A story that briefly trended last month along with the midterm elections and the Brittany Maynard saga, was the return of Monica Lewinsky. With due disrespect to all the critics n the blogosphere, I was happy to see that she had come back into the world, even setting up a Twitter account.  The reaction online was a different case, which points out how we often assert that Americans are forgiving people, but the reality is that most will tell you, "Not so fast" when it comes to cutting those seeking redemption a break. In Monica's case there should be a statue of limits on judging the acts of a love struck twenty four year old intern, eighteen years ago. She deserves another chance. We all do. 

One reality in life is the pervasive belief that people cannot truly change. Whether the conversation concerns people in recovery, criminals who have paid their debt to society, or simply those whose lifestyles we disapprove of, there are some those who are never going to give somebody a second chance. There are those who are incapable of letting go of the past. And these folks are always quick to point proof that people like you/me/them never can truly change.  We are all leopards, incapable of changing our spots. 

All of this runs counter to the religion, many of the most judgemental claim as their own. One of the most famous parables Christ spoke of, was the one featuring the "Prodigal Son" in Luke. As we saw then (and now)  when a person reforms their past selfish and sinful ways in order to return to their loving father, some are livid about the return. In that story, in the background of celebration that marked the Prodigal’s homecoming, the faithful older brother stood off in the distance, and resented resentful the obvious injustice of a party for a sibling that had lost his way. 

People often forget another notable parable, about sinners casting the initial stone. Though their attitudes and judgement are humiliating for those trying to change and do better now, it is also an opportunity for growth as we seek to live lives defined by love and service. Whether we are people in recovery, sinners seeking to reform, or  seeking growth in faith , there are lessons that we must gather to help weather our own journey to forgiveness and redemption. 

Those in twelve step programs learn to "make amends" for the past. For often the enmity and anger of those condemning us was earned. Those hurt and affected by addictive acts or the selfishness of sinners,  often have valid reasons to be hurt , angry, or disgusted. Part of earning another chance, is acknowledging our pasts unconditionally, no matter how awful that life review might be. Addiction to drugs or alcohol, sex, gambling, and the rest... is not an excuse for those mistakes. Owning mistakes in twelve step programs is facilitated by the Fourth Step ( taking inventory) and the Ninth Step (making amends.) 

Understanding the causes for our past transgressions is not the same as excusing their existence. Christians should not get to excuse past errors on the grounds that they are forgiven, have gone to confession, and that they are sinners who cannot help it. Bonhoeffer called this “cheap grace.”  Any program of change and growth requires fully embracing and addressing our pasts, and whether we are speaking of a recovery program or religion, its not an option. 

We are promised by Scripture that if we are genuinely remorseful and repentant,  a loving and gracious God will greet us with open arms, and allow us to have a new and better life. Often forgotten is a huge caveat, which is that we must do all we can do to right our past wrongs. Only by taking a new path, are we allowed to leave our history behind. Though we have no hope of having a better past, we are told God will "cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And we are then allowed to be freed from our past, with the gratitude and joy of a prisoner saved and released.

God's freedom and forgiveness is not given simply for our benefit. It is given freely so that we might be of service to others. The shame and baggage of an ugly past interferes with our ability to reach out to our fellow travellers in the sinful and imperfect world we inhabit.   The grace given freely to us is so that we can demonstrate of that same grace to another. There is a saying that says we cannot take anything with us when we pass, which is another way of stating we cannot keep what we do not give. Only by taking what we are given and "paying it forward" can we avoid becoming self-absorbed and unable to avoid past pitfalls.  If our primary purpose in life is to be of service to each other. it bears noting that no matter how far we have fallen our experience will potentially benefit another. 

Those who are unforgiving, those directing harsh comments towards those seeking to change , are in some kind of pain. In some cases we were the cause of such pain, but reflection reveals that there must be some kind of deep hurt driving such bitterness. I have known very few people who seemed incapable of letting go of a past wrong but I have known a few. My immediate family comes to mind. (And on occasion myself). Once I learned how to overcome the impact of having my past thrown in my face, I realized simply that “Hurt people hurt people.”  The only real response is to find compassion in our hearts, kindness with no retort, and to pray for them and for something to change. Regardless of the reason that someone considers themselves our “enemy, the only real solution is to “Love your enemies and do good to them that hate you.”  

We seek to have compassion and pray for unforgiving people.  When confronted with those unable to let go of the past, accept our changes and our attempts to make amends, we can "bless and release" the person and situation, and simply walk away. We are not obligated to stay in toxic relationships, or remain in soul killing situations that are harmful to us , our growth and our ability to be useful to others. 

Looking back at my life, I see where I failed other people.  Sometimes I still do.  Even with God’s grace , change comes slowly , but it does come if we try long and hard enough. When confronted with angry or hurting people who cannot let go of the past, we must try to change the dynamic, while accepting that what other people think of us is none of our business. For those of us who too much care about what people think , it is one of the hardest things on earth to accept. But it is one of the essential steps we must take if we are ever going to move beyond our darkest times. 


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