Call to worship
Words of Reinhold Neibuhr:
Nothing worth doing in completed in our lifetime, therefore we are saved by hope.
Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history, therefore we are saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone, therefore we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own. Therefore we are saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.
Come, now, and let us worship together.
We forgive ourselves and each other. We begin again in love.
Those are words we say—or this year, sing—most years during the High Holy Days in the Jewish tradition. They are such beautiful and simple words. And yet I’ve found that they are among the most challenging, spiritually speaking.
Forgiveness is one of those areas that lots of us struggle with. I certainly do. And I know from hearing from many of you, that you do as well.
The particulars can vary a great deal, whether we are the ones doing the forgiving, whether we are the ones seeking forgiveness. Often it is forgiving ourselves that is the point of struggle. We just can’t quite get to that place: maybe we can make our way to forgiveness for someone else… but when it comes to ourselves, well, not so much.
In the process of being human, lots of things happen. Something comes between two people, or between two groups of people. Between sisters or brothers, between friends, between parents and children. Maybe even between two church members. It may be intentional, it may not be.
Over time we might even forget the particulars of why things are the way they are. But that doesn’t mean that the sense of hurt or injustice, the sense of broken relationship, goes away. Lots of other things are in the mix. There is hurt. There is pride. There is shame. And it all gets rolled up together.
Forgiveness and reconciliation have all kinds of dimensions. And maybe as I start to talk about forgiveness, it may be important for me to also say what forgiveness is not. It is not forgetting. It is not putting ourselves again at risk. And it is not about denying what we have done or what someone else has done. And in finding forgiveness for someone else, it does not mean that we somehow give in, that we somehow justify whatever it is they have done.
Forgiveness, more than anything else, is about the way that we come to look at ourselves in relation to another—and to ourselves. It is an awareness that ultimately there is something bigger than this hurt we have done or this hurt we have endured. In the act of forgiving we allow ourselves to be focused not so much on the past, but on the future. We let go of the hold something has on us and find the freedom to see ourselves in some new place. It is a kind of relinquishment, to release whatever hold something has on us. It is something that works in its own time and can’t be rushed.
That all sounds good, you say. But it is not so easy. Life is too complicated. There can be a kind of power, a kind of righteousness, in holding on sometimes.
I know oftentimes for me it is just as easy to hold onto that grudge. Especially when I feel I have been wronged, it is so easy to want to just hang on. There is that feeling of superiority that comes with it. There is a kind of energy that comes with that feeling of being right. That energy may let me feel superior in the situation. And of course when I’m feeling righteous, it means that I really don’t have to pay attention to how I might have contributed to the situation.
And we don’t always have good examples around us. We live in times that are not very forgiving. We live in times when vengeance and fear are the examples most often before us. We live in times when the bullies seem to be in charge. We live in times when it is so easy to make someone else the other, and to see not their humanity, but how it is they are different from us. But when we do that, it does not take long for us to become the other as well.
In the public discourse, do you notice how often somebody doesn’t take responsibility for something they have said? They don’t say I’m sorry but instead say, “I’m sorry that you feel the way you do.” That really bugs me. We don’t really take responsibility for fear that we might appear vulnerable and afraid, which, of course, so often we probably are.
And when we live in a well defended world, we may not want to open our hearts and begin again in love. Our natural response to all kinds of hurts is to want to protect, to strike back—to keep ourselves all the better defended. It is a desire to see the other person as just that—the other. And the world becomes a polarized place—this side and that side.
But we can’t live like that all the time.
But at some point we may find ourselves stuck. There is something that is out of whack. We come to recognize that we are out of relationship. And we may even recognize the energy that it takes to hold on to something. It takes energy to be out of relationship.
A linguist has written: “To ‘for-give’ is, in the English language, an extended, expanded, strengthened form of the verb, to give. By intensifying the verb we speak of giving at its deepest level, of self-giving, of giving forth and giving up deeply held parts of the self.” It is a kind of relinquishment: We give up the right to revenge, to perfection, to justice, and instead we give forth to ourselves—or to the other person—freedom from the past and an openness toward the future. Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves and others.
Ultimately, forgiveness is in our own self interest. As we can open ourselves to love, we come into our own capacity not only to love but also to be loved. We come into our power to know not only the ways that we have been hurt, but also to understand the capacity within us to hurt others.
But the truth is that eventually we will find ourselves on the other side of the wall. Eventually we will do this or that and we will hurt others. We will be hurt and we will see our own capacity to hurt. We come to see that often we have the hardest time forgiving in others the very character flaws we see in ourselves.
And at least recognizing that we have the power to harm as well as heal, spiritually speaking, that is the beginning of the journey.
A psychologist who worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa said that when you forgive a person, you restore that person to his or her humanity. This is done because the forgiving person understands that he or she could have committed the same crime. You understand you could have done it yourself. There’s s story from the Nuremberg Trials: A man who had been a prisoner in one of the Nazi death camps was supposed to testify against another man who had been a guard in the camp. When the witness saw the guard in the courtroom, he fainted. All those around him thought it was because he was so horrified to see his oppressor again. But when the man regained consciousness, he said, “No, I fainted because I realized I could have been him.”
