As I continue to reflect on Psalm 103’s fleshing out of who Yahweh is (translated “LORD” in all caps in most translations), the God who tells Moses that that One is the I am, or the God who is, the God who lives, I am drawn to a particular line in the Psalm:
“who forgives all your iniquity”.
The Psalmist fleshes this out in more detail, saying, “The One Who Is is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Living One will not always accuse,nor keep angry forever. That One does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth,so great is The One Who Lives’ steadfast love toward those who fear Them; as far as the east is from the west, so far They removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Living One has compassion for those who fear Them.”*
One of the things I have found in my own journey is that in times of transition, change, and loss I find it easy to hone in on my failings. When my position as pastor ended at a church painfully, I found myself honing in on all the ways I failed to live up to my best principles as a pastor, all the ways I could have said or done something differently, and all the ways I lost patience with myself and others. When I tried to plant a church and saw it grow, touch lives, and eventually shut its doors, I considered every thing I could have done differently, seeing in stark terms my own lack in the work I did.
When my late wife passed, I remember too being full of regret over opportunities I did not take with her, dreams we never fulfilled, and wondered “what if?” about so many things. When I lost friends to a combination of end-stage AIDS and mental illness some time ago, I remember feeling wracked with guilt that I had not seen how bad things were getting with them both, had not been there to support them more, had not seen how intervention was needed for them both.
In my work as a chaplain, I see how easily our failings and mistakes can haunt us. So often my work is sitting with people as they approach the end of life. Some look back, having found peace with their life, feeling it is well lived. Such folks are ready to accept whatever outcome their illness brings, knowing their life has been full and good. Yet many people find themselves haunted by the pasts they have lived, with memories they regret of choices they wished they had not made or opportunities they wish they had pursued. Likewise, I cannot begin to list all the ways regret wreaks havoc with family members, some who feel powerless to make right ways they have become distant from those they love on the one hand and people frantically trying to make amends, pushing into a few hours or weeks all the love, support, and friendship they have failed for years to extend to a loved one. Ultimately a few hours or weeks cannot undo years and it is always heart-wrenching to see people caught in this cycle of regret about what might have been.
Being stuck by guilt and shame by our past keeps us caught in a loop. It is like Bill Murry in Groundhog Day, we remain caught in a hamster-like treadmill cycle from which we can never recover. For no matter how much good effort we make, a bell that has been rung can never been unrung. We cannot undo our choices of the past.
Yet, the Psalmist suggests that the fact that God is the One of Life present throughout our lives turning death into life, disease & disrepair into wholeness, destruction’s brink into new beginning, shows another path that lies ahead for us.
The way is beautifully named by Desmond Tutu in his classic book titled No Future Without Forgiveness. Ultimately, we are let in on a secret: the universe is a forgiving place. For God, the fount of life for all creatures that live, is slow to anger and quick to forgive.
Ultimately our past failures, mistakes, and heartaches do not have to define us. On God’s end, we each have intrinsic worth. The word for God’s compassion which the Psalmist tells us God extends to each person and each living thing is a form of the word “womb” in Hebrew. God’s womb love for us. God as Father feels for us the same feelings a mother has for her children as they move in her womb. That compassion is a love for a child as if they are a part of your own body. It is a feeling of joy when they are well, and pain or heartache when they suffer. God rejoices as we rejoice, and is pained right alongside us as we endure pain.
This is what Paul is speaking of in Romans 8 when he suggests that the Spirit labors among us, in us, and in all living things as they suffer like a mother in childbirth, uttering in us groans beyond words. Ultimately God’s way of relating to us is this same mother-love, this deep womb-love.
Like a mother, God does not feel this warmth and compassion for us based on what good we have done, how smart we are, or our many accomplishments. No, mothers can tell you: they love their child as it is, helpless and vulnerable. It is unable to feed, clothe, or care for itself, let alone have done great accomplishments be they academic, professional, or deeply moral and spiritual. A mother loves a child simply because it is her own, of deep worth intrinsically. Children are lovably simply in that they are children, before they can do anything right or wrong.
