The Case for Scrooge

JW_money2It is time to rehabilitate Scrooge. Not the character Scrooge that is rehabilitated within Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol, but simply the name, even the word, “Scrooge.” That moniker persists as shorthand for all that is humbug; all that is miserly, miserable, alone, grumpy and unkind.

Why not rather have Scrooge become the name we associate with learning and personal change? After all, Ebenezer Scrooge did have a change of heart, quite remarkably so.

If we consider ourselves to be Scrooge of the teachable kind, we can read in Dickens’ tale an exposé of our deepest selves—our fears, loves, idolatries and the lessons we derive from them. Scrooge may be an extreme case, both in the extreme of his first self and his almost-too-cheerful post-repentance, but exaggeration can be a poetic means to nail us with a truth that we would miss with subtler examples.

True change is primal. It sets up a war for our deepest affections. When the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Ebenezer on a tour of his personal history, one of the time-travels to his former self was to view the demise of his relationship with his fiancée. She showed sorrow over what he had become: “You fear the world too much… All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you.”


It might be said that the young Scrooge had come to worship wealth (indeed, his former love called his new affection an “Idol”), but a close reading shows that it was, for him, a shallow and unsatisfying affair he had with Gain. For he did not love it for its own sake, but for what he nervously hoped it would do—alleviate his fear of poverty. Hence he did not love money as much as he feared the lack of it.

This makes the fiancée’s use of the word “idol” to be genius, for what is an idol but a false image that we cajole for favors or advantages against threats and want? As fear increases, we go to the idol all the more; we serve and worship, finding its provision never enough to deal with the fear. It increases in imagined power, and thus, in the fiancée’s words, the idol has “displaced” his affection for anyone else. It is impossible to multitask between fear and love.

Scrooge achieved his wealth but ironically the fear of poverty never left him. His fear festered, requiring more stinginess to build walls against poverty, and yet it simply encased his fears, shut out others, and left him to his misery.

The story provides numerous unsuccessful remedies for this—unsuccessful because they are surface actions that do not go to the heart. Organized charities, and social remedies like workhouses or the “poor laws” do not inspire any generosity. Scrooge resists any persuasion to give to them, and considers them only “useful” as minimal provisions for the poor, and ultimately to thin out the excess population. No inspiration to generosity is effective with Scrooge, whether free market solutions like charities or social programming solutions like the poor laws of mid-19th Century England.

A_Christmas_Carol_-_Mr._Fezziwig's_BallIt is more about heart than money. Scrooge learns this when he is shown the memory of his former employer’s kindness. This employer, Mr. Fezziwig, threw a hearty celebration for his employees at Christmas time and the time-traveling elder Scrooge, with his ghost escort, saw his young former self at the party. Scrooge is swept up in the memory of it. The ghost almost seems to tease him. “[Fezziwig] has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money… Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”

“It isn’t that, Spirit,” Scrooge replies. “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil… his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ‘em up … The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

The author here guides us to understand that employer kindness has nothing to do with his team-building budget. Dickens would rather we know the value of truly caring for employees, showing the regard that comes freely in an employer’s “words and looks,” the free, slight, and insignificant things.

These sort of lessons continue through the visits of three ghost escorts, scene after scene of Scrooge’s Christmas past, present and future. After these lessons, Scrooge repents in joy to have his future still before him, that he has every opportunity to strike a new path. He finds that his future is not condemned to live out all the consequences of his former meanness, that he can begin to be kind today. “I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future,” he says. “The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.”

And with this line he invites us to see that all change is about learning. And that one has the ability to shape the heart, and to act in new ways.

This comes off as unbelievable to some. A cynical headline showed on my newsfeed aScreen Shot 2017-12-26 at 3.21.42 PM
few days ago: “A Christmas Carol is Victorian comfort food – switch off your brain and embrace the syrup” (The Telegraph, UK). This view is not without merit—it’s almost too good to be true, too hokey, too cheesy and “goody two-shoes.” Good people, like good news, make for boring copy. Bad people are more interesting, which may explain why the pre-repentant Scrooge persists in our imaginations. In politics we’d watch a show about Underwood and not Carter; in Les Miz we admire Valjean but find Javert’s rages and fears to be more interesting.

