“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.”
Rachel refused. She refused to be consoled. Wailing and weeping bitterly, she refused to be consoled.
And, yet, the very next line in Jeremiah has the Lord saying “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;” “there is hope in your future.” Don’t cry, God says, don’t be sad, it’s OK. My immediate reaction on reading that was, “Are you kidding me?”
I’ve imagined Rachel’s response, and let’s just say I’ll refrain from sharing it in polite company. What I can say, is that a perfectly natural reaction would be for her sadness to blossom into anger, even a righteous rage. How dare God offer any kind of consolation in the depth of her anguish. How dare God say anything at all. Where was God when children were being mercilessly slaughtered? How could God allow that to happen?
To know something is, in our imagination, an intellectual endeavor. To know something is to study it, to ascertain its dimensions, to come to conclusions about it, to test those conclusions, always refining your conclusions based on that testing, and to be able to articulate what you’ve learned to another. This is a valuable and useful approach, and it’s consistent with the general standard of knowledge that Western culture has adopted in the modern era.
But I find it lacks. I find it unsatisfying. It, perhaps, can sate my intellect, but I find that that’s not enough. As much as I’d sometimes like to be, I’m not merely an intellect. And as I learn to have less fealty to my intellect and more loyalty to my full humanity, I increasingly find this approach to knowledge to be somewhat sterile. Helpful, useful, yes, of course. But after this meal of the intellect, I often walk away feeling undernourished.
It is reassuring to find, then, that this is an incomplete understanding of the idea of knowledge in Christianity. St. Ephrem, a fourth century Syrian deacon and hymn writer, put forth the idea that there were three ways to attempt to know something.1 The first, the crudest, the most rudimentary, is a pursuit of knowledge that seeks to dominate the subject that is to be known. This is knowledge merely as a means to an end. There is nothing inherently wrong with coming to know something purely in service of some other goal, but it is no full depiction of Christian knowledge
August 30, 2016 – The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his Brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your Brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. Mark 6:17-29
Forgiving is in your best interest. To not forgive someone is to incarcerate them in your memory: your offender being the prisoner; you being the prison guard. The tragedy is that both of you are in the prison. Forgiving is setting someone free for your sake. By forgiving someone, you unbind yourself from the residual power this person – from whom you have experienced an injury, offense, or disappointment – continues to have on you. To not forgive will leave your wound vulnerable to infection, which eventually can metastasize into resentment. Nelson Mandela, on being freed from twenty-six years of imprisonment in South Africa, felt bitter toward his captors; however he was determined to claim his inner freedom, to forgive and not to resent. “Resentment,” he said, “is like drinking poison and waiting for it to kill your enemy.”
Do you wait until someone who has hurt or offended you asks for your forgiveness? No. To wait gives this other person tacit power over you, certainly a control over the healing of your wound. And they may never own or even realize they have committed a wrong toward you.
Do you tell someone that you have forgiven them? Probably not. To do so might sound terribly pompous or presumptuous on your part; you could offend them. They might say something like, “Who do you think you are to speak so condescendingly to me?” Most often your forgiving someone is a matter within your own heart, though you may need some assistance from a trusted soulmate or professional helper.
Do you forgive someone for a repeated offense? Yes, but with a qualification. This is the energy in Peter’s questioning Jesus, “How often should I forgive?” Jesus answers in code language: “endlessly.” You will understand this if there is a person or some kind of person from whom you cannot escape and whom you find repeatedly offending. Your relationship may have a Velcro-like quality, “hooking” you. You may find in this relationship both a need and invitation “to pray without ceasing” for yourself and for this other person. They may even be a disguised teacher, exposing you to your own character flaws. SSJE’s founder, Richard Meux Benson, taught that “in praying for others we learn really and truly to love them. As we approach God on their behalf we carry the thought of them into the very being of eternal Love, and as we go into the being of him who is eternal Love, so we learn to love whatever we take with us there.” The qualification is when the offense has an abusive or addictive quality. Then there is a need for you to establish at least a protective boundary, and maybe an escape plan. You will need help with this – pastoral, sacramental, psychotherapeutic, and/or the assistance of a support group or 12-Step meeting. Help is very helpful. Get help.
What about mutual forgiveness: both persons being offended; both persons forgiving each other? Those are amazing moments when they happen. When you do find yourself sharing conversation with someone about your afflicted relationship, if you are prepared to forgive, also be prepared to be forgiven. You may have missed or misinterpreted something in your altercation, how they experienced you. That missing information may make all the difference, not just in the freedom that comes with forgiveness but in the shared delight of reconciliation.
Must you always be reconciled with someone whom you have forgiven? No. Reconciliation, when it can happen, is a beautiful thing. But the timing and setting must be right, especially when there was or is a power differential between the two individuals, i.e., a difference in age, in seniority, in status, in authority. The less-powerful person continues to be quite vulnerable.
I recently shared a conversation with a young woman who had been appallingly abused by her father in her childhood. (I write about this with her permission.) The woman was a walking miracle. She had not only survived but found the courage, the desire, the help to thrive. She claimed what she called “an amazing grace” to have forgiven her father. The point of our conversation was about her reconciliation with her father who had never admitted his repeated transgressions. The young woman thought she should and must be reconciled to him, and she was very, very anxious about this. She invited my response. I said, “No, not now.” I strongly sensed it was not safe for this woman to attempt the reconciliation. It would have every prospect to tear open the sutures in this woman’s soul; it could re-ignite her father’s prowess. It was essential for her wellbeing to retain a clear boundary with her father.
