"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
These are the first words that Jesus spoke from the cross. Although these words are seemingly clear and unambiguous, they leave a lot of unanswered questions in my mind. What did Jesus mean when he said "for they know not what they do?" Was Jesus asking forgiveness because those who were crucifying him didn't understand He was the Son of God? Is it O.K. to crucify someone who is not the Son of God? Does someone who knows what he's doing when he intentionally commits a terrible crime also deserve forgiveness? If you forgive someone who commits a terrible crime, does that mean the offender should not suffer any consequences for what he has done? Is there a difference between forgiving someone who has expressed remorse for what he has done and forgiving someone who has no remorse and who would do the same thing again?
I cannot answer all of my questions about what Jesus meant when he said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do?" I will leave those questions for James and Mike and other theologians to answer. Instead of trying to answer these questions, I would like to ask you to join me in thinking about whether you could offer forgiveness in each of the following three scenarios.
The first scenario. You have a daughter in college who is your pride and joy. She is kidnapped, raped, and murdered. The man arrested for her rape and murder has a record of violent crimes and had recently been released from prison.
The second scenario. You have worked hard all of your life in an effort to provide for yourself and your family. You saved enough for a comfortable retirement because you didn't want to be a burden to your children or anyone else in your old age. You find out that the person who was responsible for investing your retirement funds was running a Ponzi scheme. All of your money has been lost.
The third scenario. You find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you are arrested for a murder you didn't commit. You are convicted and sentenced to death. After many years on death row, your attorneys discover evidence that the prosecutors failed to disclose at your trial. The evidence exonerates you, and you are released from prison. You have no education, no meaningful work experience, and no means of making a living. Your life has been wasted in prison as a result of your conviction for crimes you didn't commit.
If I found myself in any one of these situations, I know I would be bitter and angry. It would be difficult for me to control my rage. I would demand revenge and justice. I would want the people who were responsible for my pain to be held accountable for their actions. I suspect the last thing on my mind would be forgiveness.
Why is forgiveness important even when the person being forgiven was guilty of terrible crimes? Here is what I know based on my personal experiences and the experiences of others who have told their stories. If something terrible happens to you, you have two choices. You can wallow in your pain for the rest of your life, or you can forgive those who have harmed you. It's pretty much that simple.
I recently read the best-selling book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. The book tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, who was a famous Olympic athlete prior to World Word II. Louie joined the U.S. Air Force after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He flew many successful combat missions on a B-24 bomber in the Pacific War against Japan. On one mission, Louie's plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean. Louie and two other crewmen survived the crash and ended up drifting aimlessly on a raft in the Pacific. He and his friends faced starvation and dehydration. They lived on rainwater, fish and birds. One of the crewmen died on the raft.
Miraculously, Louie and one of his companions survived 47 days on the raft. Finally, the Japanese captured the two men and imprisoned them in a prisoner of war camp. Louie was a prisoner of war for more than two years. He was repeatedly and brutally beaten and tortured. He was forced into slave labor, and he experienced starvation, dysentery, beriberi, and relentless humiliation.
Louie was freed a few weeks after the conclusion of World War II, but he returned home as a broken man. He suffered nightmares and flashbacks. He was bitter and angry. He wanted revenge. He wanted to go back to Japan and kill those who had tortured him. He became an alcoholic when he discovered that alcohol enabled him to forget his pain, at least temporarily.
Louie's life began to change when he attended a crusade being held by Billy Graham. After listening to Billy Graham, Louie gave up alcohol, renewed his faith in God, and ultimately learned to forgive his captors. The bitterness and anger were gone. Louie later returned to Japan not to kill his captors but to forgive them. It was only through forgiveness that Louie was able to put the past behind him and to have a new beginning.
For the most part, I have lived a blessed life. I have not experienced anything that even closely resembles the torture experienced by Louie Zamperini. My personal experience with forgiveness involves my brother Mike, who committed suicide in February 2001. I have talked about Mike's suicide from this same place on two previous Good Fridays, but I have not mentioned my anger at Mike for taking his own life. I was angry with Mike because he had not lived a responsible life. I was angry because of the grief his suicide brought to his then 15-year-old son, to the other members of my family, and to me. I was angry because Mike left behind huge debts that his estate did not have the ability to pay. I was angry because it was necessary to sell antiques that had been in my family for generations in order to pay some of Mike's debts.
