Forgiveness and Friendship

What exactly does forgiveness look like?  There is no doubt that a lot depends on the people involved both the one forgiving and for the one being forgiven.  I don’t think there is any one result that happens.  A friend recently told me this story:

He had done something that deeply offended a dear friend, making a serious accusation against his friend that turned out not to be true.  His friend walked away from him in disgust and anger.

When he realized that he had been wrong in what he had thought and said, he went to his friend and admitted he was wrong, asking for forgiveness.  His friend told him that he forgave him, but never renewed the friendship.  This man told me he pondered that for years thinking his friend never really forgave him, for if he had really forgiven him, the friendship would have continued on as before.

After many years, he said he came to realize that though his friend had forgiven him, his friend still held him accountable for what he had done.  He said he had imagined wrongly that forgiveness was like a free pass – if you forgive me, you can’t hold me accountable for what I’ve done.  But he said he realized his friend held him to a high standard of friendship – as friends we are accountable to one another, and we should not let friends off the hook too easily if we really value the other person and want them also to learn and grow in wisdom.   We should never let someone off the hook if that only will enable them to continue to commit the same fault – for if they are really a friend they will want to learn and change.

He said he came to realize that in fact in his lifetime he had several times been let off the hook when he had done something that hurt another.   He came to realize his friend  wanted him to be the best person he possibly could be and that meant he had to learn accountability.    A really profound lesson in forgiveness and friendship.  He said he came to understand that his own apology was probably more self seeking – he didn’t want to lose his friend – whereas his apology really needed to include taking full responsibility for what he had done.

He had damaged the friendship irreparably and he had to take full responsibility for  that.  His friend may indeed have forgiven him but that meant he had to share in carrying the burden of the damage.  His friend carried his share of the damage and he had to own up to carrying his own share of the damage done.

An Adventure, Great Lent, the Desert and the Heart

How many of you like to travel?  How many of you find the thought of a great voyage or adventure to be exciting?

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How many of you find that however wonderful travel can be it is always great to be back home?

Whether you like to travel, like an adventure, or whether you like getting home, Great Lent is for you.  Great Lent is a great spiritual sojourn, a great adventure to the kingdom of heaven, and as it turns out, this heaven to which we are sojourning is also our home!

The Christian sojourn is not traveling to a far-off foreign country, but instead it is a journey to the home God created for us from the beginning.  Today in the Church we also remember the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.  Paradise was the place God created to be our home, but we no longer live in Paradise.   This is reality.  The Scriptures tell us of why Adam and Eve had to leave their home in Paradise, they were expelled from the home God made for them and us because of their own rebellious sin.

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At Vespers on the eve of Forgiveness Sunday one of the hymns says:

Adam ate the forbidden fruit and was driven from Paradise.

He sat outside, weeping bitterly:

“Woe to me! What will become of me, a worthless man?

I disobeyed one command of my Master and lost every good thing!

O holy Paradise, planted for me by God, and closed by the weakness of

Eve,

grant that I may once again gaze on the flowers of your gardens!”

The Savior said to him:

“I do not wish the death of my creation!

I desire that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth,

for him who comes to me I shall never cast out!”

Adam and Eve lost not only their home but also lost their way home.  And in them, so did we all.   They couldn’t get back to that home they had lost.  But Christianity says there is a way home.  So in another hymn from Vespers we sing:

O Paradise, garden of delight and beauty,

dwelling-place made perfect by God,

unending gladness and eternal joy,

the hope of the prophets and the home of the saints,

by the music of your rustling leaves beseech the Creator of all

to open the gates which my sins have closed,

that I may partake of the Tree of Life and Grace

which was given to me in the beginning!

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Even the leaves in paradise when they rustle create music which calls to us to return.   And when we think about this beautiful paradise we should feel homesick because this world is full of problems – violence, disease, war, pain, sorrow, addiction, emotional illness, shattered marriages, dysfunctional families.  Something is wrong in this world and with this world.  Sin has shattered our lives.  We have lost touch with God.

Yet, the fact that we can recognize there is a problem gives us hope.  We don’t find ultimate purpose of life in this world, but it is available to us in the life in the world to come.  We can believe there is purpose and meaning to life despite the  sorrows and problems of this world because we understand this world is only a small part of the totality of creation, and life here is a tiny portion of the big history or creation.  We can believe that there is a better way, and trust that there is a God to help us.  Thus we can be full of hope.

