July 25, 2010
At the camp Sharon and I attended, where we were counselors together, the vespers service was on the shores of the river. Sometimes we would sing (join in!):
Whisper a prayer in the morning,
Whisper a prayer at noon,
Whisper a prayer in the evening
T’will keep your heart in tune.
God answers prayer in the morning,
God answers prayer at noon,
God answers prayer in the evening
He’ll keep your heart in tune.
As I meditated on today’s passage from Hosea I thought, what kind of God is this? A God who uses the metaphor of a man marrying a prostitute — she may have been a prostitute for one of the rituals at a pagan temple in Israel — to symbolize how God’s people have abandoned the true faith, a God who names the first child of that union “God shall sow” to symbolize the sowing of the seeds of God’s wrath, who names the second child “Unloved” to symbolize how God will never forgive the people again, and who names the third child “Not my people” to symbolize a disavowing of having chosen the people. What kind of God is this? When I consider how God has reacted here, it feels like God is like Roy Orbison singing the last lines of the song “It’s Over” – it’s over, it’s over, it’s over, it’s over!
How do you see God in this Hosea passage: a wrathful, vengeful God? A God that is frustrated with humanity? A weeping God? A God that won’t forgive? A God that won’t forget? Some would say that this is the typical God of the Hebrew Scriptures. Are you comfortable with the God we see in this passage? Is the kind of God that we see in this passage the kind of God that you want? And does it make any difference whether you want the kind of God you have? Can you pray to this God? What would you pray for?…How do you pray to this God?…
The passage continues with
Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. It won’t be said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’ The people of Judah and the people of Israel will be reunited, and they will choose one leader and will master the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel.
You will say of your brothers, ‘You are my people,’ and of your sisters, ‘You are loved.’
So this God of Israel, the God who speaks to Hosea, the God who in anger can rage that this relationship is over is also a God who loves, who forgives.
The beginning of this week’s psalm, Psalm 85, fits with the theme of God’s forgiveness:
You showed favor to your land, O LORD;
you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people
and covered all their sins
You set aside all your wrath
and turned from your fierce anger.
And then the psalm turns into a prayer:
Restore us again, O God our Savior,
and put away your displeasure toward us.
Will you be angry with us forever?
Will you prolong your anger through all generations?
Will you not revive us again,
that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your unfailing love, O LORD,
and grant us your salvation.
You may have noticed that the epistle picks up on this theme of God’s forgiveness through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In Paul’s theology God’s forgiveness has been extended to us even before we have changed our ways, while we were yet sinners, before we have truly loved God. This kind of God reminds me of the song, “The Heart of the Matter,” sung by Don Henley of the Eagles, which has a chorus that is easy to sing and hard to forget. It goes:
I’ve been tryin’ to get down to the heart of the matter,
But my will gets weak,
And my thoughts seem to scatter,
But I think it’s about forgiveness,
Even if, even if you don’t love me anymore,
Later, it changes a little so that instead of thoughts, it’s friends who seem to scatter, and it changes yet again to
Because the flesh will get weak,
And the ashes will scatter,
So I’m thinkin’ about forgiveness,
Even if, even if you don’t love me anymore.
Lately I’ve been giving more attention to the stanzas and the bridge, which I won’t sing:
(quotes the rest of the lyrics)
I’ve been thinking about forgiveness because I have a particular problem at work, and I know it’s about forgiveness, forgiveness, even if, even if I really feel wronged and don’t want to forgive. We have been trying for some time to change the Defense Department’s Family Advocacy Program case management process for reports of child abuse and domestic violence so that we only enter these into our central registry with information that identifies the family members if we substantiate it against standardized evidence-based criteria. We also need to change the composition of the committee that rates these reports to have more senior leadership, reduce its size and limit participants to those with factual information in order to protect the privacy of the family members. We’ve tried to make these changes as guided by research and reports from a task force, and to do it through a consensus building process of the four Services. It hasn’t been easy, it’s like herding cats, and our office has struggled to find the right kind of milk to appeal to these cats, but eventually three of the four Services have agreed, some more enthusiastically than others.
But one Service has thrown up one objection or recommended change after another, sometimes with reasons that contradict other reasons it has given. We have considered each of these objections or recommendations but have found that the reasons not to accept them are stronger than the reasons to accept them. I prepared a historical document summarizing the background of the policy change for reference if needed in the final process of issuing the policy. On Wednesday the person who has submitted almost all of the objections and recommendations read this summary and my reasons for not accepting the changes and she sent me a hostile e-mail with copies to her supervisor and his supervisor. The e-mail states that my response is untruthful, misleading and unfair, and that if I am using it to justify moving forward, it is a misuse of my position.
