In the recording of this morning’s worship service, Rev. Annich’s sermon on forgiveness begins around the 16 minute mark.
My dog, Trouper, has a problem with resentment. If there were a 12-Step Program for dogs, I would encourage him to attend the meetings.
About three years ago as my husband was walking him down our driveway, the dog next door rushed around the corner of the house growling menacingly, teeth bared. My husband and next-door neighbor (who happens to be our good friend) separated them and no harm was done, at least no physical harm.
But for Trouper that became a mentally defining moment. Now the slightest of noises from next door sends him into tizzy. The dogs are obsessed with each other, both eager to rush the fence or bark ferociously when one or the other goes out to do his business. We’re basically stuck with a hostile situation that demands great caution on both sides of the fence.
If it weren’t so annoying I would find some of it funny, like when Trouper makes these weird child-like whining noises whenever our next neighbor is out walking her dog. He runs to me and looks at me pleadingly as if to say, “Mommy, that dog is out there again. He’s a bad dog. He started it!” Poor Trouper – stuck in the past, obsessing over something that happened years ago but still stirs up fear and aggression in the blink of an eye.
Some days I wonder if God sent this quirky dog to be my teacher. I’ve had to ask myself where I am still stuck in fear and aggression from offenses that are long past. I’ve been forced to think about the ways I hang onto stories of rejection and pain. I think about how Richard Nixon used to have an enemies list, and I laugh whenever I catch myself making a mental list of people whose behaviors run the gamut from mildly irritating to seriously harmful.
The Lenten practice of self-examination gives us a great opportunity to reflect on how we’ve lost sight of our identity as beloved children of God, and have instead taken on any number of distorted beliefs about ourselves and others.
As John and I thought about some of the patterns of this world that pull us off course, we knew we had to talk about resentment and bitterness. We knew we had to talk about those enemies’ lists, those grievances that cloud our minds and harden our hearts, and shackle us as surely as any physical restraints ever could. We knew we had to keep talking about God’s invitation to be transformed, and in order to move in the direction of transformation had to reflect on the places we’ve been hurt and the places we’ve hurt others. It’s actually a very big deal. We need transformation not just as individuals, but as sisters and brothers who share a world in desperate need of healing. As spiritual teacher Richard Rohr has said, “Pain that is not transformed is transmitted.”
We’ve all inherited legacies of pain–some more horrific than others. As we look at those legacies–the many different ways the image of God in us has been denied or distorted–it’s no wonder we’re angry and resentful.
I’m not going to stand up here and tell you to “get over it,” whatever your pain may be. I’m not going to tell you you should “forgive and forget.” I’m not going to preach a false gospel of being pleasant at all costs, which often translates into being a doormat and is one of the surest paths to resentment I’ve ever seen.
No, I’m actually going to lean on the wisdom of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who with his daughter Rev. Mpho Tutu, wrote The Book of Forgiving, one of the finest books I’ve ever read on the topic. Archbishop Tutu is one of my heroes, a brilliant pastor, teacher, and writer who is known for his loving heart and joyful spirit. As a black man in South Africa he has experienced great suffering. As president of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the group that worked for national healing from the atrocities of apartheid, he presided over hearings in which monstrous hate crimes were uncovered. His book is a down to earth, very helpful guide to anyone wanting to be healed by giving or receiving forgiveness. And in it, he doesn’t say “forgive and forget.” In fact, his first two steps toward healing are far from that. They are: telling our stories to safe people, and acknowledging the harm and witnessing to the anguish.
That’s the essential recipe for healing from grief–keeping it real and telling our stories because while our wounds never fully define us, they are still part of all we have lived and come to be. His last two steps are offering or receiving forgiveness, and restoring or releasing the relationship. That latter one leapt out at me. We often confuse forgiveness with reconciliation, but they are not the same. We can still forgive even when a relationship ends–through death, divorce, or the distancing that may be absolutely necessary for health and safety. After all, forgiveness is really an inside job, less about the ones who have hurt us and more about ourselves and the freedom we experience when we cut the chords of resentment that bind us to the past.
I find it very significant that Archbishop Tutu not only writes about forgiving others but also about forgiving ourselves. In my years of ministry, I have seen some of the worst harm done to ourselves and others because of self-loathing and self-condemnation. We tend to project our internal anguish onto others in any number of damaging ways. Once again, “pain that is not transformed is transmitted” and self-forgiveness, allowing the healing light of God’s love into our own hearts, is a major part of the journey of transformation.
Countless studies have documented the adverse effects of an unforgiving spirit: sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, ulcers, high blood pressure, migraines, heart attacks, even cancer. Spiritually speaking, holding on to resentment is a place of darkness where we lose sight of the life-giving grace of God and put our own egos on the throne. At the end of the 12th chapter of Romans which we’ve been studying this Lent, Paul says, ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’
I took a tea break the other day when I was feeling stuck in the sermon writing process. I laughed out loud as I looked down at the little proverb written on the tea bag. It said, “Forgiveness is an act of consciousness.” Indeed. Forgiveness is the exact opposite of the unconscious ways we act out fear, pride and aggression towards ourselves and others. It takes great mindfulness to enter into what can be a difficult, even painful process of offering and receiving forgiveness. It takes great commitment to follow in the way of Jesus Christ who talked over and over again about mercy and compassion, and as he was dying in excruciating pain prayed, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
“Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
That pretty much says it all. There’s a level of ignorance, unconsciousness and negative conditioning in all of us no matter who we are. It’s part of the human condition. How often do we look back at the choices we’ve made and harm we’ve caused and thought, “if only I had known then what I know now?” And God, in Jesus, gets that. “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
So here’s the good news–unlike my dear dog, Trouper, every one of us can move beyond mindless reactions to deeper levels of consciousness. We can tell our stories and acknowledge our pain. We can confess the ways we’ve contributed to broken relationships. We can forgive ourselves and one another and take in the forgiveness that God and others offer us. We can look to Jesus as our teacher and helper, and pray for willingness and guidance to be set free from our wounds. In the end, we can remember that we are children of God, whose very essence is love. It’s that love that helps us commit to the hard task of healing.
It’s that love that in a few minutes will invite us the table of grace, where the risen Christ will assure us that betrayal, suffering and even death will never be the final word.
It’s that love that will enable us to keep moving forward towards being forgiving and free.