Tuesday, August 9, 2011

From the Ashes

How many Bible verses or stories can you think of that teach us to forgive? What other stories of forgiveness can you call to mind from any source – other faiths, the news, movies, books, poetry, fables? Take a few moments and see how many you can list.

Here is one that made a big impression on me. On October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV held ten Amish girls, ranging in age from 6 to 13, hostage in their one room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He tied them up and made them line up against the wall. There was evidence that he planned to sexually assault them, but whatever he planned to do to them was thwarted by the quick arrival of state troopers. Sadly, however, the troopers were unable to stop him before he started shooting. The oldest girl, only 13, asked to be shot first, hoping that some extra time might save her friends. He shot her first. Then he shot them all, killing five, and finally shot himself.

Imagine being one of those girls. Imagine being one of their parents. I can’t. But if the crime itself was unfathomable, then even more so was the response of the Amish community. Within hours of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the slain girls was heard admonishing others not to hate the shooter or to think evil of him. They quickly reached out to his family and offered forgiveness and condolences. They attended his funeral and invited his widow to attend the funeral of one of the girls. They invited her and her children, the children of the man who murdered their own children, to become members of their community.

The accounts of forgiveness flashed around the world. I read everything I could read about it and found websites in many countries marveling at a faith that most of us would believe beyond human capacity. Certainly beyond my own. I knew I was witnessing a gift. Even a miracle. The response of a small group of previously unknown people to an unimaginable tragedy inspired millions to examine their own hearts, to consider, if only for a moment, the possibility of transcendence.

The following year I read a book titled Amish Grace, in which the authors put the community’s response in the context of their faith culture, in which forgiveness is a central concept. It permeates the way they interact with each other, raise their children, and live their lives. The author made it clear that the Amish do not equate forgiveness with lack of consequences. Had the shooter lived, they would have supported whatever justice the legal system imposed...and then visited him in prison.

Many Amish, when questioned about their practice of forgiveness, replied with puzzlement, “Amish forgiveness is just Christian forgiveness.” One person, after hesitating a moment, wondered, “Is it different from Christian forgiveness?” Is it? Is it different from the concept of forgiveness in any other faith? It appears to be so universally fundamental. And yet, we struggle so to live it.

What would our lives look like if we could forgive like that? What would our communities look like? Our world? What would the Amish response have been to 9/11? To a tragedy in your own community? In your own life?

Can we consider the possibilities for just a moment? Imagine.

Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it. –Mark Twain


  1. I live in a very bustling, metropolitan part of the world, but I have always been a fan of the Amish. There is something to be said about their stillness and pace of life and refusal to join in with modernity for the most part. They do this on the whole with great panache by welcoming people into their world if not necessarily then following their ways.

    A very nice story and I never knew that they had invited the relatives to their funeral and offered to go to the killers. Classy and deeply spiritual.

  2. Ah to be able to forgive is a tough one for some..but it's funny in my young grandchildren they have a talent of being able to get that forgiving part, I believe, if only we as adults could some how master that perfection and live our lives through with that same magic....We have a lot of Amish near where I live, they are an amazing people, and get so many things right. A bit off the bible story opening, but again I was thinking why have we so many hurtful, broken Humpty Dumpty and a big bad wolf that wants to eat up Grandma? I thought to myself when my children were young that we need to start in our children's fairy tales...I have a German children's story book that is even a million times worse yet...if you saw the pictures you really don't need to read the words....maybe there's a bit of a connection to how the human race as carried on...okay you've gotten me off into far too deep thinking...time to say, have a good evening ahead. Soccer for me!

  3. I guess there are many people out there better than me. I can turn the other cheek, but I do not recall biblical stories about God forgiving Satan.

  4. pea--Welcome and thanks for commenting. Yes, it was an amazing story and an inspiring model of forgiveness. Like any community or any individual, the Amish, I'm sure, have flaws and customs many would not agree with, but this particular story touched me deeply.

    Karen--Yeah, what's up with those terrifying bedtime stories?! How interesting that you have been able to get to know something about the Amish from your own observations. Thanks for your comment

    JJ--What an intriguing observation! I'm going to have to think about that one! Thanks for commenting.

  5. Galen,
    I would like to think I could forgive...but I don't think I could on that level! I know in my heart that forgiveness is actually healthier for us and helps healing, but that story is truly incredible and one I cannot claim to stand a chance following.
    Thank you so much for following Sammy’s blog. Your support has meant so much to me. As we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I am trying to allow myself more time for ME and have moments where cancer is not on my mind. I have been a very casual blogger, Superman Sammy is really only meant to document our journey, but I have been trying to keep up another blog…my sanity blog.

