Episcopal Diocese of Washington

Engaging a changing world with
an enduring faith in Jesus Christ

Bishop's Writings Author: The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde

Advent 2019: Peace Surpassing Understanding

December 05, 2019

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philipians 4:6-7

This month in daily prayer I am using the devotional guide: Living Well Through Advent: Practicing Peace with All your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength. The call to practice suggests that we aren’t always good at peace-making or even for those who are, with practice comes greater mastery. Like playing scales on a musical instrument, there are building blocks for peacemaking, and levels of peacefulness we can only attain through our practice. 

Several of the entries in Living Well Through Advent suggest specific ways to practice peace: deepening our understanding of peace, moving beyond the mere absence of conflict, taking risks outside our comfort zones, and cultivating a spirit of gratitude. I have good soul work to do in all these areas, and more. 

Yet I also know that the peace of God that surpasses human understanding isn’t something I accomplish through practice. It comes as grace, and my practice is to ask and then to wait for whatever comes. I need that grace, especially when I cannot change the circumstances of my life, or do not see the way forward. I wait for what God alone can do. 

In the reflection for December 1, entitled “Peace Like a River,” the Rev. Laurie Brock reminds us that rivers can be both calm and turbulent: “Rivers move and twist at their rate, carving out paths for millions of years in their changes and shifts. Their waters are red, muddy and clear, sometimes all in the same river.”  I often feel like that river--muddy and clear at the same time, grateful for the gifts of peace when they come and and accepting the mud as the raw materials of life. 

With acceptance, however, comes a different sort of peace. Joan Chittister writes, “There is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. It is the flowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the truth of creation; that there is a God and we are not it. . .Then the clarity of it all is startling. Life is not about us; we are about the project of finding Life. At that moment spiritual vision illuminates all the rest of life. It is that light that shines in darkness.” (Joan Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life (Image: 2015), 19-20.)

Sometimes I feel anything but peaceful in my time of prayer, and the turbulence inside is my offering. It helps to name it, and then let it be, while I pray for the peace surpassing human understanding. 

 

Character, Chemistry, Competence

November 21, 2019

You are the salt of the earth. . .
Matthew 5:13

As part of the strategic planning process, the diocesan staff has been undergoing an intense process of self-examination and evaluation of our fruitfulness. We have been guided in this effort by our consultants at The Unstuck Group. They have given us a simple leadership assessment tool that has become a valuable lens for self-evaluation and team assessment. 

This assessment tool asks us to reflect on our lives and ministries in 3 distinct realms and rate ourselves and one another on a scale of 1-10: 0-3, low demonstration; 4-7, moderate demonstration; 8-10 high/exceeds expectations.  

The first area for evaluation is our character, which is foundational to everything else. Assessing our character includes taking stock on our morals, ethics, core values, attitudes and behaviors. How honest are we, and trustworthy? Are we a positive example to others, patient, disciplined? Do we allow others to shine? How well can we manage our own anxiety? Are we quick to anger, overly impulsive, defensive when corrected, always running late? These are all issues of character.  

The second realm is chemistry, that intangible quality of working well on a team. Chemistry is often described as emotional intelligence, the ability to read a room and get along with all types of people. It includes an awareness of the impact of our behavior and words on other people, having sound judgment, asking good questions before providing answers. Chemistry can best be measured by how people feel in our presence--are we a draining or energizing influence? Do we bring joy into the room? 

The third realm is competence, which is essentially how good we are at our job. It includes things like self-motivation, diligence, an ability to prioritize, having a strong work ethic and desire to learn. Business writer Patrick Lencioni in his book The Ideal Team Player includes the notion of hunger when evaluating competence, our eagerness to grow, our openness to new ideas and ability to innovate in our areas of responsibility. 

Character, Chemistry and Competence: we all have gifts and growth edges in each of these realms. Most of us are stronger in one of the three areas and weaker in another. To grow in character, chemistry, and competence requires continual self-assessment, and feedback from others.

Tending to our character is, as Brian McLaren put it, the daily practice of producing the person who will wake up in your body tomorrow. “In a world like ours,” he writes, “your character, left unattended, will become a stale room, an obnoxious child, a garden filled with thorns. . . . Well tended, your character will become a fragrant garden, an artist’s home . . . You will be good and deep company for others and yourself.”  

