The Hard, But Liberating Work of Forgiveness

By Bill Mefford

In recent weeks, in my personal times of prayer and reading, I have started going through some of the hard work of forgiveness. I have written previously that earlier this year I was fired from a job I loved and was passionate about. It was a traumatic event for me, yet, even in the pain and rejection I have also felt tremendous joy and renewed passion for what lies ahead. Fig Tree Revolution has been a gift to me (and I hope a gift to you), full of potential and promise to participate in the change that God yearns for creation. There is so much we can do together to change the world.

I know holding on to my anger of having been wronged, no matter how righteous it may feel, is selfish and ultimately self-destructive. No one gets hurt by my rage but me and those I love. Still, forgiveness is difficult work.

It is interesting that when you begin to imagine what it could be like to let go of your anger and even more, to bless those who once rejected you, it is actually a little frightening. Anger is so comforting in so many ways; it keeps us safe and isolated. But the blurred vision of what loving others unconditionally – even those who have hurt you – brings a glimmer of liberation to light, though it still remains hazy and off in the distance. Still, I can sense the Spirit wooing me, encouraging me to continue the journey towards love and wholeness. I am not a very good Wesleyan, but this feels a lot like sanctification to me.

The funny thing about liberation – it tends to spread. It refuses to be contained. Thoughts have been drifting in and out of my mind of others I have had broken relationships with. I am not sure why, but I have thought a lot about the creation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), the conservative reaction to the election of Karen Oliveto to the United Methodist episcopacy. Rev. Oliveto is an ordained United Methodist elder and a self-proclaimed, practicing lesbian, which is a no-no according to the Book of Discipline, the book we United Methodists pay attention too only when it supports what we already believe. Like the Bible.

Sorry, I digress. I was talking about forgiveness (see how hard this is?).

Conservatives in the United Methodist Church have gotten together and formed the WCA, which was created as “a coalition of congregations, clergy, and laity from all jurisdictions that are committed to promoting ministry that combines a high view of Scripture, Wesleyan vitality, orthodox theology, and Holy Spirit empowerment.” Honestly, this sounds like something I’d want to be a part of. But, from having participated in or witnessed dozens of online conversations about this, I am fairly certain this was not created for people like me. You know, flaming liberals.

Now, let me admit something. As an organizer, I have to say, this is a tremendous idea and the conservatives in the UMC have once again shown they are by far vastly superior in their ability to create, organize, and build their vision into reality than are the liberals in the UMC. We have depended for far too long on people in bureaucratic positions whose real aim is to protect institutional turf rather than build movements for justice. This reality has been debilitating in terms of articulating and building a progressive and missional vision.

One thing I have noticed in all of the online “discussions” (discussions is a kind word for Facebook and Twitter fights) is that only one time have I heard someone who is going to the WCA meeting in Chicago in October actually invite someone who is critiquing the gathering. One time. This just reminds me that orthodoxy without invitation is just self-righteousness. And there ain’t nothing appealing about that.

But you know what bothers me the most perhaps, and I cannot help but wonder if this disturbs my progressive sisters and brothers as well, is the rejection associated with never being invited. Rejection stings and I can’t help but think that the sting of rejection is partly at the heart of so much of the constant fighting and disputes that overwhelm the United Methodist Church and other institutions. Now, I don’t want to reduce all disagreements to a simple case of hurt feelings. There are real disputes and I honestly believe the best thing will inevitably be to break the institution apart (though not split into two groups – another fairly long post for another day). But having witnessed some of the private conversations that each side has had about the other side without the other side being there, there is a tremendous amount of hurt and rejection that both sides feel towards the other.

The liberal/conservative divide in the UMC brings to mind Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son. Though I haven’t read it in years, Nouwen talks about Rembrandt’s rendition of this famous story from Luke’s gospel. Nouwen masterfully identifies and speaks of the inner feelings and experience of the story from each of the three main characters. It is an incredibly powerful book, perhaps Nouwen’s best. Through his vulnerability he highlights the power of homecoming, love, vengeance, grace, and forgiveness for our lives.

In using this story in my own reflections on the parable in Luke 15, I wonder if much of the divide and dysfunction in the UMC is because both sides most identify with the older brother; resentful for having done everything right while watching the younger brother receive unconditional love and unmerited grace even after he demanded and squandered his inheritance. The older brother feels deeply the sting of rejection. I sense that both liberals and conservatives feel deeply their own righteousness as they compare themselves with the misdeeds of the other side. Both sides feel a keen sense of resentment when they see the other side being rewarded in some way for what they believe is misbehavior (the liberals not being held “accountable” for not following the Book of Discipline and the conservatives for excluding LGBTQ people from serving God openly while creating multiple organizations that host multiple gatherings where they celebrate their righteousness collectively).

Neither side identifies with the younger brother. No one is willing to repent of anything and return home. I am right in wanting to include all people. No, says the other side, I am right in upholding what I interpret the Bible and Book of Discipline say. We both play the part of the older brother, distrustful of the younger brother’s intentions and even of the father’s love.

Most unfortunate, neither liberals nor conservatives play the part of the father. No one is yearning, longing, pleading for his son to come home, wooing him even from afar and willing to start the celebration at the first glimpse of his return. Both sides are just angry, resentful, quick to judge the motives of the other, and non-repentant. This is a recipe for a nasty dissolution, which is what is happening.

I really do not want to over-simplify this and I have no illusion that the UMC should remain intact, or that we could stay together if we “just all got along.” The United Methodist Church is a broken and dysfunctional institution, but as we break apart and set in motion to live faithfully into the next expression of what God desires, I do believe that we have the opportunity not to save the institution, but more importantly, to sincerely bless one another that honor God and honor one another.

But we must begin by repenting ourselves, of our resentment and distrust; of our hope for the other side to fail.

See, I told you forgiveness is incredibly hard work. But, it is also oh so liberating.

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