Forgiveness is an invitation to not only be in right relationship with others, but to be in right relationship with ourselves. It is not forgiving the act, but forgiving the person. If love can transcend whatever it is someone else has done, it can also transcend what ever it is we have done or are capable of doing. The psychologist Lewis Smedes writes, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you”.
But the truth is that finding our way to forgiveness can take time and intention. It is, really, spiritual work.
It is a kind of attitude that we are open to what might come. It is not just an attitude that everything will be OK, but more of an attitude that we want to get to a place that is right and not live in a place where we are out of relationship with others. It is finding the courage to live our truths and to move on with life. This is at the heart of what it means to find forgiveness. It is an invitation to look to the future with hope.
A number of years ago, when Oregon was about to carry out the first execution in the state in many years, I attended a rally in Pioneer Square and heard a woman speak and her story has stayed with me. Her daughter, who I believe was 7 or 8 years old, had been brutally murdered some years before. She was a person who was not particularly comfortable in front of a microphone but she clearly was called to be there. She said that she was against capital punishment because it would only perpetuate the violence that took her daughters life to kill another person. Her way of honoring her daughter’s memory was to speak out and call for an end to violence.
I’m not sure what I would do in such a situation. I can only imagine the rage that would be present in such a situation. And I can only imagine how difficult it would be to move forward with my life. But there was a way that her love for her daughter had somehow been put through some fire and that it came out with an awareness that she needed to speak out against another life being taken, whatever that person might have done, that the taking of one life did not justify taking another.
Somehow, I think, that may get at what forgiveness is really about. It is keeping sight on what is good, what is right and living by that. It is not forgetting, but taking what has been learned and living from that place of knowing, out of that place of healing. Forgiveness is an invitation to be in the world as we are. To be accepted for all that we are—our gifts but also for our failures. To accept that we can harm as well as be harmed. And to accept that whatever we have done or experienced is over and we can begin again.. And it is an invitation to not forget the past, but to move to a place beyond it.
We are in the midst of the High Holy Days in the Jewish tradition. Rosh Hashanah was this past week and Yom Kippur, will be this coming Friday evening and Saturday. Our own Unitarian Universalist Yom Kippur service will this Friday evening. Jews are called to fast, to look back at the year, to atone for wrongs committed upon others, to forgive others when they have been wronged. It is a time of taking stock and asking whether we are in right relationship with the world and with other people in the world. There is power in the fact that before the new year can really begin we first are asked to take stock of our lives and to ask for and to give forgiveness.
I think that in the day to day living of our lives it can be hard to get to that place. Over time the old hurts we carry around have a way of calcificing.. they have a way of getting established and over time it just becomes the way it is. One of the things I appreciate about Yom Kippur is that before we begin a new year we are invited to do an inventory and look at those places where we are holding on… or that are holding on to us, and before the new year really begins we can start anew.
The writer Anne Lamott uses the image of a clenched fist to describe why it is so hard to make our way to forgiveness. Whatever it is we are holding gets all balled up and we hold it tightly, not wanting to let it go. But that process may start with the small step of just letter our fingers open a bit, relaxing just a bit, feeling a little bit of the tension go, and then a little more. She said that might be the first step in our way towards healing and wholeness.
It takes courage to live openly in the world. It takes courage to call ourselves beyond the hurts that others may bring us, to take responsibility for the ways that we let others down, for the ways that we let ourselves down. It takes courage to know our truths and to live them.
Martin Luther King said forgiveness is not just an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude , a way of being in the world that we cultivate, over and over again, day by day by day.
Forgiveness is critical to our own process of becoming whole. It is not cheap and it doesn’t always come easy, either in giving it to others, receiving it or giving it to ourselves. But in accepting who we are, with all of our flaws, and all of the possibility within us
Words again of Nancy Shaffer:
Because we forget not only what we are doing in the kitchen
And have to go back to the room we were in before,
Remember why it was we left
But also forget entire lexicons of joy
And how we lost ourselves for hours
Yet all that time were clearly found and held
And also weep at words said once as though
They might be rearranged but which
Once loose, refuse to return and we are helpless
Because we are imperfect and love so
Deeply we will never have enough days,
We need the gift of starting over, beginning
Again: just this constant good, this
In these days when we are asked to live with courage, with hope, we are asked to find our way it what so often feels like such an unforgiving world. Living with open hearts takes practice, it takes perseverance. It takes a willingness to say we were wrong, and maybe to ask forgiveness. and hopefully, eventually, to be able to say, and to mean it, we forgive ourselves and each other. We begin again in love.
May this be so for each of us this day. Amen.
So be it. Amen.
Let us pray. Great spirit of life, we come asking your blessing on this day. Call us to make manifest love in the world. Call us to cultivate a spirit of forgiveness—for ourselves and for all beings. We pray that the past might ground us and sustain us and not hold us captive. We pray that in our lives we might find a way to turn from pettiness and separateness. We pray that we might turn towards love and reconciliation. May we know our potential to do good, as well as to do harm. Help us to turn, that we may live more abundantly. Amen.
Benediction: As you leave this place, may you always find your way to Yes: Yes to yourself, Yes to all the possibility that life has to offer.
This is the day we have been given. let us rejoice in it and be glad. Go in peace. Practice love. Amen.