Ending Well

It is the end of the year, 2013, and the apostle Paul writing a long time ago, reminds us how to end it well: "Make allowance for each other's faults," he wrote to the small church at Colossae, "and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others."

I want to end well, don't you? And if that means ending this year forgiving somebody, that also is what I want to do.

More recently, another person wrote something about forgiveness that I want to recite. I heard it read in a federal courtroom in Kentucky. I was sitting on the back row watching, listening, praying. A young man was to be sentenced for robbing a bank.

It was a bad thing he did, slipping a note pad to the teller, demanding money. He was six foot one inch, rough and rugged, muscles along every limb, shabbily dressed. The teller was about the same age, but smaller and nine months pregnant. The thief did not know that, of course; nor did he know it was her birthday. So much of it was so random.

"Do you have anything to say?" the judge asked that day in court.

The thief turned to the young woman, sitting with her husband on the other side of the courtroom. With tears streaming down his face, he said, "I am so sorry for what I did. You did not deserve this. I did not mean to harm you. I am sorry."

Then it was her turn. She read a letter in response. No, the prosecutor read it and I remember it vividly. "I hate you. I hate you. I hate you." He read for her. "You do not deserve any mercy. You have ruined my life. I was nine-months pregnant that day last summer when you robbed our bank. It was my birthday. I have been in therapy ever since. I hate you."

I starred at the prosecutor reading the letter. I did not turn to look at the woman. There was a long, tense silence.

"I sentence you to 93 months in federal prison," the judge said, finally. The gavel sounded; it was over. It did not end well, for anybody.

The young man, my son, was headed to prison, first in Missouri, then in Pennsylvania, finally in Kentucky: behind bars for more than seven years, seven tough years.

We went to see him frequently, adjusting to the security protocol: sign in, empty your pockets, pass a drug screen, they stamp your hand with ink, then you wait and walk through door after door, all operated by federal personnel sitting in secure glass enclosed cubicles. They controlled the keys for us to get in and get out and also for our son.

But the woman, the young woman whose bitter words still haunt me: what of her? Was she also in a prison? Had she locked herself behinds bars? Bars of anger, resentment, revenge, even hatred. Is this a prison also?

Are you in prison today? 

I know. Two point three million adults are locked up in American jails and prisons. It is a sad situation and needs to be changed. But others, perhaps you, are locked in cells of anger and resentment and revenge.

A federal prison is a nasty place to be, but prisons of anger and hatred are also terrible--a bad place to be, a lonely place to live, a sad place to sleep.

But here is the good news: you don't have to sleep one more night in that prison cell of resentment; you don't have to live one more day in a jailhouse of anger.

At the end of this year, 2013, I have some good news: Jesus has a key that will unlock your prison cell and set you free. It is the key of forgiveness. He's given that key to you. It is on a ring attached to a necklace hanging around your neck, small enough to fit into your hand--that key is--but strong enough to fit into every lock and certain to unlock any door now shut.

Yes, I know: it is not easy. You want your enemy, who did you dirty, to come to you and confess and apologize and cry and beg. You want that jerk, the man that made life miserable for you, to acknowledge his meanness and ask for forgiveness. You are determined to keep the key of forgiveness hidden under your sweater until it is done right.

After all, it wasn't fair what he did! Cheated you or fired you or stole your wife or burned your barn, copied your paper, destroyed your research, told lies about you, bore false testimony against you. Or it was downright cruel what she did: took your job, wrecked your marriage, seduced your son, flunked your daughter, or told lies about you all over town. Nothing good, nothing fair.

Many times I went to a particular coffee shop in town. I got to know the waitresses that served up pastries and drinks. One of my favorite was an older woman. "Why are you still working?" I asked one day. "You should be home playing with your grandchildren." I was stunned by what she said. "Because all of my retirement was invested in an Arizona Foundation. I trusted them. When it went bankrupt, I lost everything." I had read about that debacle; it made the news even in Kentucky. Leaders of that Foundation were arrested, convicted, and sentenced. They were jerks. They ought to be in prison.

But even with their meanness, I detected no anger or bitterness in the speech or soul of my friend. She just served coffee and was always glad to see me when I came in. If anybody deserves to be resentful, it is her; but she is not.  If anybody has a strong case for revenge, it is that waitress.

