Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Forgiveness: Steps of Forgiveness

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 5:21-24:

Due to overcrowding in the prisons in New Mexico in the 1970s, the department of corrections took some of the adults and put them at the New Mexico School of Boys in Springer, to act as mentors to the youth who were there.  One of those inmates was John Burton, and in 1976 he escaped from the school and stole a car in an attempt to get away.  He was pulled over quickly by a state trooper for speeding, although the trooper did not yet know he was an escaped convict.  A struggle ensued and Burton was able to take away the officer’s gun, and take him prison, escaping to a local ranch to the west of town, where he held that family hostage as well.  A standoff ensued, but Burton was able to escape on foot and made his way to another farm, where he hid out in the barn.  When the owner of the ranch went out into the barn in the morning, he encountered Burton hold the officer’s .357 and together they walked into the house, where a young girl was sitting.  That young girl was Beth Rose.  Burton told her and her father that he wouldn’t hesitate to kill them rather than being caught and go back to prison.

Burton had them get into their truck, with Beth’s father driving, Beth in the middle and Burton sitting in the passenger seat with the gun pointed at them.  Burton kept changing his mind about where he wanted to go and what he wanted to do with them.  Beth says her father kept cool the entire time, trying to reason with Burton and giving him suggestions of where Burton could leave them so he could get away.  He also tried to give Beth little glances and assurances that everything was going to be okay.  They drove all over that day, until ending up in Albuquerque that evening, where Burton, for some reason, abruptly let them go, and ended up kidnapping a cab driver.  Several days later Burton shot himself during a showdown with police near Melrose, New Mexico, but Burton survived and was taken into custody and then sentenced to time in a federal prison in Arizona. 

Beth says that in the aftermath of that terrifying situation, which she still feels the effects of, her father never once expressed any hatred or animosity towards Burton, but that there was forgiveness, although not pardon, as her father testified against him court.  Several years later, her parents went to Phoenix for a family gathering and while they were there, he went to the prison where Burton was in order to visit him.  Her father’s response to Burton was not really unexpected, because he lived a life of forgiveness as well as he could, Beth said, and then added, “I so thank God for my father and how he lived out his faith in his life.”

That was not how I intended to open today’s message, and in fact had written a different opening, but then received a message from Beth, along with her permission to share it with you, and I rewrote what I had because that personal witness of forgiveness being lived out was more powerful, at least to me, than the story I had, because of all of the issues of forgiveness that went along with it that we began to touch upon last week.  There is the incredible witness of her father that forgiveness is not a one-time event, but instead something that must be lived out every day.  He didn’t just learn to forgive because of this event, he had already been practicing it on the small things in his life, so he was ready when it happened.

One thing the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, said after the shooting there was that you have to practice forgiveness of the little things so that you are ready when the big things occur.  It reminds us that forgiveness is more often caught then taught, that Beth’s father taught her forgiveness by showing forgiveness to others, more than just Burton, and it reminds us that forgiveness is not about pardon.  It reminds us that forgiveness is not about forgetting and it also reminds us that forgiveness often takes a long time to process, because even though that event happened in 1976,  it is still alive for Beth as if it happened yesterday, or at least that was my sense, but the ability to tell the story, and to write it down, is also a way of beginning to set down the stone that Beth is carrying with her as a result of what happened to her.

Last week, I proposed two different definitions of forgiveness.  The first, is a more simple one, and says that “forgiveness is the act of setting someone free from an obligation to you that is a result of a wrong done against you.”   But then I proposed a second definition that is a little more expansive, and comes from philosopher Joanna North, who said “When unjustly hurt by another, we forgive when we overcome the resentment toward the offender, not by denying our right to the resentment, but instead by trying to offer the wrongdoer compassion, benevolence and love.”  That takes forgiveness a step beyond merely saying that it’s not just about revenge but something more.  It’s also about our attitude towards the person who hurt us, which makes forgiveness just a little bit harder, but it’s also I think what Jesus was telling us.

