This sermon was delivered September, 2015 in Huntington, NY.
Forgiveness is a lifelong challenge with few easy answers.
A church pastor once asked his congregation if anyone had forgiven all their enemies. One lone hand shot up, an elderly lady.
“Mrs. Neely, that is very unusual. How old are you?”
“Ninety-eight,” she replied.
The congregation stood up and clapped their hands.
“Mrs. Neely? Share your secret with the rest of us. How have you forgiven all your enemies?”
“I don’t have any,” She replied, smiling sweetly.
“Oh, Mrs. Neely, would you please come down in front and tell us all how a person can live ninety-eight years and not have an enemy in the world?”
The little sweetheart of a lady tottered down the aisle, faced the congregation, and said, “I outlived the lot of them.” (Lawton, 2010)
They say time heals all wounds but personally, I don’t want to wait that long.
Forgiveness is my favorite spiritual practice. I say practice because I don’t think it’s a particularly easy one to get right. It seems to me we rush to forgive people when we haven’t actually let go of our anger and resentments and that we are quick to say I’m sorry without thinking through what harm was caused and what exactly we are sorry for.
It rolls off my tongue, sometimes a little too easily. As I’ve deepened my forgiveness practice I’ve come to examine how this programmed response robs me of the process of apology and stunts my relationships. Once the words are out, there’s no retracting them. A blanket apology without naming the wrong doing feels inauthentic. Forgiveness is a practice I’m still learning.
We find ourselves in the Days of Awe. This is the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A time for making amends for wrong doings and to prepare for the Day of Atonement. In Judaism this time is used to reflect on our sins and to go to those we have wronged and make our amends. For God to truly forgive us, we must first do the work of seeking forgiveness from those we have harmed. This period of reflection and amends-making is a beautiful concept and a practice I think we would all be wise to undertake. Though my personal theology doesn’t include a God who records our names in a book based on our wrong doings, it does include the deep accountability and spiritual openness required to reflect and make amends in this intentional way.
What does it mean to seek forgiveness?
It means we are ready to come back into covenant, to make another attempt at promise keeping, to be in right relationship again.
We say in religious education that parents are the first and foremost educators of their children. The home is the place where values are taught, modeled, and reinforced. How forgiveness works in our homes is an indicator of what value we place on the process and how our children will move through the world as they grow.
There is a ritual I recommend for families to do at home to bring a little formality and ceremony to forgiveness. I first heard about it from colleague Karen Bellvance Grace and she calls it simply “The Sorry Bowl”. Whether or not you have children in your home some form of ritualizing the process of forgiveness can be a useful undertaking. This particular ritual of the Sorry Bowl requires some dissolving spy paper and a bowl of water. It’s nice if it’s a particular bowl used for this purpose and placing the bowl somewhere sacred. Ritual is important to humans. It appeals to our inner child and connects us to the Holy within the mundane.
The person who is apologizing writes down on a piece of spy paper what they are sorry for. This is intended to be a well-crafted apology. No buts, no excuses, no explanations just a simple identification of the harm or wrong doing and an apology for it.
They read it aloud and the other person responds with “I forgive you”. Together they place the paper in the bowl of water and stir their hands around a bit to dissolve it. Logistically the paper will not dissolve without a little help of mixing it in the water. I think this actually adds something meaningful to the ritual. Forgiveness requires a little work. By both the person seeking forgiveness and the person offering it placing their hands together in the water they are demonstrating the shared work of bringing themselves back in right relation. After the ritual is complete the water can be discarded and the wrong doing should be released with the water. The idea is the ritual is the finality of the exchange and it doesn’t get brought up in conversations later. It isn’t used against you to prove a point. When it is forgiven, it is released.
A ceremony of forgiveness shouldn’t be an automatic affair either. Just because someone apologizes to you doesn’t mean you’re ready to forgive them. All too often we say “it’s okay” when really we aren’t quite finished processing our feelings about the harm we experienced. When ritualizing forgiveness, particularly with children, there is a meaningful lesson in not rushing the process. You can say thank you for the apology and a little later I may be ready to forgive you, right now I need some time.
We often don’t give ourselves that time for reflection. How are we supposed to release resentment and not hold a grudge if we have not first identified how we felt and examined what we may need to be able to enter into relationship with this person again. Forgiveness isn’t as simple as a conversation – it does take a little work. Prior to the ritual I encourage families to talk about what it means to make amends, to regain trust, to establish boundaries or tighten them. These are important lessons some us didn’t learn until adult hood and some of us are still learning. How do we navigate relationship?
When we enter into religious community, particularly one such as ours which is covenantal, operating not under a shared creed but a shared promise of how we will be in community together, it’s important to know how to forgive. I’ve seen congregations operate again and again talking about coming back into covenant when someone has broken a promise but never being transparent about what that process looks like. We should expect our wrong doings, whether intentional or not, to require us to enter into a new agreement, reflection, or period of trust earning. Perhaps it is because we’ve all been told to forgive is to forget that we don’t feel empowered to ask for new agreements or amends making when we’re given an apology.
The saying to forgive is to forget is really speaking about holding a grudge. As I said with the sorry bowl ritual the wrong doing has to be released with the water. I’m sure many of us have felt the hurt of being forgiven only to find the subject of our wrong doing coming up again and again. It isn’t forgiveness when we need to constantly remind people of their errors. Over time the adage to forgive is to forget has morphed into the idea that we must expect nothing of a person who has broken covenant with us. This romantic idea of forgiveness, where the person doing the forgiving is somehow exalted, saint like and better than the person who caused harm, is misguided. It prevents us from having the kind of forgiveness and honesty to take our relationships deeper. It also leaves room for people to misunderstand forgiveness and to use it always as a clean slate without new boundaries. This leads to people accepting bad behavior and often experiencing the same behaviors over and over again.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to keep putting yourself in a position for mistreatment. Sometimes a person behavior may be so hurtful or destructive that they cannot continue to be part of our lives. This is part of the boundary setting required with forgiveness. It doesn’t mean you did not forgive them. Forgiving another person is an act of liberation for yourself.
