Big Block of Cheese Day

Devotees of the "West Wing", that fantasy based loosely on the inner workings of the White House, will be well aware of the "Big Block of  Cheese Day" supposedly inspired by an event in the Presidency of Andrew Jackson. President Bartlett's Chief of Staff Leo McGarry introduces it as follows;
'President Andrew Jackson, in the main foyer of his White House, had a big block of cheese. The block of cheese was huge--over two tons. And it was there for any and all who might be hungry. Jackson wanted the White House to belong to the people, so from time to time, he opened his doors to those who wished an audience. It is in the spirit of Andrew Jackson that I, from time to time, ask senior staff to have face-to-face meetings with those people representing organizations who have a difficult time getting our attention. I know the more jaded among you see this as something rather beneath you. But I assure you that listening to the voices of passionate Americans is beneath no one, and surely not the people's servants.'
Other characters didn't look on this day quite so positively. The ever-positive Toby opines:
'It's "Throw Open Our Office Doors To People Who Want To Discuss Things That We Could Care Less About Day"'
Actually there is no certainty that there was ever a "Big Block of Cheese Day" in Andrew Jackson's time, but it is a nice idea, and one that has been taken up by a number of organisations.

However, historically the Orthodox tradition has had their own "Big Block of Cheese Day" or, to be strictly accurate, "Cheese Sunday" or "Cheese-fare Sunday," on the last Sunday before Lent. It had nothing to do with public representation, but was the last Sunday on which one can eat cheese, butter and eggs. During the Liturgy they read the instructions in Matthew’s Gospel concerning fasting which are to be found in Matthew 6: 16-8. But they also read the two verses immediately before that, the verses after Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer which say:
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Matthew 6:14-15 (ANIV)

And because these verses precede the verses on fasting they take seriously the issue of forgiveness as part of their preparation for their own forty day fast, and so today is not only known as “Cheese Sunday” but also "Forgiveness Sunday."
Now forgiveness is one of those subjects that quoting Toby many "could care less about (sic)", not seeing that they have any need of forgiveness, nor that they should ever forgive those who offend them. But it is also, ironically, one of the most devisive issues in Christian theology, particularly (even more ironically) in situations of conflict such as our own in Northern Ireland. Does someone need to repent before they can be forgiven? Can we repent of and forgive events that happened generations before we were even born? Who has the right to forgive? Does forgiveness let perpetrators off the hook too easy?
This blog is long enough without going searching for answers to any of these questions, but I do believe that if we are to ever deal with the past in this province of ours then forgiveness has to play a part, and we who claim to follow the one who taught us to pray about forgiveness need to take a lead in that. It isn't easy, however...
This week five years ago Roberto Malasi was convicted of two horrifc murders committed in London during a single fortnight in September 2005: first the shooting of Zainab Kalokoh whilst cradling a baby at a christening; the second the stabbing of Ruth Okechukwu, a student nurse, supposedly for "disrespecting him" in a phone call to a friend.
On the morning of his conviction the father of Ruth, Ben Okechukwu, a pastor, paid tribute to his daughter, but then said:
"As a man of God, I feel sorry for him and I forgive him because he has no sense of belonging."

But his wife Pauline said she cannot forgive her daughter's killer, saying
"He has not only taken Ruth's life, he has taken my life as well."

Do ministers find it easier to forgive than mere mortals? Of course not. Famously after the London bombings of July 7th 2005, another minister, this time a Bristol vicar called Julie Nicholson announced that she intended to step down from her role as a local parish minister because she found it impossible to forgive those who were responsible for her daughter Jennifer’s death in those bombings.

Forgiveness is not something glib and easy, and it is no easier for a minister than anyone else. How would I respond if something so horrendous happened to either of my boys? Would I respond like Ben or like Pauline Okechukwu… Would my inability to forgive restrict my ability to minister to others as with Julie Nicholson?
The obligation to forgive should never become something that re-victimises victims, where we make their pain the price that society is prepared to pay for a quiet life. But the real power to forgive is not to be found internally...
Corrie Ten Boom a Dutch Resistance worker and Christian famously tells this story. She had been imprisoned in Ravensbruck concentration camp during the war, and indeed had lost her sister there. After the war she got involved in work dedicated to rebuilding her country and people’s lives, and openly advocated forgiveness and reconciliation, even with those who had committed the dreadful atrocities under the Nazis. But then one time she was at a church service in Munich and she met one of the SS guards from Ravensbruck. A man who had jeered at her and her sister standing naked in the processing room when they arrived. He told her how he had since been saved and had known Christ’s forgiveness. He held out his hand to shake hers. But she couldn’t bear to lift her hand from her side. She was angry and bitter, but she knew that she was in the wrong and she prayed these words:
“Lord Jesus forgive me and help me to forgive him...”
But she still could not shake his hand... And so she prayed again:
“Jesus I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness...”
And she describes how a current seemed to flow up her arm forcing her to reach out to him. And at that point she felt her heart fill up with an overwhelming love for this man. And she says:
“And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness that the world’s healing hinges, but on his. When he tells us to love our enemies, he gives us along with the command, the love itself...”

I referred earlier to stories of parents responding in different ways to the murder of their children. I sometimes wonder what their children would say to them, as well as what our children and grandchildren in this province will say to us if we do not learn how to forgive. And I remember the words of one child to his father shortly before he died an unjust death:
"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
Luke 23:34 (ANIV)

Some other reflections on forgiveness.
To err is human; to forgive, infrequent.
Franklin P. Adams
Forgiveness is almost a selfish act because of its immense benefits to the one who forgives.
Lawana Blackwell

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
Mohandas K. Gandhi

Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.
Oscar Wilde

Forgiveness is the key which unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred. It breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.
Corrie Ten Boom

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Ephesians 4:32 (ANIV)


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