“Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.” This is a most suggestive beatitude. If we had been writing it, we would have said, “Blessed is he who never has sinned.” But if it read thus, it would have no comfort for anyone in this world, for there are no sinless people here. -J.R. Miller
The language of this psalm can be so commonplace to church-goers that we easily run right past its true meaning. If we pause a moment and think about the phrase, “Blessed is the man whose sins are forgiven,” it’s mind-blowing. What do we do to forgive our sins? Nothing! It’s pure gift. And in addition to this gift, we are blessed. What type of God is this who blesses those who tell Him what they did wrong? If I stole something and then turned myself in, I would still be guilty of that crime; but with God this is not so. When confessed, our sin is covered, obliterated, and never used against us. Do we live in gratefulness to this love? I think the answer for most of us most of the time is, “Sadly, no.” But what a privilege this gift of sin-covering is. It’s a gift that promises us a hope and a future. It’s a covering that allows us to not live in fear. Ever since our first ancestors hid from God in the garden out of fear and guilt, we have followed suit. Perhaps I can be courageous enough today to step out of hiding toward God, and gratefully accept my blessing.
A few years ago, I tried writing a folk song recounting the story of Jonah. While my song had several (now forgotten) verses, I do remember the first one:
Old Jonah looking for a ship to sail,
Ended up in the belly of a whale.
When the wind blew, he drew a lot,
And a hungry fish was the best he got!
Jonah’s testimony is a fascinating one. His four brief chapters of fame are a case study in vacillation between faithlessness and faithfulness. The cowardly man who “fled from the presence of the Lord,” is the same who later insists that the sailors, to save themselves, throw him into the midst of the sea. Swallowed by a whale and incarcerated in an unknown environment, his earnest prayer is one of thanksgiving to God. His gratitude quickly turns to indignation when Ninevah is spared, and he’s inconsolable when a worm eats his shade tree. Perhaps the greatest thing about this story is God’s love for and infinite patience with His wayward child. He uses everything at His disposal — from a whale to a worm — to accomplish His will in both Jonah and 120,000 Ninevites.
I wonder. I wonder what Jesus thought as he walked the way of the cross. Did he say to himself, “One step at a time, one foot before the other?” Did he see beyond the cross, the glory to come? Or was it sinners in need of a savior and love for the undeserving that compelled him? He unleashed from the confines of the cross immeasurable treasures: mercy, forgiveness, and triumph of life over death. Jesus reached out from suffering to suffering for the sake of love.
I was listening at our Lauds service today. (I don’t always and am easily lured into thinking and re-thinking my own agenda.) But today, three phrases begged me to listen. From Luke 1, the Benedictus: to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins; the Lenten Reading for Wednesday: Is not our Lord just now ready to bless you?To increase your faith, and love, and patience, and gentleness? (Charles Wesley); and finally, the Collect for the Day: You crown the merits of the saints and pardon sinners when they repent. Lent is power-packed with hope. Salvation, forgiveness, and the freedom to repent, open a corridor to Easter’s joy.
It’s a shame that lent has so many negative connotations. The introit Mass Proper for Ash Wednesday opens the liturgical season with these words:
“Your mercy extends to all things, O Lord, and you despise none of the things you have made. You overlook our sins for the sake of repentance. You grant them your pardon, because you are the Lord our God.” —Wisdom 11:24-25, 27; Psalm 57 (56)
For any of us who struggle with self-acceptance, what a wonderful time to lean in towards a merciful God who made no mistakes in His creation. I still have so much to learn about this God of love.
In his eloquent poem titled “Ash Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot finishes the poem with a beautiful prayer-like litany to the Blessed Virgin. As we start this penitential and joy-filled season, I hope that my heart will echo his poetic words.
Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden, Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto thee
Have you ever asked yourself honestly, does God love me? While the answer YES! comes quickly to mind, I know many times today I’ll ask myself this question and doubt. Over small worries, unfairness, fears — and over situations I don’t know how to handle, or am powerless to change — I’ll ask this question and doubt.
These words from Henri Nouwen’s well-known meditations on the story of the Prodigal Son are hopeful in bridging the gap of faith between knowing about God’s love, and allowing oneself to live inside of this love. Nouwen shares: ‘For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life–pray always, work for others, read the scriptures–and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair. Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?”
I’m certain I put forth much extra work to answer the wrong questions; extra efforts to “find God,” and to “know God” rather than simply allowing myself to be loved by him. Nouwen continues: “But if I am able to look at the world with the eyes of God’s love and discover that God’s vision is not that of a stereotypical landowner or patriarch, but rather that of an all-giving and forgiving father who does not measure out his love to his children according to how well they behave, then I quickly see that my only true response can be deep gratitude.”
I have so much to be grateful for, all the time, every day.
I believe true forgiveness is a process, and not a single event. I can say the proper words to end an unpleasant and difficult encounter, but I know words are not enough. I’ll rehash the hurt, sense of injustice, and anger many times before the work of genuine forgiveness is complete. I’m not proud of my slowness of heart, nor am I particularly ashamed of it. Forgiveness is a cherished commodity, forged as gold, and worthy of the perseverance it requires. It equally benefits both the forgiver and the forgiven.
Our daily devotional had a meditation on Saturday that caught my attention. It was a quote from Richard Rohr in his book “Hope Against Darkness”, “God makes grace out of our grit; salvation out of our sin. We are saved, ironically, not by doing it right as much as by the suffering of having done it wrong. We come to God not through our perfection as much as through our imperfection. Finally, all must be forgiven and reconciled. Life does not have to be fixed, controlled, or even understood to be happy. Now be honest, that is good news.”
What I am compelled to admit, is that while I love the look of this in writing, I often don’t live this way. Too many times I forfeit the short road to God by fighting to be right in any given moment, instead of accepting my imperfection. I sacrifice the happiness that comes with being unfixed, out-of-control, and misunderstood. Instead, I bolster my efforts to control my own life, fix the chipped paint of my exterior, and press my point until I feel I have been heard.
It reminds me that recently I heard someone say, “sometimes you just have to surrender . . . to fall back and trust that arms will be there to catch you.” So I offer up my prayer: Lord, give me the grace, like a spiritual skydiver, to let go, fall back, and let you make some grace of my grit.
During the recent singing of Vespers Festival Psalms, I was captured by a phrase contained in Psalm 110, verse 3: from the womb of the dawn. It spoke of hope, opportunity, forgiveness and re-birth, available with each new day. As the sun embraces the earth with light and warmth, our heavenly father extends his arms, inviting us to enter into life wholeheartedly and with great expectation.
You might expect that this is a chant blog for Lent with such a title. No. At Friday morning Lauds, we chant Psalm 51 – perhaps the most well-known penitential psalm – throughout the year. Though we have often discussed beauty and the value of repetition in both the Divine Office and Eucharist, I think this psalm and chant deserve a special mention.
Chanting Psalm 51 reminds me that I am in need of God’s mercy and loving restoration. The gentle Mode VI antiphon creates an aural “portrait” of God welcoming us home, much as in the story of the prodigal son.
Chanting Psalm 51 reminds me that we are about to go into the weekend, which concludes with Sunday – the Lord’s Day. Though that may seem an obvious thing, I often forget this and think primarily (if not exclusively!) of the projects I must accomplish which received none of my attention through the week. Chanting Psalm 51 reminds me that I am in need of God’s mercy to help me prepare for the Sabbath.
Finally, and perhaps most important, chanting Psalm 51 reminds me that I need to offer God’s mercy, forgiveness, and love to others which has been so generously given to me. Once again, chant – the song of prayer – turns me and all of us to God’s loving and welcoming voice!