The dermatologist finally appeared fifty minutes after the appointed hour
Forgiveness, Required and Abused... and the Heart of the Gospel
The dermatologist finally appeared fifty minutes after the appointed hour. I waited twenty-five in the main waiting room and another twenty-five in one of those examination rooms where you are supposed to think attention is just minutes away. I complained. "Five more minutes and I would have been out of here," I told the man in the white coat. He seemed taken aback. But since I alluded to my status in a previous life as a professional, also expected to keep appointments, he asked what kind of professional. When I revealed my holy status, he smiled broadly, like a fisherman who had just landed a whopper, asking me rhetorically, "Aren't you supposed to be forgiving and forbearing?" Had I been quicker-witted, I would have exclaimed, "What chutzpah!" Instead, I countered lamely, "Ah, come on."
Such are the burdens of the professional Christian. Everyone, even dermatologists, thinks they know how you ought to behave. When the clergy show a little spine, they feign shock.
I've been here before, not in someone else's waiting room, in my own. The phone rang. I picked up the receiver. No secretarial intermediary for Pastor Howard: I manage my own dodges. The woman at the other end of the line spat out one invective after another, enough to make a hard-hat blush. The F word was used as a noun, an adjective, an adverb, and verb... again and again. I interrupted her stream of bile with a firm, "Shut up and talk nice if you want me to talk to you." A long pause followed, after which she played the insulted parishioner, telling me that I was a Christian and a pastor and it was my duty to be patient and forgiving, so I should be a Christian toward her. To which I replied, "Did it ever occur to you that you should be a Christian toward me?" Which led to another burst of invective.
Sure, Jesus famously answers Peter's question about how many times he must forgive his brother: 490 times, when you do the math for "seventy times seven." And of all the petitions in the Lord's Prayer, the one for which Jesus provides further explanation, is the one about forgiveness, making it clear that God will forgive us only as we forgive each other. Dear Reinhold Niebuhr and many other worthies who taught me have opined that forgiveness is the heart and soul of the Christian faith. The doctor and the phone caller have the Gospel on their side, right?
Yes, but. Forgiveness is something freely offered, never something commanded. And when offered, issuing from a variety of motives, not all of them saintly, forgiveness will be an act of sheer grace, often unarticulated, never dependent on the acceptance of the forgiven.
Still, the forgiving soul needs to attend carefully to the manner of the forgiving, lest it come across as an act of spiritual arrogance. As it did one evening in my ancient history when a church executive, having taken exception to my blunt (typically Howard!) counter argument to his proposal, heard my second thoughts. I muttered to him that I was sorry for my tactlessness. Whereupon he drew himself up to his full stature, looked at me with face reminiscent of the parent catching a child with a hand in the cookie jar, and announced, "I forgive you." It was an act of grace calculated to humiliate. And though I never told him, I did forgive him. For fifteen subsequent years we became buddies in Methodist enterprises.
Which brings me back to the dermatologist. He insisted that the strong pulse he felt in my left ankle had little to do with my discipline of exercise and everything to do with my parents. I countered with the fact my mother died of congestive heart failure at 72; but then I allowed as how I probably take after my dad who died at 92, adding, "I have his temperament." And how would you describe that, the doctor wanted to know. "Irascible," I fired back. "At least you're truthful," he concluded.
I'll forgive him for making me wait so long... this time, but not 489 more times.