The Four Things That Matter Most, Part II: I forgive you and Part III: Please forgive me
Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other;
just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. —Colossians 3:13
Down the street from my house in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, there was the most charming public library—Georgian architecture out of Monticello or Mount Vernon; across the street from a park with a duck pond; and next door to the First Congregational Church which was founded in 1640, 20 years after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
Inside, the reference room had a working fireplace; and dark oak planks and paneling on walls, ceiling, and floor; leather armchairs and sturdy tables 25 feet long, punctuated with green-shaded reading lamps—nirvana for a reader or a student.
Then as now, Friday was my study day, so every Friday for ten years I would haul a suitcase full of Bible commentaries and theology texts to that reference room and get ready for Sunday’s sermon.
Oh, and the librarians! Mrs. Mac and Mrs. K, 71 and 54 years old respectively. Picture your quintessential New England librarian—that was Mrs. Mac and Mrs. K.
Someone said that children, shrewd little judges of character, clung to them like barnacles.
Ten years ago Mrs. Mac and Mrs. K attended a librarian conference in Denver. I’ll bet that’s an even wilder party than a conference of Presbyterian preachers.
After the conference, Mrs. Mac and Mrs. K were in one of those hotel shuttles on the way to the airport to fly home when a pickup truck swerved across two lanes of traffic at 80 miles an hour and side-swiped the hotel van, which then careened down an embankment. Mrs. Mac and Mrs. K were ejected and died at the scene. The driver of the pickup did not stop.
When they apprehended her a couple of hours later at the airport, where she’d gone to deliver a puppy named Brewster, of all things, she claimed she did not realize she’d hit another vehicle. When they finally took a blood sample, her alcohol level was twice the legal limit–nine hours later.
The driver was convicted of vehicular homicide. Her family came to the sentencing hearing to testify to her good character and to plead for mercy.
The judge in Denver said, “I am not in the mercy business. I am not in the forgiving business. I am in the justice business.”  He sentenced her to 36 years; 18 years apiece for two librarians whom children clung to like barnacles.
“I’m not in the mercy business,” the judge bluntly put it. “I’m not in the forgiving business.” He’s right about that, I guess.
But the rest of us are in the mercy business. The rest of us are in the forgiving business. Or how would life together even be possible?
Hospice Care Physician Ira Byock, who’s spent the last 40 years working with the dying and their families, says that two of the four things that matter most are about forgiveness, granting it and getting it. “I forgive you.” “Please forgive me.”
If you have any unfinished business with those you love, or even with those you don’t particularly care for, finish it now, because you never know.
The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is the shrewdest of them all, if also the most terrifying, because when Jesus teaches us to pray, he somehow gets us to predicate the mercy we receive upon the mercy we give.
“God,” we say every time we pray this prayer, “God, grant me the same measure of mercy I grant to those who have wronged me.” Terrifying. Because every seventh day, we are asking God to scrutinize our mercifulness and to bequeath God’s own mercy based on that final calculation.
The Calvinists pray “Forgive us our debts,” which is essentially a translation of Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer; most of the rest of Christendom prays “Forgive us our trespasses,” which is essentially a translation of Luke’s version of the prayer. Both of them get the point across, but I like ‘debts’ because I’m a Presbyterian.
And also because I like that image of indebtedness. In Matthew, Jesus borrows a term from the financial world and transposes it to the moral universe. It’s good for me to be reminded every seventh day that when I stand before God, I come empty-handed; all my ink is red. On my income and expense statement, every line item is in parentheses or starts with a minus sign.
By the way, did you notice that Luke’s version of The Lord’s Prayer is in Chapter 11? That’s an accident of translation history, of course, but I love the symbolism. When we stand before God, we are in Chapter 11; we are bankrupt; all our ink is red. “God, this is all I’ve got. Reorganize please. Give me a second chance.”
Two of the four things that matter most are “I forgive you,” and “Please forgive me.” And the order is important, right? First you grant forgiveness; then you can receive it. They belong together like salt and pepper, mac and cheese, gin and tonic, jack and coke, scotch and soda, Gilligan and the Skipper, Cheech and Chong, Ben and Jerry.
