Saying “Yes” to Forgiveness

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Gentle Reader: I confess that this took longer than five minutes to write.  I ask your indulgence and challenge you to think about how you have ever had the opportunity to say “Yes!” to forgiveness.  It’s not an easy yes.  Especially when you come from a heritage of abuse and cultural denigration. 

I have a photo from our camping trip that looks like a group of young people hugging slender tree trunks. But if you look closely, you’ll see that it’s actually two groups of strangers embracing each other in a beautiful “Yes!”

It all started when six crazy teachers hatched an idea to bring two schools together for a week of outdoor education. In Rocky Mountain National Park. Camping. With no showers. For a week. The larger group of students came from reservations in Arizona and New Mexico and attend the school where I teach—Holbrook Indian School. The smaller group of students came from the city—Tulsa, Oklahoma, to be exact.

Only God could orchestrate something beautiful out of the melting pot of hidden pain, prejudice, assumptions and insecurity represented by the 82 strangers from the two different schools.

Only God could orchestrate a beautiful symphony of forgiveness out of a melting pot of pain.

One by one the Holbrook kids learned the songs and hand motions to the theme song—a song about friendship and the brotherhood of believers. They groaned a little each time the song leaders asked them to sing it—they probably felt as awkward as they looked as they stumbled through the lyrics and the motions.

For the first three days, things seemed to go fine. The students intermingled a little as they tried to overcome their shyness. They enjoyed their classes and the worship services. The Tulsa crowd provided music for the morning and evening worship services, and they brought a vibrant pastor along with them who joined in the hikes and spent time getting to know kids from both schools.

On the morning of the fourth day, some of the Holbrook students reported that some of the boys wanted to invade the Tulsa camp and start a fight (because it’s 82 strangers from two different cultures—what were we thinking?!).

Some of the Tulsa kids had made insensitive comments in the hearing of the Holbrook kids. Things like, “We’d better be careful, or they’ll come over and scalp us.” About as sensitive as a Neo-Nazi walking into a synagogue and shouting “Hiel Hitler!”

The leadership of the Tulsa school called the students back for a heart-to-heart talk about racial sensitivity and how they, as Christians, should be speaking and acting in love—especially since most of the Holbrook kids don’t come from Christian homes.

Meanwhile, the pastor held an extra long morning worship service. When he ended, we called our kids together and explained that we hadn’t started classes yet because the Tulsa leadership was so upset about the racial comments that they were keeping their kids in camp until the ones who had made the comments were ready to confess and ask forgiveness.

I looked around the group of students and said, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever poked fun of someone from another tribe or said anything bad about someone from another tribe.” Sheepish grins broke out and almost every student raised his or her hand.

“You have two choices,” I said. “We can hang around here waiting for them to confess, or we can realize that we’ve all been guilty of slinging unkind words around and we can go over to their camp and surround them with our love and forgiveness.”

Murmurs of assent rose from most of the students. One young man blurted, “I ain’t gonna forgive anyone who doesn’t ask for it. They deserve to get in trouble.”

I shot prayers heavenward. The situation had the potential to turn ugly. “The problem with grudges,” I explained, “is that the only person they hurt is the one who holds them.” I paused to pray again. “So, what do you want to do?”

“Forgive them!” a student shouted. Others chimed in with their ‘Yes’ and ‘Let’s do it!”

The principal quieted the group and turned to the Student Association president, “If you guys want to do this,” he said, “the student leaders need to lead the way.” With beautiful resolve the student leaders started walking towards the Tulsa camp. When they arrived, they stood at a respectful distance and waited quietly.

After a brief conference with a Tulsa teacher, we discovered that five or six students had confessed and were praying with the principal and pastor as they gathered their courage to ask forgiveness of the Holbrook students.

Amidst murmured prayers and sniffles and tears, the incredibly brave students from Tulsa asked forgiveness for their unkind words. With each confession the Holbrook students called out, “It’s ok!” and “We forgive you!” By the time the last student had spoken, almost everyone in the crowd had joined in the sniffles and the tears.

Our beautiful students had taken the first step of forgiveness and now they moved to surround the Tulsa students with hugs and high-fives. So while the photo looks like a group of tree-huggers gathered in the woods to save something—the story goes so much deeper.

The “Yes!” of the students from both schools opened the door for the Holy Spirit to begin an even more beautiful work. But that’s a story for another day.

What about you?  Have you ever said “Yes!” to forgiveness?  What happened as a result?