New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 17, 2017
It took a long time for me to forgive my father. Mostly because I had many things for which to forgive him: moving out of the house and leaving when I was 12; moving from Massachusetts to North Carolina when I was 15; for the innumerable ways his alcoholism affected our family; for dying of a heart attack when I was 19; for dying on my brother’s 18th birthday.
What took the longest to forgive was my father’s inability to give up smoking. You see, it could’ve been anything. He could’ve still been drinking. He could’ve still been overworking his body, counseling alcoholics and drug addicts by day and driving them to the emergency room in the middle of the night. His addict brain would’ve found a way to stay addicted. Turns out the cigarettes were the hardest one to break.
By the time I was 16 I had been well-schooled by my dad about the lies addicts tell, how they will tell you exactly what you want to hear, or at least what they want to hear—so much so that your BS meter has to be tuned extremely high. I had even accompanied him on an intervention with a family friend who tried to fly every last reason he needed to drink.
During one visit with my father he did something seemingly harmless but to me it was one of the most mindless, heartless things he’d ever done. We were watching TV with my stepmother—Magnum P.I. and Nero Wolfe, our favorites. Dad was sitting in a recliner with his feet up, to help keep fluid out of his feet since the pneumonia. That’s what congestive heart failure will do to you. During a commercial he turned to me and did the mindless, heartless thing: he oh-so-casually asked me to get him a pack of cigarettes out of the kitchen.
I huffed, then gave him one of my looks, the one I give when I don’t know what to say, my eyes looking down over my glasses. When I came back in the room, I threw the pack of cigarettes at him, thudded back onto the couch, arms crossed, my leg over my knee. Now I knew what to say to him. “Next time you want a pack of cigarettes, get them yourself.” He looked at me, then at my stepmother as if this was some kind of revelation, which infuriated me all the more.
It reminded me of when I was about six or seven years old and I was mad at my father for something, some restriction, something he wouldn’t let me do. He held up his hands like a sparring coach and told me I could hit them as hard as I wanted. I hit and hit his open palms; even when it stung as my little fist struck his wedding band, I kept hitting.
It wasn’t until about 10 years ago, after a poetry writing workshop, that I was able to finally let go of the last shreds of resentment. This is the conclusion of the poem I wrote to my father:
If I thought it would save
what life was left
I would have thrown
dozens of them at you,
my love sealed up
in plastic-wrapped paper,
smokes that would
never hasten your grave,
inscribed with that warning
not nearly fierce enough
but just as helpless.
In the end, I had to acknowledge that we were both powerless, that our love for each other couldn’t prevent his death, and yet I don’t have to allow death to have power over love. From this side of the grave I thought I knew better.
In a way, I thought I was better—smarter, wiser than my dad, and if he would just listen to me, things would change; he would change. The thing about those BS meters—we rarely tune them in on ourselves. Which is what keeps us from forgiving others—why forgiveness doesn’t happen just once but needs to happen over and over again. How can we forgive wholeheartedly when our whole heart isn’t in it? How can we give unconditional forgiveness when we have expectations of the outcome?
Most sin is a result of one person or group, one nation thinking it is better than another. Or at least not as bad. In the parable of the unforgiving servant, the king had pity on the slave; he was touched by his plea. In that moment they were not king and slave or servant but two human beings who had a care for the most important things in this life like family and children and relationships. The old system of one life being more valuable than another because of wealth, privilege, and power is as permanent as we choose it to be. In granting this jubilee, this forgiving of a debt, the king established mercy as the standard not just for this one slave but for anyone who owed him a debt.
But the slave could not do the same. Even though the slave had been released from his debt (imagine his relief, his joy!), he could not find it in himself to erase the debt of a fellow slave who makes the very same plea for forgiveness. Instead, the first slave now sees himself in a position of privilege and power over another and wields it mercilessly. By refusing to forgive, he renders the king’s mercy null and void. The king can no longer afford to be merciful, because his mercy has been wasted.
Then Jesus ends the story with a warning, that God will do the same to us if we do not forgive each other unconditionally.
Henri Nouwen wrote, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly.” Including church people. Just as much as love and bread, we need forgiveness daily, to admit up front we’re all going to get it wrong and often. We confess that, like author Anne Lamott, we are a recovering higher power: we’re not God when it comes to forgiveness or anything else. But also that when it comes to loving like Jesus we’re willing to try. Yes, try. We’re not Jedi knights. We’re human beings.
Love travels the same conduit as forgiveness, the one that leads to and from our hearts.
The more we love, the more we are able to forgive. The more we forgive, the more we are able to love. And most of the time we have faith that one of these days we will be generous and merciful and kind and compassionate and think of each other as no better and no worse than ourselves but all as worthy. And the old system will be no more.
Most of the time. Which is why we must forgive not only seven times but seventy-seven times, even seventy times seven. Even though forgiveness is for loving poorly, we are rich in second chances.