So Much Pain

As if there were not enough to worry about with coronavirus, elections, the economy in the tank – now this.  NASA warns us that an asteroid is approaching Earth the day before Election Day, November 2nd.  All the more reason to vote early.  Remember what happened to the dinosaurs.  Okay, it’s only a small one that has only an infinitesimal chance of hitting us.

While this is only a long shot, and while some may yearn for such a scenario as to escape real difficulties – we indeed do have much distressing news to worry about.

Our society is polarized around race, income, opportunity, and politics.  And so much more.  Our common life now could be described as a culture of grievance.  Don’t get me wrong.  There is much to grieve.

The new revelations on Bob Woodward’s reporting are explosive.  All the while we were being told that this pandemic is nothing much more than the “sniffles,” just sort of like the flu.  It is one case coming from China, the “kung flu,” and would soon “magically disappear.”  “And again, when you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.”  Actually, Brownie, it’s NOT a heck of a job.

As we were being told this nonsense, all the while our president knew that he has something much more dangerous on his hands.

National security advisor Robert C. O’Brien told Trump, “This is going to be the toughest thing you face.”   It “will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency.”

In Rage,[1] the president is quoted as telling Bob Woodward on February 7th, “This is more deadly.  This is five per- you know, this is five percent versus one percent, and less than one percent.  You know?  So, this is deadly stuff.”

You remember the pain of the young woman, Kristin Urquiza, who told us of the last agonizing days of her father’s life.  “My father’s only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump — and for that he paid with his life.”  Mark Anthony Urquiza was a healthy 65-year-old man with many more good years ahead of him.

Is there forgiveness for so much pain, so much loss.  There’s no alternative.  Eventually.  The early church knew our failings and the damage we do to one another.  Sometimes, so much pain.  Hear this teaching on forgiveness. 

Upon hearing Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness, Peter approached him with a question.  This was an inquiry based upon the teachings of the Torah – “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”  This was the standard proscribed. Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but I tell you seventy-seven times.”

I’m wondering how many Americans this past week hearing of our government’s duplicity concerning this disease are so ready to forgive.  The wrong done is beyond the pale.  So much pain.  So much pain.

The enormity of the betrayal staggers the conscience.  A number of epidemiologists have said that had the president even acted two weeks earlier – even two weeks, friends – somewhere around sixty thousand lives could have been saved.  This is more than all the Americans that died during the entire Vietnam War, the greatest disaster of my generation. 

Seventy-seven times?  The scale of this failure staggers thought.  And he knew all the while.  Said he didn’t want to panic people.  That’s rich for one who’s entire campaign is based on fear.  Fear that someone who looks like Cory Booker might move into your pristine (read white) suburb.  Fear that hordes of rapists and drug dealers from Mexico will destroy your American Dream.

Forgive seventy-seven times?  The natural man, the natural woman, says, “I don’t think so.”  Yet there is this implacable demand: “Seventy-seven times.”

To back it up, Jesus tells the parable of a man forgiven a great debt by a generous king who receives most distressing news.  The slave recently forgiven an enormous debt is shaking down his fellows for what they owed him.  Seizing one debtor by the throat, the slave demanded, “Pay what you owe.”  This is a debtor who was owed only a fraction of what had been forgiven him by the king.”  Hearing this news, the king was enraged.  He had that slave tortured until he should pay his entire debt — hundreds of thousands of dollars owed the king.  As the slave was led away, the king raged, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

So much pain.  Forgiveness seventy-seven times?  Our bruised feelings, our bruised sense of justice murmurs, “I don’t think so.”

As I considered such dilemmas, a couple of things came to my mind.  The first from a Facebook discussant.  If you know me, I can be pretty partisan.  Yeah, ask my wife.  My kids.  In the midst of a heated back and forth series of pretty hot posts, one fellow said, “We’ve all screwed up, haven’t we.  Don’t we set it aside and just move on?”

Well, I know that I sure have.  I’ve harmed my wife and those who’ve trusted me.  If there is no forgiveness, how could I have gone on? 

The same with societies.  Desmond Tutu headed up the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa at the end of Apartheid.  How else could a new society have been constructed out of the most horrific wrongs?  Torture, summary execution, rape – mostly inflected, but not entirely, by the white Afrikaners against the majority black and mixed-race population? 

Had it not been for the willingness of Nelson Mandela to forgive his jailers and reconcile with the white government of Peter Botha, then President, South Africa would have been doomed to a devastating civil war.  Here is a society that managed seventy-five times, even seventy times seventy times!

This last year, Agenda for a Prophetic Faith sponsored a symposium on forgiveness and renewal.   We called it Pomona Reawakening.  Pomona, a suburban community in decline on the far eastern edge of Los Angeles County had a new mayor and several new council members.  After what was years of stagnation and, let’s say “shady politics,” this leadership wished to rejuvenate their city.  To begin again.

Two incredible speakers were the spark.  The first was Mayor Tim himself.  He told the very personal story of how tragedy had struck his family in Pacoima, a bedroom city of Los Angeles.  His younger brother ended up on drugs and had a bad run-in with the police.  This experience tore up Tim’s family and left him with much bitterness towards his brother who had put the family through absolute hell with drugs and violence.  Tim, was able in time to move beyond that tragedy, to reconcile, and now is providing strong leadership to move Pomona forward.  

Azim Khamisa is a father awakened to the news that his only son Tariq had been shot by a 14-year-old gang member, Tony Hicks, over a slice of pizza.  In the bitter days that followed it would have been natural for Azim to have been consumed by anger.  That would have been the end of Khamisa’s life.  Bitterness ending only at the grave. 