Tending to our chemistry goes deeper than stating where we fall on the introversion/extroversion scale. Nor is it to be equated with people-pleasing or conflict avoidance. Healthy chemistry requires a willingness to genuinely care about the impact we have on other people and tend to the relational dynamics that makes team-work possible. The more responsibility and authority we assume or are given, the more essential chemistry-tending becomes, for we have disproportionate power to set the tone of a community or group. 

Tending to our competence is particularly challenging in ministry settings. In part, because of our reluctance to hold one another accountable and establish objective metrics for our work and in part, because there are so many variables to take into account. For that reason, it becomes all the more important to clarify our purpose and what our work is, so that we can establish realistic goals from which to evaluate our competence. 

If you would like to learn more about this assessment tool, please contact me. For we are all called to grow as disciples and leaders, and practices of self-examination and accountability help open us to the Holy Spirit’s active presence in our lives. The simple truth is our churches will only be as healthy and vibrant as the people who lead them. As the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright once told a master class of aspiring young architects: “As a river can rise no higher than its source, so you can create no greater buildings than you are. So why not go to work on yourselves, so that you become what you would have your buildings be?”

Character, Chemistry, Competence, Sermon for the Ordination of a Deacon

November 16, 2019

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,says the Lord.’Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’  
Jeremiah 1:4-9

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’
Luke 22:24-27

We have come together from a variety of places and communities, all here for the same reason: to pray with and for you, Savannah, on the occasion of your ordination to the diaconate. You and I spoke earlier this week how much it meant to you, that so many would be here to take part in this celebration. But it’s also a gift to us--a living testimony to the communion of saints and a glimpse of the kingdom of God. On behalf of all those who have, are, and will be blessed by Savannah’s ministry, I thank everyone here for your part in helping Savannah to grow into the beloved, gifted child of God and emerging leader that she is. 

Savannah, you are adept at learning both in academic settings and the school of lived experience. You earned your Bachelor of Arts Degree in Religious Studies in 2012, Master in Divinity with Religious Education Concentration in 2016, and you are in the midst of an Anglican studies year at VTS. You are married to Matthew, and marriage is a school like no other. You have worked as an intern in a refugee resettlement program, and as a leader in faith development in two national parks, in the L’arche community here in Washington, and in two congregations--all this before your 30th birthday. 

Here is my word to you, and to all gathered: the path of learning, and growing as a result of what you learn, never ends. It never ends, except in the times and places where we get stuck, which we all do from time to time. 

I once heard a family therapist say that all children as they grow pass through nearly every neurosis and character disorder found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5). Normally they pass right on through, he said, but where they can get stuck is when a particular behavior is met with a rigid response on the part of their parents. It doesn’t matter what the response is--only that it is a rigid, inflexible one, which is an indication of stuckness in the parent. His message to every parent listening was a powerful one: tend to your own lives, your own issues, your own healing, so that your children don’t get stuck in the ruts of your anxiety. 

What’s true in families is also true in the life of institutions. They get stuck where their leaders are stuck. That’s why it matters, Savannah, for the sake of those you so long to serve in Jesus’ name that you stay on this path of personal growth and learning. The renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright once told a master class of aspiring architects, “As a stream can rise no higher than its source, you can build no greater buildings than you are. So why not work on yourselves, so that you might become what you would have your buildings be?”

Equipped with humility and curiosity, we can learn from anyone and anything. The Jesuit priest that I see for spiritual direction will sometimes say, after I’ve gone on for a while of all that is happening in my life, “What do you suppose God is wanting you to learn from what you’re experiencing?” Or he’ll ask, “Through what’s happening now, how might God be shaping your heart?”

Savannah, you are beginning ordained ministry in the Diocese of Washington at a time when we are all striving to become the people God calls us to be, calling our corner of the Episcopal Church to grow in our capacity to draw people to Jesus and embody his love for the world, to discern what God is up to in our midst, and to follow where the Holy Spirit leads. The learning curve for all of us, myself included, is steep. We’ve apprenticed ourselves to people outside of our Episcopal tribe who have important skills to teach us. 

