I visited the Buffalo, NY area over the 4th of July. Hamburg, a small city right outside Buffalo is the place where I grew up and where both my parents have spent the whole of their lives. Seventy-five years of time have passed and changes have come and gone. For dinner that evening we thought we would reminise a little and go to a well-known hamburger stand that we went to when I was a kid. When we got there it was closed so my father, being a trucker and knowing every inch of the area took us on some snake-like roads about 10 minutes from our house and we ended up at a hole-in the wall-- can't get more than 3 people in the joint --hamburger stand right on Lake Erie. We could smell the amazing aroma of Sahlen's hot dogs, great greasy burgers and hear the whir of the milkshake machine making milkshakes from scratch with real milk--so thick you can't get them through the straw. We ate outside under a shelter on a wooden picnic table. Above hung a sign that stated: "don't leave your food unattended. The birds will eat it."
Carefully guarding my delicious, fat-filled, greasy meal, I looked out at the lake and mused to my parents how odd it seemed to me that I lived in Hamburg for 18 years of my life and never once went to the lake. It was as though it didn't exist and it was ten minutes from my house. Now as I sat looking out on the lake, hearing children laughing and the waves gently lapping the shore, I wondered how I had missed so much.
The seagulls sat warily close to the picnic table waiting for any droppings that may come their way as my Dad talked about the "cleaning up" of Lake Erie. For all the years I lived in Hamburg and many more before that, the lake had been the waste dump for Bethlehem Steel, the mighty industry that kept Buffalo thriving and ....filthy. For many years, all the waste from the huge factories filtered out into the water, killing everything in the lake. The lake was off limits to the public, the shorelines were filled with dead fish and the smell was enough to make you lose your lunch. Whenever we went to Buffalo and drove on the shoreline for a few miles, we would plug our noses, because even in the car, you could smell the odor of deadness and filth.
Now some 30 years after the demise of Bethlehem Steel, the lake is beginning to revive, but only after some significant clean-up. After the steel company was no longer permitted to use the lake to deposit waste, the drudging began. Months of drudging the layers of muck out of the bottom of the lake was the beginning of the long process of clean-up. Then the lake went through an organic rehabilitation to create a rebalancing process. And slowly after years of time, the lake is now home again to fresh water dwellers, and acts as host to hundreds of families each summer for sweet memories and the chance to beat the heat. It's taken quite some work...and lots of time and energy, not to mention money, to undue the damage of the improper use of a natural beauty.
As I sat on the rocks and watched the waves roll in and later as I walked on the beach with my husband with my feet in the water, I couldn't help but make the connection between the revival of the lake and the process of forgiveness. The lake was held captive by the decisions of another. It had no voice in the process. It quickly lost its ability to sustain itself. Nothing it could do could make it less susceptable to the effects of the waste. Not until it was protected from the agressive use of the steel company was there any hope for change. And then the lake had to go through the harsh process of drudging. Layer after layer of muck had to be surfaced from the depths of the lake to give it the opportunity to begin to rebalance and revive. Even then, it still took years of time to restore the lake to a semblance of its former beauty.
Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past can be different. Forgiveness is also embracing the hope that the future can be different. At some crossroads in our lives we have to make a decision to forgive those who have in some way inflicted damage on us...whether perceived or real. We cannot begin to heal until we feel safe and no longer in danger of harm. If the harm does not cease, it is not possible to forgive. We also cannot forgive if we don't know what we're forgiving. So we have to drudge up the muck and face it--eliminate it from our rebalancing process. Forgiveness requires the action of remembering and releasing all the filth that has reached down into the core place of our wounding. And then, as with the lake, we begin to recognize what it could be like to be rebalanced--to be whole. Little by little we begin to revive and restore places that were blackened by pain, weakened by shame and lost to the light. And little by little, we begin to live again, or maybe for the first time, in the fullness of who we were made to be. Recognition of the losses we sustained in the cruel impact of our affiction draws us to a point of decision. Will I release the right to revenge and set myself on the course of freedom and wholeness? Or will I staunchly refuse to accept the opportunity to embrace my freedom and hold onto the familiar pain requiring me to remain damaged, held hostage to bitterness?
Just as the lake rebalanced over time, so my spirit can be revived and restored. Yes, it takes time and yes, it takes work but all the work starts with one decision--the decision to release what has been familiar for so long for the adventure of capturing the reality of who I am created to be. And just like the lake, I can be restored to the childlike laughter of freedom and sweet moments day by day to live in the fullness of joy.
Forgiveness sets me free. I doubt very much that the lake received an apology from the industrial steel giant that squandered her fresh waters. I don't need an apology from the one who has offended me. My business is with the one who restores, not the one who has harmed. As I yield to the knowing hand of the one who can rebalance and restore me to my original design, I am assured of the new life and vigor of my purpose.
The birds wanted my food that day. They waited on patrol eyeing my hot dog just hoping that I would look away. The enemy wants to snatch my joy by devouring me with affliction and bitterness. I already missed out on years of fun in the waters of Lake Erie because of someone else's decision. I will be alert, and ready to recognize the power of unforgiveness to steal my freedom. And I'll guard my heart as carefully as I guarded my food that day. Satan doesn't have rights to my life. I want to enjoy every bite.
Here's to forgiveness! My freedom! The Lake--rebalance! And the fond memories of hot dogs, fries and the richest milkshakes ever.
Shelley Lopez, Executive Director
Shelley has been a member of the Springfield community for 29 years. As she lives and works and worships in the city, she uses the metaphor of an old Victorian house restoration to keep her focused on the work she is called to do. Inspired by the words of the prophet Isaiah, she pours herself into "restoring old ruins, rebuilding and renovating, making the community livable again" (Is. 58:12 MSG)