In addition to being angry with Mike, I was also angry with myself. Why didn't I anticipate his suicide and do something to stop it? Although my mother and other members of my family had bailed Mike out of trouble on numerous occasions, why didn't we do more? I once participated in an intervention that forced Mike into an alcoholic rehabilitation program. It didn't work. Why didn't I try again? My anger with myself turned into guilt, and I began to feel partially responsible for Mike's suicide.
It has now been a little more than ten years since Mike's suicide. It has taken time, but I have forgiven Mike. I now realize he was mentally ill. He suffered from depression and alcoholism. My ability to forgive Mike has enabled me to renew my love for him, to think about his many good qualities, and to thank God for the 49 years he was a part of my life. I am still working on forgiving myself. Jesus was able to forgive the people who were crucifying him on the spot. For me-and I suspect for most people-forgiveness takes time.
Of course, the need for forgiveness is not limited to a family member's suicide or to major crimes like murder, theft, or false imprisonment. Most of us probably know or have heard about relationships that have ended as a result of relatively minor disagreements or misunderstandings. The book Tuesdays with Morrie was written by Mitch Albom about his former college professor, Morrie Schwartz. Mitch visited Morrie every Tuesday while Morrie was dying from a terminal illness. On one of his visits, Morrie talked about the need for forgiveness. Morrie remembered that he and his wife had dear friends who moved away to another town. When Morrie's wife had a serious operation, their friends never got in touch to see how she was doing, even though they knew about the operation. Morrie and his wife were hurt, and they dropped the relationship. When the friends tried to reconcile, Morrie shrugged them off. A few years later, Morrie heard that his former friend had died of cancer. Morrie told Mitch, "I feel so sad. I never got to see him. I never got to forgive. It pains me now so much." Morrie advice: "Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Don't wait... Not everyone gets the time I'm getting."
Good Friday is a dark day for all Christians. But it is also a day of great hope. For those of us who have been deeply wounded by the acts of others, we know there is a way for us to have a new beginning. Our new beginning requires that we forgive those who have hurt us. For those of us who are suffering from guilt because of our own actions, we know that God through his mercy will forgive us. Yes, today is a dark day, but we know that Sunday will bring Easter, and Easter represents the opportunity for a new beginning for all of us. A new beginning. Let it be so for all of us. Amen!
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
In speaking these words, Jesus quoted from the first line of Psalm 22 to express his feelings of being abandoned by God. These words were originally written by King David, who was a devout believer in God and who was very loyal to God, but at times David felt depressed and abandoned by God. These words were repeated by Jesus in the darkest moment of his life.
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' I have repeated these words hundreds of times in my head during the darkest days of my life. The darkest day of my life was February 15, 2001-the day my brother Mike committed suicide.
I grew up in a happy and close-knit family that consisted of a mother, a father, two brothers, twin sisters, and me. Mike was seven years younger than me. We shared the same room in our small house. Mike and I were quite different. He was outgoing, popular, and the life of the party. He was smart but was not a serious student. There was too much partying to be done. Unlike Mike, I was shy and reserved. I may not have been as smart as Mike, but I made up for it by hard work. I became a big-city lawyer who represented business clients. Mike became a small-town lawyer who represented people. Despite our many differences, Mike and I were always very close. He was the best man at my wedding, and I was the best man at his wedding. We always enjoyed each other's company. He always made me laugh. I loved him.
Despite outward appearances, I knew that Mike had a troubled soul. He was an alcoholic, and he did not know how to manage his money or his life. He was generous to a fault. He would give you the shirt off his back, but he would also let you take advantage of him, and many people did. He trusted everyone, even those who were untrustworthy.
On February 15, 2001, I was sitting in my office when the phone rang. Mike's secretary, Nancy, told me that Mike had shot himself in the head. He was still alive and was being taken to a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. Nancy said I needed to get there as soon as possible. I shut the door to my office and sat in my chair in stunned silence. I think I sat there in a frozen state for 30 minutes to an hour before I could even pick up the phone to call Ann and my older brother and two sisters. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
After making the necessary phone calls, Ann and I immediately left for Lexington. On the way, we stayed in constant contact with one of my cousins who was keeping watch at the hospital. We were told Mike was still alive, but we needed to hurry. When we finally arrived at the hospital, the doctors took me into a separate room and told me that Mike was brain dead. They had kept Mike alive until I arrived because they wanted to harvest some of his organs. Among other things, they wanted to take his hand for the second-ever hand transplant. After consulting by telephone with my siblings, I gave my permission for the organ donations, including the hand. I then asked to see Mike before leaving the hospital. It was horrible. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
The next day, I spent time with my nephew Charley, who was Mike's 15-year-old son. Although he did not expressly say so, Charley, I am sure, felt abandoned by God, as did I. How do you explain to a 15-year-old boy who adored his father that the father who adored him had taken his own life? "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
During the days and months that followed Mike's suicide, I felt abandoned by God most of the time. But there were also times when I felt God's presence. I felt God's presence when I met with an Episcopal priest in my hometown to plan Mike's funeral. The priest was Mike's friend and pastor, and he became my pastor at a time when I most needed one. I felt God's presence during Mike's funeral when we sang "A Mighty Fortress", "For All the Saints" and "Morning has Broken". Two months later, I felt God's presence at the beautiful marriage ceremony for my son Matthews and his wife Kristen.
