A Lovely Idea?

The world turns, the years pass, and on this day people of every faith throughout the world pause and gather to mark the passage of a decade since that sunny morning in September when thousands died in a premeditated act of mass murder. We each have our own memories. Where we were. How we felt. How long it took for the reality to sink in. How our lives were touched by stories of loss and of human courage. How much our lives have changed in response to the heart-stopping violence of that day.

We are here this morning to worship God and to remember Jesus Christ. Our faith urges us to perceive the world in the light of God’s grace, and we gather here to receive that vision. We gather here that we may grow in faithfulness to God’s will rather than shrink in fear. We gather here to practice walking in the paths that lead us out of cycles of hatred, violence, and revenge to a life that is God-pleasing. You may call it an uncanny coincidence or a divine gift that one of Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness is the lectionary text for this Sunday.

Forgiveness is at the very heart of Jesus’ ministry. A college professor reports that whenever she asks her undergraduate students in her religion class what they believe to be the most important part of the Christian message, they unfailingly bring up forgiveness. Jesus came to bring a message of forgiveness, they say. So true. And some of the students remember to add that he came to teach us how to forgive one another. In a world where hatred, violence, and revenge are not to have the last word, forgiveness is a daily necessity. And so, every Sunday, we gather to affirm the life Jesus embodied, proclaimed, and opened to us.

Every time we say the prayer Jesus taught us, we speak about forgiveness. Whether we learned to say trespasses, debts, or sins, we put into words our need to be forgiven and to be forgiving. We ask our Father in heaven to ‘give us this day our daily bread’ and in the same breath we remember the one thing we need just as much as bread – forgiveness, given and received, daily.

You know that breaking bread with a stranger is much easier than sharing the gift of forgiveness with a friend. Vengeance and retribution are easy; all I have to do is follow my instincts and let the waves of my emotions carry me. You hurt me and I’ll hurt you back; it’s easy. But there is nothing instinctive or natural about forgiveness. C. S. Lewis wrote,

I said … that chastity was the most unpopular of the Christian virtues. But I am not sure I was right. I believe there is one even more unpopular. (…) Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.[1]

Forgiveness has increased in popularity since C. S. Lewis wrote those lines, but it is still a lovely idea. Like community is a lovely idea, until you are part of one. Like a committed relationship is a lovely idea, until you live in one, daily. We can’t say what’s harder, to forgive someone who has wronged  us or to acknowledge that we have hurt somebody and ask for forgiveness. Most of us know how it feels when a relationship is stuck in tension. We know how it feels to long for resolution, for a way of leaving the hurt behind and moving toward healing. But we also know how it feels to wait for the other to make the first move. We love the idea of forgiveness, but we don’t always find it easy to do, both the giving and the receiving. The idea lives in our mind, but we sense that something other than our mind is needed in order to move out of stuckness, something we call the heart, the soul, our innermost being.

A few weeks ago, I read about Thomas Ann Hines. Thomas Ann was a divorced mother of an only child. Her son, Paul, twentyone, was a senior at Austin Community College, four hours south of their Plano home, when she got a call from the police one night. Her son had been shot; he was dead. The murderer was a seventeen-year-old drug dealer, Robert White. Believing he was about to be arrested for a burglary, he wanted out of Austin fast. He needed a car. Near a video arcade he spotted Hines and asked him for a ride. He told him his mother was deathly ill, that he wanted to see her, and Hines agreed to take him. Minutes later he was bleeding to death, shot through the lungs and heart.

Thomas Ann descended into a pit of anger and vengeance. The hope of her life was gone. She was completely alone now, without a future, without hope, without any reason, it seemed, to live.

She endured the investigation and the trial, hoping for the death penalty. White was convicted of murder, but he was too young for Death Row. He was sentenced to thirteen years “flat time,” and probation until age forty. Thomas Ann managed to survive. She regularly wrote letters to the Parole Board to ask if her son’s murderer “had died yet,” and to remind them that she would fight his release at every opportunity. Her hope was that Robert Charles White would rot in prison for what he’d done to her son. But struggling to heal, she read voraciously, books on the soul and the spirit and the criminal mind, and the more she read, the more interested she became in who these offenders actually were.

