Posts tagged ‘forgiveness’

September 10, 2012

I’ve Made an Unforgivable Mistake . . .

I’ve Made an Unforgivable Mistake . . . Psalm 51: 1-12

Besides the common saying that “there are two things that you can be certain of in life death and taxes” I would add two more things. You can be certain that human beings will do stupid things from time to time and also not want to admit that they’ve done so.

(This would never happen to anyone in this room, of course).

When I talk today about “making an unforgivable mistake” what I mean by this is more than just forgetting to take out the trash when your spouse asks you to, or leaving your child at daycare too long, or even forgetting to pay your mortgage one month but a point in your life when everything hits a bottom.  A point when the consequences of your actions loom like a dark, dark cloud over your head. And, in such moments of crisis, we have several choices.

When we make such huge mistakes, one choice we have is to lie.

A lawyer friend of Kevin’s and mine practices Fairfax County. He recently told me about a case that came to his attention at his firm.

Two friends were going out for drinks one Friday night and went a little overboard. Instead of calling a cab or another friend to take them home, the two friends got in the car and decided to find their way home. When they began to swerve all over the place and soon found those flashing blue lights behind them, the two men made their choice. They played fruit basket turn over in the car with the passenger coming to the backseat and the driver coming to the passenger side. They curled themselves into a ball like children and pretended to be asleep.

When the officers came to ask who was driving the car, both gentlemen had blank looks on their faces as if aliens had driven them to the side of the road. Neither of them would admit they drove or knew who drove the car, even when they were handcuffed and taken to the station for questioning. It seemed that lying was just easier than telling the truth.

Or, when we make mistakes, we also have the choice to blame other people or influences.

A famous poet once said: “You can smile when all goes wrong and you have someone else to blame.”

I don’t know when is the last time you’ve been in a room with children, but when you are, you’ll probably notice children are more sophisticated than you think at the blame game.

When you get a group of them together and ask, “Who make a mess of the toys? Or, who spit on the floor? Or, who bit the girl sitting in the corner crying?” You probably won’t get a straight answer right away. Even before children and utter complete sentences many of them learn the game of pointing fingers at others. “She did it.” “No, she did it.” “No, he did it.” From the mouths of babes through our adult life, blaming other people is just easier than taking responsibility for our own actions.

Or, when we made mistakes, we also have the choice to simply hide, avoiding all consequences put together.

You only need to read a newspaper to check the headlines on CNN to see this scenario played out in a modern context. Especially for those in positions of leadership and/or power, it is a whole lot easier to use your influence to avoid consequences than it is to be full of integrity.

Names like John Edwards, Tiger Woods or even Arnold Schwarzenegger probably bring to our minds stories of scandals gone wrong—simply because these men decided to spend more time covering up the truth instead of facing it.

In our Old Testament reading for the day, we find the poetic work of the great king of Israel, David. A guy who not only lied, blamed others, but also hid when it was discovered he had messed up big time.

My hope is that as we examine this passage today we will look both at the truth our human condition but also that we would find great hope our God whose mercy is never-failing when we think we’ve made an unforgivable mistake.

To get the whole story about Psalm 51, we have to go back to 2 Samuel to learn that David wrote this when all was going wrong for him. Things were especially bad for David because no one, you see, really ever expected him to many any mistakes. He was the golden boy of his generation. He grew to be the man young women swooned over and older women said, “Isn’t he the cutest?” He was seemingly the perfect answer to Israel’s crisis of leadership.

Though his predecessor, Saul had tried to lead the kingdom of Israel both in God’s ways and in defeat of their enemies, his personal jealousies among many other things meant he was unsuccessful. When David came on to the scene, we know had great success over his enemies right away.

The saying went Saul slayed thousands of enemies but David killed ten thousands making David, even more popular because peace started to come to the land. And, even the Lord sang his praise calling him “A man after God’s own heart.” I can imagine how easy it was for David to begin to believe his own press.