But the year 2001 brought additional dark days for me. I was still in a state of shock and immense grief as a result of Mike's death, and I had to deal with many unpleasant issues involving his estate. In addition, we all experienced the unforgettable events that occurred on September 11, 2001 and the dark days that followed. In September and October, I also watched helplessly as my mother suffered in extreme pain prior to her death on October 20, 2001. During a period of seven months, I lost both my mother and my brother, and I observed brutal attacks on this country by Islamic terrorists who were praising God while killing innocent people. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Today, although I still feel abandoned by God at times, I more frequently feel God's presence. I feel God's presence during worship services at this Church and when I hear old familiar hymns that link me to my past. I feel God's presence when I hold a new grandchild for the first time, the second time, and the 100th time. I feel God's presence when I see pictures of the sonogram of my fourth grandchild who will be born in May. I feel God's presence when I walk on the beach or in the mountains. And I even feel God's presence when I am with my nephew Charley, because I know that Mike lives on through him.
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" In a strange way, these words give me great comfort. By saying these words, David and Jesus have enabled me to realize that it is normal and acceptable for me-at times-to feel abandoned by God and for me to express my feelings of abandonment, pain, and loss. If David and Jesus both felt that God had abandoned them, then maybe it is normal for me to have the same feelings.
David begins Psalm 22 by asking, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' Later in Psalm 22, however, David acknowledges that God did not turn away from him, but heard him when he cried out. Read in its entirety, Psalm 22 gives us hope that God is always with those who are faithful to him.
Good Friday is a dark day for all Christians. But it is also a day of great hope. We know that God is present with us even in the darkest of times and even during the times when we feel that He has abandoned us. We know that God is always with us, even when we are suffering and do not feel his presence. And we also know that when Sunday morning gets here, we will stand together to sing, "Christ the Lord is Risen Today." Amen!
"Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit."
Have you ever contemplated your own death? Have you ever had a near-death experience? How will you respond when your death is imminent?
I have never had a serious illness, but I have had a few experiences where I feared-at least for a brief period of time-that my life was about to end. On one occasion, I was flying to New York with two other passengers in a small private airplane when we encountered a terrific thunderstorm. The winds were extremely strong, and lightning bolts were lighting up the night sky. The plane was bouncing all over the sky. It was flying sideways half of the time and losing altitude. One of the passengers on the plane was the chief executive officer of the company for which I was then working. He told the pilot to get us out of the storm and onto the ground-anywhere-as soon as possible. I was terrified. I prayed that God would allow me to survive. I prayed that God would give me strength. I prayed for my family.
Obviously, I survived this experience because I am here to tell my story. My experience, although frightening, does not compare with the experience of those who know they are going to die. My experience lasted about 30 or 40 minutes, and then it was over. I was too scared to think seriously about my own death. When it was all over and I knew I was safe, my thoughts quickly returned to the problems of the day.
Unlike my experience, Jesus knew he was going to die on the cross, and he had plenty of time to contemplate his death. Likewise, thousands of people at any given point in time are struggling with terminal illnesses, and they know their death is imminent. What can we learn from Jesus and from others who have faced or are facing death?
The last words of Jesus before his death were, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit." In speaking these words, Jesus was repeating a verse from Psalms 31. The phrase that Jesus repeated was the prayer every Jewish mother taught her child to say the last thing at night. Dr. William Barclay writes that Jesus made the prayer more intimate by adding the word "Father" at the beginning, and he then died like a child falling asleep in his father's arms. Of course, Jesus did not enjoy a quiet and peaceful death. He was crucified. He was tortured. He endured indescribable suffering. Despite his suffering, however, when he died, Jesus was at peace with himself, and he was at peace with God. He surrendered himself to God, and he entrusted his spirit to God.
