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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

"Forgiveness" (Marjorie J. Thompson)

TITLE: Forgiveness: A Lenten Study
AUTHOR: Marjorie J. Thompson
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, (128 pages).

Desmond Tutu once said, "There is no future without forgiveness." In the same light, author Marjorie Thompson asserts that "There is no Christianity without forgiveness." Recognizing that life is "inextricably connected" to forgiveness, Lent is a time that we learn to empty ourselves of ourselves so that we can make room for God and others. Far too often, people have allowed their unconscious self-ego and conscious self-seeking to dominate others for the sake of self, instead of giving oneself up for the sake of others. For to be Christlike is about learning to give of oneself and to forgive others no matter how much wrong had been inflicted. Knowing how important and also the difficulty in the act and art of forgiving, Presbyterian pastor and author of "Soul Feast" attempts to show us the way of forgiveness through six chapters of thought-provoking meditations of Bible passages in order to accomplish three purposes.
  1. Learning to listen to voices outside and inside;
  2. Learning to discern the subject of forgiveness from a biblical and theological standpoint;
  3. Learning to cultivate a heart and mind for forgiveness.
Beginning with Luke 15:11-32, the famous passage of the parable of the loving father and the prodigal son, Thompson seeks to demonstrate that the story is not just about one person seeking forgiveness, namely the runaway son, but forgiveness is communal. It impacts not just the individual but whole communities. Although offenses are different, the response of forgiveness is the same. It is because God is Trinity, and desires to welcome us into fellowship, that we too need to welcome others into one another's fellowship. For it turns one's enemy into kinsman which leads us to the true shalom of God.

Understanding that forgiveness is a hard path to take, Thompson gently guides us toward self-examination, for the lack of it will make forgiveness hard, if not impossible. What makes it appropriate for Lent is that self-examination helps us to pay close attention to our hearts and our minds, in order to cultivate an honesty and humility before God. Then we will appreciate what unconditional love is about, and we will learn about the failures of being human. Using Psalm 51 and Psalm 139 as guides, one becomes more conscious of sin. One learns not to hide or run away. Self-examination demands honesty about one's desire to either fight or take flight from the situation. It is about recognizing the "little Hitler" in each of us that tends to shift our focus toward judgmentalism and egoism. The desire to go beyond fight and flight leads us to the third way: Repentance and Reconciliation. It begins with God. It begins with self-knowledge that without God, we are unable to be reconciled to people. For repentance is not about digging ourselves out of our hole, but admitting we are powerless in ourselves and we need God's hand to pull us out of our spiritual quicksand. It is repenting from pride to seek forgiveness from others. There are three components of a good apology: Acknowledging the wrong; Actualizing visible repentance; Vulnerability. Thompson makes a good point about our failure to forgive ourselves being an arrogant posture to be aware of.

Thompson goes through the forgiveness process with biblical principles in chapter five. Here, we are reminded of Jesus teaching Peter that forgiveness is unlimited. We learn that forgiveness is a command, not an option. When one does not "want to forgive," there is a presence of resentment and arrogance. That said, readers can bask in the many tough stories of how traumatized people eventually find a way out of the quagmire of resentment and arrogance. Chapter 5 alone is worth the price of the book. We read of stories of betrayal, murder, revenge, and how many people despite the odds are able to overcome. Key to the forgiveness process is to move away from a perpetrator-victim mindset toward a peer-to-peer trust and acceptance of each other. Forgiveness leads to reconciliation. Reconciliation leads to a renewal of relationships. Renewal of relationships leads to restoration of the community. Thompson then deals with the topics of retributive justice vs restorative justice, arguing for the latter.

So What?

The deeper the hurt, the more difficult the forgiveness process. The paradox is this. The more entrenched we are in refusing to forgive, the more hurt we become. For hurt people tends to hurt other people. Healed people participate in the process of healing for all. Forgiveness is so central to the Christian faith and in human relationships in general that I feel this book may be too short! Surely, many more stories can be told about how hurt people can find ways to be restored. That is why I appreciate the study guide at the end of the book which enables readers to put into practice what was written and taught. Forgiveness is more about the will to do something about it, regardless of whether we are right or have been wronged. Anyone can initiate the process, but every one needs to experience first hand what it means to be forgiven. Those of us who have been touched by God and have experienced the unconditional love and powerful grace of God can attest to the reality of forgiveness and restoration. Thompson weaves in the art of spirituality with the science of psychology, and maintains a down to earth awareness of the human soul. The study guide contains many good steps and instructions easy enough to follow.

Is forgiveness an appropriate theme for Lent? My short answer is: Why not? Lent is a 40 days journey and remembrance of Jesus preparing himself to go to the Cross. Many churches have Lenten observance through prayer, quiet reflections, fasting, abstaining from worldly pleasures, and many other spiritual disciplines. Forgiveness is a spiritual discipline that can be practised all year round. Yet, for Lent, it can be a powerful way to center ourselves in acknowledging we need God. We need one another. We need ourselves to be right with God and with people. Forgiveness is that swiss-army tool of spirituality that covers multiple fronts. Best of all, it breaks through human pride and arrogance, God's way.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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