But, then there was this beautiful woman bathing on a rooftop. (Now, you and I know about this as a sweet children’s Sunday school lesson. But if we are to read it as adults we know that the tale goes from G rated to for adults only).

Bathsheba was bathing and David. Bathsheba’s husband out-of-town, so David just could not help himself. Even though he could have had any available woman in the kingdom and already had several wives in his household, greed and lust got the best of David. He has an affair with Bathsheba.

When David got word that Bathsheba was now carrying his child, he makes a plan whereby Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah is sent from war so that the child could be thought to be his. Yet, when Uriah refuses to lie with his wife on his furlough from war, David makes sure that this little problem will be disposed of quickly and quietly. David sends Uriah’s troops to the dangerous front lines and soon he’s dead. Pregnant Bathsheba now moves into the palace with David and has his son.

While the cover-up seemed to work and from the outside everything seems ok, all was wrong with David life at this point.

Everything was about to catch up with him too. The man after God’s own heart had committed adultery and ordered the murder of an innocent person. He was hiding his wrongdoing.

David should have known that something was up after Nathan, the great prophet of the country, shows up at his doorstep, but he doesn’t say a word. It takes a convicting story and a truth in your face kind of accusation from Samuel: “You are the man!” before David begins to own up to what has occurred.

Yet the beauty of this David’s response in 2 Samuel 12:3: “I have sinned against the LORD.” David does something that few in our society do when all goes awry in front of their eyes. He says he was wrong. He says he messed up. He stops all rounds on the blame game and he confesses not only these things but that he has sinned against the Lord.

But had David made THE unforgivable mistake? Adulterer, murderer, liar, coveting his neighbor’s wife? You name it, he could easily have been judged by the three strikes and you are out rule of our modern US justice system. To many at onlookers in David’s time, they could have easily said, “Well, get the furnace ready. . . for we know that David guy is going to burn, burn, burn in hell for eternity.”

This leads us to the bigger question of are their unforgivable mistakes?

Well, let’s stick close with what David does after he comes back to his senses of reality. David turns to the Lord. David realizes that yes, he’d done things that had hurt his family, Bathsheba’s family and even his nation, but above claiming that he done wrong against God.

Look with me at chapter 51, verse four: “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” You see, David wasn’t trying to do anything to get out of his mess other than recognizing he deserved any punishment he might receive. David was acknowledging that “sin is a problem concerning God and his relation with us. Not anyone else.”

Because of this, David’s confession turns attention back to God.  He recognizes that any real help he could have comes from God. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whither than snow.” In admitting wrongdoing, David says his future lies in the hands of God.

And what David was asking for was not the self-deprecating type of confession “I’m such an awful person there’s no way that God can forgive me” BUT an invitation for God to come into his life and in a new way.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (10).

David asks for God to bring into existence in him what was not there before. To, create in him a different outlook. We know this as he’s chosen the same Hebrew verb that was used to describe the creation of the world in Genesis 1. David desires a new creation in his very being.

Yet, in the end, I believe this Psalm becomes more about God and God’s character than it ever was about David anyway.

Psalm 51 shows us the mercy of God at a level that is mind-boggling to most of us.

David’s sin was forgiven (he was allowed to remain on as king of Israel, and even have another child with Bathsheba after the first one dies who eventually became king Solomon!). It’s amazing isn’t it?

In a culture of logical thinkers, it is hard to believe that God would love us, as he did with David when we make such a mess of our lives sometimes.

It is hard to believe that God loves us unconditionally and can give us clean hands and a pure heart again when we ask because such a love is nothing like we experience even in our best of human relationships.

It is hard to believe the hiding, the lying, and blaming others way of doing things could be exchanged for a better way of being just as we are by a God who longs to create something new in us.

It is hard to believe that our God can make the crushed bones in us rejoice afresh, for such type of hope is not what we see readily in our society today. Such a hope rarely exists.