In August the diocesan staff spent two days in rather intense self-examination and evaluation of our fruitfulness. The person guiding us through this exercise left us with a tool that served a framework for our work. I would like to share it with you, Savannah, as one way to approach the life-long task of tending to the soil of your life and leadership. It has become, for me, one of the most important lenses for self-evaluation and team assessment. 

This assessment tool invites us to reflect upon our lives and ministries in three distinct realms: 

First, our character, which is foundational to everything else. It includes morals, ethics, core values, personality traits, attitudes and behaviors. How honest are we, and how trustworthy? Are we a positive example to others, patient, disciplined? Are we able to accept criticism, allow others to shine? How well can we manage our own anxiety? Are we quick to anger, overly impulsive, defensive when corrected? These are all issues of character.  

The second realm is chemistry, that intangible quality of being able to work well on a team. It’s often referred to nowadays as emotional intelligence, the ability to read a room and work well with all types of people. It includes an awareness of the impact of our behavior and words on other people, having sound judgment, asking good questions before providing answers. 

The third realm is competence, which is essentially how good we are our job. It includes things like self-motivation, diligence, an ability to prioritize, having a strong work ethic and desire to learn. Patrick Lencioni includes the notion of hunger in this realm--our eagerness to grow, our openness to new ideas and ability to innovate in our areas of responsibility. 

Character, Chemistry and Competence: we all have gifts and growth edges in each of these realms. Most of us are stronger in one and weaker in another. All require diligence, continual self-assessment, and feedback from others.

Tending to our character is, as Brian McLaren put it, the daily practice of producing the person who will wake up in your body tomorrow. “In a world like ours,” he writes, “your character, left unattended, will become a stale room, an obnoxious child, a garden filled with thorns. . . . Well tended, your character will become a fragrant garden, an artist’s home . . . You will be good and deep company for others and yourself.” (Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Press, 2008), pp. 11-12.)

Tending to our chemistry goes deeper than stating where we fall on the introversion/extroversion scale and asking others to deal with it. Nor is it to be equated with people-pleasing or conflict avoidance. Healthy chemistry requires a willingness to care about the impact we have on other people and tending to the relational dynamics that makes team-work possible. The more responsibility and authority we assume or are given, the more essential chemistry-tending becomes, for we have disproportionate power to set the tone of a community or group. 

Tending to our competence is, I would argue, more challenging in ministry settings than in other fields because of the broad array of tasks associated with ordained ministry and, in our tradition at least, the reluctance to change patterns of functioning and ways of going about ministry even when what we’re doing is no longer bearing fruit. It’s also true that in many ministry settings, once we’re called to a given position, people have no idea how to go about evaluating our work except in parking lot conversations and rather vague metrics. For that reason, it’s essential for you to establish metrics from which to evaluate your competence, to invite others to help in that work and your continued self-evaluation.  

Savannah, God-willing, you are going to be an ordained leader in our church for a very long time. You have already demonstrated what some have called “a wisdom beyond your years,” which I attribute to both your character and chemistry, and a hunger for learning, which has resulted in a level of competence that is rather extraordinary among those ordained in young adulthood. I affirm and celebrate those qualities and give thanks to God for you and your desire to dedicate your life to Jesus and His way of love in our world. 

Continue on the path God has set before you. Tend to your character, chemistry and competence. When you are in positions of authority over others, help them to grow in those essential areas as well. Know that the God who created you, unconditionally loves you, and has redeemed you in Christ within, around, behind and before you, so that you might grow into the leader you are not yet but will someday become. It is essential for you to do this inner work, so that you might help us all become the church we are not yet, with capacities we not currently have but urgently need to fulfill the vocation God has entrusted to us. The learning curve is steep. But knowing you as I do, I suspect that you wouldn’t have it any other way. Remember that you are among fellow learners, I chief among them. Thank you for saying yes to this call. 

 

Announcing the Canon for Strategic Collaboration

November 14, 2019

The Rev. Andrew Walter, incoming Canon for Strategic Collaboration

I am pleased to announce that the Rev. Andrew Walter will join the diocesan staff as Canon for Strategic Collaboration. He will begin his work among us in early January. 

