Claire Donaldson is a deacon and chair of the Pastoral Care Committee at First Church in Salem, Unitarian Universalist, in Salem, MA. A 2009 graduate of the Boston University School of Theology, she has worked as a chaplain and recreation therapist in a variety of healthcare settings. Claire lives in Lynn, MA with her loyal, lovable dog, Sherman.
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Two hard words to say are, “I’m sorry.” However, I often find that saying, “I forgive you” and truly meaning it is more difficult. Forgiveness comes in many levels of intensity. There is the seemingly offhand “Sorry” and responding “No worries” if bumping into someone in a crowded room. I do mean it as I say it, but I don’t see the incident as a major event (unless the bumping created a spill.) If there was some sort of spill that happened, then the incident and apology take on a little more significance. Another more hurtful or offensive moment can come when you hear something slip out of your mouth that was a secret, not well-thought out or kind, or just plain false, and you wish you could shove those words right back into your mouth. An apology may be due to more than one person – the individual you’re currently conversing with as well as the other person who was spoken about (if applicable). These apologies take more thoughtfulness, timeliness and kindness. If you’re part of the “something that was said,” your hurt could be intensified by this new incident or it could reopen old wounds. True forgiveness may be hard to offer but holding on to the pain, embarrassment or anger could start a never ending cycle of suffering. There are hundreds of examples of minor to very intense hurtful moments, I’m sure we all have one or two coming to mind this morning. My intention is not to dwell on the hurt but to be able to let the hurt go.
In the book of Matthew, Jesus told Peter that we are to offer forgiveness seventy-seven times. Obviously that’s an obscurely large number to illustrate that we should offer forgiveness for every transgression. I admit that it can be difficult to let those hurts go – even the foolish ones. Not long ago I let myself wallow in the hurt of what I saw as disrespect toward me, all over a desk. (Quick version of story). All this hurt did was raise my BP, reignite my anger and frustration and it got in the way of my working well with the new rec therapist. (Why would I want to help her, she has MY desk.) Sometimes we need to offer forgiveness to yourself when there is no apology needed from or to anyone else. I do know that Joann got the desk because that was the one available and that’s where she was told to sit. I had to let the sting of the desk go before it festered into something nasty. Hurt and hate will only foster MORE hurt and hate.
I can’t imagine the amount of pain experienced by the families of people shot in gang warfare, drive-by shootings, or by law enforcement. When I hear that a family of someone who experienced a horrendous tragedy, stemming from hateful actions, is able to say that they forgive the person that caused all their pain and anguish I am filled with hope. The common thread of grace from these families is love. They know that forgiveness will not erase what has happened; however, they do know that with love, they and their community will heal faster, deeper and with hope for understanding. Love, hope and understanding are the groundwork for peace.
When my nephew was in kindergarten they had a peace circle in the middle of the classroom. Whenever there was a fight, argument or any other type of harm, the people involved would go to the peace circle to work it out. They could not leave the circle until an apology was offered and forgiveness given. I get that this is an oversimplification of the process, but I also love that five year olds are learning and practicing these skills to keep in their life toolbox. I wish there were more peace circles in the middle of many different rooms around the world.
Anyone with a sibling or best friend or parent or boss or co-worker (anyone not have one of those types of people in their life?) has said “I’m sorry” quite a few times. When we’re young we can have a best friend in the morning, hate them by lunchtime and be best friends again by dinnertime. As we get a bit older it takes just as little time to have a hurtful occurrence but it generally does take longer to resolve it. This pattern seems to continue and grow the older we get. We’ve all heard of the two friends or family members, who haven’t spoken to each other for years. Neither one remembers what the fight was about, but they each truly believe the other person should be the one apologizing. At this point, the larger loss is the time they could have spent together making happy memories. They need to let past hurts go, truly offer forgiveness for being stubborn and start rebuilding their relationship.
