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The hard work of forgiving

by Mar 16, 2021Parish Blog

How do you offer forgiveness? I suspect that the most common offer consists of “I forgive you” or “Don’t worry about it” or “Don’t give it a second thought” or “It’s nothing.” And that all might be true, but sometimes it is only the socially-expected response. It is what we do because we are Christian and we are called to forgive 70 times 7 – or about 490 times…and maybe, just maybe, some of us keep track. But, are we really at peace with our response?

This all reminds me of the Parable of the Sower. You remember, the Sower goes out and generously sows seed. Some fall on the pathway where the birds come and eat up the seed. Some seed falls on soil, but it is thin soil and so when the heat of the day comes, the plant dies for lack of roots. Some falls in among the weeds and are just overwhelmed. But some falls into rich soil and blossoms bearing 30, or 60, or 100-fold. I often note we are to look at our feet to see where we are standing – and move if we need to.

I think the richness, thinness, rockiness or “weediness” of our spiritual life is directly correlated to our ability to forgive.  Maybe a quick way to check is to think about a person with whom you have had a confrontation of some kind and you offered to forgive them.  What now flowers in that relationship? Or what has died on the vine?

When Jesus calls us to be forgiving people, He asks us to tend to a garden in the Kingdom where our lives and relationships flourish, blossom and yield a 100-fold. And like all gardens you have to tend to it daily. It is a habit to be formed, a routine to be lived, and takes practice and patience.

It is a wonderful thing to consider how God tends to His garden, ever showering it with grace and love – and a whole lot of forgiveness. And there is the model of the way we are to tend the garden of our relationships. While we can hold out the image of color, wonder, and harvest as the fruit of our labor – we have to be realistic about the hard, back-breaking work of gardening.

So why put in the hard work? Sirach is one of the Books of Wisdom. There is great insight from that lived Wisdom: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.”  Wrath and anger are the toxin that eats away at us – and notice who suffers? The one who keeps them close with spiritual life that is thin, rocky, and filled with weeds.

Two good friends of mine gave me a great practical insight about forgiveness. When they married they made the promise that they would accept all the children God would bless them with and that they would get them all through college.  Nine children later and they eventually started off to college. Yikes! He was retired military and had a good pension and a good job. Did I mention there were nine kids? They were smart kids and had scholarships, but…. And of course, as the primary breadwinner, he felt responsible to provide. So, when a project opportunity arose that offered increased pay, per diem, bonuses and the like, he jumped at the chance. It was as though God answered his prayer.  Did I mention the job was all the way across the country?

But no problem. The project provided funds for him to be home every weekend. And that always sounds great, but the constant shifting between time zones, the travel time, the wear and tear… ‘Honey, I am just exhausted. So, I am going to stay out here just this weekend and rest, OK? Love you!” Remember “honey” is at home alone with the nine kids.

The weekends were increasingly “frosty” shall we say. One flight back to the job site, it dawns on him that the primary promise he’d made was to love, honor and respect his wife – kids and college were additions to the more foundational promise. So, he made arrangement to leave the project, return to the home office – and had all week to think about what he would say. The last flight, the return home, he constructed the impassioned speech he would offer as part of atonement.

At home, he arranged for some alone and quiet time with his wife. He recounted the whole sad story, he owned his faults, the burdens he had placed on her, his failures in his marriage vows, and then simply asked, “Please forgive me.”  After a bit of silence, she simply replied, “No. I am not ready. But I will be, just not now.”

What can we learn? Forgiveness is not denial. Forgiveness isn’t pretending that an offense didn’t hurt us, perhaps to the core. We should not brush it off as though it does not matter. Wounds hurt and we don’t forget – the memory will be coming back. The only question is will it come back with a toxic chaser or simply as a memory. My friends tell their story as part of marriage preparation. Clearly, they remember, but when faced with the problem – they understood things needed to change and so they began by acknowledging the fault and hurt. They were honest about their feelings. And that became the starting line of how they were going to tend the garden of their marriage anew.

Forgiveness has no shortcuts.  There was no palliative, “I forgive you.” The next morning the weeding and watering was still there. It was not a sunny day in the garden, but the garden was there to be tended. And they talked about the everyday things. They talked about how they had reached that point. They remembered all the good harvests they had shared. They lived, they loved, they remembered – and it took time. Forgiveness in the Christian tradition isn’t a palliative; it works hand-in-hand with the arduous work of repentance and transformation.

Forgiveness is not synonymous with healing or reconciliation. “No, I am not ready, but I will be.” Healing has its own timetable, but I love her response, “I will be” – and that implied be hopeful but know there is some hard work to do. Forgiveness can be the agreement to plow under part of the garden even as the other parts are faithfully weeded and watered. And then replant – to enrich the soil. In this sense, forgiveness is not an end; it’s a beginning.  An orientation.  A leaning into the future.

And finally, forgiveness is not quick and easy.  The garden does not let you take a break if you’re serious about the garden. It is every day – no pretending otherwise. It is a bit messy, sweaty, and you are going to get dirty.

That is some of the lessons we can take from their story.

My friends? My friends get to see the fruits of their garden blossom into the lives of their children. The kids all attended college and have kids of their own. My friends continue to tend to their garden and keep their feet planted in the deep rich soil of their marriage. Their lives together is not perfect, but it has yielded a 100-fold.

May you tend to the rich soil of your relationships and may they blossom.