We’re getting to the end of our time with Sara Miles and Jesus Freak – I have my last class on Tuesday, and will share my final reflections next Friday. But do not fear! I have already signed up for another 5-week class – Painting the Stars: Science, Religion, and an Evolving Faith – and will reflect on class discussions/readings/videos each week.
But before we get there, we still have more to learn about being a Jesus Freak. This week Miles focused on Forgiving, which is oddly the shortest chapter in the book. Miles shares one very short exchange with an Episcopal priest that I think speaks to what Miles wants us to think about when we consider forgiving (or being forgiven).
Miles has been asked to go talk to a dying man who wants to speak with “somebody religious about forgiveness” (111). Remember, Miles is not ordained. She’s just a lay person, granted quite an incredible lay person. The prospect of talking to this dying man, who wants to confess and talk about forgiveness, is scary for Miles because she is a lay person.
The following conversation is with a priest, Will Hocker, who is attempting to explain the different functions of clergy and laity when it comes to forgiveness:
Will was firm: only a priest could hear a confession and absolve someone; the rubrics said that laypeople could just offer “assurance of God’s forgiveness.”
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
“There’s a difference,” said Will. “But it’s always good to listen and pray” (112)
When I first read this, I was puzzled and read it again. And again. This priest is saying only clergy can hear confession and absolve someone of their sins, yet laity can offer “assurance of God’s forgiveness.” I ask the same question Miles did: What is the difference in those two things? By assuring someone of God’s forgiveness, aren’t you listening, praying, and telling them it’s okay?
The whole idea of confession and forgiveness through clergy is something I have limited exposure to. Growing up as a Methodist, at least in my experience, God forgave us all the time as long as we acknowledged our wrongs in prayer, or with another person. I don’t remember ever thinking that I had to go to my pastor before I could be forgiven. On the other hand, I did grow up with lots of Catholic friends so I was familiar with the idea of confession. But I was still detached from the sacrament of confession.
Reading Miles’ further account of her time with Tom, the dying man, I struggle even more with the concept of confession and absolution through clergy. It is clear that Tom didn’t care that Miles wasn’t ordained. He just wanted someone to listen to his fears, his transgressions, his struggle to forgive. And Miles does just that, listening and praying and telling him it’s okay because God is the ultimate forgiver.
This story leads up to one of the best passages (which is really saying something, considering Miles is a profound writer):
None of us has the strength to forgive sins by ourselves; our capacity for mercy is just not big enough. We have to empty out our defended, angry, wounded selves in order to be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. We have to ask for God’s mercy, which is infinite, to break into us, inspire us (113).
We need a community to help us forgive and be forgiven. We need the divine spirit, the divine breath to help us forgive and be forgiven. Forgiveness can really suck sometimes. I’m sure everyone can think of at least one person who they feel is impossible to forgive. But have we shared that pain we felt with someone? Have we given it up to whatever divine being we have faith in? When we partake in a community of love and support, filled with clergy or lay people, we are able to expose the wounds we have and the wounds we’ve inflicted on others, and find peace in the journey of forgiveness.