The hard work of forgiveness

The big news I heard when I turned on my radio this morning was the capture of the Marine Corporal who is pretty strongly suspected of killing a fellow Marine who was pregnant with his child.  I was a mess when this story was in the news, back in December.  I was very angry with the officers at Camp Lejeune, who couldn’t hear Ms. Lauterbach’s mother and her deep-to-the-core knowledge that something was wrong.  They figured she’d just taken off a little early for the holidays.  She was dead.  Burned and buried in her superior’s back yard, along with the bones of the baby who was soon to be born.  There’s something truly horrifying about that image, the charred bones of mother and baby, mingled together under the lawn.  The whole story tore me up inside.  How could this man do this?  And how could nobody listen?  Why did no one help?

Last night, I went to a casual and fun Christian formation offering from my parish.  It’s called Thirst, and takes place at a restaurant one Thursday a month (Thirst – Thursday, get it?).  We have a meal, perhaps a beer, and talk about a rather broad topic that pertains to our lives as Christians.  The topic last night was “Why do we baptize?”  I knew this was a rich topic, but it didn’t really sing for me before I went.  Mostly, I wanted to be with other members of my parish family, in a setting outside the church.  It was wonderful.

One of the folks who came seems to have a real struggle with forgiveness.  This person said, “I just don’t believe that God really forgives people for everything.  I mean, you kill someone in cold blood, and then you just say, oh, I’m sorry, forgive me – and God accepts that?  No, I’ll take him out back and hang him, because I’ll never forgive that.”  I didn’t respond.  Our priest asked some questions, I think knowing that a debate wouldn’t change this person’s mind.  She asked, “Maybe it’s a process?  And maybe there is forgiveness, but not without some kind of accountability?”  And the conversation moved on.

The thing is, I believe God really does forgive people for anything and everything.  I do believe we need to be repentant, though I do not necessarily think that this repentance even has to take place within our lives here on earth.  I believe very powerfully that when we encounter God after we leave this world behind, there are many sins for which we never even realized we needed to repent, and those are revealed to us… along with God’s overwhelming, extravagant love.  But God exists outside of time, outside of space.  So we are already forgiven before we commit the sin, even before we embark on the train of thought that leads us to make the choice.  We are forgiven as we think or do (or fail to think or fail to do) whatever.  And we are forgiven after.

Yes, there are consequences.  Yes, there is accountability.  Despite the appearance that some people seem to get off scot-free, there are always consequences.  A horrific act makes its mark on your mind, your heart, your soul, and it never goes away completely… not in this world.  But God’s realm is not this world.  God is present here, to help us, to guide us.  But that mark on the soul – it is washed clean when we enter into the Kingdom.

So the thing of it is, this Marine Corporal – who many (most?) would probably agree is evil, or at the least has committed an act of evil – God has already forgiven him.  God forgave him before he embarked on this disastrous, horrific path.  I’m sure God wept to watch this man make these choices, but God forgave him even so.  God forgives him now.

I don’t know whether Ms. Lauterbach’s mother can ever forgive him.  That’s some hard, hard work.  Her daughter is lost to her now, and her grandchild, too.  Many people were touched by this man’s terrible choices, and they are on that long hard path to forgiveness.  God calls us to forgive, wants us to forgive – and I believe God forgives us when we harden our hearts and refuse to forgive.  Nothing can ever make right what this man has done.  Now, each person touched by the tragedy has to do the work for himself or herself, to find the place in their heart where there is peace and love.

It sounds so pretty-pansy-fluffy-bunny, doesn’t it?  But it is the work we have been given by God.  And it is not ever easy.  My kids hate it when I remind them, nothing worth doing is easy.  Forgiveness is worth doing.  And it rarely – if ever – comes easy.  Hard work of the soul is no less exhausting than hard work of the body… but it is every bit as rewarding.

And I believe, to the deepest core of my being, that one of God’s most favourite prayers is, God, I don’t know how I can ever forgive this person for what he has done.  I can’t do it myself.  Can you help me forgive him, please? I also believe that this prayer is always answered the same way: Yes.  It will take time, but yes, yes, a million times yes, my beautiful, beloved child.