Even so, if it is syrup, I’ll take a gallon, please. The capacity for change is our only hope as a species.

The post-change Scrooge acknowledged that his change would bring derision. “Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them,” Dickens writes in the final chapter. “For he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway.” Scrooge is charitable in this, allowing that at least laughter is more attractive than other negative responses to his change. “His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.”

It seems that some would keep their distance from both kinds of Scrooge, avoiding him57d when he is mean, scoffing at him, perhaps disbelieving him, when he becomes a better person. In this matter—our avoidance of either Scrooge—the nephew puts us to shame. The nephew reached out to the former Scrooge when all others avoided him, persisting with invitations to holiday family gatherings. “[He’s] not so pleasant is he might be,” the nephew admitted, “however, his offenses carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him.”

We read nothing in the story about the nephew’s outreach as conditioned on whether Scrooge would ever change, neither do we read that the nephew’s invitations to the old man were part of a strategy to reform him. He simply reached out to connect with him, to include him. Period. Unlike some “personal evangelism” examples I’ve seen in Christian circles, the nephew did not consider Uncle Scrooge to be his “salvation project.”

If Scrooge is to be our new word for change, let the nephew be a surprising example of love, bridging relational gaps with his own efforts. This he does when the gaps themselves are none of his fault, but rather the fault entirely of the person he loved, a fact that does not even seem to matter to him.

a-christmas-carolIt is we who must change. To reform the “Scrooge” moniker is to believe in the possibility of change and to reject the prejudices by which we lock-in persons to the view we had of them at the start. Will they change? Will it matter to us if they do not? People will confront their own ghosts and hopefully many will change. Our job is to consider them as they are, to connect, and together to be Scrooges of the changing kind.

Cal Stevens 12/26/17


What Does Jesus Have to Do With Trump’s Budget?

To look at my newsfeed, he has quite a lot to do with it. It comes mostly in the form of memes designed to slam the Christian hypocrites, like the example posted with this essay. The target of derision includes those who declare their born-again devotion to Jesus Christ while ignoring his teachings on feeding the hungry.

Image 3-18-17 at 4.20 PMThe theology of this meme is not well developed, to say the least. It is not created from a forward-thinking theology of social programming, but it is conjured from the Theology of Gotcha, hurled with glee in the face of hypocrites.

Might the Son of God have an opinion about Meals on Wheels? That possibility could be unpacked with some good textual or historical-grammatical exegesis. But Jesus is not seriously invoked here. Instead, he is touted conveniently in a shouted spray of bad populist theology.

I would rather see Jesus invoked seriously as a support for more generous government social programming than to be used to shame hypocrites. I cannot be sure (so who am I to judge?) but my hunch is that the authors of these memes are not prepared to discuss any theology beyond the simple shaming of hypocrites that it provides for them.

The bothersome thing here is the wide presumption that evangelical Christians are all hypocritical, the whole lot of them. The creators of the meme might balk at that, and simply say that not all evangelicals are meant here, only “if the shoe fits, wear it.” But readers of the memes get that the whole of conservative evangelicalism is implicated. Usually this is illustrated well in the dark dungeon of comments under the post.

The narrative goes something like this: “Aren’t you following the guy who fed the hungry? And now you all are supporting a budget that cuts food to the hungry? Some Christian you are!” This cheap shot is undiscerning of the evangelicals who do not support Trump or his budget. It also ignores the thoughtful theological distinction, held by many, that Jesus directed his words toward our generosity of heart, and many thoughtful conservatives would rather do this (and they do) with unforced charitable giving. Tax revenues collected under the coercive power of the magistrate may not be in view when Jesus commands us to be charitable.

That is to say, Jesus was talking to my heart and my wallet, not to my 1040. And if you are of the other view, tell us why Jesus’ words really do apply to the distribution of government revenues.