There’s no further evidence that St. Paul knew the Lord’s Prayer, but in his letter to the Colossians it sounds like he might have. He puts the giving and receiving of forgiveness together too: “Bear with one another; forgive one another; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must forgive.”
These are two of the things that matter most, aren’t they? How would our life together be possible without it? In an Alice McDermott novel, a woman in her 50's falls in love for the first time and is thinking about marrying her beloved, but she remembers with some regret her own childhood under her parents’ tense and loveless marriage.
She says to her mother, “I can’t imagine how any marriage can outlast so much remembering. Every slight and insult. You remember everything.”
Some families are like the internet, right? Someone said, “Nothing goes away now. Forgetting is over.” Nothing ever disappears. Every questionable selfie, every drunken revel, every racial slur, every cruel put-down: it lives somewhere on the internet.
Families shouldn’t be like that; friendships shouldn’t be like that. Things should go away. Things should be forgotten. Things should be forgiven. It’s so powerful to just let it go. It is a primal kindness.
Have you heard about the latest spiritual practice? Shredding. Do you have a paper-shredder in your office at work or home?
One man said, “I envision lists of my mistakes and sins kept somewhere by the Devil himself. I picture Jesus taking those lists and running them through the shredder. Evidence destroyed. Gone forever.”
One woman said, “It’s a strange way of letting go of the past. It was my 25th high school reunion recently, and high school wasn’t great for me, so I didn’t go. And then I realized that I had all this stuff, old high school pictures, and I didn’t know why I was saving it. I was like, ‘I need this stuff in my life?’ So I shredded it. I shredded my prom picture. It was liberating.”
Shredding as a spiritual practice. Get rid of all that stuff, all those old insults and injuries and unkindnesses and carelessness. Why are you hanging on to them? Run ‘em through the spiritual shredder.
A paper shredder takes obsolete and maybe dangerous old files and turns them into something useful—packing material or confetti maybe. You can do that with your life. You can do that with your memory.
My wife is the CFO and the COO at my house, and she has a paper shredder in her home office, Command Central. She uses it to shred old bank statements and credit card bills, anything with vulnerable personal information.
It sounds like a jackhammer when she uses it; it’s louder than the plant where the Ford Motor Company stamps out the shells of new Mustangs.
But it’s become a comforting sound to me. I always imagine she’s running a few of my many mistakes through the shredder, turning dangerous things into something more useful. Evidence destroyed. Gone forever.
If there is unfinished business in your life, finish it now. If there is an ancient resentment in your mental file cabinet which you take out every now and then to inspect and consult and scrutinize to make sure it stays alive and active, put it through the shredder. If there is regret over a long-ago mistake that wakes you up abruptly in the middle of the night, ask for mercy; maybe that’s all it will take.
Marine Lance Corporal Brian Parello was killed by an Improvised Explosive Device in Iraq in 2005. He was 19 years old.
Corporal Parello’s mother is doing okay under the circumstances, mostly because several Marines from his squadron decided to adopt Brian’s mother as their own. They tell her, “The day you lost Brian, you gained 20 other sons, and we’ll always be your sons.”
Brian’s mother remembers that when Brian was a boy, she would tuck him in at night and give him a hug and walk out of the room, and every night he would say, “One more hug, Mom.” She says, “This would go on and on. I mean like ten times. I’d have to go back and forth. And, at the time, you think, ‘Come on, Brian. Please! It’s late.’
Do you know what I would give for just one more hug?”
You know what Prospero says in The Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
We do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk the way with us.
Adapted from Gerri Hirshey, “Library Recalls Two Who Made It Better,” The New York Times, February 13, 2009.
The Associate Press, "Denver Woman Gets 36 years for Crash that Killed Greenwich Librarians,” Greenwich Time, June 4, 2010.
Alice McDermott, At Weddings and Wakes (New York: Dell, 1992), p. 120.
A character in Helen Shulman’s novel This Beautiful Life (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), quoted by Maria Russo, “Total Family Breakdown, Twenty-first Century Manhattan Style,” The New York Times Book Review, July 31, 2011.
David Colman, “Using Industrial-Strength Shredders at Home,” The New York Times, March 31, 2010.
Story corps, https://storycorps.org/listen/kevin-powell-and-shirley-parrello/, originally aired October 25, 2014, on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday.
William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act IV, scene i.