Friday, February 17, 2012

Forgiveness - a worthwhile struggle

In September of last year I shared with readers some thoughts on forgiveness, arising from a startling story in the Sydney secular media. Go HERE to read the post.

I guess that the challenge to truly forgive others will be with us until our dying day. And nobody - especially Jesus - implied that it would ever be easy.

We are hurt most by those we love most. And - paradoxically - it is they whom we find most difficult to forgive. Every priest is reminded of this when from time to time in the aftermath of a death (sometimes even while arranging the funeral!) those who genuinely love each other and should be the very ones supporting each other in their grief begin to fight. It can be that lots of little (and sometimes big) things involving the deceased and the network of family relationships that over the years were swept under the carpet without actually being forgiven come to the surface, and the cumulative pain threatens to destroy the family or community.

As I wrote in that post last September, the really hard thing about the Gospel is that, because we are meant to share with him in healing the world, Jesus says us we cannot expect any more forgiveness from the Father than what we are prepared to give to those who wrong us.

Now, I know that this is a journey . . . and a journey we are all on. I also know that some counsellors glibly and without love and compassion dish out this truth in a kind of punishing way to the shamefully abused in ways that only abuse and crush them further. There is no excuse for that.

But there is also no excuse for playing down the fact that in the context of the loving, transformative relationships our Father God provides for us to experience as part of our life in the Spirit-filled body of Christ, we are all - without exception - challenged to step into the freedom that comes with at least initially WANTING to become more forgiving. Have another look at the paragraph I quoted from Philip Yancey in September's post.

In 1979 I visited the Anglican Diocese of the New Hebrides at the invitation of Bishop Derek Rawcliffe for some weeks of teaching and preaching. It was just before the New Hebrides became Vanuatu, and a time when I learned far more about God and his people than anything I might have been able to share!

Back then, as a young man, I had hardly begun to accumulate either the wonderful blessings or the deep wounds that are part and parcel of life's journey. But I remember being incredibly moved the first time I heard the words of Absolution following the General Confession in the Eucharist of the English language liturgy of the Church of Melanesia. (It's the same in the other languages of those islands, and, in fact is based on a phrase that crops up in a few of the historic Anglican prayer books.) One of the talks I had prepared for the week-long school for the clergy and lay leaders of the Diocese was on forgiveness as an act of our will, as obedience to the Lord, and I couldn't get over the fact that the teaching of the Gospel on this area of Christian growth had found such an explicit place in the liturgical expression of that Church.

Here it is:

ALMIGHTY God, our merciful Father,
who has promised forgiveness of sins
to all who are truly sorry,
turn to him in faith
and are ready to forgive others;
have mercy on you,
pardon and save you from all your sins,
make you strong in all goodness,
and keep you in life eternal;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I think it's a pity that all absolutions are not phrased like that!

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By the way, if you would like an amazing collection of powerful quotes on forgiveness from a range of religious and secular traditions, go HERE to the University of Minnesota's Center for Restorative Justice & Peacemaking, and download the pdf FORGIVENESS: An Annotated Bibliography by Mark S. Umbreit, Ph.D. Jonathan Fier, M.S.W. You'll be glad you did!

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Father Henri J.M. Nouwen (1932-1996) helped many people of different backgrounds to understand how the resources the Holy Spirit gives us can make a difference in our day to day lives. A book of daily readings, “Bread for the Journey,” drawn from his many writings and published in 1997, contains a lot about forgiveness. These are the main passages:

Forgiveness, the way to Freedom (Jan 26)

To forgive another person from the heart is an act of liberation. We set that person free from the negative bonds that exist between us. We say, “I no longer hold your offense against you.” But there is more. We also free ourselves from the burden of being the “offended one.” As long as we do not forgive those who have wounded us, we carry them with us or, worse, pull them as a heavy load. The great temptation is to cling in anger to our enemies and then define ourselves as being offended and wounded by them. Forgiveness, therefore, liberates not only the other but also ourselves. It is the way to the freedom of the children of God.

Receiving Forgiveness (Jan 25)

There are two sides to forgiveness: giving and receiving. Although at first sight giving seems to be harder, it often appears that we are not able to offer forgiveness to others because we have not been able fully to receive it. Only as people who have accepted forgiveness can we find the inner freedom to give it. Why is receiving forgiveness so difficult? It is very hard to say, “Without your forgiveness I am still bound to what happened between us. Only you can set me free.” That requires not only a confession that we have hurt somebody but also humility to acknowledge our dependency on others. Only when we can receive forgiveness can we give it.

