The 25th Anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide: How to Forgive the Unforgiveable

Twenty-five years ago today, in the landlocked African country of Rwanda, over a million people — primarily Tutsi, including women and children — were slaughtered in just 100 days. In the “land of a thousand hills” the blood ran like rivers, as bodies piled up or were tossed into unmarked mass graves. In many cases, there was no one left to bury them. For Fr. Ubald, more than five years passed before he learned the fate of his mother and other extended family members — when the man who had given the order for their execution stepped forward to beg his forgiveness, then took him to the place they had been buried.

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Fr. Ubald at his family’s memorial

His family home was destroyed, obliterated by crops that his former neighbors had sown in an effort to eradicate the memory. “They could not look at us, could not speak to us,” remembers Fr. Ubald. “They had too much shame.” And yet, in time, they found peace. They discovered, as Fr. Ubald so often tells people, that Forgiveness Makes You Free.

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What is most remarkable about Fr. Ubald is not only the fact that survived, or that he was able to forgive and show mercy to those who had committed such unspeakable crimes. What is most remarkable is the spiritual legacy that he has built since then — a beautiful retreat center called the Center for the Secret of Peace.

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Since 2009, Fr. Ubald has expanded his ministry to the United States at the invitation of his friend Immaculée Imibagiza, author of the NYT bestseller Left to Tell. He travels all over the world, inviting people to open their hearts to Jesus, to let go of old burdens, and to receive the healing Jesus wants to give them. If you would like to experience this for yourself, you can find his speaking schedule here. Or you can get a copy of his new book here.

God bless you!

Together We Rise

Last June my husband and I flew to Rwanda to spend time with one of my authors, Fr. Ubald Rugirangoga, to finish up his book Forgiveness Makes You Free. It was a great privilege to meet in person those I had met only in the pages of his manuscript: his brother and sister (the only members of his family who survived the 1994 genocide), along with hundreds of others, both Tutsi and Hutu, whose lives had been indelibly scarred by the violence. The high point of the trip, however, was meeting the former burgomaster, Straton, who had given the order to slaughter the Tutsis who had come to the commune for his protection. Among them was Fr. Ubald’s mother and other family.

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Interpreter Alice, Heidi, Fr. Ubald, and Straton June 16, 2018

As I listened to him tell his story, I realized that this was no hardened criminal. Like so many Hutus at that time, he had been caught up in a wave of fear and hatred, protecting his own family, his own interests. But in the end, he failed. His wife died while he was in prison, leaving his children destitute. He lost his freedom, having chosen to return from hiding to give witness to the truth of what had happened. And when he was released from prison last year, he even lost his standing — the former community leader was now performing manual labor to support himself. And yet, as he talked I could hear no bitterness, only regret … and gratitude to the man whose profound forgiveness had changed not only his own life, but that of his children as well.

Returning to the U.S. after our trip, I recoiled at the political vitriol that seemed to be continuously spilling across my Facebook feed. I had seen firsthand what happens when two groups of people turn on one another — including former family and friends as well as fellow parishioners — according to party lines. While only a small percentage of Hutu had planned the killings against the Tutsi (and Hutus who resisted or tried to protect the refugees), thousands more were compelled to engage in the violence out of fear, anger, or self-interest. A million people were slaughtered in just 100 days, including whole families. Fr. Ubald’s message of forgiveness and mercy has helped many survivors to heal … but there is still much work to be done.

His message is one that is desperately needed today. The anger and bitterness that is pulling our country apart is turning deadly … and cannot be halted by one person, not even one as powerful as the President.

It must start with us. You and me.

When lifelong friends and family members become so embroiled in their political views that they stop speaking to one another, we must find a way to forgive and remember how much there is to love.

When toxic memes, vilifying one side or the other, come across our social media feeds, we must find the strength to unfollow, rather than share.

When we become disillusioned with our political system, we must not waste time and energy howling into the wind. Instead, we must ARISE. Speak respectfully. Act meaningfully. Love absolutely. And, to quote the great Mr. Rogers, “find the helpers.”

Because if we don’t do these things, not only will we fail to “make America great again.” We will lose even the goodness we once found in each other.

Together, We Rise. That red and blue needs to blend … pick your favorite shade, and let it inspire you. Crimson, electric purple, lilac.

What will you do?


