“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’” (Matthew 18:21)
There was time, when I was a young boy, that my father and my aunt—his sister—didn’t speak for a long number of years. I vaguely remember the origin of the rift. It was something about a car and Christmas and I am sure other things that my young mind could not wrap understand at the time. The bottom line, though, was that it was about something quite silly. I’m sure words were said or written, feelings were hurt, and it took on a life of its own. The dark dogs of Pride were unleashed.
I don’t recall if they ever exchanged “courtesy Christmas cards” or not. I don’t know who they thought they were hurting. I do know that I was collateral damage because I was very fond of this aunt. She was the fun one. And, no doubt, they hurt each other. Now, in all fairness, their family of origin (F.O.O.) was quite dysfunctional. Their mother died rather unexpectedly at a young age and shortly thereafter, their older brother was killed in World War Two. Over the years I am sure that everyone learned to live with this “new normal.”
Then, in the very early years of my ministry, as I led Bible studies, taught classes and read theology I came to the conclusion that for a follower of Jesus, forgiveness is not optional equipment. It lies at the very heart of discipleship. In response to Peter’s question about how many times he had to forgive a brother or sister, Jesus replied, “not seven times, but seventy times seven.” And then a little later, at the Cross, Jesus reenforced this teaching by looking down upon those who betrayed, denied and crucified Him and prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) These things fermented in my soul.
One day, while visiting my folks, Dad and I were alone doing something or other. We were outside and I remember saying to him, “You know, Dad. I’ve been thinking. I think that if Jesus meant what He said then forgiveness so central to His teaching. And if that is true, then I don’t believe that when we die God will ever send us or anyone else to hell. Instead, I think that when we die we will find the person whom we haven’t forgiven here on earth standing at the “pearly gates” as a gatekeeper. We will have to shake their hand as we enter heaven. And if we don’t want to, or can’t then God won’t have to send us to hell. We’ll send ourselves to hell because of our unwillingness to forgive.”
He didn’t say anything but at the time he was an elder in his church. I don’t know what he thought then or later. I don’t know if he ever thought of it again or not. But I do know this, some time later there was a reconciliation. I don’t know how it came about, but it did. I also know that all of his estranged siblings were reconciled with each other and that they had several small intimate “family reunions” in his final years. Occasionally I would hear stories rich with laughter, stories and memories. The night before he died, three days after my mother died, Dad was on a conference call with his sisters. One had come for Mom’s funeral. A second nursed her husband after surgery in a distant city. The third also had a husband with health problems and could not attend the funeral. But they had one last reunion, one last telephone call. When I found Dad on the morning after he died I looked at the caller I.D. On it, I saw my last phone call to him, the one that he didn’t answer at 9:02 p.m. And immediately preceding that call was the conference call placed at 8:45 pm. That ten minute conference call ended with Dad saying to each of his sisters, “I love you.” As far as I know, those were the last words he ever uttered. Those are not bad last words to have.
I think that that reconciliation, any reconciliation, is a glimpse of grace.