This meme closes the discussion by slapping a final “you’re all hypocrites!” on the argument, tinting every prudent budget cut as presumably demonic. No discussion, you are the devil. That is silly, disrespectful, and bigoted toward a whole people group.

Can we have a discussion about where to put our budget dollars without calling all your opponents the anti-Christ?

Sally Will Tell You What You Did

I did not vote for Trump, but if you did, there are a lot of people who think they know why.

The explanations vary, from the political analysis kind (“you are an angry white male”) to some more accusatory (“you endorsed misogyny”). Still others are downright patronizing, looking down their long noses at these pitiable malcontents. We will listen to Michigan next time, poor dears.

We can interpret the Trumpers any of several ways, but in the end we are all still friends, right? Well, actually, no. At least some people see the values gap as too great to be reconciled.

screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-11-56-28-amTake Bob and Sally, for instance, friends despite Bob’s vote for Trump and Sally’s for Hillary Clinton. This is admittedly a sappy, feel-good cartoon, but a subsequent editor did not appreciate this sentiment and revised the cartoon in red font, showing Sally as better off without Bob in her life. Sally will not be a friend with someone who votes for a misogynist, racist, and predator. To reconcile would be a manipulation of her views, something called “gaslighting,” and being friends with Bob would “normalize Trump.”

This is just funny, some will say, intended to blow off steam for those who are too mad to willy-nilly lay down their views and be friends. But the red-font words are too visceral to be a joke. This taps a “hell yes” response from people who would rather excommunicate than do the hard work of listening. Such people, like Sally, are too pissed off to be friends. Never mind that Bob may not personally be any of the things said of Trump, he still voted for him.

This is Sally telling Bob the meaning of what he did. This is not appreciative inquiry (something we teach in corporate behaviors), whereby we learn why another person holds a view or engages in a behavior. This is skandalocracy, “rule of the offended,” where a person’s reasons are not accepted or even heard. Instead, the one who judges it offensive determines the meaning unilaterally. This tactic has been in play a long time. It is seen more recently when someone’s opposition to policy is called hate speech. Now I do not have to listen to you. You’re a hater.

It’s ingenious, actually. Tell people often enough that a view is hateful, and identity politics takes hold. No one wants to be regarded as hateful. Truly hateful views like White Supremacy are obvious, but Sally (and those like her) have decided that voting for Trump—a private act for private reasons—is just as plainly hateful. Thus spake the scandalized: Don’t give me your reasons, I am not interested, you are not my friend.

Based on my knowledge of Trump voters, Bob was probably not “fine” voting for someone like this, but truly believes Trump’s abhorrent behavior is not relevant to the job. By this, Bob invokes the “it’s just sex” reasoning as heard from Bill Clinton’s defenders in the late ‘90’s.

If Bob and Sally were around in the 90’s and held consistent views, we would expect Sally to also reject friendship with anyone who supported the presidency of Bill Clinton. We would also expect Bob to wink at Bill’s indiscretions and say “all guys do that” or something similar, like he does now with Trump. But something tells me such consistency probably did not happen: Outrage is rarely consistent, but is adjusted to serve one’s politics.

This is not about whether Sally is right or wrong about Trump, but whether she’s right about reconciliation and friendship.

Sally’s distaste for Trump’s manner has been transferred to include those who would vote for him. She regards a vote as an act of hate. Sally is not open to the possibility that Bob was disgusted with Trump’s behavior and yet “held his nose” and voted for him for other reasons. I won’t talk to you about any of those other reasons, Sally says, we’re done.

When re-made in the image preferred by the red-font editor, Sally is holding her friendship with Bob hostage to her interpretations, and is certain she knows what values were in play in her former friend. Bob is therefore shit until he repents, and even repenting may not be good enough.

Word to Sally: This kind of manipulation, my friend, is known as “gaslighting.”

Bill Clinton / Donald Trump Quiz

Match each statement on the left with the statement on the right that is most consistent with it.

