Forgiveness: Paying the Cost

Forgiveness can be as swift and easy as accepting a friend's apology for being ten minutes late for lunch at the restaurant. Or it can be as grueling, as costly, as seemingly impossible, as forgiving a divorce or a business betrayal. What makes the latter kind of forgiveness particularly difficult is this: the other person may not care in the least. They may feel utterly justified in their mistreatment of you. They may even take pleasure at the injury they've caused you--or they may take no thought at all. Whether you forgive them or not means nothing to them because you yourself are of no consequence.

That's the kind of forgiveness reflected in Jesus's words "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing" (Luke 23:34). Father, they just don't have a clue. No idea whatsoever. They're prisoners of their ignorance, blinder than beggars and twice as poor.

Mercy and compassion toward those who showed him neither: that's the extreme brand of forgiveness Jesus showed toward those who were killing him. Jesus didn't pray "Father, forgive them" in order to set a lofty example; he prayed those words because he meant them. In his heart he longed for something far better for his persecutors than vengeance; he longed for them to one day see, and understand, and live.

What's particularly important to note is, forgiving his executioners didn't change Jesus's immediate circumstances. The black iron spikes remained in his wrists and feet. The agony of crucifixion wasn't relieved. Jesus still died a torturous, shameful death hanging naked on a post for all Jerusalem to see.

What changed was that the back of hatred was broken. It lost its self-perpetuating power--because the One who did know exactly what he was doing absorbed its worst blow and countered it with love for those who inflicted it.

Sometimes today we hear stories of that radical brand of forgiveness: The father who adopts his child's murderer and raises him as a son. The college woman who, without minimizing the violence perpetrated on her, refuses to harbor bitterness against her rapist. The prisoner wrongly convicted who, when the truth is finally revealed, forgives those who took fifteen years of his life from him and far more besides.

For such people, forgiveness is no glib thing. It is big-ticket, and those who have been wronged are the ones who must foot the bill. Doing so may begin simply with this thought: "If I had the power to send those who have hurt me to hell...I would not."

Forgiveness desires life, God-life, for the offender. It desires vision for the spiritually blind. It chooses--often against the forgiver's own conflicting emotions--to pray for the release of those held captive by their own hate or sheer, selfish unconcern for the pain of others.

Forgiveness is not trite. It is not easy. It may even be miraculous. It is one choice followed by as many more choices as it takes.

If--no, when--we are deeply injured, may Jesus grant us his eyes to see clearly what the other person cannot see at all. May he give us the grace to pray from our heart, "Father, forgive them. Help them to see. Help them to know your love for them and for others. And grant them what you have so graciously given me: life--true, deep, powerful life."

For the Love of a Tree

Child of the Monarch

Child of the Monarch

Across the stream behind my late-boyhood home in Cascade, Michigan, there stretched a forest where hepaticas bloomed purple and pink in the spring, profusions of trilliums scattered like popcorn beneath the understory, and colonies of downy rattlesnake plantain and shining club moss nestled amidst a sprawl of partridgeberry. A network of trails, known well to my feet, led up and down wooded hillsides, over streams, and across clearings past the stone ruins of pioneer homesteads, all the way to the banks of the Thornapple River a mile away.

In that forest, not far from my house, a tall old white pine stood sentinel on a hillock overlooking a tiny swamp. During the awkward and often painful years between twelve and eighteen, when a boy goes through his confusing transition to early manhood, that white pine became my friend.

It was a magnificent tree whose bark had long ago roughened from the gray slickness of a sapling to the brown, rugged furrows of a monarch. To say it was a wise old tree would be to impose too much on it. It was a tree. But it knew how to listen. And it knew how to welcome me to its sheltering shadow, where a circle of soft, fragrant needles spread like a blanket on the forest duff. There I could lay me down in the shade and silence, and look up through the branches at the clouds passing over, and smell the piney air, and simply be. I had a place to go and think and pray, and a great pine to talk to whose murmur in the breeze became all the reply and exactly the companionship I needed.

When life got difficult, as it often did, I would go to my friend the tree. It was always there. My place, my tree. My good friend. My beloved white pine.

In the spring of my eighteenth year, the sound of chain saws invaded the woods. Next came the bulldozers, and shortly after, the inevitable. There came an afternoon when I arrived home from school to find a massive strip of raw earth carved through the woods, down the hill to the edge of Trout Creek. The beautiful, tall tamaracks, which for years had lit the swamp like candle flames in the fall, had been thrust heedlessly aside. And sprawling in their shattered midst, its branches reaching skyward in mute supplication, lay my friend the white pine.