One day she was invited to join a panel of violent crime victims speaking at one of the state prisons. The idea is that victims tell their stories to inmates—not the offenders in their own cases—in an effort to show the human consequences of their crimes. Hines was already convinced that inmates had it too easy, and she thought they ought to be facing “real guilt and pain.” If she could make them do that by telling her story at prisons, she was ready.

And then she sat at the front of the room, awaiting her turn to speak to the 200 assembled inmates, and she noticed a red-haired young man sitting not far from her who, she says, “could easily have passed for Paul’s brother. I looked at him, and suddenly thought to myself, ‘what would his mother want to say to him if she could say something?’ I realized that if my son was in this room, I’d want someone to reach out a hand to him.” It was a moment that instantly transformed her from an angry lecturer to a compassionate mother. It was the beginning of her new life’s work with victims of violent crime and offenders.

On the morning of June 9, 1998, in the chapel of the Alfred D. Hughes Correctional Facility in Gatesville, Texas, where White was an inmate, Thomas Ann Hines sat across the table from the murderer of her son. They talked for eight hours, and if I had just one hour, I would tell you all the things they talked about. No, it wasn’t forgiveness. It was just hard, painful truth. But when, in the course of the conversation, the young man put his face down on the table at which they sat and began to sob, she reached across and touched his arm.[2]

I don’t know if this story did become one of forgiveness. It is a story of healing, though, of moving out of stuckness. What I love about it is that it isn’t one of those tales of modern day saints that give forgiveness a patina of heroic exception, when it is in fact deeply embedded in the day-to-day struggles that are part of living with others. It is not the exceptional that moves me in Thomas Ann’s story; it is the long arch from unimaginable loss to new life. And what moves me more than anything is that moment when she sees a red-haired young man among the inmates and suddenly realizes, “if my son was in this room, I’d want someone to reach out a hand to him.” The love for her son enabled her to see those men – men who had committed terrible crimes – not solely as offenders but as children of mothers, and in that recognition a new and better future began.

“If a brother or sister sins against me,” Peter asked Jesus, “how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

The first lesson in forgiveness is that it isn’t something that can be counted. When your brother owes you money and you forgive his debt, that’s easy. He borrows money and you forgive his debt. Once. Twice. Three times. Ten times. You can do it as often as you want or think is wise. But if your brother or sister sins against you, you can’t make yourself forgive them. Forgiveness is hardly ever a simple matter of will, something one decides to do – once, twice, three times. Forgiveness is not a series of seemingly saintly acts. It is a call to a future better than vengeance, a future not bound by the past. It is a call to move out of stuckness.

You can’t make yourself forgive anyone, but you can make the effort to remember your own dependence on God’s acceptance of you and all your brokenness. You can pray that this deep memory of God’s mercy will shape how you react to those who have injured you. Forgiveness is not so much something we do as it is something we participate in. It is a healing river whose source is not in us. Forgiveness begins with God’s love for the world, a love we recognize most fully in the life of Jesus Christ.

In Jesus, God becomes vulnerable to the world of human beings, vulnerable to the human capacity to touch, caress, comfort, and hold, but also vulnerable to the many ways in which we abuse, betray, mock, and abandon one another. In Jesus, God enters the space where sin destroys trust and friendship and all that is sacred between us, and Jesus ends up judged, condemned, and crucified. Everything ends there, in the darkness of Friday. Everything but God’s mercy and faithfulness. And God makes the first move by raising Jesus from the dead.

Forgiveness is much broader than a lovely idea. It is one of the names we give the new creation we inhabit, initiated by the One who makes all things new. Forgiveness is a healing river flowing freely from the heart of God, and all we do – all we can do – all we must do – is remember that we live in the flow of God’s forgiveness, and allow that memory to shape how we relate to each other.

And if a brother or sister sins against me, it always begins at the beginning, countless times: Take a step. One-to-one. Face-to-face. Take a breath. Tell the truth.


[1] Mere Christianity, Harper Collins 2001, p. 115

[2] Jon Wilson, Crying for Justice http://www.justalternatives.org/CryingforJustice.pdf