31 Days of De-Stressed Living, Day 11: Forgive the Unforgiving

confessionalI love my job, working with authors to help them express themselves with eloquence and creativity. An editor is part coach, part taskmaster, part encourager, part critic, and part intercessor. At its best, the author-editor relationship is based on trust and mutual respect.

Of course, once in a while — thankfully, only rarely — something goes wrong. A misunderstanding occurs, or an ego gets bruised. In one memorable instance in my career, an author complained to my boss about me so vociferously, I could have lost my job. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so shocked and betrayed; just days before, we had been together and she had thanked me for the work I had done on her project.

For weeks I puzzled over the injustice. How could I have so completely misread the situation? In the end, I decided to forgive; the author’s actions, though ignoble, had ultimately induced me to try something new. I wrote her a note, letting her know that I harbored no ill-will. (She did not reply, but I was at peace.)

Choosing love and choosing forgiveness is never a wasted effort. Life isn’t always fair. Good guys don’t always win, and bad guys don’t always get caught right away. But forgiveness levels the playing field in important ways. We may never know how that choice affects other people, but we can be absolutely sure it will help us.

To be honest, I haven’t always taken the high road. I’ve harbored resentments and wasted hours of precious sleep, staring at the ceiling and trying to figure out how to make the best of a bad situation — at work, at home, or with relationships with extended family members. Each time I’ve decided to “forgive the unforgivable,” God has changed the landscape of my heart, forging paths, building bridges, and leading me beside peaceful, rejuvenating waters. I’ve also discovered . . .

*  Forgiveness is a journey, not a destination. Every day, another step.

*  Forgiveness is best expressed in words. Hearing the words spoken aloud (to the one you’re forgiving, in confession, or reading a letter aloud to an empty chair) often “breaks” the power of resentment or bitterness in a way that simple mental assent may not.

*  Forgiving ourselves can be the most difficult part of the process — and the most necessary. Try to give yourself as much latitude as you would give your best friend, if she had done the same thing.

*  Forgiving and feeling goodwill toward those who have hurt us are two very different things. Yet feelings are not facts, and sometimes negative emotions like resentment and bitterness need to be forcibly uprooted. Praying can be a good way to release residual anger. If that is not possible, try praying to be willing to pray for that person. Spiritual health, like physical health, is a matter of small choices, made daily.

Whom do you need to forgive this week?



Space Mountain Schadenfreude: Road Trip Ruminations

If you want the full Disney World experience, it’s probably best to avoid the park entirely between Christmas and New Years. Sure, Magic Kingdom has “extended hours” (8 a.m. to 1 a.m.), but that just means you have to deal with a bajillion loud, pushy people for a full 18 hours instead of the usual 14.

Fortunately, my favorite rides are not the most popular … I can sit on the teacups and ride through “It’s a Small World” for hours. See?

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But eventually I had to relent, and go with the rest of the family to stand in line at Space Mountain. An hour of nail-biting anticipation (thank goodness for the FastPass), for nine minutes of pitch-dark, neck wrenching fun.

As I said, we had gotten a FastPass, which in theory meant that we could return at the appointed time, bypassing the main line and moving to the front of the queue. But when we arrived at 10:15 (p.m.), the lady directed us to the end of the L-O-N-G line to the left. THAT was the FastPass line. I reached the end of the line just as a teenager with long, dark hair and an attitude to match arrived. With a smirk, she elbowed her way ahead of me.

Being a good Christian and all, I decided to ignore it. Then she called for her posse, who all jumped ahead of us. Eight of them. (I counted.) Then, her mother and grandmother (old enough to know better), who had a friend. Twelve extra bodies. By this time, my patience was depleting rapidly, but I finally decided not to make a scene. (Color me wussy.)

Then we got to the head of the line . . . and their entire group was turned away, because their FastPass had a later time on it. HAH! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. (What’s English for “schadenfreude”?)

Sometimes life is like that. When you rush and push ahead, sometimes you get sent back to the end of the line, bypassing those you’ve mistreated along the way. Not always . . . but sometimes, the universe teaches you a lesson.

Even at Disney World.

Going up . . . the gift of spiritual authority

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, when the Lord returned to heaven in his glorified body.  “All authority on heaven and earth has been given unto Me . . .  now go unto the whole world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Mt 28:16-20).

