Sunday, May 15, 2011

It's All Joy

Fifteen years ago, the Ecumenical Patriarch sacked our pastor. I wrote the Patriarch and thanked him for this and a couple of other changes he'd made at the same time.

Anyway, our former pastor was virtually never heard of again in these parts.

He showed up in church today. Actually he’s been a regular since Pascha. He doesn’t sit in the altar; he doesn’t even wear clerical garb. (We’re not sure whether he is still entitled to.) He doesn’t draw attention to himself. He just comes. He’s 80 years old now and looks quite a bit older.

“No doubt the angels in heaven are rejoicing,” I said to Demetrios.


“Well, I’ve been having a harder time.”

Demetrios laughed out loud. “That’s terrible,” he said.

“It is terrible.”

“You mean that he has come back, or that you – “

“That I - have had such an attitude.”

It would have been easier to forgive him if I knew whether he were the least bit repentant.

But you know what? That is not the way Jesus’ forgiveness works. In today’s Gospel, He heals the paralytic first (i.e., demonstrates His forgiveness) and only afterward, upon finding him again, calls him to repentance: “See that you sin no more.”  (John 5:2 and following)

The story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3 ff.) always used to bother me, just slightly, for the same reason - back in the days before I found out I was worse than she. Jesus forgives her (saves her life) before there is any indication she has repented. Only after He has done this does he tell her, “Go and sin no more.”

God does not wait until we have repented to forgive us! He forgives us always. “His mercy is from everlasting to everlasting.” So should I try to be more “just” than God? What business have I to withhold my forgiveness if God doesn’t withhold His, ever, from anybody, under any circumstances? And what’s so special about my forgiveness anyway, that I should be unwilling to give it away? Who am I, that anybody should need forgiveness from me? Or by what right do I withhold it, who so badly need forgiveness myself? Or how do I know whether this person might be far ahead of me on the road to glory?

I looked around me, recalling the bad old days, and thought, “And this parish has still not recovered…” but then came rushing to my aid the words of the ever-wise Fr. Stephen Freeman. The Church, he points out, has not fallen away from some ideal, because the Church was never an ideal to begin with. We are a communion of sick and wounded souls, struggling together to lay hold of our high calling, needing each other for our healing, for support. We cannot reach heaven alone, but only together. And all of each others' shortcomings, foibles and yes, even our sins, the Great Physician turns toward our cure.  We are like stones being tumbled together by a jeweler to knock off each others’ rough edges, that we may shine.  

So forget whether he has repented; I repented. God set me free and my hard feelings melted away.

But "Out of sight, out of mind." How many others may there be I am not even conscious of not having forgiven, unless they too show up some day? It's easier to think you've forgiven someone who has gone away, out of your life, than to welcome him back.

Lord, have mercy!

P.S.) The necessity of repentance, though, is that impenitence is a de facto rejection of God’s eternal forgiveness. So it makes that forgiveness all moot, all of no effect. Well, it’s actually worse than that; it has a devastating effect. Impenitence makes our souls burn from God’s forgiveness, the Prodigal’s elder brother being a case in point. Forgiveness, when not accepted, piles hot coals on the head of him who rejects it.

Reply to my letter to the Patriarch.  I cried the first several times I read it;
apparently, though, I failed to take its message entirely to heart.


GretchenJoanna said...

It must have taken a deal of humility for this man to come to church; he probably knows there are hard feelings about him still - unless he is already of a confused state of mind from the ravages of age. In either case, it took effort of some kind, and to want to be in church is a good sign.

We are all struggling, even if it's only to begin the struggle.

elizabeth said...

what a beautiful letter. this living Christianity in the Orthodox church is part of what continues to give me hope...

I agree with GJ... we are all struggling, even if it is only to begin. Lord have mercy on us!

Weekend Fisher said...

Forgiveness is a big struggle for me. I know there are things to forgive that I struggle with, and keep struggling with. God's goodness is the only true comfort.

The idea that "God doesn’t withhold His (forgiveness), ever, from anybody, under any circumstances" -- I'd encourage you to compare that to what Jesus said. He said unless we forgive our brother from our heart, God will not forgive us. And he says with the measure we use, it will be measured to us -- blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Which, I think, encourages me to keep fighting my struggles with forgiveness. God help me learn how to love the way I should.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

GretchenJoanna, people say he is sometimes confused and other times not.

Elizabeth, yes we are all struggling - together, not alone, not separately.

Anne, yes, but let us not make of His words anything that will conflict with what He did; He "died for us while we were yet sinners." That is, before we had repented. Proving He had also forgiven us, because clearly, He wouldn't die for us unless He had already forgiven us. "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do." (As His love is infinite and unconditional and noit bordered even by impenitence, so must His forgiveness be, which is but a function of that Love.)

So I think that by His words *and* deeds, we must understand that impenitence perversely reacts to God's very forgiveness (love) by finding it distressing and eventually even tormenting - in the exact degree to which we have rejected it.

At least this is how Orthodox Christianity understands things. One of our morning prayers begins:

As I rise from sleep I thank Thee, O Holy Trinity, for through Thy great goodness and patience Thou wast not angered with me, an idler and sinner, nor hast Thou destroyed me in my sins, but hast shown Thy usual love for men, and when I was prostrate in despair, Thou hast raised me to keep the morning watch and glorify Thy power.