But, yet, the message of Psalm 51 reminds all of us again today that such unbelievable statements are actually true.

Though you might be sitting in your pew thinking this morning, “I’ve not murdered anyone this week or committed such life altering event such as adultery…. (which I applaud as a pastor) so what is in this text for me?”

I offer you this morning that this text speaks to all of us who in some way or another are wandering around in the messes of our own making.

When we truly get honest with who we are—I know that all of us have some “thing” in the back of our minds that we believe God doesn’t like about us or an act done to us that continues to bring us shame, even years after the act has passed.

But let the excuses cease! Let me be your messenger this morning to remind you that we ALL are offered the opportunity of restoration. Today, we are given this stop of the journey to confess the ways we’ve fallen short of the mark of God’s best for us knowing that as we cry to God: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” that God will do just this.

If you’ve made a mistake, if you’ve made a really big mistake, or if you’ve made a really, really big and unforgivable mistake, I give to you today a God who lovingly desires to keep relationship with you intact, no matter what. Those you hurt may or may not forgive you, understand you, or work on reconciliation with you. Yet this fact remains: you are loved even still. I give you a God today who longs to re-create a clean spirit in you— so that you are whiter, whiter than snow for now and forevermore.


March 27, 2012

A New Relationship

Lenten Series– Promises in the Night:  A New Relationship

Jeremiah 31:32-34 with Mark 14: 66-72

Lent is a self-reflective time when we are asked to slow down and reconsider parts of our lives that we might just rush through at other times of the year.  

So, in the spirit of the season, I’d like to ask you this morning to reflect upon a few things with me just a minute. Consider a time in your life that you wish you could forget. This could be a time when you said something hurtful to a loved one, a time that you acted out in public in an embarrassing way, or even a long stretch of time when you rebelled and turned your back on all the good things in your life. If you were standing before God at the pearly gates right now, what are the moments of your life you wish that God would forget?


When I think about my life, I wish God would forget that day I ruined my father’s car by running over a cinder block (and wasn’t honest about it) just one week after getting my driver’s license.

I wish God would forget that day early in my marriage to Kevin that I was so angry I threw a shoe at him.

I wish God would forget the countless times I failed to love the Lord with all my heart, all my soul, and all my strength and to love my neighbor as myself.

I, like you, have many times that I wish just didn’t happen– that God would just forget.  

When we meet the apostle Peter, in the latest installment of Jesus’ dark night of the soul this day, we encounter him during a few moments in his life that I bet would be on his “I wish God would forget this” list too. Peter, does the unthinkable as Ken illustrated for us this morning as our worship began: he turns his back to his best friend.

And this is the scene: Jesus has just been arrested. He has been seized by the Pharisees and the chief priests and taken in for questioning. Peter follows Jesus to the courtyard of the house where the high priest held him. And though it appears that this will become his shining moment– being the only among the named 12 disciples who even follows Jesus after his arrest– such is not the case. No not at all.

When one of the maids, a young girl who served the high priest noticed Peter’s presence and remembered his face as one of the traveling companions of Jesus, she asks in verse 66: “You were with Jesus the Nazarene” weren’t you?

And though Peter should have said and could have said a simple “Yes. Yes, I was with him. Yes, I knew him.” , fear paralyzes Peter. He denies any connection to this man who had inevitably changed his life saying: “I neither know nor understand what you mean.”

What Peter? Are you serious Peter?  Yes, he was. He denied any knowledge of knowing Jesus.  It was going to cost him too much. Maybe they’d soon be arresting him as well. He couldn’t bear the thought of that.

So, as the young girl with a good memory– she just knows she recognizes  Peter as having been a friend of Jesus– asks the same question and again, again and again we get the same answer. He even goes as far to swear. “I do not know this man of whom you speak.”

