Matthew 6:12; Mark 11:25
The Rev. Tom Herbek
February 25, 2018
Learning about forgiveness can be hard, and, for most of us, it starts early. College President James Ryan describes his first understand of it in his book, entitled Wait, What?:
When I was eleven, my friend and I accidentally set my backyard on fire. We were trying to ignite a leaf with a magnifying glass. When that didn’t work, we decided to douse some leaves in gasoline. Turns out that worked really well- so well, in fact, that a fairly large blaze erupted in my backyard. My friend and I eventually managed to put the fire out, but not before I singed both of my eyebrows.
Later that night, when my parents asked if l had any idea why there was a large black patch of burnt grass in our backyard, I pretended to be as surprised as they were.
“That’s odd,” my dad said.
I asked him why he thought it was odd. “Because I’m pretty sure you started the day with eyebrows.”
He didn’t press any further. I’m sure he expected that I would eventually confess, which I did.
As we grow older, we begin to understand forgiveness and our own need to be forgiven in much more significant ways. Sometimes we need to be forgiven ourselves, and once we receive that forgiveness, it enables us to move on with our lives. But sometimes, our forgiving those who have hurt us, is the only way that we can move on with our lives.
As Joan Chittister says: “Forgiveness puts life back together again. It is sign of our own inner healing. It is mark of our own self-knowledge. Old age tells us that we ourselves have failed often, have never really done anything completely right, have never truly been perfect- and that that is completely all right. We are who we are- and so is everyone else. And it is our forgiveness of others that gains for us the right to forgive ourselves for being less than we always wanted to be. A burden of these years is that we run the risk of allowing ourselves to be choked by the struggles of the past.
A blessing of these years is the ability to see that life does not have to be perfect to be perfect; it only needs to be forgiving- and forgiven.” (The Gift of Years)
In order to put our lives back together again, sometimes we need to forgive those who have hurt us deeply, even if they would never care about it. Sometimes it becomes our only way of moving on.
Nelson Mandela once said: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping that will kill your enemies.” For some people who have hurt us deeply, our only hope for putting our life back together is to forgive them. We do it for ourselves– not for them.
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote: “Nursing a grudge only perpetuates the offender’s power over you. He continues to live in your head, reinforcing your frustration, polluting your imagination with thoughts of getting even. Don’t let him get away with that. He may or may not deserve forgiveness, but you deserve better than to waste your energy being angry at him. Letting go is the best revenge.”
“Forgiveness is the identifying marker of the stronger party to the dispute. It is truly a favor you do yourself, not an undeserved gesture to the person who hurt you. Be kind to yourself and forgive.”
(Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned About Life)
And Bishop Desmond Tutu says it this way: “Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor. When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberator.” (The Book of Forgiving)
But he also addresses the other part of this equation: “The same can be said of forgiving ourselves. We may learn from the practice of forgiving others how to forgive ourselves. Or we may extend the same forgiveness we offer ourselves to other people. It does not matter where we first set foot on the circle of compassion. The better we are able to forgive ourselves for our faults and failings, the better we are able to forgive others. The more we forgive others for their sins and shortcomings, the more we learn to forgive ourselves. (Made For Goodness)
Forgiveness is one of the most significant things we can do for others, but also for ourselves. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, it seems to say that unless we forgive others, God will not forgive us. I don’t believe that is what it is about. I think Jesus was talking about the important idea that, unless we learn to forgive, we cannot understand it. Until we begin to forgive those around us, we can never believe that we can be forgiven. The two are inextricably tied together. Forgiving those who have hurt us liberates us from the pain of the relationship, and it allows the anger and resentment to subside, and then that energy is released so that we are enabled to use it ourselves to become healed, to become free.
And sometimes, there are people who desperately need our forgiveness in order for them to become free, in order for them to live life fully. Sometimes, we do not even know that they need it. James Ryan describes a time when he found this out.
I knew that my mother was important to me, but it took me a long time to realize that what truly mattered to her– and therefore to our relationship– was my forgiveness.
Through the bulk of my childhood and all of my adulthood, my mother was a recovered alcoholic. I appreciate the common notion of “once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” But I describe my mother as a recovered alcoholic because after she stopped drinking, she never went back to it for the rest of her life. It took her going away, however, to stop.
When I was seven, my father convinced my mother to go into a residential rehabilitation facility, which she later referred to, not-so-lovingly, as “the drunk farm.” My father could not afford to pay the fees, so he borrowed money from my mother’s uncle, who had been fairly successful. She was gone for about six months, and while she was away, my father took care of my sister and me.
I remember my mother writing me many letters, often in creative ways on the back of pictures she had painted, or in a spiral on a circular piece of paper. I remember really missing her at one of my little league baseball games. I remember watching a neighbor, who dropped me off at summer camp, pointing to me and clearly explaining to the counselor what was up with me and my mother. I remember crying then for the first and only time my mother was away.
And I remember the day my mother came home, and we threw her a party.
From that day forward, although it took me years to realize it, my mother was in some ways trying to make up for lost time. Like my father, my mother was remarkably dedicated to my sister and me. Our house was a fairly traditional one. My mother was a stay-at-home mom until my sister went to college, when she went back to work to help pay the tuition bills.
My mother was caring, smart, and talented. She baked every kind of pie and cake. Her desserts became legendary in our family and among our friends. She sewed and made us Halloween costumes every year; she knit sweaters, scarves, mittens, and hats; she crocheted; she did needlepoint. She also read two or three mystery novels each week and could finish the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in an hour. She drove us to every practice and game, and never missed one of the latter. She became the second mother to my friends and knew as much about their lives as I did. When my sister and I went away to college, and beyond, she unfailingly sent care packages, came to visit, stayed up late to welcome us when we came home, and got up early to see us off when we left. She would later become a devoted grandmother to my kids and nieces. And like I said, she never had another drink again. To me, the entire episode of her going away when I was seven- and of her ever drinking- quickly faded away, almost to the point of invisibility.
But my mother never forgot about it. Nor, as I later learned, could she put it out of her mind so easily. The day that Katie and I married, my mom pulled me aside at the beginning of the reception, before most of the guests had arrived. I could tell she was nervous, but I couldn’t understand why. She then started talking about the best man’s toast, and that there would be champagne. I wasn’t following her and finally asked her, a little impatiently, what she was talking about. “I’m wondering,” she said, “if it’s okay with you if I have a sip of champagne after the toast.”
I immediately said, “Of course, Mom, that would be great,” and added, “You don’t need to ask me. It’s okay. Really. Don’t even think about it. Okay?” I gave her a hug, but I could tell something wasn’t right.
She quietly said, “Okay, thanks,” but she didn’t move.
And then I realized what she was really asking, which knocked the wind out of me. I looked back at her and said, “Mom, I forgive you.” I explained that I wasn’t sure I ever really blamed her, but if I did, I certainly had forgiven her a long time ago. I told her I was sorry she didn’t know this already. And I tried to reassure her that everything she had done ever since was more than anyone could ever expect or want from a parent. A few hours later, we clinked glasses after the toast, but obviously, it wasn’t the champagne that truly mattered.
What truly mattered was that my mother knew I forgave her. I am tempted to say that forgiving those you love- and letting them know that you forgive them- ought to truly matter to you. But I cannot say for sure, because what truly matters is up to you.
He says to his students, and to us, that we must continue to ask the question of ourselves, the question of what truly matters.
As Desmond Tutu noted, it does not matter where we set foot on the circle of compassion and forgiveness.
But I would ask you to consider that it truly matters that we do so, both for those who have touched our lives and whose lives we have touched, and for ourselves. I believe that it is one of those things that truly matters.