What Does Forgiveness Look Like? An Armrest

Let me share with you the longest flight I ever endured.

It was a 20 hour flight across the world, though it wasn’t the duration of the non-stop flight that made it so long, but rather my neighbor…

He was a bigger gentleman, binged on R-rated films for most of the flight, and like most of us was in need of a shower and some deodorant from a very long venture. None of that bothered me, because I got it: we had a long trip home in front of all of us, and we were all trying to make the best of this day-long flight.

But the spitting tobacco was what set me over.

A few hours into the flight, the man asked for a Styrofoam cup from the flight attendant and began dipping and spitting. Having lived around smokers most my life, I feel I have a rather strong disgust tolerance for all things tobacco. So, believe me when I tell you that this was the most repugnant aroma I have smelled in my life.  The man had concocted a miasma of foul poison from his mouth to this cup, comprised of his spit, the tobacco, and whatever other toxins that particular chewing tobacco had. The sound of this ichor going from his mouth to the cup was so visceral. Though I could be imagining this particular detail, I’m fairly certain the man’s backsplash into the cup flung at least one droplet into my space.

His Styrofoam cup became a biohazard as he dozed off to his film, his grip on it uncertain during his dreams. Thankfully he awoke about fifteen minutes in and had the kindness of using my armrest’s cupholder to secure his petri dish of backwash.

Some theaters and airplanes are designed properly to give each seat a full armrest. Some are not. Some are so inadequate and unpartitioned that it makes the dividing line of “mine” and “yours” rather ambiguous. But there’s an ideal to be pursued with armrests: each person taking up the seat ought to have one armrest to themselves, undeterred, no questions asked. The man had usurped my armrest with chemical warfare like a World War One affront across the Maginot Line. Worse than that, it wasn’t just that I was an armrest down, but that all my senses (sight, smell, sound, perhaps even touch) had been assaulted by the man’s nasty habit of chew poison. Such grievances have caused humanity to ratify ethical rules of engagement such as the Geneva Convention.

“So why didn’t you say something to him?”

You’re right to ask that. I have only excuses for why I didn’t engage with the man, all coming from base fear and calculated reasoning:

1. It was a 20 hour flight. Depending on how our conversation would go, I would have to endure a day’s worth of travel with an enemy instead of a stranger, and I didn’t have the stamina to take our relationship to that level.

2. I was alone on this flight. I’d flown back at a different time than my friends had, and so I was surrounded by strangers who looked just as tired and checked out as me. Would they have the gumption to get my back should things escalate? I wasn’t so sure.

3. Should the man become upset with my boundary setting, I might have had to wear his chewing tobacco the entire flight, if you catch my drift.

All that being said, I had a responsibility to say something to this new friend of mine, to patch up our budding relationship, and to say it in a tone that would be easy for him to hear. I think we sometimes neglect to say something because we are afraid how our words will be received, or how they’ll come out when emotions are high. But to say nothing while there is something coming between us and the other is to keep a person away rather than to draw close in authentic relationship. Who knows, maybe if I voiced my disgust for his chewing tobacco our conversation could develop into an edifying topic of mutual interest.

We sometimes assume from the Gospels that Christian love and humility means acting like a doormat. While we are called to bear with one another and be charitable in our actions and resources, we must also consider times when Jesus said “no” and set boundaries. It might seem that Jesus is pushing away the Pharisees and Scribes in His list of “woes” at Jerusalem, though really He is pleading with them to change something, so that they too may become disciples. We also see how often Jesus leaves cities after periods of being unwelcome or retreats into the wilderness after trying times of ministry. And then there’s the overthrowing of the vendors’ tables at the temple, rebuking Peter for cutting the ear of a soldier, denying Herod a sign & miracle…the list goes on.

These acts of our Lord are not gestures of pushing away even though externally they may seem as such. The honesty, the firmness, the line in the sand is all a means of healing a broken relationship. It’s like a bone fracture that sometimes tries to heal on its own without any guidance (a phenomena called malunion), for which the cure is actually rebreaking the bone in order to set it back in the proper place.

In Greek, the word forgiveness is συγχωρώ. The etymology of this is “syn” or together along with the verb “χωρέω”. Χωρέω sometimes has a connotation of withdrawing, but also can mean “making space” for someone or something.

I’ve sometimes struggled knowing exactly when I’ve forgiven someone or when I’ve felt forgiven by someone else. How does one forgive when someone has done something that has left things still uncomfortable? I take solace in the image that the Greek word forgiveness has here, this visual of two people together making space for one another. It’s a mutual act of the two parties understanding what each has contributed to a conflict.