And at that very moment, the cock crows for the second time to fulfill the prediction that Jesus had made of this “I wish I could forget it” moment of Peter’s life.  Peterremembers that the Lord had told him: “before the cock crows two times, you will deny me three times.”

It might have seemed at this juncture that all was lost for Peter and his relationship with Jesus. It might have seemed that Peter royally screwed up so bad that from that moment all would be lost. It might have seemed that Jesus would never speak to him again.  It might have seen that all of those years Peter prepared for this moment where all eyes were on him to make a confession were a complete waste.

In the same way, when we read the prophetic book of Jeremiah, we could easily be completely depressed too. Jeremiah affectionately known in modern times as the prophet who should have been on Prozac but wasn’t.  Scholars often called Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet”.

But, why? Commentator, Wil Gafney writes of the context of Jeremiah saying, “Jeremiah lived through the demise of his civilization when the Babylonians invaded Judah, assaulted Jerusalem, and reduced the temple to rubble, exiling, or killing the royal family, priests, prophets, and majority of the population.”[i] The nation of Israel turned their back on God’s plans for their nation. And thus, God allowed his beloved to experience the consequences of their own actions.  The nation was in exile. The temple was in ruins. Family members had died during the siege. There was certainly a lot to be sad and cry about.  It was a dark, dark night in the chapter of Israel’s history. It was a chapter, too, that I bet they’d wish that God would forget.

In particular when we read earlier in the book of Jeremiah, such as in chapter 5, we hear how bad things had gotten. Jeremiah was asked by God to tell the Israelites: “Announce this to the house of Jacob and proclaim it in Judah; Hear this you senseless people… [you] have stubborn and rebellious hearts…” Not exactly the warm fuzzies anyone would want to hear.

The nation of Israel, like Peter, rightfully shared guilt. They’d messed up. They could have assumed that the relationship and the shared history was over.

But,  the tune of verse 31 of Jeremiah chapter 31 tells a different story. “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and the people of Judah.”

I don’t know if you are like me, but when I mess up (and I know it!) there’s nothing more I want to do than bury my head in the couch for a while. Most certainly, I don’t want to hear of some new hopeful plan. Licking our wounds feels good for a while, doesn’t it? But, the Lord would have none of it.

Sure, Israel had messed up. Sure, they’d fallen short. Sure, they’d broken all of the covenants they made with God up Mount Sinai. They’d worshipped other gods. They’d had affairs. They’d not kept the Sabbath. They’d not welcomed the foreigner or blessed the stranger. It was grounds for divorce.

And so, because Israel had broken the covenant, God had EVERY reason to set them aside.  Israel had certainly checked all the boxes that were grounds for divorce. God kept God’s end of the deal, but Israel had not. God could walk away knowing God did all that could be done.  Certainly, God could try again with this “my chosen people” business with another group.

But, instead, a re-marriage ceremony is offered. God says to Israel verse 33:”This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time . . I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.”

Stacy Simpson writes of this God we encounter in Jeremiah saying, ” In the evangelical tradition in which I grew up, we spoke of “letting Jesus into our hearts.” He stood there patiently and knocked, waiting as long as it took, and when we were ready, we swung the door open and invited him in. But, the God of Jeremiah will have none of that. This God has grown weary of people’s inability to keep his law. No more will the covenant be written in stone, a covenant which was external and could be broken. Instead . .. God says “I will write it on their heart.” The heart of the entire people will bear the covenant.”[ii]

God takes an active role in restoring the broken relationship. Which is another way of God going to marriage counseling with Israel saying, “Let’s start over. Because I want to make a new relationship with you.”

But, how could God do this? Doesn’t God remember all the pain of heartache, rejection and loss? Doesn’t God know that if he works toward reconciliation that it all might go sour again?

Such is why the final verse of promise is important. Look with me at verse 34 as the Lord says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

This new relationship was based on 100% forgiveness. To move forward and to have a chance of the coming of the new– the past needed to be forgotten. And, God makes this move.