Research has found that forgiveness is good for the person doing the forgiving as well as the person being forgiven. It lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular health and strengthens the immune system. This is not to mention the social benefits. People who forgive tend to have less depression, healthier relationships and stronger social networks. (Lawton, 2010)
Unfortunately, the most difficult person to forgive is often ourselves. Without self-forgiveness how can we ever truly be fully present enough to be in right relationship with another person, let alone an entire religious community?
Too often we walk around carrying the burdens of perceived mistakes, never forgiving ourselves for the supposed wrong turns we took in life. I used to spend an inordinate amount of time analyzing my wrong turns. I felt somehow if I could just intellectually understand what led me to those mistakes then I could be free of some burden.
In the book Descent: A Journey for Women by Katrina Messenger, Messenger explores the use of archetypes to examine our patterns. One myth in particular spoke to those moments of mistake, the story of Persephone.
I’m sure most of you are familiar with this Greek myth. Persephone is playing in a field, bends to pick a flower and is taken by Hades to the Underworld. Her mother grieves and asks Zeus to help her get her daughter back. In her grief the earth begins to fall barren. Meanwhile, Persephone is in the Underworld being served up plates of beautiful food but denies them. She knew that eating in the Underworld would trap her there. Yet, before her mother can get her out Persephone eats one seed from a pomegranate; just one, barely anything at all. This was enough. She managed to leave the Underworld, but was destined to return sharing her time between that place and the land of the living.
She must have felt terrible. I wonder if like me she spent hours thinking about why, oh why, did she eat those seeds? She knew better! She had denied all that beautiful food only to be trapped by one seed. Messenger writes about this point in the myth naming it the “essential mistake.” It is the action that shapes the trajectory of not only Persephone’s life, but as is the way of myths, shapes an entire culture’s understanding of the agriculture, the Underworld, sacrifice, a mother’s love, grief, sorrow, and even forgiveness.
The essential mistake shapes who will become and impacts those who are in our lives or will be in the future. We have to forgive ourselves and move forward with where that essential mistake has brought us.
Forgiveness is when you can let you go of your hurt and anger long enough to enjoy what is happing in the now. Forgiveness is about moving forward. The boundaries set in the myth were based in an agricultural cycle. When the crops will grow and when they will die. There was a promise for their return timing with the return of Persephone. A covenant was formed and so it was.
I wonder about Demeter, Persephone’s mother, and whether she ever forgave Hades for taking her daughter. Using the description by author Anne Lamott, it sounds like she may have. Lamott says
“Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You’re done. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person. If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare…”
We often think of forgiveness as something we can dole out or a state of mind we either have or do not have. Rather than some achievable moment, forgiveness is an ongoing practice. There are times when I read about a level of forgiveness I cannot imagine being able to do. One such instance is the story of Renee Napier.
In 2002 Renee’s daughter was killed by a drunk driver. The driver, 24 year old Eric, was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Renee appealed on his behalf to have his sentences reduced to 11 years. She communicates with Eric regularly. Renee travels all over the country speaking about the dangers of drinking and driving and talking about the power of forgiveness.
Through forgiveness Renee has been able to move forward, to take her painful experience and use it to help others. Not all acts of forgiveness are so large. We have to start somewhere. It helps for us to think about what forgiving someone really does.
Spiritual Teacher, Thorn Coyle, says “forgiveness of another isn’t actually for them, it is for us. Forgiveness is about taking back our energy from a situation, no longer charged up, excited, or angry when we reflect on the memory is a sign we have forgiven because we are no longer carrying the pain like torch. This does not mean we have to invite that person back into situations to hurt us again. Sometimes someone’s behavior means they cannot be an active part of our lives.”
Forgiveness isn’t about letting the person get away with something. It’s about letting go of your anger so you can move forward. This is vital as a religious community. When we stay attached to our anger, we cannot move forward, we cannot build the Beloved community, we become stagnant or worse we fall apart.
We often talk about love as a primary spiritual value of Unitarian Universalism. I think the second must be forgiveness. Ours congregations call us to bring our best selves to the community and our shared work. We are a covenantal faith, making promises about how we will be in relationship together. The thing is, covenants are always broken. We are humans, flawed and sometimes incapable of bringing what is needed to the table on any particular day. We have to be able to begin again and reenter the community. This is where forgiveness is woven into the fabric of who we are. It takes a willingness to let go of resentment and begin again to keep a spiritual community grounded in their values. There may be a need for new boundaries when covenant is broken but the spirit of love and forgiveness guide us into creating promises together that are for the good of the whole community and boundaries to support our shared work.
A congregation is a second home to most of the people who attend there. We often say the dynamics of a congregation are most like the dynamics of a family – whether or not that is a healthy or unhealthy dynamic. I’ve used the sorry bowl ritual I mentioned earlier in worship services before. Imagine a congregation of people writing their wrong doings against one another on paper then coming forward one by one to look at the congregation and say “I’m sorry”. Imagine the power of a congregation willing to take a risk to begin again in love and forgive the person before them. Personally I would love to see this become the Unitarian Universalist practice during the Days of Awe. Forgiveness has the power to transform us.
(sermon delivered at UUFH in Huntington, NY, Sept. 28, 2014)