Well! My staff and I were taken aback. Because it targeted my professional competence and ethics, it really wounded me. On Friday I called her supervisor and suggested that they send back the summary with recommended edits to make it more accurate from their perspective, but that I expected her to send an apology to me by e-mail or she would be unwelcome to attend future meetings or participate in conference calls. He agreed that her behavior was unprofessional and inappropriate and agreed. So I will see whether I get one next week.
But assuming she apologizes, how do I move toward forgiveness? I am one of those people who have been blessed with a good memory but when it comes to forgiving, I think having a good memory is not such a blessing. I am quite good about not letting bygones be bygones. Even though my ancestors were mostly German, by temperament I’m Irish, a people with short tempers and long memories. I was raised with the idea that it is important to be in the right, because it’s a bad thing to be in the wrong and to have to apologize. So since I try to live by being right so that I won’t have to apologize, I’m not good at recognizing when I need forgiveness and asking for it, and because I’m not good at asking for it I don’t find it easy to forgive.
Although I’m not looking forward to the memory loss that comes with aging, I would like to be able to forget petty grudges. I’d like to pray to a God who forgets my sins. In my Sunday school lessons I learned that God is everywhere and knows all things, including the future. But is it possible that our God is a God that forgets? In a recent article in the magazine Christian Century, Martin Marty repeats a parable that on the eighth day of creation, God created rust so that the world wouldn’t be submerged in a huge pile of junk, and that the brain rusts, too, so that we can forget stuff we don’t need to remember. Marty points out biblical passages that show God forgets along with passages that show God is omniscient. Blessed are they who forgive and forget – a beatitude that accidentally got omitted from the Gospel.
I have liked the unison prayer that Celebration Circle created for us, but I was the one who suggested that we add the lines “Forgive us for the hurt we have inflicted, and help us forgive those who have hurt us,” similar to the familiar lines in the Lord’s prayer. I need to pray for forgiveness and for help in forgiving others. Maybe you do, too. Forgiveness, forgiveness, even if you don’t love me anymore.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we see that the disciples believed that it was important to pray. As Jews, they would have been taught how to pray, but they wanted to pray the way he did, with an intensity that created a special relationship with God. I infer that both the disciples and Jesus fully expected that if they prayed, their prayers would be answered.
Do you get distracted while praying? I do. I suspect the disciples did. Herbert McCabe says that we get distracted when we pray because we are praying for high minded things that are not the things we really want. He says that whenever we are distracted in our prayer we should trace the distraction back until we find what it is that we really want and then pray about that.
It may be that the Lord’s Prayer was Jesus’ attempt to focus the disciples’ prayers on the four things they really wanted: God’s kingdom of peace to become reality, enough food to get through the day, forgiveness, and not to be tested in their faith. Not for financial security or the American dream of material wealth, not for health, and not even for strong faith. Rather, they were to pray for enough to eat that day. They were to pray for their own forgiveness in the way that they forgave others. There wasn’t any pop psychology idea that they first had to learn how to forgive themselves before they could forgive others or could receive forgiveness. They would simply learn how to forgive others by doing it and would pray to be forgiven themselves that way. God would forgive them, especially if they asked day after day after day. And they were to pray that not to be led into sin.
The esteemed Biblical scholar, Kenneth Bailey, explains that the parable of the man going to a friend at midnight to beg for bread to feed a visitor would resonate with peasants of the Middle East. The tradition of hospitality is so important that any visitor, regardless of what time he or she arrived, must be fed and must be offered more food than a person can eat, or the entire village would be shamed, and not just the host. The host has the right to ask others in the village to help provide a meal. The person asked for food doesn’t have to LIKE the visitor or the host, he might still carry a grudge against one or both, but he has to do what is expected of him for the sake of the village. The host should be persistent, even if he makes a public spectacle of himself, and eventually, the food will be given: ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.
Bailey then suggests that in the following verses Jesus turns from talking to his disciples to talking to a hostile audience that probably expected him to insist on holy behavior. But Jesus asks rhetorically whether they investigate their children’s behavior before they decide to give their children something good. And he reminds them that although they are sinners they give good things to their children, so the God who is perfect love will give bless them and give them the Holy Spirit if they ask for it even though they are sinners.
It’s not important that we be perfect. God loves and forgives us anyway: that’s what the Resurrection is all about. Marty points out that when we pray for God to forgive us, and pray that God will forget the threats against us for our evil, it’s important to have a God who can be counted on to forget. If God remembers our offenses and has stored those divine threats for retribution against us for future use, then God cannot answer our prayers. We are not truly reassured, not truly free, not truly forgiven.
But we know that God answers our prayers. We know that we are forgiven. We know that we are loved. “Jesus loves us, this we know…” If we don’t get an answer to our prayer right away, we should follow Peter Bankson’s advice and keep praying. And keep praying, and keep praying. It took several hundred years of prayer for the Jews to return to Judea from Babylon. But eventually they did.
 ©Don Henley, Mike Campbell, and J. D. Souther, 1989.