    I am now committing much more time to Gems and Rhinestones (http://www.gemsandrhinestones.blogspot.com) , a blog that, while allowing guest appearances of Sammy, is more about my likes, loves and ideas.

    I am inviting you to join me over at Gems and Rhinestones – as an “old friend”, I invite you to leave me constructive feedback if you wish…I am just getting my feet wet with blogging my life stuff. It is very different than just blurting out emotions as I do on Superman Sammy.

    Also, check out the Etsy Discount (http://gemsandrhinestones.blogspot.com/2011/08/i-highly-recommend.html) I have been able to offer. It is for Gems and Rhinestones readers and I’d love you to get a piece of the action too.

    I will be doing a special welcome and introductions to promote my Super Sammy friends’ blogs….hey, why not? You have given me so much over the last couple of years.

    I hope you continue following Sammy as his adventure isn’t over yet, but I also hope you get to know the ME that is not cancer mom, worrier, and mad lunatic when counts go low. I am so much more than that!

    With love,

    Katy xx

  6. just found your beautiful blog while searching for a "happy place" and immediately find you inspirational and encouraging; thank you for sharing your delightful personality & heart; right now I'm struggling to work through anger issues, how to "be angry & sin not" & how to walk in love & wisdom with all folks and as much as is possible to live at peace...sigh

    tried to take moment & create the suggested list, but there are countless examples of forgiveness in the Word and all around us, we are made to love and be loved & part of love is forgiveness...but HOW do you do it???

    will read more of your thoughts, as the one from yesterday (8/9) is very timely

    -Nan (:

  7. Katy--So glad you are regaining pieces of non-cancer life! I will definitely check out your other blog and I look forward to getting to know other sides of you. Thanks for your comment and for the information.

    Nan--I'm so delighted that you stopped by. Welcome! If you do make that list, please send it along. As for the how to, I hope to offer some suggestions for that this month and I hope others will offer suggestions, too. We know forgiveness is a good idea, but some instructions would be helpful! Let's work on that together. Please stop by again and join our discussion.

  8. After growing to adolescence as a Christian (mainstream variety), I first learned that Mahatma Gandhi forgave the man who had just shot him (to his face), called out to Rama, and died. This was not a distant event from thousands of years past. It's relatively recent history, and was witnessed by thousands. Learning this caused me to begin questioning the boundaries of faith, forgiveness, and the whole concept of holiness. It was the first step on the path toward radical inclusivity I walk now.

    As before, this topic is always worth writing, reading and thinking about. And, because I love "philosophy wrassling", I'll weigh in on JJ's great comment:

    There's no need for a specific story of God forgiving Satan. It's already obvious. Even though Satan attempted to usurp the throne (so to speak), God not only did NOT destroy him in response, but actually placed him in the hugely important job of assisting in the qualification of humans by requiring us to consciously overcome evil within ourselves. Not one person has grown to spiritual maturity without being tempted, including Jesus.

  9. This story offered a lot of food for thought. As for my own forgiveness, I would like to think I'm capable but in truth, I don't know...... it would depend on so many circumstances. I just don't know.

  10. Mikey--Thanks for joining in and taking the discussion a step further. That is a lovely and powerful story about Gandhi. I didn't know it. And thanks for responding to JJ. JJ--any response?

    Manzanita--Forgiveness is a tough subject. We all seem to think it's a good idea, and we want it for ourselves, but.... Sometimes we are just not ready. Thanks for commenting.

  11. Forgiving is so difficult sometimes. But here's the whole thing with forgiveness, if we don't forgive it causes us more pain and suffering rather than the person we are not forgiving. If we realize that more, forgiving would become more natural and common. Thank you for this post.

  12. Wonderful post...bringing conviction to the heart that "wills" to hold to that which has offended: The four classes of God's Love
    1) forgiving love
    2) forgetting love
    3) blameless love
    4) sharing love

    If I truly forgiven then I forget the offense if I have forgotten the offense then I no longer hold blame if I no longer hold blame then I can share more love !

    Is that not what Jesus Christ did for us?

