice if God ended up pitying folks who, given what God has already said, clearly deserve a bit of wrath? Would that make me angry enough to die?

So what’s the point? I’m not sure. All I know is that an interesting thing happens when you put these stories side by side. God seems to be using plants to comment on situations where we might be tempted to point the finger and get angry about other people’s sins–where we might get a little rigid in our thinking about justice.

Whenever you stand praying, forgive. That’s all I know for sure. I don’t think it’s wrong to pity the plants. I think I know my right hand from my left. I hope I’m not one of the cattle.


Mercy without justice is not mercy

StCathApse-MosesLaw400h (1)


I learned something about God the other day because of Vladimir Putin. Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center was talking about Putin’s promise to grant amnesty to about 2,000 people arrested for anti-government protest, including some very high profile political prisoners. Pretty much everyone in the world realizes that this was a cynical, calculating, theatrical gesture, but Lipman pointed out that the problem with Putin’s magnanimity goes much deeper than feigned emotion. The problem is that what looks like mercy on the surface is really something else entirely.

Lipman said, “Mercy is maybe complementary to justice, but mercy cannot replace justice, and this only emphasizes the fact that in Russia if you fall victim to injustice and unfair treatment, it can only be the will from above that can rescue you.”

Mercy cannot replace justice.

Why not?

Most Christians I know struggle a bit with the idea of sin and obedience.  We are much more comfortable with verses like “all things are lawful” and “God is Love” than something like “the wages of sin is death.”  We acknowledge human sinfulness, we confess plenty of sins ourselves, but in our heart of hearts, a lot of us have trouble coming to a comfortable place with the idea of God punishing people.

Why can’t we just have God is Love? Why can’t we go straight to Forgiveness without wandering around for years in the wilderness of Justice?

I think it’s because mercy without justice is arbitrary. It’s whim. It restores nothing. It’s an exercise of power. And how can you have a loving relationship with someone whose actions are always only about power?

I suspect that justice–which is a smaller thing than God–is another one of those instances of God’s restraint: a pathway to understanding, in a small way, something about God that would overwhelm us if revealed in its entirety. Justice is a cleft of the rock where we are put for our protection while God’s glory passes by. Justice is about boundaries, while Love has no end.

Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly. Maybe, if we can get our heads around earthly justice, then we can tackle mercy, and perhaps someday move on to divine justice and mercy, and maybe even Love.


Hands and feet: St. Jerome and the Lion


On a day towards even Jerome sat with his brethren for to hear the holy lesson, and a lion came halting suddenly in to the monastery, and when the brethren saw him, anon they fled, and Jerome came against him as he should come against his guest, and then the lion showed to him his foot being hurt. Then he called his brethren, and commanded them to wash his feet and diligently to seek and search for the wound. And that done, the plant of the foot of the lion was sore hurt and pricked with a thorn. Then this holy man put thereto diligent cure, and healed him, and he abode ever after as a tame beast with them.

From “The Golden Legend ,” by Jacobus de Voragine, a medieval compilation of stories about the saints


On a recent trip to Madrid I was captivated by this painting of St. Jerome and the Lion in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Usually the lion appears as an attribute of Jerome based on a story found in the medieval bestseller, The Golden Legend. Here the lion is more than an identifier, and the saint’s relationship with the creature is the focus of the composition.

I love the artist’s gentle juxtaposition of hands and paw, expressing kindness, affection, and blessing. And I love the lion’s face, looking out into the distance as if in contemplation, with just the hint of a smile. It’s as if we are witnessing a moment of understanding between a man and his animal companion.


The story of the Jerome and the lion is interesting and multifaceted. It begins like the tale of Androcles and the lion as an example of charity overcoming fear and of kindness repaid. In this version, however, the lion is referred to as a “guest” (and thus a recipient of hospitality) who then becomes a sort of brother in the monastic community. The lion is given responsibilities reflecting his new nature and according to his abilities–he is to tend and guard the monastery donkey. When the animal is stolen while his guardian sleeps, the lion is falsely accused of having eaten it, which is to say, of not having a true conversion and yielding to the sin of gluttony. The lion is punished and shamed by being forced to take on the work of the ass, and the author notes, “he suffered it peaceably.”

Thankfully the story has a happy ending. Eventually the lion finds the stolen ass, brings it back, and is forgiven.

And then the lion began to run joyously throughout all the monastery, as he was wont to do, and kneeled down to every brother and fawned them with his tail, like as he had demanded pardon of the trespass that he had done.

How curious and fitting that the lion’s nature makes him both run joyously and demand pardon!  And because of the lion’s righteous ferocity, the thieves also come before Jerome to ask pardon. The saint does not take all their valuable oil, though they offer it as penance, but tells them to “take their own good, and not to take away other men’s,” and so debts are paid, sin is forgiven, and community is restored.

Which bring us back to the painting–so different from the many other pictures of St. Jerome–a painting about more than the holiness of a saint. A painting about a saint and a lion. Surely it is no accident that hands and paw should tell this tale and bring to mind those virtues of hospitality, humility, and forgiveness present in other stories we know so well: the washing of feet, the suffering of shame, the blessings of community.

The torn cloak

“An Elder was asked by a certain soldier if God would forgive a sinner. And he said to him: Tell me, beloved, if your cloak is torn, will you throw it away? The soldier replied and said: No. I will mend it and put it back on. The elder said to him: If you take care of your cloak, will God not be merciful to His own image?”


CXXXIX from The Wisdom of the Desert: Saying from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century, translated by Thomas Merton, Shambhala, 2004.

Love (III)

Love (III)

George Herbert


Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lacked any thing.


A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:

Love said, You shall be he.

I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,

I cannot look on thee.

Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,

Who made the eyes but I?


Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame

Go where it doth deserve.

And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?

My dear, then I will serve.

You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:

So I did sit and eat.


A setting of this poem:  “Love Bade Me Welcome” from Five Mystical Songs set by Ralph Vaughan Williams





 “Forgiveness” –a track from TobyMac’s album Eye on It, performed with Lecrae. 



Forgiving love

“Forgiving love is a possibility only for those who know they are not good, who feel themselves in need of divine mercy, who…know that the differences between the good man and the bad man are insignificant in [God’s] sight.”

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
from An Interpretation of Christian Ethics