I continue looking at prayers that have both pulled me and others through personal trials and struggles. In the last several posts I have looked at the Lord’s Prayer itself.
Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
I am continuing this morning to reflect on the part of the Lord’s Prayer in which we pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. Last time, I began to reflect on another rendering of this line – “forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us” exploring the concept of sin as debt to others, to God, to the web of life itself, to our own souls; and how it calls us to be partners with God in mending ourselves, our lives, and our world.
Today I want to look at the limits of our ability to mend and make amends which this prayer invites us to consider.
In the book of Romans, chapter 13, St. Paul urges us to “8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
This is a beautiful summary of the image for failing to live up to our best which is included in calling this “debt”, an image I noted last time is not unique to Christianity but also exists not just in the Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Islam but also in a certain sense as a part of the Eastern concept of karma we see present in Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. We discussed how it is important to note our actions truly do have an effect on others, on nature, on our own souls and we have a responsibility as people of spirit to work to mend the parts of the fabric of life our own choices have damaged.
Yet there are limits to our ability make amends, to set right what we have done.
For me this was powerfully pictured in the comedy show “My Name is Earl”. In this show a very redneck guy who’d lived his life causing trouble, committing petty crimes, and generally being disrespectful has the twin experiences simultaneously of winning the lottery and getting hit by a car. When he comes to in the hospital he hears a TV personality on the hospital TV talking about karma. This leads him to decide perhaps he ought to mend his life. The whole plot of the show is that Earl sits down and writes a list of everyone he has wronged and each episode he uses the free time his lottery money has earned him to go and try to make amends. Sometimes it is touching to see this happen. Other times it is painful and hilarious, for often he confronts situations in which what he has cost another person can never be literally repaid and he has to come up with creative ideas to make amends. And sometimes, amends cannot come.
There are times in life that we cannot unring a bell. This is a real human problem that can be heart-breaking and which every faith of the world deals with differently. In many of the Eastern faiths, such a concern seems to be at the root originally of the idea of reincarnation. We do not reincarnate, at least according to the earlier forms of these faiths, when we’ve figured it all out in life. No … either we are released to nirvana or ushered beyond death into some higher level of reality. We are reincarnated because we have unfinished business, strands on the web of life we have damaged and not yet repaired, lessons the universe is trying to teach us we have not yet learned. And so there is a grace imagined present in the universe to provide us time and space to heal ourselves, others, and our world from the wrongs we have done.
By and large the faiths of Abraham are more skeptical about the idea of reincarnation, although you can find strains of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity which embrace this concept. By and large, though, these Abrahamic faiths embrace more an idea of resurrection. We live our whole lives but once on this precious speck of a planet in its circles around the sun. And then, whether immediately or at some final day in the future, our whole self is ushered through resurrection into the next world into the presence of God.
For me, I’m unsure how literally to understand either reincarnation or resurrection to the next world (which my Christian faith calls “heaven”) and have a hunch that, in their own way, both sets of images speak to a deeper truth in which these two seemingly contradictory depictions of what comes for us after death are not opposites but two sides of the same coin. I imagine until I get to that other side I won’t know how, but I think we will find many of these seeming contradictions across the boundaries of established traditions to in fact each have held some truth about what lies ahead.
Even though Christians tend not to believe in karma and reincarnation in the way our Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh brothers and sisters do, we really do confront the same issue behind that idea: sure, we can make amends. Certainly we can strive to set right what we have done. But at the end of the day, if healing, wholeness, and restoration – whether of our own souls, of our relationships with others, of nature itself, and even with God – depends on our ability to make things completely right again, we are screwed. No matter how hard we try, there will always be things we face where we can never undo the damage we have done. There will always be areas where even the amends we do make still leave threads hanging loose, and so often no amends remain.
The Christian answer to this dilemma is seen symbolically in the person of Jesus. In Jesus Christians believe God appears to us, embodied in a human life, the life of one who freely embraces everyone without condemnation and fully expresses heartfelt selfless love. In Jesus God comes to us, bridging the distance all our failures to love, failures to have compassion, failures to serve, creates. In Jesus God offers unconditional forgiveness, welcome, and embrace. Ultimately to embody this for us, Jesus lets himself be killed by us, for we do not understand unconditional love when we see it and we lash out as human beings when we see what we do not understand, at least until we have raised our own awareness enough to birth compassion. The meaning of Easter is that somehow such a love and forgiveness can overcome even the most destructive act against love: torture and murder itself. In some mysterious way the very people who lashed out at Jesus fearful of his unconditional love encounter him alive again beyond death, somehow victorious over death itself, continuing to extend grace.
This choice – to not let wrongdoing, failure to love and extend compassion, define our relationships with ourselves, others, God, or the world – is the type of forgiveness the prayer Jesus teaches us is about. It in fact is a call to live a courageous hope in the face of the world’s hatefulness (and our own).
We see this choice at work when Dr. Martin Luther King chose to call for horribly oppressed people of color to not choose violence but nonviolent loving resistance, and he chose in the fact of horrible suffering, persecution, and ultimately his murder, to continue to cast a dream of a world in which people of all races laid aside their historic grievances, their systems of oppression, and found true community and family together.
We see this choice at work when Corrie Ten Boon chose to make space for Jews hiding from NAZI soldiers in her home and then, after her imprisonment and mistreatment by the NAZIs for such compassion, her choice to forgive and embrace the same soldiers who hurt her and others when they came seeking her forgiveness.
I think we see this choice courageously at work when, in post-Apartheid South Africa, the government under the leadership of faithful people like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela chose to not seek blood from all who had bought into and accommodated the system of racist oppression (which was almost everyone who was white in some small or large way) but instead to find a middle path, however imperfect, which held open the possibility of people making what amends they could and allowing for a healing beyond retribution for the whole community.
Whether you picture it through the hope of reincarnation or the promise of God come in Jesus, the spiritual truth both picture is that there is a grace at work in the universe beyond what we have done right or wrong, beyond our ability to repair what we have damaged, which can work healing and new beginning. It calls us, especially in the words of Jesus’ prayer, to open ourselves up to accepting that before anything we can do, there is an unconditional love and acceptance of who we are. This grace can empower us to change ourselves and set right where we can, knowing that more grace beyond our failings is present even when our attempts to mend fall flat. There is a healing power in the universe that will rise up to meet us, bringing to completion what we begin, a power known by many names but to Christians like myself known as Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit, the One God at the center of all life. This grace too if we will let it move through us, bit by bit, will call us to extend that some hope for others, so that while we may not allow ourselves to be taken advantage of or abused again, we also will hold out hope for others to change, to make right, and a grace that looks at the effort made when even such attempts fall flat, a grace ready to embrace an build new relationships and new community.
May we all taste of, see, and live out this grace this day and all our days.
Your progressive redneck preacher,