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Many years ago I read a book called Emotions Anonymous In which a physician wrote these words:

“As a doctor it took me a long time to find that actually relieving pain is not my goal.  I found that behind all the suffering, pain, diseases, and all the conditions that cause dis-ease, lie the thirst and the hunger of the human being for spirituality.

This hunger and thirst is the aspiration of a human being to be a whole again.”  (p 18)

This physician was describing what we Orthodox have known for centuries.  He went on to say about this world:

“I believe

We want to have no conflict, but we still have conflict.

We want life to be perfect here and now but it is far from perfect.

We want to have constant pleasure but we have pain.

We so want to succeed in every effort we make that when we fail in one area we reject not only our actions but ourselves as well.

We become very fearful.

We try to impress other people by being something we are not, by being phony.

We find ourselves being resentful toward people and life.

We become experts as manipulating people.

We become very self-centered.”  (Emotions Anonymous, p 29)

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In so many ways he is describing the same things we read in the Scriptures about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise and why we struggle on earth with pain and sorrow.  He is describing the descent into sin and a world which is broken.

And when we allow ourselves to truly look at this world, we realize all of the things of this earth not only are intermixed with pain and sorrow but they also are transient, all is passing away.

And so we can think about Christ’s words:  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.”   Our treasure should be our true home that Kingdom of God which is  true, permanent and eternal, rather than being the things of this world which are intermixed with grief and pain.  We should prefer the eternal and everlasting Kingdom to the temporary and transient things of this world which in any case will all pass away.

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Great Lent calls us to look for the eternal even though we live in the temporal world.   Great Lent reminds us that we really do love these temporary things of this world – our favorite foods, the comforts of home, being entertained, the abundance of the earth.  But all we need to do is look around and realize we continue to age, we really are sojourners on this planet and are here only a short time.  Not only are our lives on earth temporary, but everything we so love on earth will pass away as well.

And as we think about all of this we come to the words of the Prophet Hosea in which God himself musing about his own love for Israel  says:  “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.”  (Hosea 2:14)

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God in His love for His people calls us into the wilderness, into the desert to find Him and to find our way home.  Great Lent is a sojourn, it is the journey into the desert where we find God’s love and  our way home to God.    We experience in Lent some discomfort, some self-denial, to awaken in ourselves the knowledge that we are not in our permanent home but are just passing through this life on the way to our home.  Fasting is a spiritual discipline to help us put this world and our lives into a proper framework so that we can seek that which is eternal as well as that which is our true home.

When we think about fasting, we also have to consider that before teaching us about fasting, Jesus spoke first about forgiveness as we see in today’s Gospel.

 For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  (Matthew 6:14-21)

In the Gospel, Christ teaches us first about forgiving and then fasting.  Before we begin the fast we are to forgive.  We cannot pursue the heights of spirituality without first ridding ourselves of the depth of anger and resentment by forgiving one another.

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St Gregory the Great said even sinners and demons can perform spectacular miracles (Pharaoh’s magicians for example did).  St Gregory says forgiving is an even a greater miracle than healing the sick, and every Christian is capable of performing the miracle of forgiveness.   Demons and sinners are not able to perform the miracle of forgiveness.  Perform a miracle today, forgive someone who has offended you or who owes you or against whom you have a grudge.

You are God’s servant, does it serve God for you to hold on to a grudge, a hurt, the anger, the resentment?

The journey we are about to undertake is a spiritual sojourn, and the desert through which we must traverse turns out to be our own hearts which have become hardened, barren and arid by our experiences in this world.  But now we are being called by God to turn away from the world and to come into the desert to meet Him, to turn our hearts into the very place where we will meet God face to face.  The experience of God awaits us if we will undertake the journey.

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We are preparing ourselves to commemorate the Resurrection of our Lord, not as past history, but as our own experience, our history, Christ is risen from the dead, not Christ was risen.  We celebrate this yearly because it is our personal experience, and our community’s experience, not just something that happened to people long ago.  We are to enter into that experience and make it our own.  I do this because of what the Lord has done for me.  God has blessed us in this world and invites us into that blessed life in the world to come.  Are you ready to make this sojourn home?

For the Peace from Above

For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.