The Canon for Strategic Collaboration is a new position, created to ensure that the EDOW strategic plan is implemented across all 8 regions of the diocese, and that through intentional relationship building, congregational leaders come to experience one another as partners in ministry. 

Andrew will serve as the supervisor and primary support for our  newly-appointed regional deans. He will work closely with them to establish collaborative relationships among clergy and lay leaders so that they may serve as support and resources for one another. 

Given Andrew’s experience and interest in financial management and stewardship, he will oversee the establishment of the parish leadership track of the School for Christian leadership. In collaboration with the Congregational Revitalization Team, Andrew will assist in defining elements of a healthy parish and in the development of assessment tools. 

While the position of Canon for Strategic Collaboration is new, Andrew is well-known among diocesan leaders. He had served for 8 years as rector of Grace Church, Silver Spring. During that time, he has served in diocesan leadership as a member of Strategic Planning Team, the Finance Committee, the Commission on Ministry, the Cathedral Task Force, and as Moderator of Diocesan Council. In the wider church, Andrew serves as Chair of the Executive Council Investment Committee, which oversees the Episcopal Church’s Endowment, and the Economic Justice Loan Committee. 

Andrew began his ordained ministry in the Diocese of Connecticut. Prior to hearing God’s call to ministry, he worked in the banking industry and as a high school math teacher. 

Of this new call, Andrew writes: 

I am thrilled to be joining the dedicated and faithful team at Church House, particularly at this time as we begin implementing the Diocesan Strategic Plan. Having served on the Strategic Planning Leadership Team, I strongly believe the plan will help transform our common life and witness as a diocese, and I look forward to collaborating with the regional deans, clergy and laity across the diocese as we strive to revitalize our churches, inspire every person to grow in faith, equip our leaders to lead well, and partner in ministries of service and justice for greater impact in our communities.

Please join me in welcoming Andrew’s new leadership as we move toward implementation of the dreams God has placed in our hearts and the seeds of hope planted in the soil of our lives, congregations, and communities.

Practice the Forgiveness You Need

November 10, 2019

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.” And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honoured in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.’ Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Genesis 45:1-15

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 
Matthew 28:21-22 

A dentist has a sign on his office wall that reads: Floss Only the Teeth That You Want to Keep. It’s one of the better signs I’ve seen, although my favorite remains the one I once saw in a coffee shop: All Unattended Children Will Receive a Cup of Espresso and a Free Puppy. 

Floss Only the Teeth That You Want to Keep. What would be an equivalent sign for a doctor’s office, do you suppose? Exercise Only the Muscles That You Want to Last. Or Care Only for the Body Parts That Are Important to You.  

What might be an equivalent sign to hang on the walls of a church? Maybe Practice Only the Forgiveness You Need. 

Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus’ reply was, in essence, if you’re keeping track, you’ve missed the point. Forgiveness isn’t an event; it’s a practice. Practice the forgiveness you need. 

A few years ago, I found myself stuck on an airplane going nowhere. It was a connecting flight for most of us, the last stretch of a long journey home. But due to technical and weather-related difficulties, we sat on the tarmac for what felt like forever--5 hours in 90 degree heat.

To my right was a woman who had perfected the art of complaining. There was plenty to complain about, but listening to her litany of grievances against everyone in the airline industry was more than I could bear. I pretended to sleep. To my left, across the aisle, was a man who was as good-natured as anyone I have ever met. He engaged in pleasant conversation with everyone around him (except me because he thought I was sleeping). This man wanted to get home as much as anyone, but he never complained, whereas the woman beside me complained about every perceived offense against her, both large and small. 

In retrospect, I think of my two travel companions as practiced in two distinct ways of living. Each had habitual responses to their surroundings, one in striving to see the good in things, the other in always looking for, and generally finding, the worst. 

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes this as cultivating seeds within us. 

Our mind is like a garden that contains all kinds of seeds: seeds of understanding, forgiveness, and mindfulness, and also seeds of anger, fear, and resentment. When the seeds of anger and resentment are watered in us several times a day, they grow stronger. Then we are unable to be happy, unable to accept and forgive ourselves; we suffer and we make those around us suffer. Yet when we know how to cultivate the seeds of love, forgiveness, and understanding, those seeds become stronger, and we nourish peace and acceptance within and around us. (Thich Nhat Hanh, Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World  (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 2.)

