Thomas Leinbach
Congregational Church of Brookfield

Learning Forgiveness

At a Bible study, I once was asked a question common to the particular topic at hand: forgiveness. Why is it so difficult, I was asked, to forgive ourselves for past transgressions? After all, scripture proclaims boldly and clearly that God's forgiveness is real and total; that when forgiving us, God actually "forgets" what it is we have done.

As a case in point, consider God's covenant with Noah, a covenant which, at its core, is about forgiveness, both now and in the future - and to all generations. Pointedly, the narrative features a God whose forgiveness is unconditional - a free act - one that neither has been asked for nor is in any way merited As with all gifts it's free, symbolized by the rainbow, which defines not only the nature of God, but the kind of ongoing relationship we can expect with God.

So why is it so difficult to forget our past indiscretions when scripture assures us that God, at least, already has?

Anne Tyler's novel of some years ago, Saint Maybe, offers a superb analysis of the problem. The novel centers on the Bledsoe family of Baltimore, a tight family unit known for their solid values and unflappable conviction that things always turn out for the best. Even when one of their sons, Danny, brings home Lucy, a young woman with a checkered past, already with 2 children and another on the way, they smile and welcome her no questions asked.

The other son, Ian, however, is far less receptive and suspects there is more to Lucy's past than the family is willing to admit. One night, after begrudgingly babysitting Lucy's three children, Ian becomes enraged. Danny, slightly inebriated from a bachelor's party, comes home only to encounter his brother's rage, as Ian confronts him with what he suspects about Lucy - including his mistaken hunch that Lucy is having an affair. Tragically, after dropping Ian off at home, Danny floors the accelerator and peels rubber down the street.

"Near the stone wall at the end of the block the brakes should have squealed," Tyler writes, "but instead the roaring sound grew louder. It grew until something had to happen, and then there was a gigantic, explosive, complicated crash and then a delicate tinkle and then silence. Ian went on staring into his own eyes. He couldn't seem to look away. He couldn't even blink, couldn't move, because once he moved then time would start rolling forward again, and he already knew that nothing in his life would ever be the same."

A year later, Danny's widow, Lucy, despondent over Danny's death and her own inability to care for her three children, dies of a drug overdose. Despite his family's "sunshine" approach to the tragedy, an unbearable darkness hovers over Ian's life. He understands that Danny's death has changed his life forever. He is racked with guilt, the truth that he caused the death of both his brother and sister-in-law remaining his solitary and terrible secret.

As Ian faces the future, he is tormented not just by his guilt, but with the uncertainty of having to live with a past that cannot be undone. For him, life has gone hopelessly awry. So we wonders: Will forgiveness, for him, ever be a possibility?

After first trying to rationalize away his culpability, he eventually, reluctantly, admits to himself his transgressions. He now wishes he could be sent to prison, for at least then he would have a concrete way to pay for his tragic mistake. He desperately wants to confess what he has done. But his family and friends think Danny died in an accident. To tell them otherwise would cause them untold and unnecessary grief. Ian tries to tell his girlfriend, but she refuses to accept it, his words, Tyler writes, "like some physical object that she kept batting away."

Ian begins to wonder if he will ever find relief from his guilt. How long will he have to pay for just a handful of tossed-off words? All he wants now is to back up and start over - to have just one more chance.

During Lucy's funeral at the Dover Street Presbyterian Church, he hears the pastor, Dr. Prescott, pray consolation for the bereaved: "Let Thy mercy pour like a healing balm upon their hearts," Ian hear him pray.

"Could the balm soothe not just grief but guilt?" Ian wonders.

"In the midst of Ian's yearning thoughts," Tyler writes, "he heard the congregation singing: 'The darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide!' The voices became as one voice, a voice of great kindness and compassion, a voice gentle and wise and forgiving. 'In life, in death,' they finish, 'O Lord, abide with me,' followed by the long sighed 'Amen.' They sat down. Ian sat, too. His knees were trembling. He felt that everything had been drained away from him, all the grief and self-blame. He was limp and pure and pliant as an infant. He was, in fact, born again."

But Ian quickly realizes the inadequacy of such forgiveness, partly because, with the passage of time, he is unable to recapture the feeling he had had at the funeral. The sense of forgiveness had been satisfying emotionally, but such sentiments are difficult to sustain unless they are integrated into the friendships and practices of Christian life. Knowing how inadequate a cheap, therapeutic forgiveness is, he remains trapped in a world where punishment, and self-punishment, seems the only option.