Even though last week I said that the first step to forgiveness is to be willing to at least to consider to forgive, to drop our stone and begin the process of forgiveness, something that goes along at the same time, and sometimes may even need to come before, is prayer.  Jesus says that we are to pray for our enemies and to bless those who curse us.  Sometimes we are not yet ready to forgive.  We still want bad things to happen to them, and thus praying may come first before we are ready to forgive.  But regardless of whether our decision to forgive comes first or later, we need to be in prayer for those who hurt us, for those we want to forgive.  But this is a particular kind of prayer.

This is not us praying for justice, for them to recognize how they harmed us, or to recognize how great we are and how bad they are.  It’s not even to ask God for the person to come see things our way.  Instead it’s simply to pray for them.  To ask for God’s blessings to be on them, even for good things to happen to them.  At first it might be as simple as saying, “God, I ask for your blessings to fall on them,” or maybe falling is not the right word, but instead, “God, I ask for your blessings to flow over them.”  When you start you might have to say it through clenched teeth, but that’s okay.  And it’s not enough to do it once, keep praying this prayer every single day, or even multiple times a day, and I promise you that as you continue to do that you will be transformed by God, because to continue to ask God’s blessings for that person will change how you view them.  It will help us to begin to feel compassion, benevolence and love for them.  So begin praying for them through clenched teeth for God to bless them.  That’s the first part of the prayer.  The second part of the prayer, and these can, and perhaps should be done at separate times, depending on what the hurt is, is to ask for God for help in forgiving.  It may start with just seeking the willingness to forgive, the openness to be able to do it, then we move on to asking for the help to forgive and being willing to let go, which is also the first steps of being willing to forgive, and we hear in today’s passage one of the reasons why we need to forgive.

This passage, which comes to us from the Sermon on the Mount, has Jesus making a rather radical claim.  Jesus says that being angry with someone is the same as murder.  Like much of what Jesus does, he takes a law and elevates is to something much deeper and much harder, after all if being angry is equal to murder than all of us are guilty of murder, including anger, and that seems kind of harsh.  And yet this also gets into the heart of the matter, and saying that anger in and of itself is not necessarily bad, but it’s what we do with anger because anger can lead to the first of a thousand of steps, thousands of little yeses, that take us from the start to where we have clearly crossed over a line.  And when it comes to the people who have harmed us, we often spend our lives just hanging onto that anger which leads to destructive behavior, not usually towards the person we are actually angry at, but instead towards those we love the most.  Instead of hurting the person we want to hurt, we hurt the people who had nothing to do with it, because our anger seeps out into our regular lives.

And then, as if that is not enough, Jesus says that if you are at the altar, and someone has something against you, to leave the altar, go back to them to make things right, and then go make the offering. The altar that Jesus is referring to here is in Jerusalem, and so to leave the temple and go back to Galilee, where Jesus is from, is a 3-4 day journey or around 60 miles, so this is not an insignificant task that Jesus is telling us to do to make things right.  And while what he is saying here is to make things right with those you have harmed, I think it’s safe to say that he would say something similar about forgiving those who have harmed us.  Why?  Because in order to be forgiven, we must forgive.

So again, the first step is to be willing to at least consider the possibility of forgiving someone else, if not actually beginning the work of forgiveness.  Simultaneously with that, or perhaps before, is to begin to pray to God for two things.  The first is to pray for the person who injured you, and to pray for God’s blessings to be given to them, as hard as that might be.  And the second is to pray for yourself that God will help you in the steps of forgiveness, to help support you and give you the strength to be able to do what needs to be done.  Then come the easier steps.  The first is to be clear about what you are actually upset about, and we’ll start out with the fact that “it wasn’t fair,” is not a reason.  But let’s say that someone broke into your house and stole from you.  You might think that that’s what has you upset, but I’m willing to guess it’s much deeper than that.  That what you are actually upset about is the sense of safety and security that you had felt in your home, that you no longer feel.  But that is very different than just having to forgive them from breaking in.  Or perhaps they stole something from you that was an heirloom, or meant a lot from you, that can never be replaced, and so they have stolen a memory from you.  Or perhaps someone cheated you.  Then it might be about the breaking of trust, or the lies that were told, or maybe the embarrassment that you felt if it became public, or if they made you seem like it was your fault or you were imagining things.  Name the actual actions that need to be forgiven.

