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I once gave a talk at a major university on sexuality and religion. At the end of the speech a teenage girl and her mother waited in the line where I was signing copies of my books until everyone else had left.
The (about) sixteen-year-old came forward and whispered, “Do you think God forgives the sins that people commit as teenagers?”
I asked her if she believed in a God of love and forgiveness. She answered “Yes.” I told her I did too, and that I believed that there is nothing we could do — young or old — that would alienate us from God’s love.
I wish I had remembered this passage from Micah in that moment. It not only doesn’t imply that all people are sinners, but that God forgives people when they do sin and shows mercy and compassion to us.
Some of you have a different idea of sin than I do. My theology does not believe in original sin, the idea that all people are born as sinners, or that sin is transmitted by the very act of sex that brings us into being. I often talk about “original blessing” to illustrate that all of our births are miracles, beginning with a sexual act and hopefully conceived in a loving relationship. How different the history of religion might be if St. Augustine had conceived of “original blessing” rather than original sin! My own concept of sin is about broken relationships, causing suffering, and not honoring the gifts of life. Almost all faith traditions teach that there is always a possibility for love, healing and restored relationships.
This passage from Micah emphasizes healing, forgiveness and compassion from God. I also think it’s a call to us not to stay angry, to forgive, to show mercy and have compassion for those who have angered, crossed or hurt us. It reminds us when we have been hurt by another to reach for compassion rather than return the anger.
My own senior minister, Rev. Frank Hall, often ends his service with these words from poet Miller Williams:
“Have compassion for everyone you meet even if they don’t want it. What seems bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”I often remind myself of these words when I’m behind an angry passenger at the airport or a person who pushes me in the supermarket line or a driver who cuts me off cursing me because I’m driving the speed limit. I don’t really know what is going on with them, so rather than responding with returned temper or ill manners, I try to remind myself, “Compassion. I don’t know what else is going on in their lives today.”
It can even be with someone you think you know well. Perhaps a dear friend or even your spouse is insensitive to your feelings or rude or sarcastic to you. Before getting upset with him or her, it may be useful to ask what else happened that you don’t know about. You could say something like, “You are usually so loving. I feel hurt (or angry) by what you just said, but I wonder what I don’t know is going on in your life.” I once had a major falling out with a dear friend. Months later, as we met to reestablish our friendship, we learned that we had both been going through deep stress during that time that we had taken out on each other. We chose to forgive each other and move on in order to reclaim our friendship.
A minister friend of mine taught me the spiritual practice of saying “fascinating.” She told a story of one person blowing up at another person at a staff meeting and walking out of the room. The woman who was the recipient of the anger said aloud, “Fascinating,” and continued on with the meeting. When my friend asked her how she could respond so neutrally, she explained that when faced with such situations, she had trained herself to say “fascinating” aloud and wonder with intention what could be going on behind the other’s behavior.
What if for today, like God in the Micah passage above, you responded to every negative interaction with forgiveness, mercy and compassion? What if you trained yourself to think and say “fascinating” in such circumstances, being curious about what causes a person to act that way? How might that change your way of being in the world?
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Meditations on the Good News. Please feel free to forward it to anyone you think may be blessed to read it.
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