When my son was in sixth grade, he was standing with some buddies at dismissal time at our parish Catholic school. It was a typical cold winter day in Anchorage, Alaska, and the sidewalks were a familiar sheet of ice.
“See those sixth graders over there?” asked a fifth grader, overheard by another boy. “Watch how many I can knock down.”
Sliding on the ice at full speed into the unsuspecting group, he toppled several, scattering them like snowsuit-clad bowling pins. My son Mike was among them, and his braces were knocked loose.
I’d been at work, there was supper to fix, the grocery store first. Now, as rush hour neared and the day’s sunlight waned, school pick-up became an unscheduled drive across town to the orthodontist.
Braces are expensive. Mike’s were not covered by a dental plan. The stress of the day began to overwhelm me.
Pausing at a stoplight, I noted the vanity license plate on the car ahead of me. It read “UR4GVN.”
I was forgiven? For what? But tears came to my eyes. I felt a heavy weight lifting.
In Scripture, we repeatedly hear Jesus say those words, “Your sins are forgiven.” Sometimes — as with the paralyzed man lowered through a roof by his friends — Jesus says those words before a physical healing.
Was Jesus ready with forgiveness because the folks he encountered were terrible people? Or is Jesus so ready to forgive because he knows we’re all sinners and we yearn to feel forgiveness? We all live with what the writer Father Henri Nouwen called “our endless capacity for self-loathing.” It’s often the hidden cause of our stress, this feeling that we are not “enough.”
Jesus wants us to know how loved we are.
In the Gospel of Luke, Peter has had a night of unsuccessful fishing, but Jesus tells him to try again. Peter dutifully puts his nets back in the water, finding a catch so abundant the boat nearly collapses.
Sensing the presence of the miraculous, Peter’s response is not unlike our own sometimes: “Leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8).
It’s hard to believe we are worthy of such abundant love, and always such forgiveness.
In his book about a journey through the Holy Land, “Jesus, A Pilgrimage,” Jesuit Father James Martin talks about guilt. He mentions Dorothy Day, now a candidate for sainthood. As a young woman, before she became a Catholic, she had had an abortion, which she later deeply regretted.
Martin asks what a difference it would have made in Day’s life, and in the social activism that is her legacy, if she had let “feelings of inadequacy” about her abortion overwhelm her.
In my own life, the suicide of a close family member posed a similar destructive possibility. My family had the inevitable question: What more could we have done? As a friend told me once, the “woulda, shoulda, coulda brothers” can dominate our lives if we don’t yield to Jesus’ mercy.
We all need to face up to our sinfulness: an unkind word that can never be taken back, a child-rearing mistake, memories of impatience with an aged parent. We make amends where we can, but then we hear Jesus’ words of forgiveness and are called to move forward to the abundant life.
Our mission lies before us — not behind us, in the dusty bin of old sin or regret.
The Benedictines have a saying I love: “Always we begin again.” That phrase orients me toward hope.
And the braces? The teeth were undamaged, the braces easily retightened. And the stress? It was lifted. Because I’d been reminded that I was forgiven.
Effie Caldarola is a wife, mom and grandmother who received her master’s degree in pastoral ministry from Seattle University.