Every year I receive two Lenten devotional booklets from charities that I support, Food for the Poor and Episcopal Relief & Development. The charities have similar missions to relieve poverty in developing countries, through direct aid and (in the case of ERD) micro-lending and educational projects to help the locals become self-sufficient.
The booklets, though, are quite different. FFP’s cover image is a soft-focus painting of Jesus bowing his head in prayer, while ERD’s is a photo of smiling African women working at their small business. Both booklets start each day’s reading with a Bible verse. FFP follows the verse with a one-sentence personal discipline resolution, such as “I will do something kind for a stranger today” or “I will fast from a meal and spend the time in prayer”. ERD’s daily readings are 2-3 paragraph reports on projects like well-digging in Nicaragua.
Reading these side by side each morning, I have complicated, confused feelings. It’s good for me to have an additional daily practice to meditate on Bible verses, and to keep the poor in the forefront of my mind. Yet I struggle to find anything that speaks to my own spiritual state.
ERD’s happy tales of service projects in faraway places epitomize the liberal mainline churches’ flight from belief in a Savior who is not ourselves. It’s not that these projects are wrong — although distance can dangerously oversimplify the actual benefits and downsides of foreign aid. Rather, it seems to me like an unfortunate narrowing of our spiritual imagination when we transform the church into UNICEF, especially if we’re partly motivated by a wish to dodge theological controversy.
When I hear “Feed my sheep,” I don’t just think of the bottom layer of Maslow’s need pyramid — literal food, shelter, etc. People need to be fed with consolation, defense against injustice, insight into our sins and sorrows, transformative hope. Not only do I fear that the Church of Social Work can’t offer me this food, I am more saddened by the sense that it doesn’t value my gifts, as it doesn’t support my vocation to feed others in these ways.
FFP’s is what I would consider a true devotional guide, giving daily prompts for self-examination and repentance. Here, I can’t blame my discomfort on the church not being church-y enough. This booklet is focused on quintessentially religious concerns. Instead, I’m realizing that maybe I don’t want to become the person that Christianity seems to say I should be.
Take, for instance, the resolution “I will forgive someone who has hurt me”. The only people I’m still angry at are the abusers in my past. They haven’t acknowledged their wrongdoing, let alone repented and tried to make amends. They probably aren’t capable of it, and I wouldn’t be safe spending time with them to find out. Does forgiveness have any meaning in such a one-sided context?
Beyond that, it’s not
conducive to my sanity to be obliged to forgive my tormentors. Sanity
means feeling whatever way I genuinely feel about them at the moment,
and seeing the situation as clearly as possible in all its complexity.
That freedom is the only antidote to the brainwashing I endured.
Maybe I’m taking this too seriously. Maybe they’re talking about cultivating a state of mind that doesn’t take offense easily, being quick to forgive irritations and mistakes by people who I know are basically trustworthy, when my reactive ego doesn’t get in the way. But although that’s hard work worth doing, I don’t think the command was meant to be watered down like that. Jesus said “Forgive those who persecute you”, not “Stop glaring at your husband for using the sink when you want to make breakfast, and instead thank him for washing the dishes.”
This forgiveness thing is pretty central to Jesus’s teachings. I want to be honest and not twist the Scripture so that it “really means” what I believe is wholesome and holy. But I also don’t believe that forgiving an abuser is some spiritual ideal that I, in my brokenness, have not yet reached.
I became a Christian because the religion’s understanding of human nature rang true to me. I hope I don’t have to leave because it no longer does.