But something happened to intervene.  After a number of weeks when bitterness subsided, Azim begin to think, his son was surely a victim as was he.  But in reality, there were two victims.  There was the family of the gang member who had shot his son.  After a while Azim was prompted by all that is Holy and all that is Reconciliation to reach out to the killer’s family.  It was a grandfather. 

That two families not be devastated, the two men, Azim and Ples Felix, Tony’s grandfather and guardian, began meeting.  Azim finally went to visit Tony in jail, serving a 25 to life sentence.[2]

Then Azim looked deeply into Tony’s eyes, he didn’t see a killer.  He say a very wounded human being, pretty much like himself.  Wounded.  Through the efforts of Azim Tony is now out of prison and has a job at the Tariq Khamisa Foundation. 

“Since the beginning of this tragedy, Tony confessed to his crime and has continuously sought to better his life.  He has apologized to the Khamisa family, shares his remorse, and plans to join Mr. Khamisa and his grandfather, Mr. Felix, in their efforts to teach children accountability, compassion, forgiveness, and peacemaking.”[3]

“From prison, Tony has written numerous blogs responding to questions from youth participating in the TKF programs.  He has also earned his GED and is working towards his AA degree in Social Work.  Tony participates in Gang members Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, Toastmasters, and has done rigorous self-inventories to identify his character defects.”[4]

Through the efforts of Azim, Tony is now out of prison and has a job at the Tariq Khamisa Foundation. 

On the foundation’s web site are many stories of forgiveness.  From perusing them, it became clear to me that there’s no automatic formula.  Nothing’s more unrealistic than the teacher demanding of two boys wo had been in a knockdown-dragout fight than to say, “All right, you boys shake hands now and be friends.”  The muttered response of one would be, “See you after school.”

Forgiveness is a spiritual gift as much as anything,  It is born of calmness and a softening of the heart.  It is nothing to be demanded.  It is at best an endeavor by both parties.  It can’t be compelled in the heat of the matter.  Perhaps, later, much later those harmed by the coverup of COVID-19 will be able to let it go.  To “let go and let God.”  But probably not today.

One more story from the Azim’s foundation from the “Forgiveness Project.”  This is the story of two fathers, one Israeli and the other Palestinian.  The conflict that has endured for generations.  I share the story of the Palestinian father.

“I was on my way to the airport when my wife called and told me Smadar was missing. When something like this happens, a cold hand grabs your heart. You rush between friends’ houses and hospitals, then eventually you find yourself in the morgue and you see a sight you’ll never forget for the rest of your life. From that moment you are a new person. Everything is different.

“At first, I was tormented with anger and grief; I wanted revenge, to get even. But we are people – not animals! I asked myself, “Will killing someone else release my pain?” Of course not. It was clear to my wife and me that the blame rests with the occupation. The suicide bomber was a victim just like my daughter, grown crazy out of anger and shame.

I don’t forgive and I don’t forget, but when this happened to my daughter I had t
to ask myself whether I’d contributed in any way.

The answer was that I had – my people had, for ruling, dominating and oppressing three-and-a-half million Palestinians for 35 years. It is a sin and you pay for sins.[5]

Getting back to my Facebook political posts, the other day two of us had sharp disagreement and some harsh words over how our president has handled his responsibilities.  Commenting on my rant about calling our fallen, “losers” and “Suckers,” he responded  that I didn’t know who I was talking to.

In his next post, seconds later, he announced that he was a vet and had twenty years service.  At that moment my heart softened a bit and thanked him for his service, letting him know that I also had served.  Two years as an Army medic. 

Surprise, he also had been an Army medic in Afghanistan. And thanked me as well for my service. 

Then he let me know that the main reason he had voted for Trump was that he was fed up with elite politicians who just talked and had done nothing for people like him.  I said I understood.  That’s why I had supported Bernie. 

We ended in agreement that the politics of this nation are pretty screwed up and agreed to a virtual toast no matter how things turned out on November 3rd, “To the Constitution and to the Declaration of Independence.’  We bid each other, “Good night.”

Whatever happened yesterday, it looks something like forgiveness.  We will not agree on much else, but parted without animosity or bitterness.  I don’t know I’d say “friends,” but certainly “respect” is an appropriate word.

We have all screwed up.  Some of us, royally.

How many times, Lord?  Seventy?  Seventy-seven? 

Forgiveness is a spiritual gift.  Like all such gifts there’s a mystery at the heart of it beyond human understanding.  Such softening of the heart is sheer undeserved grace.

Today, John Donne, sometime priest at St. Paul’s, London,1573-1631 – Fr. John Donne gets the “Last Word.”

Wilt thou forgive that sin, where I begun,
     Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive those sins through which I run,
     and do run still, though still I do deplore?
          When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
               for I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin, for which I won
     others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
     a year or two, but walled in a score?
          When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
               for I have more.

I have a sin of fear that when I’ve spun
     my last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
     shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore.
          And having done that, thou hast done,
               I fear no more.[6]


[1] Bob Woodward, Rage (New York: Simon Schuster, 2020),  Will be released on September 15, 2020.



[4] Ibid.

[5] Rami Elhanan, “The Forgiveness Project,” Stories of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation

[6] John Donne, “Wilt Thou Forgive,” 1982 Hymnal (New York, Church Publishing House, 1982), p. 140.

Dear friends in Christ

September 14, 2020, Pentecost 15, Proper 19

The Rev. John C. Forney

Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

“So Much Pain”

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