catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 15 :: 2007.07.27 — 2007.09.07


Forgiveness and responsibility

I realized tonight that my current struggle began years ago in Westwood—in the mix of a moist, Pacific Ocean breeze and the upscale streets of shops, restaurants and clubs that surround UCLA.  There is a 12-year age span between me, my brother, and my sister; so, when we talk about family, there are issues that they experienced as teenagers for which I, as a young child, was barely present.  We’re not close in other ways as well.  My brother lives in New Jersey, my sister near Chicago, and I in southern California.  I’m a writer, my sister does interior design, and my brother is a systems engineer.  I attend church.  My sister and brother left church with enthusiasm in their teens, and when they look back, their words are harsh.  I have a book coming out on Christian literature and my brother, at his birthday party this last December, expressed in no uncertain terms his lack of desire to read it.

When we met for dinner in Westwood—a rare alignment of our paths—we also met together for the first time as adult children.  I was in my early twenties and sorting out my identity through my family history:  my father passed away when I was eight, and I was trying to tap into my brother’s and sister’s memories.  Somehow we got on to the issue of church—something that rarely happened—and my siblings both became a bit agitated, rueful, and, for my benefit, a little cautious.  While my mind’s images of our childhood church in New Jersey are its location (on a hill overlooking an orchard) and its Sunday night pot-luck dinners and services (it was a Swedish church, and the Swedish meatballs were authentic and plentiful), theirs were on what they perceived as the hypocrisy of the members—particularly on the need of those there to keep up appearances.  Certainly, I said, this was not true of my father—my whole life I had heard nothing but eulogies of my father’s grace, humor and talents.  My brother glanced at my sister as if to ask whether to throw caution to the wind.

“Same with dad,” he said.  “Same with everybody.”

In the ensuing years I have questioned my brother’s rather unforgiving and idealistic stance on Christian community.  After all, I would reason to myself, the issue is ultimately not what happens at church; the issue is the person on Christ.  I had often been tempted (but not bold enough) to reason with him as follows:  you love engineering, and even though you know some fairly awful people in your profession, you would never stop being an engineer.  So, if you understand who Jesus is, then despite the behavior of his followers, why would you give up on being a Christian?

This sounds good in theory, but life can have its ways with good theories.  I now make my living in the greater Christian community (I have worked at three Christian universities) and I have been committed to attending church since my born-again experience when I was 20.  Things of late have not gone particularly well.  I have questions about the general American church’s tendencies to mix up its politics and its theology; I have had a difficult run-in with a group of people at work which, in my opinion, has involved a good amount of misunderstanding and conduct at odds with the professing of the Christian faith.  It’s a difficult situation for me because there is so much on the line:  in my heart, I am an idealist.  The stakes are very high for me when it comes to the Christian community, and my disappointment has caused me to question at times not Jesus, but whom he has chosen for company.  The result is that I’m having a lot of trouble forgiving and letting go.  This is how I feel:  I remember reading an interview, again years ago, in the Wittenburg Door, in which the interviewee lamented, “I guess I have seen too many non-Christians who are good people, and too many Christians who have acted badly.”

God has been working with me in all of this, in that typically painful and embarrassing way that God has about him.  One of my favorite essays is Anne Lamott’s “Forgiveness” in Traveling Mercies.  As she contemplates the problems of her enemy, God seems to be leaving her annoying phone messages via her friends or posting strangely biting slogans on her acquaintances’ refrigerators.  One of them was about God loving us too much to allow us to continue on as we are.  And so has God (thank God) been up to his rather unsubtle methods with me lately:  in a sermon at church, at a small group during a discussion on marriage, though music, through literature.  God seems to have pulled out the stops; my attempts to compartmentalize my problems have been fruitless.

The first part of the solution to my state of mind is obvious to most Christians, I suppose, but from what I can tell, I’m not the only one who occasionally has trouble remembering it.  Christ calls me to love and forgive people regardless of their behavior—not in tough love, “allow-me-to-be-the-Holy-Spirit-for-you-and-point-out-your-problems” sorts of ways, but in difficult ways, as in returning kindness for unkindness, actually wishing them well in my prayers to God and words to others, and generally holding my tongue.  Christ also calls me to own what I have done wrong in the situation and move on—not in a superficial way in which I move on quickly from my own part and hang on to the wrongs of others, but in engaging what I have done wrong and working on correcting it, as I quickly let go of my Christian brothers’ and sisters’ problems instead.

The second part is less obvious.  In my small group’s discussion on marriage, the speaker on our DVD study was talking about sand as an irritant:  in an oyster, the irritant produces a pearl; in a human eye, it produces an irritated eye.  The irritant has no real inherent qualities but to bring out the inherent qualities of the one being irritated.  In other words, when we experience irritants and conflict and bad behavior in life, what inherent qualities do they reveal about our hearts?  For me, they were producing a series of unpleasant warning signals:  I was becoming unforgiving, bitter, much more concerned with the behavior of others than my own sins, quick to anger, defensive—the list goes on, I assure you.  The long-term results of such a state of the heart moves from unpleasant to dangerous.

Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Revelation”, tells of the spiritual digression of its protagonist, Mrs. Turpin, who has developed a disconnection.  She believes that she is a good, Christian woman: she goes to church, does good deeds, attempts to be kind to those around her, is socially respectable, and is quite grateful for her husband, Claude.  Unfortunately, her self- image is suffering a disconnection from her thought life, in which she constantly judges those around her, is offended by their color or social class, and thinks horrible thoughts generally about how the world has gone to hell.  As she sits in a physician’s waiting room (and believes herself to be one of the only people there not in need of a physician), her thoughts begin to leak into her words until the people in the room cannot stand her anymore.  God resorts to using a particularly disagreeable agent—an acne-faced, snarling college student—who finally knocks Mrs. Turpin over with a book on human development and then breathes into her face, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”  Mrs. Turpin spends the rest of the story, as some of us Christians sometimes might spend our time, wondering how she got from being saved to becoming a “wart hog from hell.”  Without these God-given moments of self-reflection, we lose our way and end up rather useless to God and our neighbors.

There’s a third part to my troubles, though, that connects both to Mrs. Turpin and back to my siblings:  collateral damage.  We Christians seem to go through cycles of messing up our lives, realizing our mistakes a bit too late, repenting, and perhaps working on correcting the errors.  But we, or I at least, do so wildly:  I create a lot of collateral damage before I realize my mistake, and then spend a lot of time attempting to restore what I have broken and lost.  Sometimes though, as in the case of my own siblings, the damage done cannot be undone.  We Christians, whose theology has a lot to do with forgiveness and redemption, don’t do a good job of realizing cost.  Sometimes our peers want to hit us over the head with a human development textbook; at other times we create so much trouble that they leave the room and don’t come back.  So, although I know that forgiveness is good and real, and that irritants are useful in telling us the condition of our hearts, collateral damage done to others is real.  Perhaps, as the Church, we could concentrate less on self-forgiveness, and more on not doing the damage in the first place.

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