A:   “Bill Clinton’s affairs were just about sex and that’s his private life. I might agree that it’s damaging and wrong, but it has nothing to do with his capabilities to be a good president.”

B: “Bill Clinton used unequal power to score with women and then lied about it. From an HR Legal point of view, using unequal power as a mentor, boss, counselor or master to a protege is a form of assault; Such a man should not have been our President.”

1: “Donald Trump’s lewd statements show a misogyny unbecoming a president; he is crass, low, predatory and he brags about actions that amount to sexual assault; he is unfit for the office.”

2: “Donald Trump’s lewd comments on women are just locker-room talk, his private boys-will-be-boys moment like many have had; it’s just sex-talk, boy-talk, and has nothing to do with his fitness to govern.”


Correct match is A-2 and B-1. These are consistent positions. Not that they are morally equivalent (they’re not), but at least you are not changing your view of what you’ll wink at, or completely forgive, simply because you prefer the politics of one and not the other.

Pairing B-2 is the common Republican inconsistency; A-1 is the common Democratic inconsistency. Both involve lengthy explanations for why your guy’s sins are not quite the same thing as the other’s, according to you.

The Republican inconsistency (B-2) engages in the hypocrisy of deriding Clinton’s Oval Office shenanigans while excusing Trump’s lewd locker-room talk. I cannot figure out this inconsistency except by saying that it’s held by someone who likes Donald but not Bill.

“But Bill was President at the time, and lied.” That makes it different? One was president, and one wants to be. Both have sought to score on women, and have. But your guy would be different in office, once there? He with the 7th grade boys locker room braggadocio would not “grab her *****” if he thought he could get away with it?

“But Bill actually did things to women — this thing with Donald is all talk.” No. I’ve read the New Testament too many times not to remember the words about how if it’s in your heart, you’ve as good as done it. The heart is revealed just as much by words as actions.

The Democratic inconsistency (A-1) is that Bill’s was “just sex” but Trump is lecherous and misogynistic. But if you have ever pontificated that “his private life is separate from his ability to lead” then it is hypocritical not to apply the same reasoning to Trump. This might unnerve you, so you protest that you are not inconsistent, that at the time you agreed that Bill was wrong in this.

But you, and the rest of us, have effectively given Bill his pass. His behavior is now viewed as quaint, the stuff of jokes, giving us a snicker just to see him shake hands with Melania at the last debate. We’ve forgiven him so much that it’s cute now. “Time heals,” we say, and this lulls us into thinking we can give Donald some fresh outrage without it pointing to our hypocritical gee-aw-shucks tolerance of Bill’s past. Or maybe it’s just that we do not have Bill on a hot mic talking about his power to grab things.

To say that Donald’s lewdness is different and worse is to say that there is a line demarcating two categories of sexual misconduct carried out against female victims. This side of that line, a man’s offenses are passable for leadership, but not beyond. I want to hear that case made, and to read the guidebook on how that line is drawn. That will be a hoot.

You try to make that case, and I will imagine how to explain to your daughter that in America if a woman is ever described as a target for groping by a grotesque showman, that man is unfit to lead, but if it actually happens with her boss in the Oval Office, it’s no problem.

Of the consistent pairings, I do not recommend A-2 (It was “only sex” for Bill, and only “locker room talk” for Donald). Though in the matching quiz the sentiments are consistent, in terms of a personal position it is low reasoning, at least morally. Two wrongs do not make a right, we say. In fact, what it makes is, well, two wrongs. This is playground whining, crying that “he did it too!” Trump is already going there when he brings up Bill’s behavior.

The moral pairing is B-1. Bill victimized women and so did Donald. And we could consider forgiving them both. You could even consider forgiving one of them, and not the other, (for mysterious reasons of your own) but at least be consistent when comparing the original offenses. On policy positions or temperament it is understandable that we would say that one is (or could be) the better leader, but when invoking their sexual behaviors, they either both qualify for a pass, or neither do.

Whose Life Matters?

