by Dani Gabriel
It was Pentecost. Red streamers, red flames, red stoles. Most of the congregation had poppy red shirts or dresses, there were kids with sequins and glitter. I had brand new red converse high tops and I was feeling pretty excited. The descent of the spirit and the feverish followers of Christ make for a great morning. Our gospel choir began to sing. I looked down and there was a red sheet of paper next to me on the pew. Curious, I picked it up.
It was an invitation. An invitation to participate in the “Pentecost Challenge.” The idea was that everyone in the congregation would reach out to friends or family members we had become estranged from, and have coffee or a conversation to bridge the divide between us, whether it be a political divide, an emotional divide, or something else broken in our relationships. We might learn to speak and hear across difference, just as the apostles spoke in many languages when the Holy Spirit descended upon them. “What a beautiful interpretation of Pentecost,” I thought, and then “I’m going to fail the challenge.”
We regularly hear in the service “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-26) We read “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Colossians 3:13)
I believe in the power of forgiveness. I myself have been involved in deep processes of repair in relationships where there has been pain and sometimes where there has been abuse. I have found forgiveness blooming somewhere deep inside when I thought I could not. I have been forgiven when I thought my actions did not warrant it. I have felt the spirit moving in these relationships. And I have felt proud. I have felt myself to be a better Christian for it.
I am pretty much the only person I know who loves the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I truly look forward to it. “I turn to you in sorrow and repentance. Receive me again into the arms of your mercy, and restore me to the blessed company of your faithful people” we say. I want the chance to repent, to turn, and I hope that I will hold out that possibility to other people in my life. In Reconciliation we are also asked “Do you, then, forgive those who have sinned against you?” And I mean it when I say “I forgive them.”
But I was not even going to attempt this challenge.
I had spent all of Lent tortured. How could I face Easter without reconciling myself to a family member that I had turned away from? This family member had been violently abusive when I was a child and I kept my distance. But I reached out. I felt awful. I agreed to see the person. I continually felt like I was going to throw up. I had a hard time working, I had a hard time focusing when my kids tried to tell me stories about their days. At the urging of several people close to me, I canceled my trip to see the family member. I breathed. I had so badly wanted to feel virtuous. I had so badly wanted to impress people with a story of reconciliation that I almost did something that would have been very damaging.
Sin is not always obvious. Often my sin is in wanting to appear to be a “good person,” rather than listening to the truth of what I really need, or what the world or community really needs. I hope that as Christians we can guide each other away from damaging practices where we perform “goodness” at any cost and toward practices that bring real wholeness. There is no such thing as a “better” Christian. And I believe the spirit alights on us all equally, whether we are rising to the challenge of reconciliation or rising to the challenge of walking away. For Pentecost I am trying to listen to the low whisper of the Spirit leading me somewhere outside the bounds of what I “should” do, somewhere unpredictable and wild.
Dani Gabriel is a writer, mother, and partner who lives in El Cerrito, California. She is a member of All Souls Episcopal Parish and a postulant for the Diaconate in the Diocese of California. Her personal blog is at https://www.allthepossible.com