Ad Clerum on Forgiveness

Letter to the Clergy from Interim Bishop Minns

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.(1 John 1:8,9)

Bill was a dynamic leader in our church in Lafayette, Louisiana. He was an articulate Christian who enjoyed inviting people to join us for worship. He was also a well-known land man in the oil exploration business that was vital to the economic engine of southern Louisiana. Landmen serve as agents for oil and gas companies and secure land and mineral rights for drilling – it is a highly competitive and risky business. Bill had done well, but he had recently overextended himself. He was so confident in the potential of his latest prospect that, in addition to mortgaging his home and all of his assets, he had obtained a bank loan of $250,000. But every well test had come up empty. It was a complete disaster. He had no way to pay off the loan and no money left for another prospect to recoup his losses. He could see no way out. He prayed as never before. Every day he expected to hear from the bank demanding repayment of his loan.

One morning a long-dreaded letter arrived from the bank president. Bill opened it with great trepidation. But to his astonishment he read that the president, after reviewing his personal history with the bank and their current portfolio of loans, had decided to forgive the entire $250,000! Bill could not believe his eyes. He read it several times and then brought the letter to me to share the amazing news. He said it was as if he had been reprieved of a death sentence! A great burden had been lifted.

The next Sunday morning Bill was almost bouncing off the walls with joy, and during our regular testimony time he told everyone the wonderful news. Of course, I could not resist pointing out that we all have a debt we cannot pay – and reminded the congregation of that old gospel chorus:

I had a debt I could not pay; He paid the debt He did not owe.
I needed someone To wash my sins away.
And now I sing a brand new song, “Amazing Grace” all day long.
Christ Jesus paid the debt that I could never pay.

This Louisiana congregation taught Angela and mea great deal about forgiveness. They treated each other as an extended family to whom grace must always be given. Many of them had family members who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction – it was a persistent problem in Cajun country – and while its deadly affects were never minimized, encouragement was offered to those who sought help and forgiveness to those who failed. They knew themselves to be sinners saved by the grace and mercy of God.

Dr. C. was another one of our members and a well-respected local physician. One Sunday he asked if we could talk after morning worship, so we went for a walk. He told me that he had recently contracted HIV/AIDS and that he did not expect to live much longer. I was stunned. It was the early 1980s, when there was still a great deal of fear and ignorance surrounding HIV/AIDS. Dr. C.asked if he could make a public confession to the church to ask for their forgiveness and also as an act of reconciliation with God. As I listened, I knew that this was a sincere request but I was not convinced that Sunday morning would be a safe place for him to do this – every week we had visitors who were not members of the congregation. So I suggested that instead Dr. C. make his confession before the vestry, since they were representatives of the congregation. He was pleased with this option. I knew, however, that this was still a risk, because some of the vestry members were on the ultra-conservative edge of the spectrum and I had no idea how they might respond. I embarked on more prayer and then the date was set.

On the day of the meeting, Dr. C. arrived early and we began with an opening time of prayer. I introduced him, though all the vestry knew him well, and he shared his story, concluding with a heartfelt plea for their forgiveness. And then there was silence – it seemed to last several minutes. Finally J. spoke. He was the most conservative man on the vestry – politically and theologically – and I held my breath when he began to speak. But my fears quickly faded as he began to tear up. He told C. that of course he forgave him and then went on to say that we all have places in our lives where we need forgiveness. He told us that some years earlier his unmarried daughter had announced that she was pregnant and that she intended to keep the baby. J. was furious. He said that he ignored her pleas and forced her to have an abortion. By now his tears had become sobs as he said, “I betrayed my daughter and destroyed my own grandchild – how can you, how can God ever forgive me? By now we were all tearing up as we watched J. crumble in front of us. After we all assured J. of God’s forgiveness, the next person spoke and followed the same pattern with a personal assurance of forgiveness and then a testimony of their own need for forgiveness. It was an amazing meeting, and we were all exhausted when we concluded with prayer.

While the details of our meeting were never discussed outside that room, the spirit of forgiveness that we witnessed seemed to flow throughout the entire congregation. Long-time offences were forgiven and relationships reconciled. It was a lesson that we never forgot. Dr. C. died a few months later and yet he left the congregation his gift of new life and new hope.

“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”(Matthew 6:14,15)

Your brother in Christ,