Often at the hospital, I meet with patients who have a common thread among them: questions of forgiveness. People hear very different things when they hear the word ‘forgiveness.’ For some, it is a word used after a fight among family or friends. People seek apologies and forgiveness to bring peace to a situation. In my Presbyterian tradition, we hear a Declaration of Forgiveness each Sunday after we confess our sins. But still for others, forgiveness is something with which they struggle.
At the hospital, I have heard questions like, How will I ever forgive him for cheating on me? How will I forgive her for driving recklessly and killing my father? God, how might I ever forgive you for taking my baby away before she even had a chance at life? Many people are in the hospital because they are at the end of their lives and still have family turmoil or messy relationships. And then there are those who think that the things they have done in their lives are so despicable that they wonder if God will be able to forgive them.
I remember meeting with a man several months ago who was a nightmare for the staff. One by one, they went in, got yelled at, and left. I was asked to come see him…and I stood there as he screamed at me, ripped his gown off, threw it at me, and tried to kick me out of his room. I did not leave – I didn’t think he actually wanted me to leave. I stood in his room and eventually said to him, “I can see you are upset. There must be a lot on your mind.” He eventually broke down in tears, asking me if God’s grace could reach as far as someone like him. He saw himself as worthless and therefore could not find a place for God’s grace in his life.
So how might one answer this patient? A strapping and eager Reformed Christian might say something like, “But we live by grace alone, and God’s grace has no limits.” A person well-versed in scripture and evangelism might quote Ephesians 2:8 and say, “But scripture says, ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is a gift from God.’” A listener who is quick to fix and slow to explore might say, “Oh no, I can’t believe you’d ever think that – of course God’s grace stretches to you. You are special.” Are any of these answers wrong? No, I don’t think so.
But as a chaplain, I was slow to offer words of grace and forgiveness to this man. It sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out. I believed there was something much deeper going on, so I explored what it is about himself that causes him to feel this way. Was there something in his past that he has suppressed because it was too hurtful to think about? Did enough people in his life tell him he was worth nothing, causing him to start believing it? Does he have a psych issue that could be addressed through a trained psychologist and maybe even medication? There are many layers to a statement like his. But I thought in the long run, it would be a lot better for him to find the grace and forgiveness within himself rather than hear it from someone else…kind of like letting a young child struggle through simple addition when the answer seems so simple to the trained mind.
Perhaps in some ways, I have lived a sheltered life and have not seen the yearning for forgiveness that some people face in their lives: that deep desire to be loved and forgiven again. But last Sunday, at the Easter service at my home church in Daytona Beach, I saw forgiveness in a new light. I want to share that story with you.
To give you a little background, we have a huge banner that sits in the front of our sanctuary during Lent. This banner has the twelve apostles’ names listed on them, and underneath their name is a symbol that represents them. One of those apostles is Judas Iscariot, the one who betrays Jesus and turns him over to the chief priests. The symbol underneath Judas’ name is an image of several coins, symbolizing the 30 pieces of silver he receives for turning Jesus over to the arresting soldiers. At our Maundy Thursday service, as the lights are turned out and the haunting hymn ‘Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?’ rings throughout the sanctuary, a black piece of felt is placed over Judas’ symbol. Complete betrayal – turning Jesus over to be crucified. What could be worse than that?
But on Easter Sunday, as the announcement is made that the tomb is empty, the lights turn on and the congregation sings the hymn ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” As we were singing, the choir processed; the Bible was carried in and placed on the pulpit; the organist went to full organ, causing the balcony to shake. We were singing the last verse: “Sing we to our God above, Alleluia!” I watched my father walked over to the banner and reach towards the black felt. “Praise eternal as God’s love, Alleluia!” The felt was pulled off – Judas’ name and symbol reappeared with the other 11 apostles. “Praise him, all you heavenly host, Alleluia!” Forgiveness, I thought. That is forgiveness. I surprised myself as I began to cry. “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Alleluia!” How incredibly beautiful is forgiveness, I thought. (I know there are differing ideas about what happened to Judas after Christ’s death and resurrection, but it sure painted a beautiful picture of forgiveness for me.)
I thought of the patient I met with who wondered how God’s grace and forgiveness could stretch as far as him. Or perhaps as far as someone like Judas. Or even as far as a sinner like you and me. But this Easter morning, I grasped the word 'forgiveness' in a whole new light. And my understanding didn't involve any new definitions or teachings...just tears. Praise him, all you heavenly host; Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Alleluia!