Give me a slogan I can act on, a saying so true and clear that I must change myself, one with words that compel and inform my behavior. I want to do my part in changing our bitterly divided culture. I’m looking for a call to action, particularly about how I can assert that people’s lives indeed have value. IMG_0089

“Black Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” show some promise, but out of their contexts they stand as philosophical statements about human value and carry no explicit calls to action. These lives matter, yes, I agree. Now what?

Well, some might say that those slogans have plenty of action to offer. They will say that once set in context of the current national debate, “Black Lives Matter” infers that police practices display systemic racism and that I am called to advocate for this to change. But I am not sure the inferences of systemic racism are true. And even if they are, the call to action is not to me, except as an advocate. The real call to action from these slogans is to those in power, that they must somehow reform the system.

I want a slogan that will call upon me to effect change, not merely advocate that others do. I want to change the culture with actions more effective than marching, protesting, or uselessly arguing on Facebook.

The life I must value first must be a specific person. Referring to a whole class of people is as highly conceptual as it is divisive, and it shirks the responsibility to give immediate help to specific persons. (Lack of specificity about whose lives are named in the slogan is why “all lives matter” provides even less help).

Neighbor, then, is the better term—a specific person, someone (as we shall see) not just near my address, but who has entered my sphere of influence. Yes, black and blue lives matter, but I seek a life that matters that is right in front of me, or that has crossed my path, or in some way entered my world.

Another deficit to the “lives matter” sayings is this verb “to matter.” Again, it does not prevail upon me. It’s rather like insisting that someone has got to be important to other people. It asserts that, by golly, you all better realize how important these lives are to you. Again, this is swell, and I sure do wish that other people would change their ways, but I do not want a slogan about what others must do, but what I must do.

If we really want all these other people to change, it must start first with me, and how I value the people in my life.

I must love. No other word requires my action so deeply. That’s truly how to make someone matter—to love them. And with the words “love” and “neighbor,” we have gone retro, I realize. Go with what you know, I say. The never-worn-out “Love your neighbor” is personal, specific, quiet and effective, not to mention divine. The slogan does not make the news, but if we turn off the news and all start loving our neighbors, imagine how the world would change.

This does not refer only to loving the guy next door, nice as he is. The person who heard Jesus say “love your neighbor” immediately wanted to limit the definition of “neighbor.” This inquirer did not want to be obligated to the wrong kind of people. He asked “who, then, is my neighbor?” Jesus replied with the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Maybe you know the parable well. A man, an Israelite, was robbed and beaten to within an inch of his life. Religious people from his own faith did not stop to help him, but a foreigner did. That was the Samaritan. He cared for the person in need on his way, and thus defined “neighbor.”

The Samaritan was not the guy next door. He was not even of the same ethnic group, country or religion. Keep in mind that the Jews and Samaritans hated each other; one would hardly call the other a neighbor. Yet Jesus rightly teaches that the Samaritan, the one actively loving another in need, even an enemy, was the neighbor.

And the neighbor is not a class of people. A neighbor is a specific person with needs whom we encounter on our way, as we go. Jesus did speak of groups of people whose lives mattered, yes (“blessed are the poor”), but when he was pressed to classify the group defining “neighbor,” he did not speak of a class of people that mattered, that was to receive our love. He spoke of an individual with needs. The one whom we encounter on our way.

Whose life matters? I could say “my neighbor’s life matters!” but the better saying is the ancient and divine one: Love your neighbor. This is the clerk, the salesperson, the agent, the panhandler, the musician, the refugee, the other driver, the family member, friend, the lady scanning my groceries, the lonely guy in front of me in church, the gay couple across town, the grumpy patriot I know on Facebook whose every opinion is angry. These people enter my world in some way, and when they do I know their names. They become neighbors, no matter where they live.

There, with them, valuing them, listening, and befriending them. That is where my neighbor is, that is the person to value, the one with needs on my way. If I am to be an agent for world change, it will be there that it starts. Unnoticed by news cameras, unheralded except in heaven, it is the neighbor’s life that has value, and this is not proved if I say it, but only if I do it.

