Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The power of “me first”

            How does it feel to say:”The father is like me”?  Do I want to be like the father?  Do I want to be not just the one who is being forgiven, but also the one who forgives; not just the one who is being welcomed home, but also the one who welcomes home; not just the one who receives compassion, but the one who offers it as well?  (The Return of the Prodigal Son, page 122.)

            Forgiveness is the key to the Gospel message for me.  Without forgiveness, Jesus is little more than another prophet who brings another set of rules by which we are able to move a step or two closer to God.  However, no matter how hard we try on our own, we can never attain righteousness or earn a place in God’s heart.  Built into our DNA is a propensity for sin.  Throughout the history of humanity there have been attempts to define sin, and usually the definition contains a list of those things “we have left undone which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”  (BCP p. 41f)  My favorite definition of sin came from a child.  A friend who was a Navy Chaplain in the mid-1960’s was teaching a class of six-year-olds and asked them the question, “What is sin?”  One child replied, “It’s not obeying my mother.”  Another said, “When I hit my little brother.”  But a third said, “It’s the power of me first.”  Forty plus years later I have yet to discover a more profound statement on sin. 

            Advent calls us to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child and his birth in Bethlehem. Too often we approach the manger in which Jesus was laid, with a warm heart and  a loving soul, desiring to return to the innocence of childhood ourselves, to a time of wonder and delight and hope.

Laser-cut metal Nativity Cross by Designer Valerie Arkisson
We forget the prophetic witness that this child is born for sorrow, to take away all human sorrow.  One of the gifts of the Magi is myrrh, an oil for anointing bodies for burial after death.  Too many times we want to turn away from the horror of the Cross and be consoled by the emotions of new life, new hope.  And yet the Christ event contains Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit.  Remove any of the components and the picture is incomplete; the story of salvation history has not been told.

            Forgiveness of all sin.  As incredible as it sounds that is precisely the mission for the Son of God, a mission which took him from Bethlehem to Egypt, to Nazareth and ultimately to Jerusalem.  On the Cross He bore the sins of all humanity, all individuals and every sin, whether venial or mortal.  No one asked Him to bear this burden; He chose to do so because of love.

            When I am brutally honest, I am able to admit my sinfulness—not just a sinful nature,
but a sinning creature.  When I realize the enormity of my brokenness I, like Younger Brother want to rise from my pig sty of sin and say, “I will arise and go to my father and say, ‘I have sinned against heaven and against you.’”  When I realize that God the Father has rushed to meet me and to embrace me with the arms of forgiving love I am moved to speechlessness before Him.  I am humbled beyond imagining.  And when I hear of Father offering the same love and forgiveness to Older Brother in me, I cannot but bow again and be struck mute in the presence of such grace.
            Nouwen’s conclusion is that our true calling, our true following of Jesus is to become Father, not simply remain as Younger Brother or Older Brother.  That means I must be willing to offer the same gift of forgiveness as Father in the parable and Father in Heaven.  Try as I might, on my own, I cannot even begin to approach that level of graciousness.  I want to hear those who have trespassed against me beg for my forgiveness; I want to impose burdensome penances for even minor offences; in essence, I want to see my debtors grovel before me before I even lift a finger of blessing.

            Do I really want to be Father?  I desperately wish to be able to forgive as I have been forgiven, to recognize the beloved sons and daughters in everyone I meet, but I am not there yet.  I am still caught up in “me-firstness.”  In Nouwen’s book Home Tonight, a story from Desert Wisdom is told as follows:  A brother who was insulted by another brother came to Abbot Sisoes and said to him, ”I was hurt by my brother and want to avenge myself.”  The old man tried to console him and said, “Don’t do that, my child. Rather leave vengeance to God.”  But he said, “I will not quit until I avenge myself.”  The old man said, “Let us pray brother”; and standing up he said, “O God, we no longer need you to take care of us since we now avenge ourselves.”  Hearing these words, the brother fell at the feet of the old man and said, “I am not going to fight with my brother anymore.  Forgive me Abba.”  (Nouwen, Home Tonight, p.60)

            As I contemplate meeting those who have left the Episcopal Church, I am torn between the response of Older Brother and Father.  On the one hand, I want to extract oaths of conformity and even periods of penance and possibly partial ostracism until such time as I determine they are worthy of my/our forgiveness; on the other hand I long to be Father who, when they are still far away, runs to greet them and draw them into grace-filled reunion.  Like Older Brother or like Father?  Remember, “Forgive us our sins only as much as we forgive those who sin against us.”

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