As we stood in line for customs in the Port-au-Prince airport it was fairly obvious we weren’t the only Americans who’d come to Haiti with some sort of volunteer group. In a country that is 95% African American, I was peering into a sea of white faces waiting to have passports stamped. Most groups were clad in matching t-shirts emblazoned with things like “Hope for Haiti” or “Make disciples of all nations” or “I Heart Haiti.” Clearly we missed the memo; our precious group wore matching elephant pants.
There are so many organizations doing great work in Haiti but after just two days in country I began to ask myself, “why?” As I looked around I saw a nation of people who are among the most resilient, resourceful, joy-filled I have seen. It’s true their poverty level boggles the mind, but to say they are in despair is a gross overstatement and not at all the impression I took away. Haitians are hard-working, hustlers, creative, persistent, enterprising, and I gotta be completely honest here, very easy on the eyes (I mean, I may have been the “chaperone” but I’m not blind, people!).
The Aspen for Haiti club, which started at Aspen High School four years ago and is sponsored by Snowmass Chapel, exists to learn more about the Haitian culture and its history and people. To the extent we can help by bringing down school supplies, books in French or Creole, and fund projects like solar powered lights, we do. But our lead host, longtime valley resident Tim Myers, is adamant that the Haiti I observed – the resilient, clever, hard-working Haiti — is real, and its people are entirely capable of handling the work that needs to be done. Our job, he told us, is to gain a new perspective and just maybe a deeper appreciation of the world’s diversity. Done.
Hailing from a country such as ours, where we often hustle past people head down, talking on the phone, bumping shoulders with strangers without so much as a nod, I am struck by the sense of community among the Haitians. There is a genuine joy when they greet one another, and an immediate, no-questions-asked attitude of helpfulness toward all. Haiti defies our western every-man-for-himself mentality. How many times did we see a truck stalled on a Haitian roadway, or a moto-bike in need of repair, in which no fewer than four people stopped everything to help. At every restaurant or shop we visited employees worked in groups, never alone. In the small remote villages school children grabbed our hands and danced with us and sat on our laps – not because they were desperate for our help as my ego previously assumed, but simply because grabbing a hand, sharing a dance and sitting on laps is who they are and how they live. And what a joyful way of living it is!
Haitians are deserving of our friendship, our tourism, our understanding and compassion, and yes, at times, our help. There are, indeed, opportunities for the US and others to serve, especially since Haiti lacks basic infrastructure, a military, and a government that gives a damn. I can tell you that after spending time with the Haitian people, I would be there in a heartbeat if they needed me. Why? Because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt they would drop everything and do the same for me. Loving your neighbor isn’t something they bother to print on a t-shirt. It’s a way of life.
Now. Who wants to dance?
It’s hard to sum up in so few words the impact of this trip. I expect you’ll read more from me…. I have Haiti on my mind. <3
Last week I shared some thoughts about forgiveness. As it is such an important topic I thought I’d offer a few more reflections this week. In addition, I plan on developing a series for discussion on forgiveness this summer as well as continuing to preach on the subject. If we want to change our lives, the lives of others, and the course of humankind, forgiveness must become part of the essence of who we are, despite the immense and enormous challenges in doing so.
As this is a vast topic, what follows are just a few thoughts.
There is a professor at Yale named Miroslav Volf. He writes, “At the sight of our sin, God did not give way to uncontrolled rages and measureless vengeance: neither did God insist on just retribution. Instead, God bore our sin and condemned it in Christ Jesus. But God did so not out of impotence or cowardice, but in order to free us from sin’s guilt and power…this is the Gospel in its simplicity.”
In other words, as human beings we all fall short, sometimes do the wrong things or don’t do the right things, and we at times live putting ourselves first ahead of God. God’s response. God’s stance toward us. God’s reaction. We are forgiven. I am forgiven. You are forgiven. Period. Now others may not forgive us for something. We may struggle with forgiving ourselves, but when it comes to God, it’s a done deal.
The slate is clean like a brand new white board that has never been written upon. When we accept that we are forgiven, we begin to see ourselves and others quite differently. We give ourselves and others a lot more slack. We don’t seek perfection. We know we all fall short at times. We embrace humility and become more empathic. And when we accept and take in God’s forgiveness, we feel free. We feel free precisely because God’s forgiveness jettisons guilt, and shame, and despair if we really accept it.
Jesus one day told this great story. In paraphrased form he said, “One day a King had a man brought to him who owed him a ton of money. The King told the man that he was going to sell him and everything he had to pay off the debt. In response, the man pleaded with the King not to destroy him. The King felt empathy and decided to wipe out the debt and let the man go.
Sometime later, that same man happened to be owed some money himself from another person. He went out to find the man. When he found him, he told the man who owed him he better pay it off or bad things would happen. The man even began to choke the fellow who owed him.
The King heard about this event. He was amazed that the fellow whose debt he had wiped clean was unforgiving to others. The King was furious. So he sought out the man he had forgiven, and tossed the guy into prison.” After telling this story, Jesus said, “Remember, God will forgive you unless you fail to forgive others in your heart.”
One day Jesus also said this, “Whenever you pray, pray this way. ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we also forgive those who trespass against us.’”