This discourse is not meant to throw my fellow passenger under the bus (or plane) for not making space for me after apologizing. There’s room for me to grow in this practice of setting boundaries. As you can probably imagine, I wanted nothing to do with the man during and after the flight. A complete opposite approach was taken, stonewalling without setting a boundary. “Hey man, chewing and spitting that isn’t good for you, and isn’t good for me. Please stop it.” Though armrest etiquette is something most of us take for granted, sometimes these rules of engagement need to be reiterated, reminded, the line in the sand drawn again after the wind obscures it.

Forgiveness is obviously a two-way street, but it works best when a boundary is known by both parties. You can’t make space if you don’t know how much space is being asked for, know when the line was crossed if we can’t agree where the line is.

The beginning of Lent starts with a beautiful service of Forgiveness Vespers. Often we come to this service asking forgiveness from those whom we can’t remember a single time offending or being offended by. But perhaps the asking of forgiveness is an opportunity to lay to the side something we’ve kept inside as well as practicing the line “forgive me” when it’s too hard to say. Lastly, asking the forgiveness of a stranger perhaps is a spiritual way of forgiving those miles away from us who have spit and chewed tobacco next to us on a very long plane ride.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, please forgive me, a sinner!

Genesis 13: Bad Company

Genesis 13:1-18

So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb.2 Now Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold. 3 And he journeyed on from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, 4 to the place where he had made an altar at the first; and there Abram called on the name of the Lord. 5 And Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, 6 so that the land could not support both of them dwelling together; for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together, 7 and there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdsmen of Lot’s cattle. At that time the Canaanites and the Per′izzites dwelt in the land.

8 Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen; for we are kinsmen. 9 Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” 10 And Lot lifted up his eyes, and saw that the Jordan valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zo′ar; this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomor′rah. 11 So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan valley, and Lot journeyed east; thus they separated from each other. 12 Abram dwelt in the land of Canaan, while Lot dwelt among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom. 13 Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.

14 The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Lift up your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; 15 for all the land which you see I will give to you and to your descendants for ever. 16 I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted. 17 Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” 18 So Abram moved his tent, and came and dwelt by the oaks[a] of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord.

Leaving the Nest

I am tempted to take this reading in order to speak about boundaries, though I’m sure the topic will resurface in our reflections.

Instead, we will be doing some foreshadowing of Lot’s decision to settle near Sodom and Gomorrah.

In this reading, we hear about the misfortune of a family needing to part ways due to how large their respective herds/caravan has become. There are disputes among Abraham’s followers and Lot’s, as though the two are two chiefs of two clans, despite coming from one family. Lot is Abraham’s nephew, and without having a son we can perhaps infer there is a father-son dynamic at play between the two.

There first lesson we draw from this story of bitter parting is the necessity for parent and child to become two separate entities, to grow into their own person. Abraham no doubt provided, guided, and mentored Lot, but now that Lot takes a place of leadership and perhaps in this has his own family too, he needs to go his own way, become his own man. Abraham encourages Lot to “leave the nest” and even “get out of the basement”, though he does so graciously.

Abraham gives Lot an option of what land to choose where he and his flock will go. Abraham examples a proper father figure, allowing his child to choose his own path, to entrust that child in that decision, with the hope that the child will make proper decisions and make something for themselves. Abraham does his proper part, and in the next chapter, we shall see that although he allows Lot to be his own man that he is ready and able to step in as “father” again by saving Lot from being taken hostage.

A Logical Decision With Repercussions

With many options before Lot, he looks to a well-watered land, which is compared to both the Garden of Eden and the land of Egypt. It’s a fertile place of civilization. Who wouldn’t choose such an option?

It’s hard to fault Lot for this decision, though perhaps we might argue that an adult child would endure some hardship on their own in order to support their aged parent. However, the real difference between Lot and Abraham’s decision to settle has little to do with the fertility of the land and more to do with the company in which they find themselves.

Abraham does happen to settle near a people that get a bad rap in the Bible–those of Canaan–however we don’t hear about the wickedness of Canaan, and more than that, we don’t hear of Abraham dwelling near their cities.

Lot on the other hand dwells among the cities of a wicked people. 

To be fair to Lot, when we imagine a post-apocalyptic setting wherein new civilizations are just beginning to bud, we tend to see survivors gravitate to any hub of civilization, no matter how imperfect it may seem. In such stories and settings, we often find how the hubs of the civilization on their surface seem good and stable, and only until dwelling there a little longer do the survivors see how rotten to the core their foundation is.

