The door to forgiveness is always open

Susan Nagele reflects on the opportunity to repent and change in this season of Lent.

susan nagele

Susan Nagele with Toposa women in Sudan.

Rend your heart, not your garments.

I was sitting at the lunch table in the Maryknoll house in Nairobi, Kenya. This was many years ago while I was working in what is now called South Sudan. The war made our lives miserable, and so did the government of Kenya with all its political shenanigans.

A group of Filipina peace activists had been invited by an organization called People for Peace in Africa to lead a workshop on active nonviolence. The young Filipina woman next to me asked if I wanted the president of Kenya to change his corrupt practices. Surprised at the question, I blurted out, “No, I want him dead!”

She gently explained to me that Filipinas never wanted their despotic president dead. They wanted him to change.

I could almost feel the yanking, the rending of my heart. In a split second, I realized what I was capable of. Me, this missionary doctor who truly wanted to do what was right and tried to follow Jesus. Jesus, the one who said, “Love your enemies.”

The sting and shame of that realization has softened as the kindness and mercy of God has helped to clean up my heart. 

Back in Nimule, Sudan, where the Nile crosses from Uganda into Sudan, it was the dry season and Lent at the same time. Every green thing was gone, and dust, to which we shall return, was plentiful. I came out of my little house to find AK 47 assault weapons sitting in their stands at nine-foot intervals surrounding the separate round dining room.

Their owners stood at attention next to them, all soldiers in the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA). Inside was a man named Yousif Kuwa, an ethnic Nuba, Muslim all his life and a commander in the SPLA. He had traveled over 600 miles from his base and was meeting with Bishop Paride Taban of the Catholic Church. We later learned that Kuwa had asked Bishop Taban if God would ever forgive them for all the things they had done.

An answer can be found in the Ash Wednesday reading from Joel 2:12-18:

For gracious and merciful is God,
Slow to anger, rich in kindness,
And relenting in punishment,
Perhaps God will again relent
And leave behind a blessing.

That commander asked for forgiveness and wrote a poem with the following lines of blessing:

I shall light my candle. In its light I shall build my civilization.
At that time, I shall extend my hand. I shall forgive those who tried to destroy my identity,
Because love and peace is my aspiration.

Today, Ash Wednesday, is the day God is telling us that the door is always open for us to come back.

Nothing is unforgivable. Go into our inner room and pray. Accept our faults. Admit our mistakes and beg for mercy. 

Beyond our personal lives, let us be concerned about the land and stirred to pity just as God was in the first reading from Joel. 

Not all sin is personal. Liberation theology drew attention to structural or social sin, such as racism, sexism and clericalism. And now Pope Francis has introduced the concept of “integral ecology.” In Laudato Si’, the pope writes:

“It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” (LS 139)

So let us be ambassadors for Christ. Let us stop blowing our own trumpets and living like hypocrites. Let us put away the gloom and put on our work clothes. Let us put aside ideas of us versus them and start working together. We all belong to one another and we have only one home.

Lent is a special time—the right time—to get back on course and move toward the light and seek our deepest desire: to be one with God and each other.

Maryknoll Lay Missioner Susan Nagele is a family physician who recently returned to the United States from East Africa after 33 years of service.

From Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Scripture Reflection for Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019.

Photo courtesy of S. Nagele/MKLM.

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