But no, she carries that golden, gospel key around her neck; and when anger and hatred start closing their doors to trap her inside a spiritual prison, she grabs that gospel key called forgiveness and makes an escape.

Jesus says to us, just as he said to his own people a long time ago, "Pray for those who abuse you. Forgive those who sin against you."

Jesus of all people had reason to resent those who mistreated him. You and I can be self-centered people with a cruel and careless attitude toward others. We deserve some of the grief we get. But not Jesus: he was full of compassion, he was just, he was righteous and altogether lovely. But (when) they conspired against him, arrested him on a trumped-up charge, convicted him of something he did not do, nailed him to a cross, and made fun of him while doing it.

But you know what he had? Hanging around his neck? A twine woven necklace with that gospel key. When he prayed in Gethsemane, he held that key in his hand; when he stood before Pilate and listened to the false witnesses, he held up for all to see the gospel key of forgiveness; and when he hung on the cross, suspended between heaven and earth, it was the power radiating from that key that enabled him to say, "Father, forgive them. They don't know what they are doing."

Years later, the great apostle Paul wrote a letter urging us to "put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander along with all malice."

I once carried a car battery from the car into the garage. Some of the fluid in it spilled on my jacket. At first it was simply a dark liquid. After a few days, it began to discolor the jacket. A week later I discovered the stains were actually dissolving the fabric of the jacket. It was a new jacket, my favorite. Before long that wonderful, warm jacket was full of holes. The accidental acid was destroying something new and good and warm.

Unforgiveness and resentment are the acids that eat at the soul.

Is there somebody you need to forgive today?

Are you using your spiritual energy to clutch onto a memory or a meanness?

Let it go. Give it up. Release it to God. Take that gospel key that Jesus gave you and unlock the cell in which you have been living.

I know it is not easy.

And just because you forgive somebody does not mean he has to be your friend, or just because you give up your resentment and anger does not mean you have to like her! Be shrewd, Jesus taught us. Stay away from people who do you harm, who pull you down, who treat you like garbage. 

But resentment, revenge, anger? Give those to God. "Revenge is mine," says the Lord. "I will repay."

Jesus, you remember, taught us to forgive when he taught us to pray. The Lord's Prayer may be the most widely known, oft-repeated collection of words in the history of human culture. And right square in the middle of them is this petition: "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."

This is the key to happiness, the key to freedom, the key to spiritual vitality. It will unlock many prisons in which we have locked ourselves. That is why it is in this prayer and that is why we pray it every day. It is the way to end well, regardless of how difficult the journey has been.

The name Robert Coles will be familiar to some of you. He is one of the premiere child psychiatrists in the United States. He has written many books, The Spiritual Lives of Children, The Moral Lives of Children.  But it is a small book called The Story of Ruby Bridges that is his most powerful and provocation piece. It is really his story.

Robert was a young medical student at Harvard. He finished his studies just as the civil rights movement began. He went to New Orleans to work with the children. He met Ruby, and Ruby changed his life.

Ruby was a young, black girl. She was ordered to ride the bus to a white school. When she obeyed the order, all the white kids quit riding the bus. Emotions were high. Danger was in the air. But every day Ruby rode the school bus all alone, and every day she walked carefully and proudly from the bus to the school house door. She paid no attention to the noise, the crowd, the insults, and the threats.

But Dr. Coles noticed that just before Ruby got all the bus, she stopped to talk to herself.

"What do you say to yourself, Ruby?" he asked her one day.

"I am not talking to myself," she replied.

"What are you doing?" He said then.

"I am praying," she said.

"What are you praying?"

"I am saying what my mother taught me to say," she said.

"And what would that be?" he responded.

"Forgive me my sins as I forgive those who are sinning against me."

For Ruby Bridges, the young girl in New Orleans, it was the way to start the day; but for you and me, it might be the way to end the year. Forgiveness: it is the secret to ending well, ending this year on a high note, the right note, a gospel note. It is the will of God, and it is for the common good, and it is for your own good.

You may never be a witness for Jesus as sure, as true, and as lovely as when you unlock the prison of anger and resentment, as when you walk anew in the way of forgiveness, as when you take that gospel key that is hanging around your neck and use it to change your life forever.

Remember what the Apostle Paul wrote: "Make allowance for each other's faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, and so you must forgive others."

It is the way to end well this year. Amen.