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I’ve been struggling with a word lately. Nothing polysyllabic, mind you. Just two little letters: AS. Oh sure, I can spell it. I can even use it in a sentence (and often do). It’s the repercussions of those two letters in one particular context that have me thinking: Their use in the Lord’s Prayer.

Here’s what I’m talking about: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It’s a pivotal part of the prayer that Christ himself gave us. And it is here that semantics come into play. “As” can mean “while” or “at the same time as” — as in, “forgive us our sins while we forgive others their sins.” But it can also mean “equally” or “because” — as in, “forgive us our sins to the same degree we forgive others theirs, or only because we forgive theirs.” See what I mean about two letters being thought-provoking?

The first interpretation is the easiest to parse and live with. It’s rather a tit for tat situation: You do your part, God, and we’ll try to do ours. But there’s no commitment to “keeping up with the Joneses” here — no promise to forgive to the same extent as God does. The second definition (“to the same extent as”) poses a trickier quest because it does ask us to do as God does, in the same way and magnitude that God does. That’s one tricky commitment.

“Because” also holds its challenges. It requires that we go first: We forgive to be forgiven. Can I do that sincerely, without feeling like I’m taking my spoonful of castor oil only so I can have a lollipop afterward? Can I do that without demanding the reward of forgiveness in return?

Forgiveness is tough, and it gets tougher depending on the degree to which we love the person we need to forgive. So, if we want forgiveness for ourselves — and who doesn’t? — it behooves us to think hard about those two little letters. What did Jesus mean by them? Which interpretation would he choose? Or would he choose “all of the above” — the toughest challenge of all?

God created language, and God knows (and delights in) its intricacies. So I’m reasonably sure of my answer. Jesus gave us just one prayer in all of scripture; he knew we would be picking it apart and analyzing it for centuries to come. I’m far from the first to wonder about it. I certainly won’t be the last.

So there’s my task: To be forgiven AS I forgive. Whatever that means. Whatever it takes. Boy, that’ll require some serious prayer.

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Sometimes it is good to dial things back, to go back to what is foundational. The problem lies in establishing a foundation, especially when it comes to faith. The substance and quality of God is like an immense shoreline; our apprehension of God, a single grain of sand. We are greatly out of our depth. So let us start with what we know: God made us. God loves us. God hears us. God sent visionary humans to us (as well as — I believe — God’s own son) to speak to us about God’s love and concern for us.

What should we do with this knowledge? There is an impulse to institutionalize it, which has its benefits in spreading the “good news” and in forming communities of spiritually like-minded people for sharing prayer and formal remembrance of God’s many gifts — which, to me at least, is the essence of sacrament.

Where we start getting into trouble is in the details. Which book holds the greatest truths about God?  Within those books, what does a particular revelatory word mean and does its meaning change in translation? What form should our faith communities take? Who is in charge? If you prefer one form of spiritual expression, and I prefer another, does God side with either of us? Does it matter?

It certainly seems to. Each step that seems to unite us is matched by a scattering, post-Tower of Babel-style divisiveness. We can’t seem to get together on anything. So I suggest the following test: If what you think, say or do comes from a place of love, it is of God. If it does not, it is not. If only each of us could do just two things — decide to put God central in our lives and prove it by doing everything we do out of love — all of the problems of the world would resolve themselves. It is our vast misfortune that those two things are the two hardest things for human beings to do.

Let us tackle an easier effort: Let us focus on commonalities rather than differences. Think you have nothing in common with a Muslim extremist? You’d be surprised. You’re both human. You are both, hopefully, trying to live a God-centered life. But you disagree radically on what that entails. The answer is, as ever, mutuality. Stop arguing like grouchy siblings and get together in God’s present and participatory spirit.

My friend Alice hates the word “righteous;” she thinks it sounds steely and unyielding, a word of judgment. I prefer to think of it in its laid-back, ‘70s-speak connotation, a word meaning “awesome” and incorporating everything I’ve just written about mutuality, tolerance and love. If only I — we — could be the right kind of righteous, we’d have the basics covered. And a whole lot more.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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