As it is, Ian feels like a hopeless sinner, aching for a blameless life. Then, walking home listlessly after work one day, he passes a storefront church with the words THE CHURCH OF THE SECOND CHANCE written across the front window. Intrigued, he enters inside. After a series of events, he suddenly, unexpectedly, finds himself asking for a prayer for himself, and in response, is overwhelmed by a powerful silence - the congregation is taking his prayer request seriously! How could God not listen, he reckons, when this whole congregation is praying for his forgiveness?

After the service, the pastor, Reverend Emmett, asks him pointedly, "What was it that you needed forgiving?" The next thing you know, Ian is confessing the whole thing, only to hear in shock the pastor say that Ian actually is not yet forgiven!

"I thought God forgives everything?" Ian protests.

"He does," Reverend Emmett says, "But you can't just say, 'I'm sorry, God.' Why, anyone would do that much! You have to offer reparation - concrete, practical reparation, according to the rules of our church."

Ian finds himself accepting Rev. Emmett's advice, perhaps because he has finally encountered a seriousness about forgiveness, even if - or especially if - it involves concrete reparations. Real sin requires real action, he surmises. So Ian becomes a member of the Church of the Second Chance and ends up taking responsibility for raising Lucy's three children.

Ian recognizes for the first time that any forgiveness worth anything must be linked to repentance, to a changed way of life. Of equal importance he recognizes that forgiveness is not simply about his personal feelings of guilt, but about the brokenness the sin has created. Ian's "second chance" involves making amends for that brokenness by means of concrete actions.

But as Ian earnestly sets himself to the task, he finds himself growing more and more despondent. For Ian now believes that he must do all these reparations in order to earn God's forgiveness. The changes in his life, he tells his father, are "something I have to do for myself, to be forgiven." But rather than seeing a changed way of life as a consequence of God's forgiveness, Ian misperceives forgiveness as something one has to earn through works. As he goes around obsessively trying to do the right thing, he begins to notice that the only change in his life - especially his interior life - is a marked deterioration in its quality.

The Church of the Second Chance rightly emphasizes the disciplines of holy living, stressing that Christian faith does involve a changed way of life - not empty words. Yet those disciplines, separated from the work of Christ whose forgiveness gives those disciplines their intelligibility, become a form of mere self-punishment. For the Church of the Second Chance only right actions matter - regardless of a person's interior life, their thoughts and feelings. So after years of penance, Ian still does not feel forgiven.

Ian, the author says, "felt like an arrow - not an arrow shot by God but an arrow heading toward God, and if it took every bit of this only life he had, he believed that he would get there in the end." The focus here, of course, is on the human effort to reach God, rather than God's effort through Christ to reach human beings.

In the end Ian does find forgiveness, but only as he learns to re-connect with humanity, something he does in stages (previously he had thought that shutting himself off from others was the only remedy to his past over-involvement). He also comes to see that genuine forgiveness comes not by trying to undo the past or by paying for past mistakes forever, but by accepting the grace of God without which there simply can be no new life.

If his sin has separated him from himself and others (which is what sin does), his redemption comes when he slowly learns to come to terms with himself and with others, in the context of God's forgiveness. His redemption teaches us that forgiveness is a process of learning a new way of being, in community with God and with those God has given us.

Ian had discovered at the Dover Presbyterian Church that words and music are important, but they too readily can become an all too easy way to make people feel better, instead of engaging them in the process of remaking their lives in response to God's forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

Ian has learned the dangers of trying to earn God's forgiveness through reparations and works alone, as taught by the Church of the Second Chance. The mistaken notion of finding forgiveness simply by doing things, when these things are detached from the practices and affections of Christian life and relationship, inevitably invites self-righteousness or self-despair. Despite his prodigious efforts, Ian simply had remained trapped in his own sin and alienation.

At its core, the true significance of sin is broken relationships. So the only real solution to sin is a reconciling of those relationships by means of a new spirit - that spirit born of divine mercy and grace.

God's forgiveness in Christ is less a word spoken to assuage our guilt and more a word of transformation - of our relationships with God and one another. True salvation is found not in trying to undo a past that, after all, cannot ever be undone, but in healing the brokenness of the past, a healing that frees us in the present for renewed relationships born of the Spirit.

Finally, the Christian life is an ongoing communal activity of learning, in and through the Holy Spirit, where we learn to live into the forgiveness that forms the basis of our relationship with God as has been restored through the resurrected Christ. Amen.