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Good Morning Nanty Glo!
     Wednesday, October 29 2003 

Jon Kennedy, webmaster

A question about forgiveness

My thoughts on Monday about "fast" and "slow" time elicited exactly one response: "Reading between the lines in today's post, I guessed you were searching for something on which to write." You never know. I thought the questions raised would ring bells of familiar past associations in Blacklick Valley and give us a break from the too-serious (for some) discussion of the week before. But maybe the practice of characterizing daylight savings and standard time this way were unique to the Kennedy household? Or perhaps one or both of your parents used the terms, too, but you didn't understand them any better than I do mine!

My correspondents, whose letter was signed but asked that names not be used (I avoid responding to unsigned emails that are about "issues"), went on to offer a solution to my lack of topics. The letter raised questions with supporting examples that necessitate making the response a series. Please know that I don't pretend to have any ultimate wisdom on such complex questions, but at least they're ones worth putting on the table; your wisdom is welcome, and what I'll be providing is my two cents for what it's worth. The letter has two related major questions so I'm beginning with just the first one today:

I thought I would present you with a dilemma that has bothered me for many years. That is last-minute, deathbed, and jailhouse conversions. Whatever the ultimate destiny of the repentant sinner, his or her damage to others remains. For instance, several years ago we had a foster child with cerebral palsy and mental limitations caused when her parents locked her in an attic when outside temperatures were in the 90s. The action literally cooked her brain. We dealt with this child for six years, loving and caring for her till she got too violent for us to handle. Personally, I would find it difficult if not impossible to forgive her parents. Also, I couldn't really understand their being eligible for forgiveness by God. Their evil remains behind. In addition to the girl we had there were three other children who were badly damaged emotionally. And, believe it or not, we have dealt with even worse situations.

First, I think a lot of people have difficulty "accepting" (or believing in) another person's repentance, and this is probably grounds in the minds of some to reject the whole concept of the Gospel (I'm not aiming this at anyone here, but raise the point because such attitudes may color all our thinking to some extent). Some believe that repentance is always (or usually) inauthentic. Some think it is always "too little too late," and in a sense that seems true. The last-minute deathbed confession and repentance is suspect because it seems too convenient; the confessor gets off without having to bear any consequences for the evil deeds the rest of his or her life.

However, Jesus' teachings are repetitive and clear on this issue: If we forgive those who wrong us or we find unforgiveable, God will receive our repentance and forgive us. If we withhold forgiveness, we won't be forgiven. Jesus gives us not one but two specific object lessons on the cross to illustrate this teaching. The dying thief on one of the crosses next to Jesus', who confesses his faith in Jesus as Messiah and asks for a place in His kingdom, is assured that his prayer is heard and he will be received. Even more starkly, when Jesus is burdened by the sins of the whole world and is suffering unthinkable torture on the cross, He cries out not only for himself but for the forgiveness of those crucifying Him, which would include all the sinners of the whole world in all time past, current, and future. Likewise the first martyr in the new Christian church, Stephen, is described in Acts as crying out while being stoned to death by enemies of the faith, "Lord, do not charge them with this sin."

One of the most dramatic and well known examples of extreme forgiveness in our era is the testimony of the Rev. Richard Wurmbrand, a Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned for years in Communist prisons and camps in Romania (and whom I had the privilege of hosting in my church in Santa Barbara in 1968). His book, Tortured for Christ, speaks of most of the questions raised above, including "jailhouse conversions." Though he was already a pastor when thrown into prison, he had to learn to forgive and love his captors and jailkeepers—and torturers—and his finding the grace to do that was another "conversion" for him (he had been born and raised Jewish). Subsequently, despite the fact that his torturers were humanly "unforgiveable," he was able to bring some of them from Marxist atheism to faith in Christ. Very similar cases are reported repeatedly in Stalin's Russian "gulag."

In the case of the parents who were abusing, even torturing, their children, I think that prior to forgiving them is not judging them in the first place. Of course, if one were called to be a juror or witness in a trial about their crimes, it would be proper in the service of civil justice to render righteous judgment on the children's behalf and against the parents. But in a role removed from that, as long-term advocates for and as parental surrogates in the life of one of the children, the traditional teaching of the church is that you must refrain from judging the parents. One reason for this is that, although total restoration of the "debts" owed by the parents to the child is not humanly possible, still the child's best (and probably her only) hope for partial healing is through being able to forgive and get beyond her grievances. She needs the example and the encouragement of her advocates to be able to achieve even that partial progress.

If you don't judge, you won't have to forgive, because you have not been holding a trespass against them. It may help to propose in your own mind "mitigating" scenarios on behalf of the parents: They were under the influence of drugs or alcohol; they are themselves feebleminded, incapable of comprehending the horror of their acts; they are themselves victims of abuse and part of that is mental debilitation on their part, and so on. As the Jewish teachers say in such situations, you have never walked a mile in their sandals, so you can't possibly know enough to judge and consign them to perdition though you may want to. Only God knows them that well.

Which, of course, is easy for me to say in the abstraction but not easy for anyone to do in the concrete living of one day at a time. I may be all wet, and in any case, when I advocate the girl being encouraged to forgive, I'm not also suggesting that her be placed back in harm's way or under the control of parents with such a history. In a case like this, an attitude of getting on with life without rancor would be miracle enough.

More on Friday.

Webmaster Jon Kennedy

Fun facts (or "facts," so it says, but take with a grain)

Rhinoceros horns are made of compacted hair.

—Sent by Trudy Myers 

Thought for today

Have you ever been down and out and nobody seems to be around for you to talk to. That's God. He wants you to talk to Him.

— Sent by Mary Anne Losiewcz 

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