The hardest part is letting these hurts go. After the end of apartheid in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission spent years holding hearings all over the country. Victims and their families told dreadful stories of death, torture, rape, destruction and death that went on for a very long time. In our reading we heard about a mother who thought she might now get a good night’s sleep after being able to speak the truth about how her son was tortured, beaten and killed. Her truth was not just the specific event that occurred, it also included her fear, her loss and her anguish for her son. As any parents knows – pain for your child is pain for you. All you want to do is take that pain away. To be able to speak your truth out loud for the world to hear is a powerful action. Some people have said that speaking their truth was like small bits of pain floating away with each word they uttered.
The South African TRC received applications for amnesty from more than seven thousand perpetrators. The commission granted just over 800 of these requests. Part of the process of receiving amnesty from legal proceedings was that the perpetrator had to testify completely and honestly about all heinous actions they participated in. Telling this truth was powerful for everybody, victims and perpetrators alike. Some perpetrators were able to ask for forgiveness, others were not, just as some victims were able to offer forgiveness while others were not yet ready. The TRC was established to help the new, post-apartheid South Africa move beyond hatred, retribution and violence, to find healing and peace together as a new nation. This is a political and personal truth.
As I was preparing for today I found two illustrations of forgives that each paint a very different picture. Here is the first:
Marie de Medicis, the Italian-born wife of King Henri IV of France, became the regent for their son Louis after her husband’s death in 1610. In later years her relationship with Louis soured and they lived in a state of ongoing hostility. Marie also felt a deep sense of betrayal when Cardinal Richelieu, whom she had helped in his rise to political power, deserted her and went over to her son’s side. While on her deathbed Marie was visited by Fabio Chigi, who was papal nuncio of France. Marie vowed to forgive all of her enemies, including Cardinal Richelieu. “Madam,” asked Chigi, “as a mark of reconciliation, will you send him the bracelet you wear on your arm?” “No,” she replied firmly, “that would be too much.”
True forgiveness can be hard to extend because it demands that people let go of something they value — not a piece of jewelry, but pride, perhaps, a sense of justice, or desire for revenge.
Many of us have had visions of revenge: hoping that someone who had wronged us would have a wardrobe malfunction while out on a date, or someone receiving an award or prize we wanted tripped on their way up the stairs to receive it. For most of us these thoughts are just a way to help relieve the hurt and let it go. When the revengeful thoughts take over our heart we need to find the love to offer forgiveness. Remember – dwelling on the hurt allows it to fester into something nasty! Unlike Marie de Medicis, when we put limits on forgiveness then we are not truly forgiving.
Math has always been very difficult for me (I believe algebra is evil) but I did seem to like geometry. What I remember is if A=B, and B=C then A=C. Forgiveness is love, love is unending so therefore forgiveness is unending.
Here is the second example:
Thomas A. Edison was working on a crazy contraption called a “light bulb” and it took a whole team of men 24 straight hours to put just one together. The story goes that when Edison was finished with one light bulb, he gave it to a young boy helper, who nervously carried it up the stairs. Step by step he cautiously watched his hands, obviously frightened of dropping such a priceless piece of work. You’ve probably guessed what happened by now; the poor young fellow dropped the bulb at the top of the stairs. It took the entire team of men twenty-four more hours to make another bulb. Finally, tired and ready for a break, Edison was ready to have his bulb carried up the stairs. He gave it to the same young boy who dropped the first one. That’s true forgiveness.
And that forgiveness is love. Learning to forgive and truly let it go is a work in progress for all of us. How many times have you heard someone say, “Oh, I just let those things roll off my back.” Many people don’t realize that whatever is “rolling off” is falling into the pack they’re caring that holds all their hurts and regrets. What they’re not saying is that the pack on their pack is getting heavier and heavier. Sometimes we need to hold onto a hurt so we can understand a mistake we’ve made or ponder an unexpected response we received. Once we are done examining the event it’s time to take it out of the pack and throw it out to sea. (Imagine that the outgoing tide will take it away.) When you fill your pack with love, it bubble wraps the hurt, the pack gets full quickly and you have to unload it. See, it really is all very easy.
I pray we all have packs light as air, full of love and grace, to offer forgiveness and love to all and that includes ourselves! Amen May it be so, and Blessed Be. ©