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."

Saint Patrick’s Day 2017

Saint Patrick’s Day morning brushed the sky an hour ago with a red caress, dimming to a gentle rose, then to a waning, creamy yellow. That too faded, leaving only gray stratus stealing overhead from the west. Snow and rain are in the forecast for today, March 17, 2017. Somewhere up there, up above the clouds, the sun is shining, but I cannot see it.

Today Lisa is leaving. Her Ford Explorer is already packed. In a while, her oldest daughter, son-in-law, and their toddler will arrive to load her larger belongings into a trailer and accompany her, along with her beloved cat, Siam, back to Missouri.

It is good. It is God. My prayers of more than eight years for Lisa are being answered—not in a way I had anticipated, but in the way that is best. For Lisa will once again, at long last, be with her four children, and now with her grandbabies as well. A mother whose heart was broken is being reunited with those she loves most, now grown, who ten years ago were ripped away from her in the most unjust and painful circumstances. For all of them, the long journey apart is about to end. It is time for the restoration of hearts—above all, of Lisa’s heart. No one except Lisa herself knows better than I the importance of this season of new beginnings. For I have seen, I have seen with my eyes and with my own heart, the great love and the terrible, deep longing Lisa has borne within her every day for her three daughters and her son—for Sophia, Olivia, Shannan, and Jeffrey. Now at last they will be together again. It is wonderful, and beautiful, and so very, very right.

But it comes at a great cost. This apartment, infused with Lisa’s presence, will be empty without her. Most of whatever she leaves behind will serve only as memories. Even her glasses that remain in the cupboard—stout, solid glasses whose functionality I appreciate as a man—will have her name on them in my heart. Our relationship has been so odd, so utterly out of the norm in today’s time and culture. It has never been the stuff of a romance novel. But it is most certainly a great love story that the Lord has written on the pages of our lives.

This is enough for now. Lisa is finishing with packing her vehicle, and her daughter, son-in-law, and grandson will be arriving soon.

* * *

Facebook post, about 1:30 p.m.

She is gone. My dear Lisa. My heart goes with her. I stood by the roadside at the end of the parking lot and watched her white Ford Explorer head down the road behind her daughter and son-in-law's car, turn right, and disappear, bound for her long journey to Missouri to be with her children and grandchildren. It is very painful, but it is also wonderful, and good, and so very much the Lord's heart and the answer to prayer. The restoration of a mother with her children, and the healing of hearts, is worth the price of loss and tears. God bless you, Lisa, my dear one, and Shannan, Olivia, Jeffrey, and Sophia. Your mama is on her way home at last.

So it is that my eight-year journey with Lisa comes to an end. I sit now in my usual spot in the couch in the living room, from which vantage point nothing seems to have changed. Across the room from me, my work station looks the same, and to the right, the dining room table is in its usual place. Outside the sliding door, the bird traffic remains constant at the feeder, and from the kitchen comes the familiar hum of the refrigerator.

But at the end of the hall, the door to Lisa’s room is open and the room is empty.

Lisa is probably somewhere near Chicago by now. The same stratus deck that coats the sky overhead with a uniform pale gray also covers eastern Illinois. But not far to its west, according to the satellite, Lisa will break out swiftly into the sunlight and enjoy clear skies for the rest of her trip to her new home. Here it will remain cloudy and cold. Oddly, though, a while ago a single roll of thunder rumbled gently over Hastings. I liked that, and Lisa would have too.

It is strange that I can grieve and yet feel such peace. It is the Lord’s peace. He is with me here, as surely as he is with Lisa, and I sense his care for me. I am brokenhearted but not broken, for there is a wholeness and grace that comes from knowing I have fulfilled his will, a blessing that comes from dying that life may spring forth. It is what Jesus did for us; it is what Lisa did for her children; it is what I have done for her; it is what all of us who love him must do, in whatever ways he has uniquely ordained for each of us, if we are ever to love powerfully and redemptively. It is part of the fellowship of his suffering, and it is a great, great honor. To love another person as Jesus loves them, however imperfect a job we make of it, is worth everything—because that person is worth everything to Jesus. Everything. That is how he sees them, and he has a way of causing us to see them that same way.

Lisa, pearl of great price.

I will reorganize this apartment, now mine entirely to do with as I will. I will move things into Lisa’s room, and I will transfer the clutter out of the side room into the large walk-in closet, and my life will go on. Last I knew, the world didn’t stop revolving at 1:30 this afternoon. Seems like it should have, at least for a couple of seconds—that would have been appropriate—but when I check my email, I see that I’m still getting the usual idiot spam advertising “Toe nail fungus removal . . . by tonight!” (exactly what I’ve been craving; how do they read my mind?) and “Mark Cuban Q&A on the habits that made him so rich” (like I care a rodent’s rectum).