We ultimately talked about what more she could do in her relationship with her father. Pray. She was aware of his own upbringing, how he had been abused by his own father, and – from a safe distance – she actually felt a good deal of compassion for him. How to pray? I asked her. She had a flood of images: to pray for her father’s liberation and healing, for hope, for love.
Sometimes this is the best we can do: to pray for Jesus’ light and life and love to shine upon a person from whom we need to keep distance. In the fullness of time – and maybe not until eternity – reconciliation may be able to happen. In the meantime, use Jesus as a go-between. Ask for Jesus’ mediation, whether this person be alive or dead. At death, “life is changed, not ended” (the language of the Book of Common Prayer). You may find enormous comfort and streaming energy to whisper into Jesus’ ear your own hopes for this hurtful, hurting soul. Pray candidly. Even if your feelings toward this person remain conflicted, pray your conflict. Jesus will sort it out. For how long should you pray? You will know.
David Watson, priest and canon of the Church of England, wrote about his conversion experience in his autobiography You Are My God. This conversion experience began when his college chaplain, a priest named John, inquired about Watson’s faith. Watson writes:
“John began by asking if I felt any need of God. I couldn’t honestly remember feeling any need, apart from the impulsive cry when I was suffering from a hangover. That surely was enough. Perhaps in my more reflective moments I was unsure of the purpose of my life. ‘Is that what you mean by a need of God?’ I asked John. He explained that a sense of purpose is certainly included, but that our primary need of God exposes itself in our need of forgiveness. In countless ways we have broken God’s laws, we have gone our own way, we have done our own thing. That is why God is naturally unreal in the experience of us all, until something is done to change that. Surprisingly, I did not need much convincing about this. I was ashamed of some things in my life; I would not like the whole of my life exposed. Also, I could see logically that this was a possible explanation of my sense of God’s remoteness and unreality. If he did exist, and if I had turned my back on him, it followed that there would be a breakdown of communication. ‘Yes,’ I said after further discussion, ‘I’m prepared to admit that I have sinned and so need forgiveness.'”
But Jesus is not just concerned with how these attitudes affect other people; Jesus is concerned with how these attitudes affect us. When we are judgmental, turn our backs on someone, or refuse to forgive, it is not the person toward whom we feel these things that suffers; but we suffer, because we must live with these negative emotions day-by-day. Similarly, when we forgive and are giving, we’ve no doubt all experienced the joy and freedom it brings. In either case, the measure we give is the measure we get back.
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:15-20).
This passage appointed for today from the Gospel according to Matthew is undoubtedly helpful, but it requires some digging. First, a disclaimer. If you have a presumption that Christians, the followers of Jesus, are always going to be right and do right and never experience or cause an offense or breakdown in their relationships with other people, it’s simply not so. We can presume otherwise from this passage. We also know otherwise because of the endless squabbling between Jesus’ closest disciples. Remember how Peter, on whom Jesus said he would build his church, seems to have reached his limit on forgiving fellow Christians when Peter explodes and asks Jesus, “if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answers him, “Not seven times, but, seventy-seven times,” which is code language meaning forever.1 Of course the subtext is this: offensive, disappointing, inappropriate stuff is going to keep happening between members of the Church. Jesus says our posture is to forgive. I’ll come back to that.
We’re meant to be shocked. The effusiveness of the tears, the wiping with hair, the kissing and anointing of a man’s feet are meant to be embarrassing. Something is out of control, a line has been crossed. The clinical term for this is “disinhibition”. Ordinarily we feel healthy inhibitions around violating social norms. Intoxication, drug use, mental illness, brain damage, dementia, post-traumatic stress—any of these can cause disinhibition and we cross lines. Bathing feet with tears? Wiping with hair? Non-stop kissing–of a man’s feet?
We’re told the woman is a sinner, but that’s all we know. We’re probably meant to assume that her sins are of a sexual nature, but we don’t know. And we also don’t know what the tears are about. Are they tears of remorse? Possibly. Are they tears of release and joy, the tears of a burden lifted, tears of gratitude? Possibly.
Or, perhaps they’re tears of sheer frustration, tears of weary frustration. Perhaps the woman realizes that whatever wonderful thing happens today while she’s with Jesus, tomorrow will be a lot like yesterday. Whatever conditions, whatever situation, whatever human frailty drove her sinful behavior yesterday will still be there tomorrow. Tomorrow’s sin will be a lot like yesterday’s sin.
We have this old phrase, “misery loves company.” Peter and the Beloved Disciple were keeping company in their misery, but not for the same reasons. The Beloved Disciple was grief stricken over the horrendous crucifixion of his dearest friend, Jesus, with whom he had stayed until it was finished. Peter, on the other hand, was frightened and appalled by his own betrayal of Jesus, whom he had denied and abandoned from the bitter outset. The two disciples were together but in very different places when they hear the news from Mary Magdalene that Jesus’ body is gone. They run towards the tomb independently, no surprise. The Beloved Disciple would be ecstatic, remembering Jesus’ promise that if he were killed, he would come back to life; he would be resurrected. Peter, on the other hand, would be in agony. He, too, had heard Jesus’ prediction about his resurrection. But Jesus’ resurrection for Peter would be so very, very difficult because of his having to face Jesus. Peter would need to ask Jesus’ forgiveness… again. Not that Jesus would not forgive Peter, but that he would, as Jesus had undoubtedly forgiven him so many times before. How many times had Jesus forgiven Peter already? More than Peter could imagine.[i] You may recall Jesus had renamed Peter “his rock,” not just because he was so strong, but because he was so hard-headed.[ii] Peter here is running in very familiar territory as he races to Jesus’ tomb, only this time it’s much worse. This time, Peter has crossed a line; he now is more a follower of Judas and than Jesus.