That Damn List on the Altar

She calls it her altar—a small, squat table at one end of her bedroom. Every morning she sits on a pillow in front of it, lights a candle or two, then practices mindfulness by bringing herself into the present. The altar is lovingly decorated with icons from her spiritual adventures around the globe: a spray of white sage gifted by a member of the Taos Pueblo, a Mayan-style amulet from a shaman in Cusco, a Celtic cross from the Iona Community in Scotland, a picture of her and her “sisters” dancing under a full moon near the ruins of Templo Mayor in Mexico City.

And then there’s the list. “That damn list,” she says with a self-deprecating laugh. It was sent to her by close members of her extended family, a step-by-step outline of how to find the salvation that comes only through Jesus Christ.

When she received it in the mail, it stabbed her heart with multiple levels of grief. She knew once again that her path and the path of her loved ones were continuing to diverge. She knew that despite her efforts to foster mutual acceptance, there was no room for her brand of spirituality in their eyes. She grieved because love in all its fullness would not be mutually experienced in their relationship.

But she also felt the bile of anger, an acid taste that surprised her. It told her that she had not fully healed from her time among conservative Christians. She felt twinges of animosity towards their “our way is the only way” theology. She resented their efforts to reduce her rich complexity to either/or categories, a sickness she sees in our world at large, especially America. She even felt some recrimination towards herself for all the energy she expended over the years seeking the approval of others.

So, what did she do? She placed the list in a prominent place on her altar, unavoidable whenever she sits down to meditate.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“Because that list represents an area in my life that still needs healing, a buried resentment that is keeping me from freedom. My goal is that someday very soon, I will look at that list with only unconditional love, forgiveness, and compassion towards my family, praying that God will surround them with the grace that leads to acceptance.”

Then she chuckled. “Meanwhile, I call it that damn list.”

After our conversation, I sat in my study and mulled her words. I recalled the countless times I counseled people about the need for forgiveness during my decades of ministry. I thought of the metaphors I used, including my favorite from Lewis Smedes, the “forgiveness guru.”

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.

I ask you, dear reader: do you have a “list” in your life? A memory of a person or incident that stakes a dark claim to territory in your mind and spirit? If so, I ask you to seize the truth so clearly demonstrated in my friend’s life. Growing spiritually requires discipline and focus. We can heal, but it takes mindfulness. Moreover, the tools we need can be found in many world traditions and faiths.

Though my friend will not be called Christian according to any orthodox definition, her reason for pondering that damn list is one of the most Christ-like behaviors I have encountered in years.

As Jesus reportedly said, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

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