Yes, I will move on, for that is how this kind of thing is done. For now, though, I will let things be. What’s the hurry? There is no hurry, none at all. I will finish writing this piece and publish it in my blog, and then I will go get something to eat, for I am famished. I will think of Lisa, so dear to my heart, and of her children, so dear to hers, and I will pray for her and for them. Later this evening I will head over to my close friend Ed’s house and watch Fringe episodes on DVD. (Thank you, Lord, for good friends who know me and love me). And finally, I will return home, and hopefully sleep well, and this momentous Saint Patrick’s Day will end very different from when it dawned.  

El Roi, The God Who Sees

According to the world population clock, on November 15, 2016, there were  7,359,444,900 people inhabiting our planet. More than twice as many had been born (117,572,614) than had died (49,606,841) during the year by then. Those numbers include the  315,873 babies born on that date alone, and the 133,275 people who died in hospitals, in back alleys, in third-world hovels, in military firefights, in car crashes, by lethal injection, and at the hands of terrorists, and who breathed their last breath surrounded by loving families or alone, disregarded and unmourned.
 
We live in a staggering sea of humanity. Yet each of us lives our life as an individual. When we laugh, grieve, hope, hunger, create, destroy, suffer, make love, and engage in all the experiences and emotions of being human, we do so as an I, not as an amorphous droplet subsumed by a vast conceptual ocean called the human race. Concepts don't feel; individuals do.
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You do. I do.
 
When we love, it's one on one. It's on the individual level, not the global, that significance and love play out. The survival of our species is not a value for me. Faces, names, and personal relationships—those are a value. My beloved Lisa's well-being is a value to me. When I think of her, it's not as "a member of the human race" but as a person I care about deeply, someone very important to me whose value is beyond calculation. I think of my mother and sister and brothers and friends the same way, each in their own right. And that's how it is with you too with the people you love. You know each one by name, uniquely.
 
How small we are, and how utterly unknown and unimportant, on the grand scale of humanity. Yet how big each of us is, and how known and beloved, as an individual in the lives of other individuals whom we ourselves know and love.
 
That is how God views us: individually.
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In the midst of a brutally pragmatic, humanistic Roman culture, Jesus revealed a God who knows and cares for every person as someone special and intrinsically precious. Here are some of the things Jesus said:
 
"If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep!" (Matt. 12:11–12).
 
"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows" (Matt. 10:29).
 
In his book Who Is This Man?, John Ortberg writes, "When a baby is born, what do parents do when they look at [its] fingers and toes for the first time? They count
them. . . . Jesus was saying, 'God doesn't just number your fingers and toes. God loves you so much that he numbers the hairs on your head."*
 
How is that possible? you may wonder. God has an incomprehensibly vast universe to manage. How can he possibly keep track of every life on our planet, let alone care about me?
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By being God—a being who far transcends anything our intellect can grasp. God views size, scale, quantity, distance, and even time from a perspective we know nothing of. He stands outside the universe and holds it in the palm of his hand, viewing it as if it were a handcrafted model. Yet God also permeates that same universe, inhabiting the tiniest space within spaces, where electrons loom like planets, and in the infinite smallness he declares, with complete identity and authority, "I AM!" Every point of view in time and space, from the interior of the remotest sun to the intimate chain of our thoughts from birth to death, is at God's command simultaneously. Words like big and small, fast and slow, far and near are irrelevant to God except as tools for communicating with us, locked as we are in a physical frame of reference to which he himself is not bound.
 
It is no big deal for a being like that to attend to you and me individually, no problem at all for the very Source of personhood to care for us personally.
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Number and track the hairs on every one of 7.4 billion heads? No sweat. Number the hairs on your head, call you by name, know you thoroughly, and care for you beyond what you can grasp? Child's play for your heavenly Father, motivated by his unfathomable love not just for anyone but, very particularly, for you.
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Our problem in trusting in God's care for us doesn't lie with his limitations but with our own. We simply cannot grasp how utterly GOD he is.
 
This is the One to whom you and I belong. I need to know this; I need to believe this. Amid the overwhelming problems facing our country and our world, amid the mass of humanity and the events sweeping across our planet, I need to know in my heart that here in our little apartment, Lisa and I are not alone. Our heavenly Father knows us, sees us, loves us, cares for us, guides us, and provides for us. How desperately I need him to do these things for us—and how faithfully and lovingly he has done so and continues to do so.
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For he is El Roi, the God who sees (Gen. 16:13). In the far, lost reaches of the desert, he saw the runaway Hagar. And in the back corner of this world, where most of us live our unremarkable lives in obscurity, he sees you and me.
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Because God is GOD.
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And God is love.

* John Ortberg, Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 35.