Approximately one year ago, my brother-in-law, Ann's brother Sam, was diagnosed with cancer. He died four months later. Ann and I observed Sam as he went though the various stages that are common to someone facing death. These stages included denial, fear, anger, self-pity, and resentment. In the last days before his death, however, Sam surrendered. He made peace with his death, and we could almost see the weight being lifted from his shoulders. Several days before he took his final breath, Sam was ready to commit himself to God.
I frequently listen to the Day1 radio broadcast on Sunday morning. Several weeks ago, Dr. Donovan Drake, the pastor of Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, North Carolina, told a story about a young woman in his church who was ten years removed from the youth group when she was diagnosed with cancer. Dr. Donovan said the woman once said to him, "I know how to live, but how do you die?" Dr. Donovan said he cannot remember his answer, but he remembers what the woman told him. On late evenings when she could not sleep from either pain or worry, the young woman and her mother would open a hymnal and sing hymns together. They would sing until they could see the future together.
Dr. Donovan concluded that you know how to die when you know what the future will bring. God! You know how to die when you know what the future will bring. Joy! You know how to die when you know what the future brings? Life.
In his book Mending the Heart, the late Dr. John Claypool compared death to birth. Life begins when a living sperm interacts with a fertile egg. For the first nine months, the new life is housed in the mother's womb, surrounded by protective and nurturing walls. Then comes the moment of birth. From the standpoint of the newborn, the birth is like a death. The baby has been taken from a comfortable place where all has been provided and moved into a new world. According to Dr. Claypool, this pattern of dying to a smaller world so that we might be born into a larger world repeats itself as we make our way through life, and it continues at the point of death. We die to a smaller place so that we might move on to a greater place. Death, like birth, represents an exit from one form of life and an entrance into another form.
But what about those of us who are left behind? How do we deal with our grief? How do we deal with the loss of our loved ones?
Jesus committed his spirit to God, but his spirit also remains with us and in us. His teachings about how we should live have survived for more than 2,000 years. There can be no doubt that Jesus' death did not extinguish his spirit because his spirit is alive and with us today.
During my lifetime, I have grieved over the deaths of many loved ones, including my grandparents, both of my parents, both of Ann's parents, my brother, Ann's brother, and several uncles and aunts. In each case, the spirit of the person who died has remained as an important part of my life. I remember and cherish each person's love, character, personality, and sense of humor. My loved ones who have died have moved on to a new life with God, but their spirit remains with me, and I hope their spirit will be passed along through me to my children and grandchildren.
Earlier this week, I attended a prayer service for an elderly Jewish man who had died. The Rabbi who spoke said many people have a greater impact on the lives of others after they have died than they did when they were alive. The Rabbi talked about the character and integrity of the man who had died and said his soul and his spirit would continue to have a large influence on the lives of those who knew and loved him.
Two years ago, I stood in this same place on Good Friday and delivered a homily based on the words of Jesus when he said, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" I talked about how I felt abandoned by God following the death of my younger brother Mike, who committed suicide on February 15, 2001. It has now been a little more than eight years since Mike's suicide. My grief remains strong, but my feeling of abandonment by God has been replaced by feelings of appreciation and gratitude for Mike's life. Mike's spirit is now with God, but it also remains with me.
I would like to refer again to John Claypool's book Mending the Heart, which helped me make the transition from abandonment to gratitude after my brother's death. In the book, Dr. Claypool wrote about the death of his daughter Laura Lue, who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 8 1/2. When Laura Lue later died at age 10, Dr. Claypool was devastated and went through a period of intense grief. After a while, he began to see Laura Lue's life and death in a new perspective. His viewpoint changed when he came to the following conclusion, and I quote: "I had never deserved her for a single day. She was not a possession to which I was entitled, but a gift by which I had been utterly blessed." Dr. Claypool went on to say he realized he had to make a choice. He wrote, "I could spend the rest of my life in anger and resentment because she had lived so short a time and so much of her promise had been cut short, or I could spend the rest of my life in gratitude that she had ever lived at all and that I had the wonder of those ten grace-filled years."
Jesus was a gift from God to all of us. Jesus taught us how to live, but he also taught us how to die. Have you ever contemplated your own death? How will you respond when your death is imminent? God does not guarantee that our life will be free of trouble or that our death will be free of pain and suffering. We do have God's assurance, however, that we will not be alone. God is with us always, even when we are suffering, and even when we are preparing to exit from one form of life and enter into a new life with Him. When my death is imminent, I pray that I will be able to commit my spirit to God and rest in the arms of God just as Jesus did.