As our Lenten journey comes to an end this week, we are nearing the completion of our bus ride between the gray town and the outskirts of heaven. Today we meet the Big Ghost, a passenger on the bus in C.S. Lewis’ fantasy, The Great Divorce. The Solid person sent to meet him from heaven is a former employee of his named Len. The Big Ghost is dismayed because Len, in his earthly life, had killed another employee, Jack. How is it that Len can be in heaven and he is not? Len explains that it was a deathbed conversion that gave him entry into heaven. He is deeply sorry for what he did on earth but stands now forgiven and whole in God’s eternal keeping. The Big Ghost’s indignation that a murderer could be forgiven and granted entrance into glory leads to an honest conversation. Len reminds his former boss that he had made life very difficult for his wife and kids because of his workaholism. Len paints a less-than-flattering picture of his employer’s earthly life: “I will tell you one thing to begin with. Murdering old Jack
wasn’t the worst thing I did. That was the work of a moment and I was half mad when I did it. But I murdered you in my heart, deliberately, for years. I used to lie awake at nights thinking what I’d do to you if ever I got the chance. That is why I have been sent to you now: to ask your forgiveness and to be your servant as long as you need one, and longer if it pleases you. I was the worst. But all the men who worked under you felt the same. You made it hard for us, you know.”
The Big Ghost’s fatal flaw is that he is unable to forgive himself or others. He can’t accept grace and refuses to let go of his grudges. He asserts his right to enter heaven: “I gone straight all my life. I don’t say I was a religious man and I don’t say I had no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see? I done my best by everyone, that’s the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights.” In spite of Len’s pleading to let go of his claims, the Big Ghost refuses to go with him. He says he doesn’t want in to heaven if they stoop to the level of welcoming murderers. The Big Ghost heads back to the bus in a huff of self-righteous indignation.
In his book, The Forgiveness Project, Dr.Michael Barry tells the story of Jayne Valseca. An American, Jayne and her husband, Eduardo, lived in a small town in Mexico with their children. They had opened an elementary school in their village and lived an idyllic life on a ranch. One day they dropped their children off at school and headed back toward home. A truckload of seven men overtook them, abducted her husband, and left her on the side of the road with a ransom note. This was the beginning of an unimaginable nightmare that was featured on Dateline NBC in 2010. The husband was held captive for 8 months in a space no bigger than a small closet. He was shot twice at close range, kept naked on a cold floor and forced to send messages to her and the children so that the ransom would be paid. Jayne didn’t have the money they imagined she did and entered into a living hell, trying to keep life going for her children while fixated on finding her husband. A cancer survivor, she knew that a crisis of this magnitude would impact
her body, possibly leading to a recurrence of the disease. Finally, when Eduardo was released, he had gone from 160 pounds to 90. He was elated to be free and embraced life with grateful vigor. But Jayne was filled with the hatred she had harbored for eight months. Even with Eduardo home, she could not move forward. Her cancer recurred two months later and she eventually met with Dr. Barry at one of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
She poured out her terrible story to him. She was accustomed to people weeping when they heard of her trials. She was surprised by the reaction from this treating physician: “Dr. Barry’s reaction was very different. It was nonjudgmental. The conversation was more about his wanting me to find peace again, which often requires learning to feel empathy toward the kidnappers. At one point, he even suggested that there might be some self-righteousness in what I was feeling. Well, that was the last thing I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear about how right I was to feel the way I felt, how wrong and
despicable they were, and that sooner or later there would be some sort of divine justice.”
Jayne had come to Dr. Barry knowing she needed help to be able to forgive. Sometimes shaking uncontrollably, she kept her fury so bottled up within her that she hadn’t cried for months. Dr. Barry did not offer Jayne any pity. His suggestion that she find empathy for these monsters who were still at large terrorizing others was met, understandably, with angry dismay. He reminded her that he had made no promises that life is fair or forgiveness easy. His first task for her was to write a letter to the men to tell them how she felt. Her letter was five pages long and the writing of it was cathartic. But she still held onto her anger. So Dr. Barry asked her to work even harder at finding empathy, something that comes from the heart but not the head. Jayne got more creative this time. She decided to create a mental movie set, imagining each of the kidnapers as babies. With each of the seven men, she imagined what must have happened to them, beginning as innocent infants and children, to transform them into sadistic henchmen. After an hour and a half of emotional stretching to understand these men and their motives she writes, “I felt an enormous wave of relief, as if the weight of the world had just been lifted from my shoulders. It was amazing. I felt so much lighter.” I don’t know that I would suggest to someone who had suffered such injustice that she held on to a feeling of self-righteousness. I would probably be one of those who wept along with Jayne at her suffering. But Dr. Barry knew that she had to forgive these strangers in order to live. He knew that Eduardo’s captors had moved on with no thought of her or her family’s suffering so she only stood to ruin her own life. Dr. Barry is a seminary-trained Pastoral Counselor who asked Jayne to do the hard task of forgiving, The Spirit enabled her to connect with her husband’s captors and let go of her hatred.
