Hardness of heart. Scripture uses this image to describe those who are impenetrably stubborn, those who are unwilling or unable to see God’s glory or to reorient their lives to God’s call and claims. But what causes hardness of heart? Is it always human sin, those things which we have done which ossify our hearts and rigidify our minds? Do tragic accidents sometimes harden us in ways that make it difficult, if not impossible, to remain open to transformation, to sustain a mental, emotional and moral agility?
The blood was barely dry on the floor of the West Nickel Mines School when Amish parents sent words of forgiveness to the family of the one who had slain their children. Forgiveness? Forgiveness so quickly for the heinous crime of killing five Amish schoolgirls? How could the Amish forgive such a thing so quickly? Was it a genuine gesture or just a gimmick?
A debate on absolution was stirred in England recently after an Anglican priest stepped down from her parish duties because she could not forgive those who carried out the July bombings on London’s transport system. The attacks resulted in the death of more than 50 people, including her daughter.
In the play A Thousand Clowns, by Herb Gardner, a character named Murray discovers that he can offer a simple apology to almost anyone—even a complete stranger—and he or she will forgive him. He stands on the corner of 51st and Lexington in New York City one day, telling those who walk by him, “I’m sorry,” and in almost every instance, he’s forgiven on the spot.
Only a few of the 365 days in each year are associated with extraordinary events, but for those who experienced the events, the dates arouse great emotion. For Koreans, August 15 commemorates the restoration of the country’s independence after a Japanese occupation of 36 years. June 25 marks the outbreak of the Korean War. And for those of us who live in the U.S., September 11 will always be the day America was attacked.
My wife and I once toured the legendary Waterford crystal factory in Ireland, where furnaces roar 24 hours a day, powered by gas piped in from miles away. Sixteen hundred employees take turns at three shifts daily. Their training takes years, especially for the glass etchers, the smallest group among the staff.
When I was in grad school, my family moved into an apartment in South Chicago. When we saw that the door of the apartment had four locks, we wondered why we needed so many. I soon discovered that the benefit was mostly emotional. When we got inside at night, after being worried about whatever, we could shut the door on the world and turn lots of little levers. “Click, click, click.” I think of that door when I’m listening to people describe how they cope with their fears.
I have always been fascinated by the phrase “the Lord make his face shine upon you.” God’s blessing, God’s protection, God’s peace, God’s grace—all part of that same benediction—are great goods, and if I had to choose between them and God’s shining face, I might well opt for them. But God’s shining face outdoes them all.
The letter was addressed to the pastor and congregation of Providence United Methodist Church. My friend George Thompson, pastor at the time, noted that each word had been carefully chosen. And he noted the question that began the letter: “Who is a Christian?”
Children’s sermons can be times for cuteness or for expressions of theological realism. Here is a story of such realism. Our parish’s intern was reinforcing the theme of the day’s lectionary lesson. He held up one sign that read WELCOME and another that said KEEP OUT, and let the children spell out the significance of both.