Forgiveness, the Cement of Community Life (Jan 24)

Community is not possible without the willingness to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). Forgiveness is the cement of community life. Forgiveness holds us together through good and bad times, and it allows us to grow to mutual love.

But what is there to forgive or to ask forgiveness for? As people who have hearts that long for perfect love, we have to forgive one another for not being able to give or receive that perfect love in our everyday lives. Our many needs constantly interfere with our desire to be there for the other unconditionally. Our love is always limited by spoken or unspoken conditions. What needs to be forgiven? We need to forgive one another for not being God!

Healing our Hearts through Forgiveness (Jan 27)

How can we forgive those who do not want to be forgiven? Our deepest desire is that the forgiveness we offer will be received. This mutuality between giving and receiving is what create peace and harmony. But if our condition for giving forgiveness is that it will be received, we seldom will forgive! Forgiving the other is first and foremost an inner movement. It is an act that removes anger, bitterness, and the desire for revenge from our hearts and helps us to reclaim our human dignity. We cannot force those we want to forgive into accepting our forgiveness. They might not be able or willing to do so. They may not even know or feel that they have wounded us.

The only people we can really change are ourselves. Forgiving others is first and foremost healing our own hearts.

Stepping over our Wounds (Jan 9)

Sometimes we have to “step over” our anger, our jealousy, or our feelings of rejection and move on. The temptation is to get stuck in our negative emotions, poking around in them as if we belong there. Then we become the “offended one,” “the forgotten one,” or the “discarded one.” Yes, we can get attached to these negative identities and even take morbid pleasure in them. It might be good to have a look at these dark feelings and explore where they come from but there comes a moment to step over them, leave them behind and travel on.

Healing our Memories (Jan 29)

Forgiving does not mean forgetting. When we forgive a person, the memory of the wound might stay with us for a long time, even throughout our lives. Sometimes we carry the memory in our bodies as a visible sign. But forgiveness changes the way we remember. It converts the curse into a blessing. When we forgive our parents for their divorce, our children for their lack of attention, our friends for their unfaithfulness in crisis, our doctors for their ill advice, we no longer have to experience ourselves as the victims of events we had no control over.

Forgiveness allows us to claim our own power and not let these events destroy us, it enables them to become events that deepen the wisdom of our hearts. Forgiveness indeed heals memories.

Forgiving in the Name of God. (Jan 28)

We are all wounded people. Who wounds us? Often those whom we love and those who love us. When we feel rejected, abandoned, abused, manipulated or violated, it is mostly by people very close to us: our parents, our friends, our spouses, our lovers, our children, our neighbours, our teachers, our pastors. Those who love us wound us too. That’s the tragedy of our lives. This is what makes forgiveness from the heart so difficult. It is precisely our hearts that are wounded. We cry out, “You, who I expected to be there for me, you have abandoned me. How can I ever forgive you for that?”

Forgiveness often seems impossible, but nothing is impossible for God. The God who lives within us will give us the grace to go beyond our wounded selves and say, “In the Name of God you are forgiven.” Let’s pray for that grace.

From Blaming to Forgiving (April 8)

Our most painful suffering often comes from those who love us and those we love. The relationship between husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters, teachers and students, pastors and parishioners - these are where our deepest wounds occur. Even late in life, yes, even after those who wounded us have long since died, we might still need help to sort out what happened in these relationships.

The great temptation is to keep blaming those who were closest to us for our present condition, saying, “You made me who I am now, and I hate who I am.” The great challenge is to acknowledge our hurts and claim our true selves as being more than the result of what other people do to us. Only when we can claim our God-made selves as the true source of our being will we be free to forgive those who have wounded us.

Being Handed Over to Suffering (April 9)

People who live close together can be sources of great sorrow for one another. When Jesus chose His twelve disciples, Judas was one of them. Judas is called a traitor. A traitor according to the literal meaning of the Greek word for “betraying” is someone who hands the other over to suffering.

The truth is that we all have something of the traitor in us because each of us hands our fellow human beings over to suffering somehow, somewhere, mostly without intending or even knowing it. Many children, even grown-up children, can experience deep anger toward their parents for having protected them too much or too little. When we are willing to confess that we often hand those we love over to suffering, even against our best intentions, we will be more ready to forgive those who, mostly against their will, are the cause of our pain.

