What Staring At The Ocean Taught Me About Forgiveness
I recently went on vacation with my family. My parents, my brother, his wife and their 5 year old son loaded up in two cars and drove to the beach. Picture a 5 year old singing the lyrics to the musical Hamilton while a 70 year old tells you every story he can remember from his days selling insurance 40 years ago and you’ll get a good idea of the car ride down there. (Side note: My nephew knows more of the lyrics than I do and my dad once ate several desserts in one sitting.)
While the exact dates are in question, many scholars agree that the Israelites spent over 400 years as slaves in Egypt building bricks for the pharaohs. That’s a long time. And a lot of bricks.
By the time of Moses, if you were an Israelite, you were a slave, your parents were slaves, your grandparents were slaves and your great-grandparents were slaves. Slavery is all you knew.
In the modern world, in America 2017, even the poorest among us grow up with dreams. Dreams of becoming the President, a professional athlete, a famous singer, a reality TV star or at least a YouTube sensation. But if you were a slave living in Egypt, you really never considered freedom, or opportunity or anything beyond a life of slavery. It simply wasn’t an option.
So, when Moses came along with advice from a flaming bush, a magic wooden stick and a series of increasingly annoying plagues to set his people free, they were to say the least, emotionally unprepared.
Ready or not though, off they went in search of the promised land, guided by a whirlwind during the day and a pillar of fire by night. But even with the miraculous escape from Egypt, the magic stick, the plagues, the parting of a sea and the primitive GPS that was a nightly pillar of fire the Israelites began to grumble, and gripe saying “Oh woe are we! If only we could return to slavery in Egypt! At least there we had a bed to lie on and food to eat.”
7 hours of driving, 3 bathroom breaks and one ham and cheese sandwich later, we made our way to our rented beach house. After a brief period of unpacking we all walked across the street, over the dunes and dipped our toes in the ocean.
Oceans and seas and waves have inspired philosophers, poets and songwriters since the dawn of time. It’s impossible to gaze out on something so vast and not be filled with awe and wonder at your place within the universe. There’s a rhythm and a pattern to the waves that suggests something greater than you is at work. There’s beauty and there’s comfort and there’s life. The symbolism is simply too great to be missed.
When you stand at the ocean, you stand in the presence of God.
And as I stood there pondering the meaning of life, I thought of the Israelites and their travels. The wilderness that may have looked something like the I-26 in central South Carolina and the ham and cheese-like manna provided each morning for them to eat. And the whirlwind and the pillar of fire that was clearly God in their midst.
How could they not see it?
How could they miss the presence of God?
And then I realized, it was all too much.
They had no concept of the unknown.
No idea of adventure.
They were afraid of freedom.
There was comfort in their slavery.
Their brave new world was beyond anything they had imagined. They were on the road to the promised land, but they had spent so many years in slavery and been so beaten down that they were simply unable to grasp God right in front of them.
You see, the trick isn’t knowing the right answer. As each new wave crashes on our shoreline, we hear God speaking to us. Teaching us. Showing us where to go. It’s as unmistakable as a pillar of fire at night. The question isn’t, “where is God?”
The question is, “how will we respond to the waves?”
For years I’ve thought about the importance of forgiveness. I’ve counseled people about it. I’ve understood that there is freedom in forgiving. That many times forgiveness is less about the other person and more about setting ourselves free from the anger and the pain that we are dragging around with us. Pain as heavy as a giant brick.
Only recently, when I’ve been tested, I can see that I’m far from a paragon of virtue. That illusion has been shattered. I’ve not missed the pillar of fire. God is right in front of me. But as the waves have crashed down, I’ve been crying out, “Woe is me! I hate this person and this situation! And I don’t want to forgive them.”
I am the mother of Ray Finkle baking football shaped cookies and telling anyone who will listen that, “Dan Marino should die of gonorrhea and rot in Hell.”
To give up the hate is to give up control.
There’s comfort in control.
As I stood at the edge of the water watching the waves roll in, I realized that most often the point of the story, our story, isn’t the event. It isn’t the awesomeness of the pillar of fire or the vastness of the ocean. It isn’t the still small voice. It isn’t even the miracle.
It’s how we choose to respond.
There’s a couple of guys in a little book called the Bible that have something to say about this. In Galatians chapter 4, Paul declares that we are no longer slaves but sons. And in the book of John, none other than Jesus says that if you know the truth, it shall set you free.
The truth is that we’ve all been hurt. We’ll all built bricks. But our past is simply that. Our past. It has shaped us and it informs us but it doesn’t have to control us. We’ve been set free.
We will see waves as clear as a pillar of fire.
And when we do, if our response is to let go of our fear and our need for control, if our response is to forgive, then our lives will become a space where God can build something new.
A new life.
A new hope.
A new adventure.