August 19, 2011
Along the Way
Those who know me well know that when I was 12 my younger sister Nancy died in a tragic accident. It occurred when the car in which she was a passenger struck a vehicle that had been left in the middle of the road, at night, by a couple of men who were intoxicated. That night she suffered a traumatic head injury and she died a week later without ever regaining consciousness.
My parents, like any other parents who lose a child, were plunged into profound and prolonged grief. It was a painful and a difficult time for them, for my sisters and me and for our family and friends. I learned many lessons from how my mother and father came to terms with their loss. But I am most grateful for what they taught me about forgiveness. I learned from their example that forgiveness is at the very heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I learned this lesson not so much from anything they said but from their actions.
Somehow, they were able to forgive those responsible for the accident. They put into practice the commandment of Jesus not to return injury for injury and to love rather than to hate those who have harmed you. It must have cost them a lot to overcome the anger they felt towards those men whose negligence and irresponsibility resulted in the loss of their daughter’s life.
In the gospels, Simon Peter asked Jesus this question: ‘How often must I forgive my brother who has sinned against me? Seven times?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Not seven times, but seventy times seven times.’ They lived those words.
I couldn’t help but ponder those words of Jesus and how difficult they are to put into practice when I learned about the tragic death of Kevin Thornton last week. While he was growing up, Kevin and his family were members of the Cathedral parish in Juneau. More recently my wife Paula worked with his mother Darlene at Hearthside Books and my son Miguel and Kevin, born only a month apart, were classmates.
My first reaction was rage at the senseless death of this gentle young man from our community who was fatally beaten by four juveniles in a completely unprovoked and random attack on a country road in Arkansas. I was filled with sorrow as I thought of his heartbroken mother, father, sister and family members, and the grief of his many classmates and friends, in Juneau and around the country.
As I meditate on the forgiveness that Jesus teaches us, it only makes sense, for me at least, within the larger context of justice, morality and truth. What those four young men did to Kevin cries out to heaven itself for redress, and was a terrible injustice, a criminal act and gravely sinful.
Forgiveness begins, I am convinced, with the acknowledgement of the gravity of the offense and the pain of the injury inflicted on those who have been harmed. Forgiveness never means minimizing the seriousness of the offense or making excuses for violent and criminal behavior. Forgiveness does not cancel out the just punishment for the harm done to others. Nor can forgiveness be expected as a matter of course (much less demanded) by the perpetrator of the injury.
Yet Jesus calls on those who would be his followers to forgive, to love their enemies and to do good to them rather than harm. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” But he not only taught them about forgiveness but showed them how to forgive. From the Cross he forgave those who put him to death when he prayed, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus forgave his enemies, not out of weakness but out of strength. He steadfastly refused to respond in kind to their anger, hatred and violence. Rather, he asked his Father for the highest good that he could imagine for them, God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Jesus forgave his tormenters immediately. But for the rest of us, especially when we have been deeply wounded by the unjust and sinful actions of others, forgiveness and healing is never immediate and is oftentimes a very long process. Even getting to the point of desiring to forgive can take a long time. But I believe that even in those situations in which we find that we are not yet capable of forgiveness, the desire to forgive is so often an opening for God’s grace and healing.
Over the years, I have come to appreciate more and more the Prayer of St. Francis, which embodies in just a few words both the spirit and the imperatives of the gospel. It is my favorite prayer even though it is the most challenging to live.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Please keep Kevin’s family in your prayers during these difficult and painful days for them.