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Quantifying the qualities of forgiveness

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Column by Ben Sheroan, editor

By Ben Sheroan

An insightful moment originated with an unexpected question from a stranger.

More than a decade ago on a cool fall Sunday while awaiting a congregational dinner, a couple men engaged in conversation on a rear porch at a church in Bowling Green.

A man stepped forward from the parking lot. Without introduction, he posed a straight-forward and direct inquiry — although his expression hinted that his motives might be mischievous.

“Does this church welcome sinners?”

A response came to mind instantaneously and burst from my mouth without much thought.

“I sure hope so,” I told him. “Because everyone in there is a sinner.”

That conversation came to mind again last week when reading about headline-grabbing statements made by Pope Francis.

In an interview conducted with a Jesuit journalist and released Thursday, the pope criticized the Catholic church’s sometimes narrow focus on social issues. Here’s a key excerpt of his remarks.

“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” he said. “The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.”

When confronting subjects such as abortion, birth control and homosexuality, he suggests a change in approach. 

“We have to find a new balance otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

I am not a Catholic and don’t pretend to speak for anyone here other than myself.

However, it does not appear that Pope Francis is advocating any form of doctrinal change with his remarks. He instead is calling for a more merciful and less judgmental attitude.

In a word, his words suggest forgiveness.

After all, Christians of all varieties and flavors believe in forgiveness. I would tell you that we depend on it. Isn’t the discovery of God’s plan for forgiveness the primary purpose of church?

Throughout life, I have been the fortunate recipient of vast amounts of forgiveness. Starting with my parents and extending to siblings, teachers, employers and co-workers, my wife and children, friends and neighbors, many have agreed to accept my failings and forgive my missteps. That includes even hurtful and embarrassing circumstances.

Of course, inside our houses of worship filled with sinful people each Sunday we present ourselves as friendly, jovial and understanding creatures. Folks outside the faith family often refer to church-goers as hypocrites. I think the more accurate description is human.

Like everyone else, we often are quick to forgive ourselves and criticize others. Our errors are mistakes or limitations; there's are horrendous and appalling misdeeds.

Sitting in pews, benches or chairs offering prayers and praise to the Creator, we deny and hide our shortcomings. We comfort ourselves with the idea that surely our collection of lies, lusts, curses and deceitful acts don’t equal the evil of others.

The legal system applies different weight and assigns different severity of judgment to crimes based of societal standards. Today I am wondering if church people should measure sin in the same way.

While you are considering the pope’s statements again, be sure and look around for the “first stone” mentioned in John 8:7.

Ben Sheroan is editor of The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at 270-505-1764 or bsheroan@thenewsenterprise.com.