Jesus answered:  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”   (John 3:3)

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Jesus speaks to us about being ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’ – which Orthodoxy has understood as the spiritual and heavenly birth given us in baptism.  The phrase “from above” does occur at various times in Orthodox liturgical prayers as in the petition of the litany listed above.  We come to experience the forgiveness we offer to others as the peace from above.  St. Isaac of Nineveh writes:

Consider the forgiveness of your debtors in these things as a work of righteousness.  Then you will see peace exult in your mind from two sides: namely when you are above propriety and justice in your way, and you yield to freedom in all things. (On Ascetical Life, p. 65)

For St Isaac  when someone decides to forgive, they decide that mercy trumps judgment (James 2:13).  In forgiveness, we decide to forego retribution, justice or even validation for one’s hurt because of the offense.  You choose freedom from the demands of justice.

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Forgiveness Sunday is our time to choose the peace from above, to let go the demands of justice and validation and to love another as God loves us.  We enter into Great Lent with the intention to live the Gospel.  “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14).  We offer to others what we want from God.

The second theme, that of forgiveness, is emphasized in the Gospel reading for this Sunday (Matthew 6:14-21) and in the special ceremony of mutual forgiveness at the end of Vespers on Sunday evening. Before we enter the Lenten fast, we are reminded that there can be no true fast, no genuine repentance, no reconciliation with God, unless we are at the same time reconciled with one another. A fast without mutual love is the fast of demons. As the commemoration of the ascetic saints on the previous Saturday has just made clear to us, we do not travel the road of Lent as isolated individuals but as members of a family. Our asceticism and fasting should not separate us from our fellow men but link us to them with ever stronger bonds. The Lenten ascetic is called to be a man for others. (The Lenten Triodion, p. 47)

 

God be Merciful to Me

“But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again.”  (Luke 6:27-30)

St John Chrysostom, once asked about what kind of people would ask God to do something that goes against God’s own commandments.  He was thinking it is you and I!

“Those that make requests it is fitting for God to grant, not beseeching him for what is opposed to his laws.  And who is so bold, you ask, as to make God grant what is opposed to his laws?  Those who intercede with him against their enemies; this, of course, is at variance with the law decreed by him.  He says, remember, ‘forgive your debtors.’ (Matthew 6:12).   But do you call on him against your enemies when he has bidden you pardon them?  What could be worse than this absurdity?  In prayer you should have the appearance, attitude and approach of a suppliant; so why do you adopt another guise, that of accusation?  I mean, how would you succeed in gaining pardon of your own faults when you expect God to be the punisher of other’s crimes?”  (COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS Vol 1, p 52)

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  (Colossians 3:12-13)

Empathy for the Sinner

If, during service, your brother does anything irregularly, or somewhat negligently, do not become irritated, either inwardly or outwardly with him, but be generously indulgent to his fault, remembering that during your life you yourself commit many, many faults, that you yourself are a man with all infirmities, that God is longsuffering and most merciful, and that he forgives you and all of us our iniquities an innumerable multitude of times. Remember the words of the Lord’s prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us..”

These words should always remind us that we ourselves at all times are great trespassers, great sinners before God, and that, remembering this, we should be humble in the depths of our hearts, and not be very severe to the faults of our brethren, weak like ourselves; that as we do not judge ourselves severely, we must not judge others severely, for our brethren are – our members just like ourselves. Irritability of temper proceeds from want of self-knowledge, from pride, and also from fact that we do not consider the great corruption of our nature, and know but little the meek and humble Jesus.

(St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, p. 118)

The Sins I Cannot See

We usually think of sins as actions intentionally or purposefully done, sometimes even done with malice.  But there are also sins and offenses which people commit with no malice because they are unaware of how their behavior affects others.  In this story from the desert fathers, we see exactly this latter case, two monks who are endlessly irritated by the wrong behavior of a third monk.  The third monk’s behavior is so offensive that the two monks decide the most loving thing is simply to move away from him.  But as often is the case, we have to think about what Christian love demands of us and what constraints it puts on us.

They used to say of Abba Poemen that he was staying at Scete with two of his brothers and the younger one was troubling them. He said to the other brother: “This young fellow is our undoing; get up and let us be gone from here.” Out they went and left him. Realizing that they were a long time gone he saw them in the distance. He started to run after them, crying out. Abba Poemen said “Let us wait for the brother, for he is in adversity.” When he caught up with them [the brother] prostrated himself, saying: “Where are you going and [why are you] leaving me alone?” The elder said to him: “Because you trouble us; that is why we are going away.” He said to them: “Yes, yes, let us go together wherever you like.” When the elder saw that there was no guile in him, he said to his brother: “Let us go back brother, for he does not want to do these things; it is the devil that does them to him.” They turned round and came [back] to their place.   (Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp. 256-257)

Building the Parish Through Forgiveness

Forgiving others the hurts they inflict on us, just as we depend on those same others to forgive us the wrongs we visit on them, is absolutely necessary for successful community living. That’s the only way we can live peacefully.