A Forgiveness Primer

Could you forgive your captors if you were a former POW? Or forgive the murderer of your child?

Thankfully, few of us have been tested this way on our ability to forgive. And when we think hypothetically about such situations, we are not even sure we could do it. But most of us have had some experience with less dramatic cases, i.e. the more ordinary situations of offense, injury and forgiveness in our relationships.

It’s still not easy, even in these more common situations. Sometimes we elect not to forgive at all. Other times we think we are forgiving but we do something else: We “win,” we shame the other, we exact a just penalty or perhaps we seek apologies to gain attention for our injuries.

All of our relationships are at stake, even the easy ones that have never had an issue requiring forgiveness. Have you ever become aware that your good standing with someone is only because you’ve managed not to piss them off? Somehow you intuit that this person’s practice of forgiveness would not be pretty, or even possible. One can sniff out whether a person has the capacity to forgive and whether acceptance is tentative.

bible-verses-on-forgiveness-14-2So it matters how we forgive. A lot is at stake, and a lot of benefits are available. It makes us happy, finding health, well-being and a freed conscience. It brings spiritual benefit also. Those in the Christian tradition will know from the “debts” (“trespasses”) line of the Lord’s Prayer that as we forgive others, that’s how we are forgiven. One’s status with God is seen vis-à-vis his or her status with others.

A Forgiveness Primer

Using the story of the Prodigal Son will give us a powerful and meaningful framework to unpack the right practice of forgiveness. A few readers might wonder whether this limits this message to a Christian audience, but it does not. Discussions of forgiveness from other religions, and from psychological research, have a remarkable similarity in how the practice is defined. The Prodigal Son story is quite universal.

You may already know the story well: The younger son asks his father for his inheritance before it is due, then leaves home to spend it all. When his money runs out, and his circumstances become quite dire, he realizes that the resources back home with his father were quite plentiful and he determines to return. He practices an apology, including a strategy to work off his offense by taking a servant role, and sets out for home.

On sight of his younger son, the father runs to greet him. The apology is not even finished when the father orders a celebration to signify his return. This party infuriates the older brother. He refuses to celebrate because his younger brother sinned and insulted his father while he (the older bro) had stayed faithful and close (which has never been celebrated with a party, he complains, despite his constant obedience). The story ends with the father pleading with the older brother to join the celebration and we are not told how the older son responds to this.

From this story we draw this guidance for the practice of forgiveness.

Attitude Toward the Offense

How do we regard an offense as it happens? What is our attitude in the aftermath, prior to any apology or reconciliation? In the story, this has to do with how the insulted one (the father) treats events as they unfold, and his attitude during the time when the son is away.

Patience while the offense plays out. Sometimes we jump in quickly to prevent or sharply counter the insult. This will gain compliance but not solve the persisting issue. Intervening to stop an offense is sometimes necessary, of course, when for example the safety of our children is at stake. But in other situations patience is the wiser course. If we snap a quick, threatening warning we will have prevented the offense, but the issue still circulates in his or her heart to come back another time.

The prodigal’s father heard an insult the equivalent of “I can’t wait until you die” when he was asked for an early inheritance. The dad here does not want mere compliance, but allows the offense to play out (even gives him the money!) in favor of dealing with the heart of the matter at a later time. In Christian theology, this already illustrates grace: The father himself is absorbing the damages inflicted on him by his young son.

Status of the relationship is not essentially changed while it plays out. When our patience starts to wear thin, maybe as we wait for an apology, we tend to add demerits. In our hearts the offender moves from friend to “less of a friend” to acquaintance, to “dead to me.” But to the prodigal’s father, the boy was lost-and-found over this time but never ceased to be a son.

Predisposed to forgive. This is the tough summary of the right attitude: We are to do a deep gut-check and ask how willing we are to forgive, even after long passage of time. By deep reflection we are to cultivate a readiness to forgive at the mere hint of opportunity. Instead of creating a requirements document for restoration, the simple impulse of heart here is that a return of relationship is at the top of the victim’s agenda.