Through our daily practices we choose which seeds to cultivate. 

Jesus spoke of forgiveness and he himself forgave, often and lavishly, because forgiveness is at the heart of God’s love for us. Do you remember what he said to a group of men about to stone a woman caught in the act of adultery? “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Or when at dinner with a Pharisee who mocked a prostitute who had come to anoint Jesus’ head with oil? Jesus said, “They who are forgiven much, love much; they who are forgiven little, love little.” Most dramatically, from the cross Jesus prayed for those who put him here: “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” 

“Love one another as I have loved you,” he said to his disciples the night before he died. He could just as easily have said, “Forgive one another as I have forgiven you.” It is one of the hardest things Jesus asks of us, and perhaps the most important, for it is God’s way. 

When I was a parish priest I used to ask couples in conversation prior to their marriage what they thought they would need to keep their relationship healthy over a lifetime. Rarely did they say forgiveness, which was understandable if they hadn’t yet hurt each other very deeply. Yet without forgiveness, no marriage, no relationship of any kind can survive what we do to one another. It’s the most puzzling and disturbing aspect of human nature: we knowingly cause one another to suffer. Even more peculiar, we do these hurtful things not only to our enemies, but to the people closest to us.” (Beverly Flanigan, Forgiving the Unforgivable: Uncovering the Bitter Legacy of Intimate Wounds)

I struggle with forgiveness as much as anyone. But this I have learned: it is easier for me to forgive other people when I am aware of my own need for forgiveness. The most important reason to practice confession each Sunday in church, honestly taking stock of all that we regret and asking God to forgive us, is so that we might cultivate compassion for those sitting next to us in their struggles. We’re in this together; we are all sinners, and we must practice the forgiveness we need. 

A few things to keep in mind: forgiveness is not the same as excusing. “There is all the difference in the world,” writes C.S. Lewis, “between asking for forgiveness, which acknowledges responsibility, and asking to be excused, which absolves us from blame. What we call ‘asking for forgiveness’ often consists of asking God or other people to accept our excuses.” 

Lewis also suggests a way of going about practicing forgiveness: Start with the smaller offenses and work up from there. “When striving to forgive,” he wrote in the midst of World War II, “it’s best not to begin with the Gestapo.” (C.S. Lewis, “On Forgiveness” in A Year with C.S. Lewis: Daily Readings From His Classic Works (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), 263.)We best not start with the worst things that others have done to us, particularly if the wounds are still fresh. 

Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting, acting as if the offense never occurred or has no lasting consequence. If we’ve been hurt by someone, the scars remain even if we forgive. And if we’ve hurt someone, we may be forgiven, but the effects of what we have done may linger. There is a growing conversation in this country about what it might look like to make reparations for slavery, and it may be helpful to think of our response in the context of forgiveness. What does forgiveness for the sin of slavery look like? Whatever it means, forgiveness is not some kind of erasure, nor would we want it to be. Think of all the hard won wisdom we would lose if we forgot what we needed to forgive.  Forgiveness of the deeper wounds doesn’t come easily, but slowly, over time. It requires courage and sufficient internal strength to rebalance the scales of power within ourselves. 

Rebalancing the scales of power. We often overlook the power dynamic involved in forgiveness, and how we must rebuild a foundation of inner strength in order to forgive. That, I suggest, is what happened with the biblical character, Joseph, in relation to his older brothers, whose story we read a portion of this morning from the book of Genesis. 

You may recall that Joseph was the favorite youngest son of his father, Jacob, and he knew it. In his arrogance, he frequently reminded his older brothers that their father loved him best. One day they had had enough, and they surrounded Joseph and beat him up, leaving him for dead. Only he didn’t die--he was carried off by bandits and sold into slavery in Egypt, the neighboring country. Through a series of remarkable events over the next several years, Joseph wound up in an influential position in the king’s court. When drought and famine spread throughout the land, his brothers traveled to Egypt to beg for food. Unbeknownst to them, they plead their case before Joseph, the brother they thought he had killed. They had no idea who he was, although Joseph immediately recognized them. For awhile he pretended to be harsh and without mercy. Then, as you heard, love overwhelms him and he bursts out crying--”Is our father still alive?” He then tells his terrified, guilt-stricken brothers that although they meant him harm, God brought about good. Joseph was no longer in their power. He was free, and in that freedom, he could forgive and reconcile with his brothers.