  13. Hey Galen,

    Forgiveness allow us to remove the hate from our hearts. Forgiveness doesn't make you forget, but it makes living a bit easier. I remember when I was hurt by my ex girlfriend. I learned to forgive. I never forgot. But it allowed me to move on. It allowed me push and have a better future with someone who actually cared about me. Forgiveness is powerful. But I do think most will refuse to forgive and hold grudges because it easier to NOT to forgive.

  14. joybug--Forgetting is such a challenge. Sometimes I think remembering with compassion (instead of judgment) serves as well. What do you think? Thanks for your lovely comment.

    jonathan--Yes, that is what I was trying to say in my response to joybug. The key is to release and move on. It does seem easier sometimes to hold onto grudges, even though it is costly to our health and well being. Why do you think that is? Thanks for commenting.

  15. Hi Galen,

    I did read about this Amish story. And it takes a lot of heart and love to handle it like they did. I always like to repeat , "All things are possible through God." When it comes to forgives, I know I have had to ask him to help with it. Until we learn to forgive we can not move forward. Forgives is letting go of the past and moving forward.

    Wonderful post and this would be a much happier world if people learned to forgive. To me the opposite of forgives is hate.
    Thanks again and blessing to you,

  16. I clearly remember that tragedy in the news. I don't know if I would have been as quick to forgive. I still have a long way to go in that department....I believe.



  17. Debbie--Yes, it would be a happier world. I agree with you about the opposite of forgiveness being hate. We can't forgive someone we have set up as an enemy. Thanks for your comment.

    Jo--I have a long way to go, too! Many of us do. But I know that when I can even consider the possibility of forgiveness, something softens in my heart and makes the possibility more likely. Thanks for commenting.

  18. A very good post Galen. As I read it, lots of thoughts on forgiveness came to mind especially when a tragic event happens such as this one. The energy put into grudges and the like are draining. I think overtime most of us do forgive.

  19. Due to that crime, I know that it was hard for the family to forgive those people who shoot their beloved loved ones! However, forgiveness sometimes isn't an overnight thing,but it takes time with some people by which the healing process starts piece by piece in different ways!Then too, to some people forgetting forms a big challenge for them to overcome whenever the hurt and pain is still there! Forgiveness can be in different ways such as crying it out, or talking to another person in order to open up so that you can heal! However, confornting the individual can be very dangerous sometimes, if they aren't lead right or propertly, then the situation can be worse off then before! Great post Galen

  20. Cynthia--So true, holding a grudge takes a lot of energy and drains our life force. Maybe that's why we eventually forgive--we get too tired to stay angry! Thanks for commenting.

    Tyler--You are right. Actually being in contact with a dangerous person is not a good idea! Forgiveness does not require that kind of risk. We needn't reconcile with an abusive person, for example. However, the forgiveness happens in our hearts. Thanks for your comment.

  21. Galen,
    This was wonderful. I believe in forgiving - as you know - everyone all the time. It's not always easy but, I feel so much lighter and freer when I forgive. Forgiving also reminds me that I'm not perfect and I'd want someone to forgive me as well. Do unto others.....I believe in following the Golden Rule.

  22. Angela--Good description. We are lighter and freer because the burden is lifted from our spirits and we are released. Thanks for your comment.

  23. Growing up in the Amish - Mennonite - Brethren community helps understand pacifism. These are plain living closed order societies where forgiveness is found and ironically there is no tolerance. The media/entertainment-complex style pop culture would be way to progressive and shunned. Even if the Amish were robbed a response might be that for thier part they did nothing wrong. Others would have to answer for themselves.

  24. Galen--Thanks for your added perspective. Nice name, by the way!

  25. I've been praying for help and you are an answer to my plea - literally giving me information, encouragement, love. I'm just beginning on baby steps of the learning to be rid of hate. I have been a VERY slow learner. God must be so patient to deal with me!
    I've been thinking, what if I consciously say "I forgive you" or do it in my head - will my heart learn to follow? I'm hoping that if I can practice it, then it will become part of me. sigh...it's that or I am feeling pretty low about me. I've been knocked around alot lately and realize that my nonforgiveness is hurting the people I love and hurting me. Yes, nonforgiveness can be seductively powerful and self righteous place and combine that with greed and self obsession - it's a ugly mix. Your post has shown me alot - I'm not alone, am I? Many thanks for giving such goodness to the world. Love! my annie

  26. Anonymous--God is indeed patient...and loving. And yes, I believe that if you say "I forgive you," and ask God to help you mean it, then eventually you will mean it. I will post something about this very technique in the next week. I hope you will keep reading...and praying.


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