How many times in relation to the topic of “forgiveness” have you heard the phrase, “forgive and forget?” And I think as equally number of times that this phrase is spoken aloud, thoughts of those who hear it also think, “I cannot forget. Maybe I can forgive, but forget is something I can’t do.”

For there’s something about the human brain, isn’t it that just wants to hold on to things, especially the unfavorable stuff.

In a recent conversation with a friend, we sat around a coffee table and recounted all of the negative things family members, classmates or even perfect strangers said to us at one point in our lives. And it was easy to make the list long. And if you were to make a list too, I’m sure you could without difficulty make one.

There was that time in the 4th grade that one of the well-liked, well-dressed girls told you that you were fat and your teeth were crooked. You’ve never felt the same about your body since.

There was that time in college when you rushed for a fraternity only to not make the cut because you family name didn’t have enough money associated with it. You’ve been trying to make as much money as you can with your chosen career ever since.

There was that Christmas holiday when who you thought was your favorite aunt came over and found fault with all your home’s decor. You’ve been afraid to host a family gathering since.

And there was that time you expressed interest in painting and began creating beautiful pallets of color and texture and a friend walked into your studio said, “Well maybe in 10 years you’ll find some talent.” You’ve put down the brush ever since. 

No matter what your  “there was this time” story is, I think it is safe to say that we all have them. We all have times in our lives that something has been said to us or about us that we’d wish we could forget.

So what good news this is to all of our ears– what a promise in the night God’s gift of a new relationship can be!

For just as we mess up, as the nation of Israel did time and time again, and just as Peter denied Jesus on a night when it mattered the most, we worship a God who promises us a new start.

But not just  any old new start. A new start where those chapters in our lives that we most want to forget are forgotten, but also the painful wounds imposed on us by others can also be forgiven. We are not God of course,  so we probably are never going to be able to forget the ill that has been done and said against us, especially those deeply traumatic memories. But, we take heart and remember that  God can do what we can’t. God can forget so we can live. And, as beloved children of the heavenly parent, we too have words of this covenant are written on our hearts– so no matter what, we’ll never be left alone. We have a sign of God’s relationship always with us. There is nothing we could ever do that would not keep God’s love from us. Nothing.

So in light of this, and in response to this sermon today, I want you to find a comfortable seated position where you are right now for a moment of meditation. Clear everything off your lap and place both feet on the bottom of the floor.  And, close your eyes and take your hands and place them at the center of your lap with your palms facing open.  And right now, I want you to call to mind the two things that we talked about in the sermon for this morning.

1. Something you’d done in your life that you’d wish God would forget.

2. Something someone has done to you that you wish you could forget.

And in the quietness of this moment, I want you to imagine that you are holding both of these somethings in your hands. Holding them tight by balling up your fists with them in it. One in one hand and one in another.

Now, as I re-read the passage for this morning– Jeremiah’s promise in the night, I invite you to listening closely. And, as you listen imagine these somethings being released. Of letting them go, as you are able, why? because in grace, God has already forgotten.[iii]

31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Thanks be to God who makes all things new!


[i] “Lectionary for October 17, 2010: Jeremiah 31:27-34” Working Preacher.

[ii] “Branded by God” The Christian Century

[iii] Thanks to David Lose of Working Preaching.Com for this idea.

September 12, 2011

Beginning With Forgiveness

Back to the Basics Series: Beginning with Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35

Though we all seem to talk good talk these days about honesty, authenticity, and the
like, but I believe rarely any of us say what we actually think—at least aloud. This is particularly true when it comes to the practice of prayer. When we pray, we think we have to sound a certain way, using all of the right church approved words or we believe that God won’t like us very much. When I begin to think like this, often it is a good tool for me to pull out one of my favorite books—a collection of letters written by children to God. Here are some of my favorite ones:

Dear God,
Thank you for my baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.