Second, be clear about what all the emotions you feel about what happened.  Maybe what you think all you feel is anger, but in fact when you think more, you also experience sadness or vulnerability, or lack of safety.  There are lots of things that go into what that happen to us, and so we have to name all of them so that we can deal with all of them.  When I asked Beth if she had forgiven Burton for what happened, she said that she harbored no hatred, but she does have feelings that are difficult to identify.  Our hurts don’t have to bring hatred or anger.  If we get a sense of anxiety in thinking about what happened, or becoming tense, or our stomach gets upset, then those are feelings we need to recognize, because they are a part of our fight or flight response, that our body is putting out so that we can deal with what the nervous system thinks is an immediate threat, even though the event may have happened a long time before.

What we also have to do as part of this is to remember that while the event is in our past, what we are feeling is not in the past.  Instead the feelings we have we are experiencing in the present and they are controlling us in the present, which also means that we have control of them in the present.  We cannot control what happened in the past, but we control what is happening to us now, including what we are feeling now.  And here is one other way to deal with those feelings, and that is another way of prayer, and it’s a form of a breath prayer.  For those who were here in Lent, you might remember it, but what you do is to focus on your breathing and to center yourself, and then you say one thing while breathing in and something else while breathing out, taking deep breaths and focusing on breathing and your prayer.  Which might be something like saying “lord forgive me” as you breathe in, and then “as I forgive others,” as you breathe out.  Or perhaps you have a statement about being grateful for what you have in your life.  Because it turns out that changing our thinking from negative thoughts to positive thoughts will help change our perspective on our wounds and our need to forgive, so you might also consider starting a gratitude journal and write down all the things you are grateful for that day, and especially thinking of ways to be grateful even for the things that happened to you that you perceived negatively when they happened.

So be willing to forgive, begin praying for the person who hurt you, name the actual hurts that you received, name all the feelings that surround what needs to be forgiven, and work on those feelings using a breath prayer and a gratitude journal, and the last step we are going to cover today is that once you have listed out those things, tell them to one or two other people, and these are not the person who hurt you, but they are people that you can trust, and this is not just another opportunity to rehash your grievance, this is the telling of your story in a new and different way.  This does several things for you.  The first is that it gives you a sounding board, someone who can ask you questions to see if you are missing things, and to keep you honest with yourself about the true hurts, and to be honest with you about what they observe.  The second thing it does is to help you realize that you are not alone in what is going on.  Often these hurts leave us silent and feeling alone and isolated.  Telling someone else takes us out of that isolation so that we know we are not alone.  Third it allows others to help carry our pain with us.  Paul tells us that we are to carry one another’s burdens, and this is one way we do that.  And finally it also allows us to begin to tell the story in a different way so that we stop being the victim of what happened and instead we become the hero in the story we tell about our own life because we are the ones controlling what we are feeling about it and what we are doing about it.  We are no longer letting the person who hurt us control our thoughts and actions.

In two weeks, we will look at the other steps that we need to take to forgive others, as we look at forgiveness in families, because it’s much easier to forgive those who are not close to us, then it is to forgive those we are close to.  But the last thing to remember is that we forgive because we are forgiven, and so as we approach forgiveness and think of those we need to forgive, let us not forget our own need to be forgiven and those we have harmed, because when we do that we approach forgiveness with humility and we are ready to go the extra mile, to leave the altar to make things right, because we are recipients of God’s amazing grace, and because of that we are called to offer that grace to others.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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