Guest Outpost blog by Jeffrey A. Schooley
“But he didn’t say anything, and neither did she. Not because the words were deliberately withheld, but because the pipeline between them was too occluded for such bravery. Too many small accumulations: wrong words, absences of words, imposed quiet, plausibly deniable attacks on known vulnerabilities, mentions of things that needn’t be mentioned, misunderstandings and accidents, moments of weakness, tiny acts of shitty retribution for tiny acts of shitty retribution for tiny acts of shitty retribution for an original offense that no one could remember.” – From “Here I Am” by Jonathan Safran Foer
This quote describes the breakdown in the relationship between Jacob and Julia, but it can be about any intimate relationship – romantic, filial, church or familial.
As a pastor, there isn’t supposed to be any topic that I’m more adept to discuss than forgiveness (or “grace” in our big, churchy way of talking). I’m supposed to know all the ins and outs of forgiveness, recall all the parables about it and be able to wax poetic by saying things like, “the forgiveness we receive in the vertical axis of our lives is supposed to overflow and overwhelm the horizontal axis.” I’m supposed to gush about cross-uttered words like “Father forgive them; they know not what they do.”
I’m supposed to be able to do this, but – truth be told – Foer’s description rings much truer to my life than Jesus’ declaration. My life is full of the accumulation of forgiveness neglected and sins-against ignored. That this has become the case is not (I think) because I’m a bad guy, but because the church has actually made too much out of forgiveness. We have elevated it to such heights, expanded it to such widths, so sought the profundity of its depths that we’ve relegated it straight out of our daily lives.
Part of the power of the above Foer quote is how well he details all the ways we can and do hurt one another. “Absences of words” and “imposed quiet,” “misunderstandings” and “moments of weakness.” The church hasn’t taught me to focus on all of these ways of harming another – and therefore all of the ways that forgiveness needs pursued.
No, the church has taught me that a great chasm exists between me and my God, a chasm so great that no effort of my own – regardless how herculean – will ever bridge it. Instead, it takes the cross of Jesus Christ to fit down in that chasm that I might walk across its X-axis that now bridges the chasm. If this is what you’ve learned from the church, then you have not been misled. This is not incorrect, but neither is it complete.
The church’s description of forgiveness makes it an event of great spiritual heroism, of the holiest of holy occurrences. It is no wonder, then, when little acts of retribution start to pile up in a relationship between spouses, friends, pastor and parishioner that no one stops to think, “Maybe we should try forgiveness here.” Of course not. Forgiveness is meant for the BIG stuff. Forgiveness is found on a cross and, surely, we couldn’t be at that level yet with one another, right?
So I’m curious what would happen if we brought forgiveness down a notch or 20. I wonder what it would mean to spend our days attuned to those moments where we think we should say something but haven’t or those pauses that come for a brief second after we’ve said too much. I also think the church would do well to start teaching that forgiveness falls on a spectrum.
During a session last month, my counselor Tom explained to me that there are levels of forgiveness. For all of my aforementioned intellectualizing, I had never thought of this. Being a pastor, I was – of course – thirsty for some other piece of information about forgiveness that I could trot out at some opportune time and thereby reinforce my authority on all things grace.
I gobbled it all up as Tom explained that for the greatest hurts, the best one might get is, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” He meant that certain things can harm us so much that the best we’re probably going to get is giving all the hurt – and all the retribution – over to God. At the very least, we have ceased to continue the conflict forward with our own retaliatory strikes. At the other end of this spectrum was pure reconciliation. This is the dream, the goal; it is what we experience with our Father in heaven through Jesus Christ. This reconciliation actually leaves the two parties closer than before the harm was done. This is not, of course, to claim some sort of utilitarian, the-ends-justify-the-means approach to bonding through mutual harm, but rather to show the true potency of forgiveness.
The Outlook bloggers were invited to share stories of radical forgiveness this month. I want to have those sorts of stories, but I’m afraid I’ve been addicted to them too long – all at the expense of not forgiving and seeking actual, normal, daily forgiveness. Indeed, it may be no accident that Jesus places “give us this day our daily bread” and “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” side by side.
Or, maybe, every act of forgiveness – no matter how small – is a radical act. In a world so well groomed in denying even little forgiveness, such little forgivenesses are quite radical.
In the end, though, I don’t have a great story of wonderful forgiveness. Go read about the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions out of South Africa, if you need that sort of forgiveness fix. Instead, I have a graveyard of that unspoken “I’m sorry.” They go out to B.P., G.S., K.S., J.L., D.C., B.J., and so many other past friends that I spiritually ran from rather than making myself vulnerable.
But I think I can do better. I think I’m still learning about forgiveness. I think I’m tired of running. I think its time I actually start learning to say, “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.”
JEFFREY A. SCHOOLEY is the teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. In his spare time he binges the best of Netflix, goes to the gym, reads 20th-century dystopian literature and cuddles with his old dog, River.