Dear God,
If we come back as something in another life, please don’t let me be Jennifer Horton, because I hate her.

Dear God,
Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother.

Dear God,
I bet it is very hard for you to love all the people in the world. There are only four people in our family and I can never do it.

And in the sentiment of Nan’s letter to God, I can imagine, almost all of you feel similarly, whether these people who are hard to love are in your household, in your larger extended family, at your workplace or live on your street. Putting nice church talk aside, we ALL have someone in our lives who we wish was no there—those who have caused us unbearable pain, those who have taken from us what is not theirs, and those who we say un-choice words about behind their back. (This is where I need to see nodding heads so that I know you are with me).

And, though our gospel lesson for this morning opens up with a seemingly ridiculous
question from the disciple Peter: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” We have to admit that we are right there with him. For the most practical among us, it is not a crazy question after all. We would ask it too.

As much as many of us want to do the right thing and say we are a forgiving people, when it comes right down to the act of it, we all have our limits.

We have our limits with our child who asks us for money and then wastes it all forgetting to feed our grandchildren.

We have our limits with our sibling who promises to show up at important life events and simply forgets to even call to say that they aren’t coming.

We have our limits with our spouse who staggers home late after drinking too much,
promising that tomorrow they’ll give up the bottle, just as they did the night before.

We have our limits with our bosses who pile on us extra work, promising we’ll get a promotion if we finish it fast, only to give the promotion again to someone else. We have our limits. Forgiveness is more than just saying the words.

We too want to ask Jesus, how many times do we have to forgive? Give us a number of times, Jesus, because if you do, we can try with all of our might to do what pleases you IF we have that magic number in the back of our minds of when enough will be enough.

To such a question, Jesus answers with what appears at the surface to be an equally ridiculous reply. Look with me at verse 22. “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

What Jesus? You have to be kidding? I am going to die if I have to forgive, you know who, seventy-seven times. That is simply IMPOSSIBLE.

And to this impossible answer, Jesus tells a story, in teaching mode as always; he takes us to a scene called what the kingdom of heaven is like. There was a king who found he had a slave who owed him money. Lots of money that this slave did not have to pay back the king—the amount owed was 10,000 talents. If we translate this amount to modern terms, such an amount of talents would be 150,000 years worth of income. It would be as if a penniless recent immigrant was summed into Bill Gates’ office and
demanded to pay 5% of Mr. Gates’ net worth as punishment for sneaking into the country illegally. Impossible right? So the compassionate king in this case says to the slave who owes him money, “Your debts are forgiven.”

The twist of the story comes, because this slave who has been given hugest most amazing gift of his life, is not found out rejoicing in a spirit of thanksgiving for his good fortune, but instead, he uses the new-found “power” of freedom he has to terrorize his fellow slave. This fellow slave is said to have owed him money—a 100 denariis—which amounts to around 100 days of wages for the average worker. Sure, not a small debt, but like a grain of sand in comparison to the debt that was forgiven by the king of the first slave.

As the story concludes, the king finds out about the ungrateful slaves’ actions and lectures and punishes him for his lack of forgiveness. We reach the need of the parable and the lesson seems to be clearly stated with words that echo back to the words of the Lord’s Prayer that we all said together a few moments ago. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Or simply stated, forgive as the Lord forgave

Such a teaching really itches at us doesn’t it because it simply destroys the notions that we usually cling too about personal relationship with God or the idea that if we are right with God, how we are with others simply doesn’t matter that much.

It also itches at us because it is one of the moments when Jesus seems to be as straightforward as he possibly can be. Now is not the time for complex thinking, digging in the text to find a loophole of interpretation or even finding some veiled meaning. No, simply forgiveness is essential to the life of faith. There is no ifs, and, or but to get around it. If we are going to follow Jesus, then we are all going to have to learn about forgiving those who disappoint us the most.