When you live as closely as we do with one another, situations are bound to arise in which someone is hurt or offended. Unless we can be humble enough to speak to each other about these occasions, to communicate honestly because we trust each other – and then be willing to forgive whenever necessary, the bonds that keep us together will become strained and our love for one another will grow cold.

Living in the monastic community, we discover that none of us reaches a state of perfection in which we never hurt or offend another brother or sister. Obviously there are times when this occurs unintentionally, but unfortunately at other times, our demons drive us into behaving less nobly. There will always be situations in which we get irritated, or in which we’ve been hurtful. That’s simply part of being human. What’s more important than that these things occur is that we are ready always to apply the salve of forgiveness when they do, that the healing and mercy characteristic of God may bring about in us a bit more of the kingdom.

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 302-303)

Humility as Being Human

“’What is humility?’ had a simple but penetrating answer: ‘It is when your brother sins against you and you forgive him before he comes to ask forgiveness.’ One story, which illustrates this, suggests that it was only through realizing this kind of humility in practice that one could become reconciled to another with whom one had a disagreement.

A brother was angry with another brother for something he had done. As soon as the second one learned of this, he came to ask the brother to forgive him. But the first brother would not open the door to him. So the one who had come to ask for forgiveness went to ask an old man the reason for this and what he should do. The old man told him,
‘See if there is not a motive in your heart such as blaming your brother or thinking that it is he who is responsible. You justify yourself and that is why he is not moved to open the door to you. In addition, I tell you this: even it is he who has sinned against you, settle it in your heart that it is you who have sinned against him and justify your brother. Then God will move him to reconcile himself with you.’

Convinced, the brother did this; then he went to knock at the brother’s door and almost before he heard the sound the other was first to ask pardon from the inside. Then he opened the door and embraced him with all his heart.”

(Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pp. 252-253)

Forgiveness Sunday: Starting the Journey Home

Great Lent is often metaphorically described as a journey.  It is not a journey that we embark on by ourselves, but we do sojourn with our community of fellow believers.  It is a strange journey though.  Often when groups start on a sojourn more people begin the journey than finish it, as some always drop out along the way.  Lent is not like that.  For today we will begin the Lenten journey, officially it begins at Forgiveness Vespers tonight.  And while we all should be there to wish each other a good journey, sadly only a few well wishers will show up.  But at Pascha, the end of the journey, suddenly everyone wants to be there even if they didn’t sojourn at all.

The Lenten Journey is strange for another reason – for all of the spiritual hymns suggest that we are not beginning our journey today, but rather are headed home.  We are now far away from home, we are in exile in this land we call home – like the Prodigal Son, we find ourselves far away from home.  Where we are is a land of exile, even if earth is the only planet we’ve ever been on – and yes even the United States of America turns out to be a land of exile, not paradise.  And we only have to pay attention to the news to remember this – this is a land in which we use guns to murder our children.

But out true home is God’s paradise, and that is where we are headed, to the kingdom of God.    We are not leaving home, but going home.  And the foods we will eat on the way – Lenten foods – are not foreign foods, but the foods of paradise.  We have been away from home so long that we have forgotten what God gave to us.   Our Lenten sojourn is to revive in us that sense that we are in exile here and we need to find our way home, to our heavenly Father’s home.  In the Narnia books, if you read them, you might remember that the witch gave the children a candy delight which they loved so much that they forgot their true home.  That is the world which seduces us into wanting this to be the only world there is.  We think America is great again, so we aren’t even looking for our true home.

In a few hours we will embark on that noble journey which will last 7 weeks.  Few of us are ever willing to travel for seven weeks to get somewhere.  But Great Lent is a 7 week sojourn which is worth every minute, if we make it so.   We will be challenged by the duties we are to perform – forgiving one another, fasting, repenting, praying, maintaining sobriety, loving, being spiritually vigilant, attending the weekday church services.

Sometimes when we think about this great voyage of Lent, the image which comes to mind is that Pascha is all light, the light at the end of the tunnel.  The tunnel which we must pass through to get to the light is darkness.  This is often how we feel about Great Lent.  But the image is not correct.  In today’s Epistle we heard these words:

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And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.