In a much different context, I had a similar experience with my father. He wasn’t a bad man, but for all sorts of reasons, he wasn’t good at loving his children. He hurt us; he hurt me, badly, and for many years, I could barely be in his presence. As time went on, however, and I became an adult, I realized that I didn’t need anything from my father anymore. I was okay, and, in fact, many of the blessings of my life were the result of what happened to me as a child. Like Joseph, I could say that God worked with the raw material of my life for good. From that new realization of inner strength and freedom, the question for me became, “Was I willing to love my father as he was and forgive?” It didn’t happen all at once and I’m not sure that I ever forgave him perfectly, but we reconciled. I’m so glad that we did, and that I was with him when he died.  

Forgiveness doesn’t always lead to reconciliation. I once was at the bedside of an elderly woman who had been physically attacked and robbed by one of her neighbors, a young man that she had befriended. She prayed for him, sincerely, but then said to me, “I never want to see him again.” She was 90 years old, and she had the right to put that boundary up. Yet I didn’t have the sense that she wanted to waste a minute of her life being angry.

So what is forgiveness? And how do we go about it? 

As the word itself implies, forgiveness feels more like a gift we receive than something we do. Indeed, the harder we try to forgive, the more resentment we may feel. For what forgiveness requires is not effort, but openness. It feels like letting go, relinquishing control, and allowing the grace of God in. If you’ve ever attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, when a wounded person speaks of resentment and an inability to forgive someone else, the advice typically offered is, “Pray for the person that hurt you.” 

We can all pray for those we struggle to forgive. What often happens in prayer is that God reminds us of the whole person and not just the part of him or her that hurt us. Sometimes we’re not ready to make the effort; sometimes we want, perhaps even need to stay angry. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Staying angry with you is how I protect myself from you. Refusing to forgive you is not only how I punish you; it is also how I keep you from getting close enough to hurt me again, and nine times out of ten it works.” But there’s a cost to our refusal to forgive. “There is a serious side effect,” Taylor warns. “It’s called bitterness and it can do terrible things to the human body and soul.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Arthritis of the Spirit,” in Gospel Medicine (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1995), 9.)

Forgiveness releases the burden of pain and resentment that we carry. It accepts the past for what it is and people for who they are. The former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan William, puts it this way: “Real forgiveness is something that changes things, and so gives hope. The occasions when we feel genuinely forgiven are the moments when we feel, not that someone doesn’t care what we do, but that someone does care because he or she loves us and that love is strong enough to cope with and survive the hurt we have done.”  (Williams, Rowan, “The Forgiveness of Sins,” in Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1995), 50.)

For all Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness, he only has one thing to say about how to go about it. It starts within you, he says, and the gift of forgiveness you are given every day by the God who loves you. When you know what it’s like to be forgiven, your heart will break open and expand, and you will receive the capacity to forgive another.  

Forgiveness is not an option for Christians. Yet our capacity to practice forgiveness depends on our willingness to receive it ourselves, and before that, to acknowledge that we need it. We practice the forgiveness we need.  

If forgiveness of any kind, in any way, is a struggle for you, you’re in the right place. We’re all struggling here. Just because it’s the core value of our faith doesn’t mean that it’s easy for us. But this is a place we come to practice letting go, and being open to the gift of forgiveness. 

One thing about Christian community: it affords lots of opportunity to practice forgiveness, as does every other relationship in our lives. That’s a good thing: practicing forgiveness is what makes us Christians. How often should we forgive? Will seven times take care of it? “Not seven times,” Jesus said, “but seventy-seven times.” Forgiveness, you see, is a way of life; it is a seed God has planted within us that we cultivate through practice. Remember: we don’t have to start with our equivalent of the Gestapo; we can start small. As we get better at it, we lose count and we stop keeping score. 

Without question, forgiveness makes us much better travel companions on a delayed airplane. It also makes us much better fellow travelers in life. Which person on the plane do you want to be? Then, go, and practice the forgiveness you need. 

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