I think a lot of us are scared of forgiveness because of the lingering ill effects of the hurt that has been caused us by those who have hurt us. We hold on to pain of what has been done or not done because we somehow think that this gives us back the power that has been taken from us. We fear that if we forgive, it is our way of saying what was done to us was ok. We fear more being taken from us in the act of forgiveness than the damage that has already been done.

But, in thinking about it like this, I feel we have forgiveness all wrong. Forgiveness is not about saying what wrong has been done was not just that: wrong. It is not about ignoring the damage that has been done. Forgiveness is not about pretending nothing was broken as if we’ve all turned into Pollyannas magically. Forgiveness IS however, a call to ensure the future is not the past. Forgiveness is about the hope that the present can be different. Forgiveness is about the bondage of hate, evil and discord being broken that would seek to destroy us if we refuse the healing of this practice in our life.

One of my favorite forgiveness heroes of all times is Corrie Ten Boom. I grew up reading over and over again her story in her memoir, Hiding Place which recounted her Christian journey of hiding Jews in her home during World War II in Holland. Along with her sister Betsy and father, Corrie was sent to a concentration camp yet was the only one who survived.

After being released and trying to make sense of her life, she knew she would need to forgive those who beat, tortured and even killed the two people whom she loved in her life the most. Her message of hope and survival gave Corrie many opportunities to travel and tell her story. In an Guideposts article, she recounts the following experience while at one of these speaking engagements:

“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.

“And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!

[Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.]

“Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’

“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?

“But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

“‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.

“‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’

“And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

“For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’

“I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.

“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”[i]

On this day, this important day in our history as citizens of America, when all the news and secular events of this day, speak of wars that have been fought in the name of ills done, statements of solitary with those who are trying retributive justice, I have to cling to Jesus’ words of forgiveness—there can be no end to our paths of forgiveness no matter what act of terror is done to us a nation, no matter what act of evil is done to us personally, no matter what happens. No matter what.

For just as Corrie Ten Boom experienced—we’d all say she had every right not to forgive the solider who lorded over her in the concentration camp—but yet she knew that this was what she must do. Not to say that what was done to her was ok, but to forgive so to be a part of the new and hopeful future that God could build out of the broken pieces of her life and this guards life too.

Sure, it’s scary and vulnerable. Sure, it’s not normal and goes against every self-protecting fiber we have in our bodies not to have a forgiveness quota just as Peter asked for. Sure, even if we forgive we still can’t control things. For, we might not ever have a restorative relationship with the person who has wronged us the most as they continue to make poor choices for their lives.

But, in forgiveness, in the miracle of it all, we find God. We find God’s love for us as we are given a new place to stand on even as all has been lost around us. In forgiveness, we find peace for ourselves.

So, who do you need to forgive today? Let’s get to it.


“I’m Still Learning to Forgive” Guideposts Magazine. Guideposts
Associates, Inc., Carmel, New York, 1972.

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September 10, 2011

Forgive to Live

It seems right on the eve of 9/11 to begin doing some thinking about forgiveness.  Where are we as a nation? Ten years later as a country, have we forgiven our enemies or are we still fixated on making wrongs right? Are we any more free than we were ten years ago? Or are we in bondage to fear, hate and terror?

Watch any 9/11 news program or look at our defense budget, and you will have your answer: there is much work of forgiveness yet to be done.

Tomorrow at Washington Plaza, we’ll be doing some conversing with the gospel lectionary for the day taken from Matthew 18: 21-35. It’s a passage that calls into question our normal human response to being wronged: retribution. Instead Jesus invites us into a way of life where we simply have no interest in keeping score.

One of my favorite teachers on the topic of forgiveness is Bishop Desmund Tutu. Coming from a scenario in his homeland of South Africa where he had every “right” to hate those who oppressed him and his fellow black citizens, Bishop Tutu choose a different way. He chose to forgive so that the pain of the past did not destroy what could be his future.

Watch this short clip and I look forward to seeing many of you tomorrow.

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