At the sight of the son, the wealthy patriarch does the unexpected by running to embrace him. He flaunts the common expectation that he should stay at home, arms folded, either dismissing the boy or making him crawl in a show of repentance. Instead he barrels down the path to embrace his lost son. The whole village would chatter in horror at this unseemly sight of the father running like an idiot to willy-nilly overlook the gross offenses of this kid and (what?!) hug him and throw a party? Are you kidding me?

The story shows no hint that the father struggled to do this. We do not read of any internal wrestling to balance his competing senses of love and justice, nor that he was weighing what kind of apology to accept. He just runs. He hugs. He throws a party.

Forgiveness is Hard Work

Being predisposed to forgive is a matter of attitude deep within; when the actual forgiveness occurs it’s time for these intentions to be realized.

Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

The work of forgiveness is all the forgiver’s. Deciding in advance to be forgiving, per the above, will prepare us for this step. Yet at the moment of truth, on approach of the offender, an innate sense of justice rises up to object to what we are about to do. Justice will tell us that people reap what they sow and no one should get off free. This is not wrong-headed, for justice is a virtue. But it’s not as if we are making a wrong into a right. No, the penalty is still there, it’s just that we offer to absorb it ourselves.

We pay for the offender’s penalty in that his or her shame is absorbed by us. We risk the reputation that we are soft on justice. People will—as they certainly did with the prodigal father—snicker behind our backs that we were a patsy, and they will falsely think that we approved the offense (which is not what is happening here).

We get to practice a shocking, even scandalous, grace like the father in this story. This judicial transaction takes place in a courtroom of the heart, one we get to control entirely in ourselves, deciding whether to leave a person in their sins or to show mercy instead.

The outcome of forgiveness exceeds expectations. Like the father in the story, we can offer a restoration that is not conditioned by whether the apology is adequate, sincere, or contains promises to do better. We can refresh the bond simply upon the value of the relationship itself, and built entirely on our unconditional love.

The boy came home expecting demoted status to “servant,” yet the father calls him “son.” The boy came home expecting to pay for his sins by working off the debt, yet the father pays for a party instead. Yes, the boy had to get up and return, to approach his father, but he was accepted even before he could start his speech. Appropriately, he dropped the scheme to work it off, and simply said he was not worthy to be a son.

Of course he is not worthy. Worthiness is not the point. (I would not want to be friends with anyone who regards me as “worthy” to be his friend.) Indeed, it is not by worthiness that any of us are in any relationship, but by the mutual grace we show to each other, creating an unearned bond.

Epilogue: Enthusiasm for Forgiveness

The parable of the Prodigal Son was spoken in response to Jesus’ critics who disliked his friendship with sinners. These critics then were like the older brother in the story, unwilling to come to the party to celebrate the forgiveness of the wayward younger brother who appears to get off freely.

We do not know if the older brother joins the fest, leaving an open question for us: Will we come to the party to enthusiastically celebrate this kind of forgiveness? Will we go beyond mere forgiveness and become enthusiastic champions of a scheme that gets offenders off scot-free? (No wonder the New Testament teaches that the gospel is scandalous!)

Given the human condition, we might not be capable of this without some kind of spiritual transformation. There’s even a body of research that describes this difficulty in psychological terms, showing that lack of forgiveness correlates to neuroses. Neurotic or not, I can see areas of my heart that are too much attuned to justice and my sense of being wronged in order to do this easily. I mean, c’mon. Some stuff is just wrong and I’m not going to let it go.

But understood another way, when forgiveness is seen as a radical act, it can be quite thrilling to set up a kind of courtroom of the heart, take the penalty away myself and then enjoy the release and healing that comes from it.

After saying all this, it must be acknowledged that not all of us can go to the party. In light of practicalities of deep injury, some forgiveness is not followed by restoration. The most common example is among any married friends who say “I’ve forgiven him, but we cannot stay married.” It happens.

