Yesterday we commended to God the body and soul of a woman who began going to Good Shepherd in 1936. The number of her years is astonishing in itself—103 (brings a certain relevance to “teach us to number our days” because just counting that high takes serious concentration, especially when you try to remember how old you turned last year)—but when we sat around after the funeral, the most shocking realization was that she went to this church all that time without picking up and going elsewhere, ever.
Imagine how many tepid if not actually bad sermons she must have endured in 84 years. Imagine the sheer number of irritations, interpersonal conflicts, slights both given and received. Imagine all the misunderstandings—especially as she was involved in every single ministry in the church. Thinking over it all, her faithful life in this church illumines an almost alien conception of the world, an outlandish (to most of us) set of expectations required to endure anything for that long.
It’s curious to see how, in her own lifetime, the American church has suffered such a seismic shift of belief, on the part of ordinary church-goers, about what church is even for. Why go? For a sense of belonging? For the uplifting messages? Because the church is great at social action? Out of habit? Because you’ve always gone?
It can’t be the last one–habit. Especially anymore. No one will congratulate you for going to church. If you wake up early and get dressed up and pop into the Weiss on the way to Sunday School, rushing down the long, brightly lit aisle looking for a bottle of ibuprofen to beat back that sick headache before you face all the little children, your high heels resounding through the quiet, mostly empty store, the few people who are there will gape at you. Why are you dressed like that on a Sunday? Nothing is going on today. At least have the decency to put on a quieter pair of shoes.
Of the many millions of people who have gone to church through this past century, even for the social affirmation that we now acquire on Facebook and Twitter rather than appearing in person in a pew, it is extraordinary to stay, to never wander off somewhere else. There are a lot of reasons for this. I’ve read whole books about it. But I think one of the underrated reasons that people don’t stay in churches is because it is no longer any great virtue to forgive. Forgiveness is hard enough all by itself, but when everyone around you is calling to you to take offense, to put yourself first, to examine your feelings, to take care of yourself, the chief reason for going at all is lost, both intellectually and emotionally, in the souls of Christians.
Why go to church? Because you have to learn how to forgive. You have to learn the heartbreaking way of the cross, which is to be forgiven, and to forgive.
There are three people/groups that you have to always be forgiving if you’re going to make it through 8 decades in a church. You have to forgive the other people in the pews, sometimes just for even existing. You have to forgive the pastor. And you have to forgive God, ultimately, not for sinning (which he doesn’t do) but for not organizing things the way you would. If the Christian does not take this to be the chief reason he is there—if it is something else, like “belonging” or “bringing about the kingdom of God on earth” or anything like that—then he will never relearn the lost lesson of staying put, which is an astonishing and a merciful lesson.
In Matthew 18, after explaining how it is that the church should cope with the inevitable and painful disagreements and sins that members of the body will have, one with another—if your brother sins against you, go to him, and if he doesn’t listen, take someone else with you—Jesus adds a parable to add emotional weight to the question.
Let’s put some money on that question, he says, because Peter is stressed about how much forgiving it appears he’s going to have to do. How often should I forgive? As many times as you are given the opportunity, Godsplains Jesus, because that’s how God has forgiven you. And he tells the story of the Unmerciful Servant.
A man owes all the money in the world, more than anyone can imagine, though you should try, and when he flings himself on the mercy of the master, the master forgives him. Which means the master was out that amount of money. The master took an immense loss. The master lost all those stock options and investment opportunities. The master had to shut down all the factories that would have been funded with that money. The money was real, and it disappeared because the servant threw it all away. It will never come back.
The servant, of course, never wants to think about it from that angle. He is under the stress of the thing. He has incurred a debt and he cannot pay it and he is miserable. He can’t get out from under his own anxious burden to see it from the master’s perspective. When the disciples were arguing with each other, on the night before their Master died, about who was the greatest, they could not fathom the cost, the weight of their cosmic debt, that was going to be picked up and carried by the one they loved. They couldn’t see it. They ran and hid.
That’s the way. Something goes wrong, someone disappoints you, or doesn’t ‘get’ you, or looks crosseyed at you, and you think, ‘Oh for sure no, that is unacceptable, I’m outta here.’ You go find some other church, or you quit going altogether. You just can’t stomach the ridiculousness of other Christians.
That’s the first set of people you have to forgive—everyone in the church. And, second, the pastor, as I said, who will utterly disappoint you. He is human, after all. He’s constantly having to face the humiliation of putting his own immense debt of sin down before the Master, and then stand up and face the people again on Sunday. He tries hard to swallow down their slights, their debts, and point them always to the cross. Sometimes he fails. Maybe often. Then his name is blazoned on the internet for the failure he is. Which may not be a bad thing if he is actually abusive. Still, the people in his church have to forgive him, one way or another, even if they cast him out first. Why? Because Jesus commanded them to.
And finally, you have to forgive the Master himself—the one who forgave you all that debt. Was he wrong? Not at all. He gave you your life back, out of his own blood, if you would only accept him as he is. So why are you so angry?
Observe how much the Unmerciful Servant did not forgive anyone in this horrible little story: “But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii,[d] and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’”
Some people like to say that he didn’t ‘feel’ or ‘realize’ he was forgiven and so was unwilling, in turn, to forgive. And that may be so. I think he was unwilling to feel the deep humiliation of forgiveness. Or humility—call it what you like. It is much much easier, psychologically, to walk away from the experience of discovering that you sinned so deeply that someone else is actually hurt by explaining to yourself that it is not a big deal at all, that there is no reason for them to make such a fuss about it. To look at yourself and see that your own sin is so sickening, so incalculably big, so unforgivable that you cannot even begin to make it ok is too hard—God should not be the kind of God to make you do that. And so you drift away.
I shouldn’t say “you.” Maybe you haven’t done that. Maybe you’ve had to move town, or the church came apart, or there was some terrible thing and it was better to leave. There are some good reasons to leave a church. But one of the reasons not to leave is because you were forgiven and feel humiliated, or because you yourself refuse to forgive. If that’s why you’ve left, you should go shuffling back to the Master, for whom forgiveness is not optional, it is actually the point of the entire exercise.