In Mark 14, we read of a strange dinner date Jesus had just two evenings before His arrest. His host is known as Simon the Leper. No self-respecting Jew would come near a leper nor would anyone who wanted to ensure their own good health. Not only does Jesus visit him in his home; He eats food prepared in Simon’s kitchen. A woman enters who (uninvited) breaks open a jar of expensive perfume and pours it on His head! This is no ordinary dinner party! Jesus should not have had any contact with a woman, especially one who would be so brazen as to approach Him directly and interact with such intimacy. The nard she brought with her would have been what every family had on hand so that, when a loved one died, they could anoint the dead body with the perfume. Investing in this perfume was their version of funeral pre-planning! The value was over a year’s wages. We learn this from the disparaging comments made by the other guests. Notice the description of their reaction. It says that they were indignant. This unknown, unnamed woman had completely disrupted their party with celebrity Jesus!
Jesus sees it a different way. It turns out that their response was more like self-righteous indignation! Jesus commends her for the way she has sacrificed for Him. She honored Him through an act that was truly worshipful! Just two nights before His arrest and torturous death, Jesus announces that she has anointed Him for His death and will forever be remembered for it. And we are still talking about her today!
Healing and forgiveness are inextricably linked. Many years ago we had healing service for a man who was about 50. One side of the sanctuary was virtually filled with family and friends who stayed after the service to come up, one wave of supporters after another, to lay hands on him and pray. He had been diagnosed with melanoma and was waging a war that waylaid him from a demanding career and beloved roles as husband and father. The treatment took its toll on him. A couple of days before Thanksgiving we ran into each other at the grocery store, grabbling final food items for the big day. I asked him how he was doing. This is a man who was fighting for his life. “Things are good,” he assured me. “God is near! I am thankful!” I was astounded. This man could have been justifiably indignant that cancer would knock him off his life’s course at such a young age. But he wouldn’t let a disease have that power over him. He succumbed to the disease not long after that Thanksgiving. But he died on his terms. A church member told me, “I think he was healed in that service we held for him after worship.” If being healed means entering heaven with our sights fixed on Jesus and a levity in our hearts, this beloved father, husband and church member was well when he greeted his Maker!
Lillian Daniel is an author and ordained UCC pastor. At one of her early churches her husband, Lou, visited with two older gentlemen in their congregation on a regular basis. Both had dedicated their lives to civil rights battles and their minds were sharp even as their bodies failed them. During a Lenten speaking series, Lou spoke of the privilege he had in visiting these two men whom he dubbed “old lions.” While reaching out to them in Christian service, he found that he had been indescribably blessed by them. They transmitted the values of a deep Christian spirituality, embracing life and preparing to die well. Lou realized that his visitation was really his own search for healing, the
desire to have spiritual grandfathers who would inspire right living. They reminded him that any healing they prayed for had to encompass the full community. It could never be simply about themselves. Lou’s professional life was akin to that of these two men. Lillian writes, “It is not enough for only a few to live well. We all need to be made whole. A civic leader, a civil rights activist, a union organizer—these three men were not passively waiting for that healing, but believed that God calls us to be instruments of that healing. At different points in their lives, two retired and one at the beginning of his working life, they all still believed that the wholeness comes in the struggle….So while both of these elders suffered in their bodies, they spoke with Lou less about the healing of a body but prayed also for the larger healing, for that healing of the nations. Therefore it seems natural that conversations about the state of our recession-strapped city and the fate of the labor movement would take place in a tangle of IV tubes and heart monitors in a hospital room. In the practice of healing, we pray that the community will be healed and that we will all be whole.” (pg. 67-68)
The other dinner guests looked in on this shameless woman pouring out a year’s worth of income on Jesus head with indignation. They clung to certain expectations about social class, expected table decorum, and accepted roles between men and women. They looked down on the woman while elevating their own self-image. Jesus’ vision was not clouded by these barriers to unity. Jesus saw each person there, including Simon the Leper and the uninvited woman, as beloved children of God. He understood that her worship exalted Him and brought healing to her. The name of Simon the Leper has gone down in history not as an unworthy beggar but as an honored host to the Messiah of the world! As Jesus prepared to lay down His life for an unappreciative world, He offered forgiveness for all of us—all of us who often work against His kingdom.
If we stand with our hands on our hips in self-righteous indignation we will miss the gift of Christ’s forgiveness. We will lose out on the opportunity to extend that forgiveness to others. If we get stuck on justifying ourselves as being decent, law-abiding human beings all the while lording it over our subordinates, we will fail to see the glory of heaven that peeks out from the dark clouds not just on you and me—but on our broken world! Through the gift of Good Friday and the miracle of Easter, we understand at a deep level that there’s enough of Jesus to go around! And that good news brings healing.