These two stories underpin why one day Martin Luther wrote, “Forgiveness is the primary and foremost duty of Christians, second only to faith and the reception of God’s forgiveness.”
So given that we are compelled to forgive because we have been forgiven, let’s take a look, for a moment, at what is at the core forgiving. Earlier I mentioned a man from Yale named Miroslav Volf. He has explored forgiveness extensively. I’d like to share some of his thoughts in slightly adapted form.
He writes, “God forgives. We should forgive. And we should forgive as God forgives. But it is very difficult to forgive. A keen sense of equity guards our dignity in a potentially hostile world.”
He goes on to write, “Remember, Christ is not just outside of us, modeling forgiveness and urging us to forgive. Christ lives in us…from Christ we receive the power and the willingness to forgive. Christ forgives through us and that is why we can forgive. As Paul wrote, ‘It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.’ Therefore it is not I who forgive, but Christ who forgives through me. When we understand that it is Christ who lives in us, we gain a desire to practice being like Christ and we will have a sense that is it not so much we who are acting ourselves, but it is Christ who is acting through us.”
Volf also writes, “For Christians, forgiving, like living in general, always takes place in a triangle, involving the wrongdoer, the wronged person, and God. Take God away, and the foundations of forgiveness become unsteady and may even crumble.”
As I think about all of this it seems that the basis or foundation of forgiveness is two-fold. First and foremost, the very presence of God is within us. The power and strength to do anything in life, therefore, does not come from us alone, but rather from God who is within. God’s power is within. God’s love is within. God’s healing is within. God’s forgiveness is within. So whatever we do in life, we do so with God at the foundation. We can do because God can. We can forgive, because God in us can.
Sometimes, perhaps we just need to say something like, “God I can’t forgive. It seems impossible to me. But I know you are in me, your very presence. Please help me with this and show me the way toward forgiveness. While I may not be able to forgive on my own, I know you through me can.”
The second foundation of forgiveness, is to totally get, understand, embrace, and accept that God loves us without bounds. Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, 7:36-50 (please read these verses) says, in essence, when you are loved much, you can forgive much, or when you have been forgiven much, you love just as much. When we receive and take in God’s love, that puts us in a position to live with a forgiving heart because forgiveness comes from the love of God.
So, the basis of forgiveness is to accept, embrace and take in the truth that God is in us, around us, ahead of us, behind us, all over us, and that God who made us loves us without bounds. This foundation is the place from where forgiveness starts, both for others and ourselves.
To put all of this another way. God is in me. God loves me. God forgives me. God is in you. God loves you. God forgives you. Knowing and believing and accepting these things changes how we live and respond to others and ourselves and they make forgiveness possible over the course of time.
Here is a sampling of words used in headlines at cnn.com. “Accused, broke rules, complained, take down, misused.” From headlines at fox.com. “Dropped, rule of law, resign, affair, turbulence.” From msnbc.com. “Lying. Watchdog. Defied. Buckling. Cross-examined.”
Each of these major news organization have differing political and philosophical positions, yet they share something in common. On none of these sites was I able to find words like forgiveness, forgiven, or forgiving among headlines. I believe these words are lacking on the sites because these organizations reflect the zeitgeist of our culture and perhaps humankind more broadly.
It is human nature to do what we should not do and not do what we should do throughout our lives. This truth elicits a need for forgiveness, both to forgive and accept forgiveness.
Professor Robert Enright once said, “Unless we begin to embrace forgiveness in our own hearts and communities, humanity’s existence on this planet is at risk.” Central to the stories in scripture from Genesis through the end of the New Testament is the monumental struggle human beings have with forgiving others and ourselves. While this challenge with forgiveness is nothing new, lack of forgiveness is often at the root of why relationships fail, nations collapse, and why progress in sciences, medicine, peace, economics, and other dimensions of culture are often impeded.
Over the years there has been a dearth of interest in the subject, although this trend is changing. There has even been discussion of transforming existing churches into forgiving communities, in which giving and receiving forgiveness becomes the norm. As Enright states, “In the close interpersonal relationships required in true community, one will encounter interpersonal injustices of one sort of another…the local church can cause pain.”
Said another way, every existing community of faith is imperfect, flawed, and will require people in such communities to tackle issues of forgiveness. When we fail to do so, I believe, we falter in our walk with Jesus and lose sight of the centrality of the cross.
As I have thought about this, I have decided to spend more time on the subject of forgiveness. In the months ahead, look for sermons, articles, and adult education opportunities. It is my prayer that we can be a community, not only in which we love God and love people, but that forgiveness will be inherent in all of our relationships. That we will have the courage and chutzpah to confront issues of forgiveness, and that we will come to understand that whenever two or three are gathered, whether in a home, church, place of employment, or country, forgiveness is requisite to relational, psychological, physical, and spiritual health.
One take away from this week’s e-letter is that forgiveness is not only a process that takes time and arduous work, but ultimately is all about a choice or decision we make. As many people studying forgiveness have come to understand, forgiveness can only happen when we choose to forgive despite whether or not the one who hurt us in involved or not. And perhaps of equal importance, is grasping the truth that until we each fully know how much we need to be forgiven, it will be difficult or impossible to offer forgiveness to the other.
Look for much more on this topic in the weeks ahead.