The gift of spiritual authority, passed from Jesus to his apostles and on to their successors, and the corresponding teaching/obeying dynamic that characterizes the spiritual relationship between pastors and their flock, can be a rare and wonderful thing.

Unfortunately, the idea of owing obedience to anyone is an increasingly foreign concept to most of us. Our parents obeyed their parents without question; as adults they deferred to authority figures such as pastors, teachers, and community leaders simply because of their position in society.

How that cultural paradigm has shifted!

Children regard authority figures with skepticism, even suspicion as their parents believe themselves to be their own final authority on everything from political sensibilities to personal ethics to moral values. “That might be right for you, but I don’t see it that way . . .” is irrefutable proof.   

The problem, of course, is that so long as we are our own plumbline, we can never know for sure when we are the ones who need to adjust our perspective. “Be ye not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind . . .” We hear it in church or read it in quiet time, and never stop to consider the possibility of just how, precisely, we are to know what parts of us are still in need of personal transformation.

It’s easy to see the flaws and frailties of those around us, and know instinctively how much better off they would be if they would only change, how much better off we all would be if they would just have a “come to Jesus” moment and turn their lives over to God.  And so we pray, and ask for divine intervention.

And all the while it is our own hearts that are most in need of transformation. That person has been placed in our lives precisely because  God wanted to show us just how far from perfection we can be. Today in his homily the priest told a story about a father whose son was severely developmentally disabled, who somehow got a place on the school baseball team. At one game the team was losing so badly that the coach told the father he would put his son up to bat at the end of the inning.

When it was time for the boy to face the pitcher, the team was down three runs. They needed a homerun to win the game. The kid swung, and missed. Then a teammate came up behind him, and helped him hit. For some unfathomable reason, the other team purposely let him get on first base, then the next and the next. This small, spastic kid won the game. “Sometimes I get mad, and I ask God how he can be ‘perfect,’ and still create someone like my son,” admitted the father. “But in that moment, I realize that with his life, he was creating that perfection in other people — because of how they responded to him, they were given a chance to be more perfect than they otherwise would be.”

Who is that person in your life? That emotionally stunted, morally obtuse, intellectually clueless individual whose very existence causes your innards to twist?  Someone . . . whom God has entrusted the responsibility to be the thorn in your side, forcing you to grow in loving perfection not because of their example, but despite it?

Heavenly Father, take the blinders from my eyes. Let me see the beauty beneath the brokenness.

Guide me, step by step, towards the moment when at last I see you, and understand it all.   

Missteps and Mercy

These past few days a series of events have led me think about the human tendency to make mistakes that require us to extend grace and mercy to others, just as God extends that grace and mercy to us when we deliberately choose sin. The primary difference is intentionality:

The thoughtless action (or omission)

The unintended offense

The hastily spoken (and poorly chosen) word
While these things do wound and grieve other people, we tend to gloss them over with, “But that’s not what I MEANT! That’s not what I INTENDED!”

Nevertheless, these “slips” do contain destructive seeds, capable of wounding and alienating those we hold dear.

This week I’ve found myself on both sides of the banana peel. I sent an impulsive “Valentine” to a few friends, which a chance comment from my sister made me realize that it might have struck some as suggestive. I saw it as a playful romp down memory lane … then, after the fact, realized that it might have struck some as simply … TMI. Oops.

Yesterday was especially hard. Two people, in the span of an hour, had me in tears because what I had needed from them and what I received were so completely and unexpectedly different. (I probably could have handled one, but not both.) In the first instance, I felt additional salt rubbed into the wound when this person turned the tables and informed me that it was I, not her, who needed to apologize. (I did, but later I felt so manipulated that I just got angry.)

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive
those who trespass against us.”

The thing about trespasses is … well, you don’t always realize when you’ve invaded someone else’s space, do you? And yet the offense is no less real for this lack of intention. What a great opportunity, then, for us to show mercy and do what we can to mend that breach.

  • Sometimes, that means letting something go, for the sake of the relationship.
  • Sometimes, it means giving the other person the benefit of the doubt.
  • Sometimes, it means adjusting the nature of the relationship itself.
Lord Jesus, thank you that when you came to earth to show us the way to heaven, you never held anything back. You gave everything you had, even life itself, to remind us of the Father’s mercy. Help us to imitate our Heavenly Father in a more intentional way, this day and every day. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!