"...it's hard to give, it's hard to get, but everybody needs a little forgiveness..." -- Patty Griffin
Most of the time the only thing keeping me in a low-paying, dead end job is the opportunity I am oft afforded to place a book in someone's hand that could possibly cause a seismic, or perhaps incrementally small, shift in the way they see or experience God and the life he longs for us to live. In many ways this has become my mission. If I can't be a Christian Superstar, (and admit it, growing up that is what many of us longed for,) then at least I can affect a small handful of people who wander into a bookstore, desperate for an answer to whatever ails them at the time.
Yesterday an attractive girl in her early to mid-20's, wearing her Sunday best, asked me if I knew any good Christian books on forgiveness. After my initial thoughts of "Who hurt you and how can I make it better? Perhaps dinner?," passed, I then thought of a couple of things I've read on the subject and proceeded to tell her about them. The first was the chapter in Ann Lamott's Traveling Mercies that told the story of the author's struggle to forgive the woman known as her enemy-lite. This funny and memorable tale exposes how our need to show forgiveness often exposes how we are actually the ones who are in the wrong and need to be forgiven.
Then I handed her a copy of Finding God at Harvard, one of the greatest and far reaching collection of essays on the Christian life I've ever read. In it, the highly respected child psychologist, and Christian, Robert Coles retells the story of Ruby Bridges, the little girl who faced the hate of segregationists in New Orleans when she became one of the first black children to attend a historically white school, and was the inspiration for the famous Norman Rockwell painting The Problem We All Deal With. Coles shares with the reader Bridges' great faith and her insistence on praying daily for those who showed up daily to protest and to call the little 10 year old the worst names possible. We hear in the story echoes of Jesus' call for us to become like little children, and realize that even in issues as complicated as forgiveness, the "least of these" can teach us a lot.
I then told her that The Kite Runner, while not a Christian book, (it was, in fact, written by a Muslim,) is a fictional tale that mines the depths of human relationships, and gives one of the most healing quotes on forgiveness I've ever read: "I wonder if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night." It is a hard lesson to learn, because it insists that time, and a lot of living, is necessary to attain true forgiveness.
Three books were placed in her hand, yet I knew more may be needed to ensure she actually purchase something. I am, after all, also in the business of making money. So I looked up in our database all the Christian books we had solely dedicated to forgiveness. I found a couple, which were basic instruction manuals in the line of "Here's everything you need to know about forgiveness," and handed them to her. Later I found my first three recommendations in the pile of books to be placed back on the shelves, and saw that one of the others I had given her had been purchased.
One of my friend Matt Singleton's soapboxes is that there is as much theology to be learned from great fiction (and, I assume by extension, great narrative nonfiction,) as from any amount of systematic theology or Christian self-help. I.E., if you really want to learn something about God, listen to the stories of people experiencing real life. I couldn't agree more.
But many people don't want to hear this. Somewhere along the way the keepers-of-the-orthodox-gate insisted that for something to be helpful, all the "impurities" of human activity and interaction must be boiled away before the truth is revealed. The problem is that no one experiences life this way. These "impurities"-- the dirt of words poorly chosen, our human tendency to live lives caved in on ourselves, as Eugene Peterson would say, and a total neglect for the welfare of others-- These are the things of life and the stories that must be told before forgiveness can be known.
I hope the attractive girl in her Sunday best learned all she needed about forgiveness. Something tells me she got what she was looking for, but probably not what she needed. When she discovers this, maybe she'll come back and I can take her out to dinner, tell her a few stories. Maybe make some of our own.