Loving our Religious Leaders (April 10)

Religious leaders, priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams can be admired and revered but also hated and despised. We expect that our religious leaders will bring us closer to God through their prayers, teaching, and guidance. Therefore, we watch their behavior carefully and listen critically to their words. But precisely because we expect them, often without fully realizing it, to be superhuman, we are easily disappointed or even feel betrayed when they prove to be just as human as we are. Thus, our unmitigated admiration quickly turns into unrestrained anger.

Let’s try to love our religious leaders, forgive them their faults and see them as brothers and sisters. Then we will enable them, in their brokenness, to lead us closer to the heart of God.

Letting go of Old Hurts (Dec 30)

One of the hardest things to do in life is to let go of old hurts. We often say, or at least think, “What you did to me and my family, my ancestors, or my friends I cannot forget or forgive. . . One day you will have to pay for it.” Sometimes our memories are decades, even centuries, old and asking for revenge.

Holding people’s faults against them often creates an impenetrable wall. But listen to Paul, “For anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation: the old order is gone and a new being is there to see. It is all God’s work” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18). Indeed, we cannot let go of old hurts, but God can. Paul says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not holding anyone’s faults against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). It is God’s work, but we are God’s ministers, because the God who reconciled the world to God entrusted to us “the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). This message calls us to let go of old hurts in the Name of God. This is the message our world most needs to hear.

The Task of Reconciliation (Dec 25)

What is our task in this world as children of God and brothers and sisters of Jesus? Our task is reconciliation. Wherever we go we see divisions among people - in families, communities, cities, countries, and continents. All these divisions are tragic reflections of our separation from God. The truth that all people belong together as members of one family under God is seldom visible. Our sacred task is to reveal that truth in the reality of everyday life.

Why is that our task? Because God sent Jesus to reconcile us with God and to give us the task of reconciling people with one another. As people reconcile with God through Jesus we have been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). So whatever we do the main question is, “Does it lead to reconciliation among people?”

Claiming our Reconciliation (Dec 26)

How do we work for reconciliation? First and foremost by claiming for ourselves that God through Christ has reconciled us to God. It is not enough to believe this with our heads. We have to let the truth of this reconciliation permeate every part of our beings. As long as we are not fully and thoroughly convinced that we have been reconciled with God, that we are forgiven, that we have received new hearts, new spirits, new eyes to see, and new ears to hear, we continue to create divisions among people because we expect from them a healing power they do not possess.
Only when we fully trust that we belong to God and can find in our relationship with God all that we need for our minds, hearts, and souls can we be truly free in this world and be ministers of reconciliation. This is not easy, we readily fall back into self-doubts and self-rejection. We need to be constantly reminded through God’s Word, the sacraments, and the love of our neighbors that we are indeed reconciled.

A Nonjudgmental Presence (Dec 27)

To the degree that we accept that through Christ we ourselves have been reconciled with God we can be messengers of reconciliation for others. Essential to the work of reconciliation is a nonjudgmental presence. We are not sent to the world to judge, to condemn, to evaluate, to classify, or to label. When we walk around as if we have to make up our minds about people and tell them what is wrong with them and how they should change, we only create more division. Jesus says it clearly, “Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge. . . do not condemn . . .forgive.”(Luke 6:36-37)

In a world that constantly asks us to make up our minds about other people, a nonjudgmental presence seems nearly impossible. But it is one of the most beautiful fruits of a deep spiritual life and will be easily recognized by those who long for reconciliation.

A Ministry that Never Ends (Dec 29)

Reconciliation is much more than a one-time event by which a conflict is resolved and peace established. A ministry of reconciliation goes far beyond problem solving, mediation, and peace agreements. There is not a moment in our lives without the need for reconciliation. When we dare to look at the myriad hostile feelings and thoughts in our hearts and minds, we will immediately recognize the many little and big wars in which we take part. Our enemy can be a parent, a child, a “friendly” neighbor, people with different lifestyles, people who do not think as we think, speak as we speak, or act as we act. They all can become “them.” Right there is where reconciliation is needed.

Reconciliation touches the most hidden parts of our souls. God gave reconciliation to us as a ministry that never ends.

Welcoming Home (July 3)

How do we welcome home our lost brothers and sisters? By running out to them, embracing them, and kissing them. By clothing them with the best clothes we have and making them our honored guests. By offering them the best food and inviting friends and family for a party. And, most important of all, by not asking for excuses or explanations, only showing our immense joy that they are with us again (Luke 15:20-24).

That is being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. It is forgiving from the heart without a trace of self-righteousness, recrimination, or even curiosity. The past is wiped out. What counts is the here and now, where all that fills our hearts is gratitude for the homecoming of our brothers and sisters.


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