An argument could be made that Lot dwelling in the cities of this corrupt land could be a missionary endeavor, an opportunity for him to do some good and set an example. This piece we don’t hear about in Lot’s residence within these cities, but instead, later we shall see he tries to appease and capitulate to the mob when they come to his door asking for his holy guests he is entertaining.

Perhaps Lot’s fate of being captured, needing to escape the city, and even lose his wife could all have been avoided if he lived on the outskirts of the land, if he, like Abram, set himself apart from such wicked cities and people instead of being so close to it.

The temptation to being close to the city comes from a desire for security, the possibility for trade and protection when one lives in great numbers, to not be reduced to the life of a nomadic scavenger but rather trusting in the infrastructure of a city to get through hard times.

Still, this decision costs Lot greatly, requiring his uncle to come in and save him and then later God’s angels providing him and his family a miraculous escape.

Spiritual Osmosis: Becoming What Is Around Us

The application of this lesson is that of setting ourselves apart and paying attention to the temptation to associate in the company of the wicked. I think this message is particularly important in the workforce and in school. From high school to college, we are dared into risky behavior, tempted to give up “prude” boundaries that our parents set for us, and fit in with the crowd. To cling to the ways of our tradition–encompassing values of faith, family, and our own moral compass–makes us strangers to those we study and work with. 

When the bar is set low and we continue to walk the straight and narrow, we alienate ourselves and place barriers between us and the other. This can provide incredible opportunities for accountability and witness for us to mold others. That being said, the Nietzchen quote of “whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster”. While we don’t particularly fight with our peers that might have a different ethic than us, maintaining our own boundaries and principles certainly is a fight we all partake in, and by mere association, we will find temptation and trial in this co-dwelling.

Scripture does speak of civilizations that were ready for a righteous man, cities ripe to hear a word and example of repentance and sanctity (ie, Jonah). That being said, even the Lord advised His Apostles that should a town not receive them that they should depart that city and not even take with them the dust that belonged to that city.

Any righteous conviction we have to change a person, a school, a workplace, or a city requires tempering through humility, discernment, and introspection. We cannot arrogantly or with hubris assume that we will enter into a place of temptation and wickedness unscathed. We must give pause and ask for some objectivity, to evaluate our heart and purpose and the heart and purpose of that environment we find ourselves within. And how can any of us hope to change the world let alone our own immediate circle if we haven’t made important changes of putting our own lives in order?

The Cenobitic Model

Lastly, a great example is set by Abraham in this chapter that I believe requires some contemplation of, and that is of “setting ourselves apart”.

Abraham seems to have more of a call to be a hermit than an apostle, a foundation rather than an agent of change. Both are holy causes–in which even both can overlap in purpose–though each is required of in different contexts and circumstances. The world we see in these early chapters of Genesis is cruel and twisted, a true dark age. Just as was the case for Noah, Abraham seeks to create a hallowed place of safety that can bring some salvation. Abraham is called to begin a nation, to begin a story that will eventually become a message of conviction to change the hearts of many.

Abraham, seeing the frailty of the world and perhaps of his own soul, endeavors to go his geographical and spiritual path apart from the world–and yet, still, not entirely removed from it…just at its outskirts.

Abraham creates a sacred haven for himself and his people to focus on the good they are trying to establish in such a dark context, to follow God alone when the hearts of man are self-centered at best and diabolical at worst. 

The message for us here is not that there’s no hope for evangelism or mission, to dwell among the lost and cruel so as to change their hearts. Rather, the application of Abraham’s example is that we all establish our own foundation first, to not let “the world” or peer pressure to tear down our own values, traditions, and goals.

God told Abraham he would establish a great nation. Abraham fixed his eyes on that goal and walked with God, stumbling and yet doing some good as well in this journey.

But in this life of consecration, Abraham carves out a boundary, a “safe space” if you will for his own growth and the growth of those around him. And out of this consecration and carving, Israel slowly buds, and from Israel’s budding comes much later the fruit of salvation for the world.

Today, consider the following

  • What are your eyes/heart/mind fixed on?
  • What might God be inviting you to fix your whole being on? How might you discern this call/vocation?
  • How can you consecrate your life or surroundings to create a safe haven for your growth?
  • Who do you find yourself dependent upon that you may need to set some boundaries with, to become your own person, to take responsibility for yourself?
  • Who do you find yourself needing to encourage to go their own way, to set some boundaries with so that they learn their responsibilities?