Another instance occurs when a person simply decides that they do not want to forgive or restore. Sometimes this is covered up falsely with protests that the apology is inadequate or something, but we have already seen how this is not an impediment. The truth is that some people just plain do not want the relationship and do not move to forgive, even if they are approached for it.

The Sum of the Matter

If we mean to practice forgiveness well, these points will help us fuel all of our relationships, from the easiest to the most trying:

  • Be patient as the offense plays out, keep the status intact till the bond is restored, and be predisposed, even eager, to forgive.
  • If you want the relationship, do the entire work of forgiving, even if the apologies are lacking on approach, and exceed the offender’s expectations in what is granted.
  • Be enthused about this opportunity to undo the surly legalisms that would make you temper your grace with conditions. Here’s your chance to be bigger than the law. (“Mercy triumphs over judgment,” James 2:13)


2014 Was a Dot Year

Timeline_of_My_Life-596x300This illustration is of someone’s life timeline (not mine). Have you ever been asked to draw one? This exercise allows you to share a quick overview of your life with a zigzagging line. Dots are labeled with a year (or age) at key points where the line bends to a new direction, where key changes occurred: moves and marriages, births and tragedies

2014 was a dot year for us.

There have been other dot years for me: ‘55, ‘64, ‘72, ‘78, ‘82, ‘85, ‘89, ‘90 and ‘97. Some of these represent changes in geography (‘55, ‘78, ‘85, ‘90), others show key changes in family relationships (‘64, ‘72, ‘82, ‘89) and in careers (‘78 and ‘97). Each of these numbers has a story to tell, though not here. Available on request. 🙂

All three of these kinds of change—geography, family and career—occurred last year. We moved to SLO, had engagements and a wedding, and I left Intel to begin consulting and teaching. Somehow it is fitting that the next course I teach at Cal Poly’s College of Business is “Managing Change.” To my list of instructor qualifications I will simply add: “2014.”

In business we love clean, crisp, quick changes. We prefer changes that are compactly described and efficiently implemented. And yet the human adjustments to these changes—the “transitions” we might call them—are often overlooked. These are the messy HR issues, the complicating and (we think) unnecessary distractions to corporate change. “We’re doing this, here’s why. Get over it.”

And yet these transitions are precisely the area where change management efforts often fail. Productivity lags in the wake of many changes. Costs increase to backfill for increased employee turnover and to provide remedial training. To overlook human transitions in a corporate change initiative is to make the change into a cure that is worse than the disease.

Good companies will manage human transitions. They will help employees understand what stays the same (i.e. what is not lost) and what is different (what is gained). They will help employees regain control, refresh their competencies in new settings, and understand the rationale for the change.

So now to take some of my own advice. What is continuous with the past and will never change? And what will I need to celebrate as past, to remember sweetly and to which I bid good-bye? What new shapes will my competencies take and in what new contexts will these old skills find new expression? And what is the narrative that makes sense of this all (why did we do this?)

The deep things at the center cannot change, and do not change. These include: Relationships with God and family, friendships built on affection, service and shared history, and my vocation/purpose as a facilitator for thriving people and teams. I cannot control how any of these change because of others’ decisions, but from my standpoint these are the wire strands at the center of the cable, the ones that do not break.

Yet much around these things is changing. We will worship in a new place; we have a new son-in-law, and very soon will gain another; we will build new family traditions, new geo centers and new memories (Christmas in Roseville has became Christmas on the Central Coast for 2014).

My brothers, cousins, in-laws and all the kin in radiating ancestry boxes linked by marriages and births, these are forever yet also changing. Like form-shifting specters, there’s a different shape at each glance, but the center holds. We still share love and prayers with friends from the years, and then also we meet new neighbors around the corner from our unfinished house in Serra Meadows.

Everything is the same. And different. And that’s OK. The narrative / rationale is that we are closer to kids and in an area where we seek to apply our old selves in new ways. But really, still, how much has changed? The center holds.

What will be the angle of the line that leaps into the future from the 2014 dot? We will get a bit of 2015 under our belt and then let you know.