The imagery of today’s epistle is not that we are moving into darkness, but rather we are putting the darkness behind us.  The darkness is ending and the light is dawning on us.

In Lent we are moving into the Light.  So one of the hymns of Vespers tonight says:

The Lenten Spring shines forth, the flower of repentance!

Let us cleanse ourselves from all evil, crying out to the Giver of Light:

Glory to You, O lover of mankind!

We are to awaken from our spiritual hibernation and joyfully embrace the Light of Great Lent who is Jesus Christ.

One image to keep in mind – it is said in dealing with alcoholism and other addiction that the definition of insanity is to do the same things over and over but to expect that one will get a different result.  Nothing changes unless we do something different.  Great Lent is the time to stop the insanity, to stop our addictions and to do things differently:  repent, forgive, pray and love.

Forgive others from your heart and God will forgive you.   Treat people as if you have forgiven them.  Do it not to change them but to change yourself.

This past week in our country we had yet another instance of gun violence in which 17 people died in in one shooting incident.  A  young man with a gun inflicted untold pain on so many families in Parkland, Florida, but really across our nation.

Today is forgiveness Sunday and I want us to think about another story of a young person who lost her life to violence in an event that happened over 100 years ago in Italy.

Maria Goretti, an 11 year old Italian girl who was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.  Maria’s father died when she was 9 years old, and her mother and siblings lived in poverty, sharing a house with another family.  On July 5, 1902, Maria was home sewing and watching her younger siblings when the teenage son of the family whom they shared the home with attacked Maria with the intent of raping her.  Maria resisted her assailant and he stabbed her 14 times.  She lived about 24 hours after the assault and before she died she forgave her attacker who because he was a teenager was spared the death sentence and instead was sentenced to 30 years in prison.   While in prison, her assailant had a vision of Maria who came to him to say she had forgiven him.  She handed him a bunch of lilies but as soon as he took them in his hand they wilted and died.  He repented of his sin against Maria and when after 30 years  he was released from prison he became a lay monk and even attended the service in which Maria was declared to be a saint.

We are to forgive those who trespass against us – we forgive the sinner, we don’t forgive the trespass, for we cannot always undo the trespass.  Maria forgave her assailant but not what he did to her, for in the end he murdered her.

Maria understood the words of today’s Gospel that we are to forgive.  Maybe you feel someone you know has offended you and you can’t forgive them, maybe they even stabbed you 14 times by their deeds and comments.  Eleven year old Maria Goretti shows us it is possible to forgive such a person.

Our sojourn begins with forgiveness.

Forgiveness Sunday (2018)

If Lent is to be a truly Christian fast, it must be accompanied by love and forgiveness. Thus, before Lent begins, we are called to forgive everyone who has injured or offended us from the bottom of our hearts. Only then can we have a truly Christian Lent. Only then can our fast be pleasing to God.”   (Vassilios Papavassiliou, MEDITATIONS FOR GREAT LENT: Reflections on the Triodion, Kindle Loc. 281-83)

St. John Chrysostom tells us that we should consider forgiving others and reconciling with them as an essential part of spiritual lives – not something optional if it is convenient and easy, but something critical and necessary no matter what what the obstacles or what the cost.

If the Emperor had laid down a law that all those who were enemies should be reconciled to one another, or have their heads cut off, should we not every one make haste to a reconciliation with his neighbor? Yes, truly, I think so!

What excuse then have we, in not ascribing the same honour to the LORD that we should do to those who are our fellow servants? For this reason we are commanded to say, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors’. (Matt. 6:12) What can be more mild, what more merciful, than this precept! He has made you a judge of the pardon of your own offenses! If you forgive few things, he forgives you few! If you forgive many things, he forgives you many! If you pardon from the heart, and sincerely, God in like manner also pardons you…

Do not tell me, ‘I have besought him many times, I have entreated, I have supplicated, but I have not effected a reconciliation.’ Never desist till you have reconciled him. For he said not, ‘Leave your gift, and go your way’. Although you may have made many entreaties, yet you must not desist until you have persuaded. God entreats us every day, and we do not hear; yet he does not cease entreating. And do not then disdain to entreat your fellow-servant. How is it then possible for you ever to be saved? In proportion as the good work is accomplished with greater difficulty, and the reconciliation is one of much labour, so much the greater will be the judgment on him, and so much the brighter will be the crowns of victory for your forbearance. (Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle 2950-62)