So with us. Our worth is not bound up in our titles, our education, our many accomplishments at work or in moral & spiritual growth. No, our worth exists simply because we are. Simply because we are, in the language of Christian Scripture, children of God. This is what Jesus’ baptism teaches us. God speaks over Jesus saying, “This is my child, whom I love, in whom I am well pleased”. These words spoken over Jesus are how God views each of us: children, whom like a mother always sees her child as of infinite worth simply for whom they are, ones God sees as of infinite worth simply for who we are. Ones whom God loved without condition or limit. Ones deserving of love from others and from God’s good earth. Ones in whom God is well pleased, and thus ones deserving of pleasure as well as seeing themselves as sources of pleasure for others & for this good creation.
This means our worth – and our destinies – are not bound up in our past choices. No, because our worth is not bound up in what we do but who we are, we all have an open future. God is forgiving, willing to separate us from the guilt of our choices as far as the East is from the West, which never meet.
This does not mean we ought not face into what we have done. Instead, the language of God’s anger which does not last, speaks to this reality. Ultimately our feelings of anger are signs that boundaries have been crossed and need to be re-established. God’s anger is a metaphoric way of talking about how God too, as the fount of the life that thrives in us and in all things, has boundaries. And like us, this living presence pushes back against those boundaries being transgressed. God and the universe are forgiving, opening up ways for us to have new beginnings and an open future. But we must also learn to quit pushing against these boundaries, testing fate. For what grieves God’s heart is nothing other than what grieves life itself. To push against what brings true and abiding life for us and others is what produces this push back that is described as God’s anger. To push back against life only makes your own life, and the lives of those around you, sickly and warped. No punishment from beyond is needed to produce suffering there. To choose to push against the things that give you life and others life is like to plant a tree in soil where the water is poisoned. Ultimately until you move its roots to a clean water source or clean the water where it is already planted, that plant will get sickly and begin to waste away.
It is for this reason I think that Desmond Tutu emphasizes that being forgiven – by God or others – and forgiving others is not simply waving a wand to magically take away consequence or act as if nothing happened.
Tutu writes, “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”
To accept the forgiveness God extends to us, found in the graciousness inherent in the web of life in nature, in our relationships, in this beautiful yet at times hurting universe, involves also to face into the depth of what we have done. To see the awfulness, hurt, and costs of our choices. But to do so not without hope, not in a way that gets us stuck, but instead in ways that changes our way of looking at life and looking at the world.
To me this reminds me of what Stan Tatkin talks about in his book Wired For Love. Delving into recent studies of both neuroscience and attachment theory, Tatkin argues that for most people it is in the context of loving relationships that they can experience the most deep inner healing. These can’t just be any relationships, but ones in which they and their partner have cultivated a secure, functioning relationship where both feel the other is in it for the long haul, and both feel secure and safe. In such a situation, people can face themselves for who they truly are, face the pains that haunted their days, and begin to reorient their thinking and patterns of living in ways that launch them into more bright futures, more healthy ways of relating to self, world, and others.
What is true for partnerships is also true for this deep central relationship between us and the God who is the fount of life itself. And why should this surprise us? After all, doesn’t Paul suggest in Ephesians that romantic partnerships are themselves a kind of metaphor for this God-self relationship?
When we feel secure that our pasts and failures do not determine our worth or our future, but rather our worth is intrinsic, we are beautiful and beloved, sources of delight and worthy of delight, we no longer have to live in fear of rejection by God, others, or the world nor live in fear of hopeless failure. Instead, we can trust secure that there is a love encircling our lives as certain as the sun, moon, and stars encircle our days, which will never leave or abandon us. Knowing this, we can begin to face into the depths of who we are in ways that set our lives, so grounded and secure, into new directions that are more healthy and life giving.
Such an openness reminds me of the lesson of the Muslim mystic, Rumi. He writes:
“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”
Being the God who lives, who is found in the stuff of life, this great I-Am revealed to Moses is able to open up a path for us where we can rest secure in who we are, in where we stand with God & the universe, and in having an open future not stuck in place for our choices of this past. As you experience, may it free you to courageously face into who you are, what your life has done, and where you have been. For only in doing so, can you and I open up more fully to all we can be, and all our world can become.
Your progressive redneck preacher,