Now I see through a mirror, dimly.
I Corinthians 13:12
Do you have a question of faith that you’d like to ask a bishop?
Here is your chance. Email me your questions here. I’ll collect them, look for common themes, and address the ones that surface with greatest frequency in my writings and sermons over the next few months.
I don’t promise to have definitive answers, or that my answers, should I have them, are correct. But what I know is this: a life of faith invites us to consider the greatest mysteries and the deepest questions. Pondering those questions together is one of the blessings of Christian community. To paraphrase the poet Rilke, often we are meant to live our questions until, by grace, we are led either to the answers we seek or a greater appreciation of all that is beyond our knowing.
Members of the 20s/30s group of St Alban’s Parish in Washington, DC are my inspiration for this invitation. On a recent Sunday afternoon, they invited me to spend a few hours with them to discuss The Way of Love, the spiritual practices of a Jesus-centered life introduced to The Episcopal Church a few years ago, about which I had written a book, Receiving Jesus.
After a thoughtful conversation on the first of those practices, turning–to pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus–we took a break. Not sure where to take the discussion next, I asked the group if they had anything that they’d like to ask me. I phrased it somewhat lightly, not wanting to put undue pressure on anyone to come up with a question.
Immediately a member of the group raised their hand and asked, “How do you know that you are loved by God?”
I took a breath, and told the truth, that even for someone whose job it is to have a relationship with God, there’s a difference between knowing something in my head and feeling it in my heart. Intellectually, I affirm and believe that God loves all human beings completely and unconditionally. But actually feeling God’s love for myself comes in fleeting moments. It sometimes happens when I am at the end of my rope or stretched beyond my capacities. It can happen when I’m sitting quietly in my prayer chair or driving in my car. I often feel God’s love through the love and acceptance of another person. But there are other times when I don’t feel God’s love, or I question it, or know for certain that I don’t deserve it. So when the experience of feeling God’s love comes round again, it’s an amazing grace every time.
Another member raised her hand. “Can you tell us of a time when it was really hard for you to forgive someone?”
Another breath. Such poignant questions.
I began by stating the obvious, that forgiveness for the deeper wounds is hard. It takes time and is often experienced more as a gift than something we accomplish on our own. In situations where there was a power differential, that is, when those who hurt us abused their power over us, it’s necessary to reset the balance first. In other words, we have to establish our power and put in place the kind of boundaries that prevent abuse from happening again. We also need to heal, a process that includes growing large enough inside so that our identity is no longer defined by the wound we’ve incurred. Forgiveness, in my experience, flows from that larger identity, not from the wound itself.
Then I told them about my relationship with my father, a man who did not know how to love well. Moreover, for many years, his life was a mess. Thus, without awareness, he did a lot of damage to those close to him. As a teenager and young adult, I had as little to do with him as possible and defined myself apart from him. But the wounds I sustained were real, and they affected other relationships in my life.
Years passed that included therapy and other avenues of healing. Then someone whom I respected asked me to consider what it would look like to have the best possible relationship with my father, while fully recognizing his limitations. It was an intriguing thought, and I realized that I was ready. So began my gradual re-entry into my father’s life. While I grieved the father he could never be, I discovered that I was able to be in a relationship with the father he was. By accepting him, my capacity to love, and to forgive, grew. In turn, I could receive his love. And I was there when he took his final breath, and could assure him that love awaited him on the other side.
Perhaps all forgiveness begins with acceptance of another person’s humanity, I suggested to the group. We agreed that boundaries are important, as is enough self-love to recognize wounds for what they are. Self-awareness is also essential, and the experience of being forgiven ourselves for the hurtful things we’ve done that we regret. And sometimes forgiveness isn’t possible for us, at least not yet.
The young adults also shared stories from their lives, and our conversation was rich, insightful, and faith-affirming. That’s what I pray will result from receiving and responding to your questions–conversations across the diocese that help us build one another up, and take the next faithful step in our journeys of faith.
I look forward to hearing from you.