I dropped my books, ran across the homemade plywood bridge that spanned the creek, and rushed up the slope to where my pine tree lay. Tenderly I stroked its branches. And as golden pine pollen rose about me in a cloud, I wept. My friend—my dear, dear old friend. My heart is broken. I will miss you so!

Ten or twenty feet distant, just beyond the ruin of the bulldozer, I spotted a pine seedling, no more than a foot and a half tall. Undoubtedly it was the child of my giant white pine.

I recrossed the bridge, picked up my books, and headed to the house. In the garage, I grabbed a shovel. Then I headed back across the creek, and I dug up the tiny white pine, and I took it home and planted it in the side yard next to the garden.

That was more than forty years ago. My father died ten years later, my mother and sister moved to Grand Rapids, and in the ensuing years I have rarely visited the old neighborhood. But this evening I drove past the house on the corner of Tanglewood and Tricklewood Drives. It looks well kept, and the yard has filled in beautifully with trees. And there on the side, the white pine I planted long ago is growing still. I would like to say it has attained stately height and dimensions, but it appears that the homeowners have trimmed it so that it resembles a white pine bush rather than a tree. Nevertheless, it is vigorous, and I am satisfied that my old friend and confidant from decades past lives on in one of his progeny. The owners haven't a clue as to the origins of their pine bush. But I do. I am part of the story.

My friend the white pine gave me his shade, his fragrance, his patient presence, and a place to talk to God and rest my teenage soul. In return, I gave my friend's offspring a chance beyond the earthmovers that converted a noble forest into backyards where wild orchids no longer grow nor ruffed grouse drum in the spring.

I did it for the love of a tree. It was what I could do; it was the least I could do. And I am glad today to know that my small deed was not in vain. My friend's lineage continues, and with me his memory remains, golden, like pine pollen rising as a cloud and glowing in the sun.

   

Enoch: The Man Who Walked with God

The things one discovers in the Scriptures in unexpected places! This excerpt from the early genealogies in Genesis, for instance:
When Jared had lived 162 years, he became the father of Enoch. After he became the father of Enoch, Jared lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Jared lived a total of 962 years, and then he died. When Enoch had lived 65 years, he became the father of Methuselah. After he became the father of Methuselah, Enoch walked faithfully with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Enoch lived a total of 365 years. Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away. When Methuselah had lived 187 years, he became the father of Lamech. After he became the father of Lamech, Methuselah lived 782 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Methuselah lived a total of 969 years, and then he died. (Gen. 5:18–27)
Notice anything unusual? Let me provide a larger context. The Genesis 5 genealogy lists ten men, from Adam to Noah, who lived phenomenally long lives. Seven hundred, eight hundred, nine hundred years—my mind has a hard time absorbing lifespans like these in an age when one hundred years is very old indeed. But it is the man whose age is the least impressive that stands out to me. In the midst of this forest of ancient oaks—including a dad who lived 962 years and a son, Methuselah, whose span of 969 years makes him the longest-living human on record—Enoch walked the soil for only 365 years. It is his relative brevity that captures my attention. Enoch was a mere sapling, so to speak, still glistening with the dew of youth, when "God took him away." How odd, and how striking! Yet just as significant is what comes directly before: "Enoch walked faithfully with God." The statement doesn't mean those other guys didn't also relate to God. Two of them obviously did, and I'd imagine the rest did as well. But similar words aren't written about any of them—not even Adam or Noah. Only Enoch. There seems to have been something very special about his connection with God. As the book of Hebrews points out, Enoch didn't taste death; rather, "he could not be found, because God had taken him away" (Heb. 11:5). I call that remarkable. The only other time you read of such a thing in the entire Bible is when Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind-borne fiery chariot. (Imagine seeing that!). Moses died. David died. Even Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, died—and absolutely had to. But Enoch? He simply vanished, translated in a heartbeat into God's direct presence. Enoch's desire for God seems to have been reflected by God's desire for Enoch, because he took Enoch at a very young age, as ages went back then. What should I make of that? I don't know. There's not enough information to build a teaching on it. But this much I can get out of Enoch's account, and I will put it in the form of a prayer: Father, let me please you. Let my relationship with you be something like Enoch's. I know the weaknesses of my flesh. I am fraught with the crud of my mortality. But I am also a branch of the true Vine, Jesus, and I am rooted into your heart. Let your life flow through me in a way that delights you—not so that I can, by some miraculous circumstance, avoid tasting death like Enoch did, but simply because, at the core of my being, I love you. I think you are wonderful. And odd as my life is, and strangely shaped as I am as a person, I nevertheless so very much long to reflect the beauty and goodness of who you are. I want to walk with you like Enoch did. Please help me to do so. In your name, my Lord, amen.