The practice of forgiveness

Our Vineyard Central church community is gathering this afternoon for worship, prayer, and fellowship. Through Lent, we are dwelling in Psalm 22 and a “word” of Jesus from the cross to guide our worship. One brother, Greg York, will be reflecting today on the Psalm and Jesus’ word “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

In preparing my spirit for our time together, as I’ve traveled to and from work this week on the bicycle, I’ve tried to be mindful of that word of Jesus.

“Today you will be with me in paradise.”

I have let it repeat over and over in my mind. I have spoken it out loud. I have said it in cadence with the circular strokes of my pedaling. As the phrase has settled in my spirit, I have been impressed at the core commitment it displays. Radical forgiveness.

The context of the “word” is the interactions of two dying men being crucified with Jesus. One mocks him, and the other defends him. In response to the basic defense of the one (being “rightly” executed for being a violent threat to the Roman regime), Jesus, in the midst of his intense physical and emotional pain, reaches out in forgiveness to the man. Without making a statement on the man’s depravity, Jesus draws the man into an embrace that will transcend the death they both are about to experience. What a gift!

This reminded me of a story I had heard awhile ago that illustrated the powerful embrace of forgiveness. The story was first told to psychologist Jack Kornfield by the director of a nearby rehabilitation program for violent juvenile offenders.

One 14-year-old boy in the program had shot and killed an innocent teenager to prove himself to his gang. At the trial, the victim’s mother sat impassively silent until the end, when the youth was convicted of the killing. After the verdict was announced, she stood up slowly and stared directly at him and stated, “I’m going to kill you.” Then the youth was taken away to serve several years in the juvenile facility.

After the first half-year the mother of the slain child went to visit his killer. He had been living on the streets before the killing, and she was the only visitor (in jail) he’d had. For a time they talked, and when she left she gave him some money for cigarettes. Then she started step-by-step to visit him more regularly, bringing food and small gifts.

Near the end of his three-year sentence, she asked him what he would be doing when he got out. He was confused and very uncertain, so she offered to help set him up with a job at a friend’s company. Then she inquired about where he would live, and since he had no family to return to, she offered him temporary use of the spare room in her home. For eight months he lived there, ate her food, and worked at the job.

Then one evening she called him into the living room to talk. She sat down opposite him and waited. Then she started, “Do you remember in the courtroom when I said I was going to kill you?” “I sure do,” he replied. “I’ll never forget that moment.” “Well, I did it,” she went on. “I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this earth. I wanted him to die. That’s why I started to visit you and bring you things. That’s why I got you the job and let you live here in my house. That’s how I set about changing you. And that old boy, he’s gone. So now I want to ask you, since my son is gone, and that killer is gone, if you’ll stay here. I’ve got room and I’d like to adopt you if you let me.” And she became the mother he never had.

This story reminds me that forgiveness is not an emotional decision, where one must emotionally feel at peace before forgiving someone we believe has wronged us and/or others. Forgiveness is a posture toward others that transcends our emotion. We make a decision, which establishes firmly within us that our emotions will not rule us. We let our decision lead us. The emotions catch up later. May I pursue such a commitment.

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