On Forgiveness.

What is it?

Why is it important?

How do I forgive others? How do I forgive myself?

Let’s find out. Begin with a poem by Jeredith Merrin, entitled “Family Reunion”:

The divorced mother and her divorcing

daughter. The about-to-be ex-son-in-law

and the ex-husband’s adopted son.

The divorcing daughter’s child, who is

the step-nephew of the ex-husband’s

adopted son. Everyone cordial:

the ex-husband’s second wife

friendly to the first wife, warm

to the divorcing daughter’s child’s

great-grandmother, who was herself

long ago divorced. Everyone

grown used to the idea of divorce.

Almost everyone has separated

from the landscape of a childhood.

Collections of people in cities

are divorced from clean air and stars.

Toddlers in day care are parted

from working parents, schoolchildren

from the assumption of unbloodied

daylong safety. Old people die apart

from all they’ve gathered over time,

and in strange beds. Adults

grow estranged from a God

evidently divorced from History;

most are cut off from their own

histories, each of which waits

like a child left at day care.

What if you turned back for a moment

and put your arms around yours?

Yes, you might be late for work;

no, your history doesn’t smell sweet

like a toddler’s head. But look

at those small round wrists,

that short-legged, comical walk.

Caress your history–who else will?

Promise to come back later.

Pay attention when it asks you

simple questions: Where are we going?

Is it scary? What happened? Can

I have more now? Who is that?

That is the poem, and note how it begins with a litany of things broken: broken marriages; the broken relationship between people and nature; toddlers’ sense of safety, broken; the innocence of schoolchildren, broken by gun violence; old people’s connection to their lives, broken; the connection between humanity and God, broken.

This is the reality of our lives, suggests the poet. This is the human condition: so many varieties of divorce, so many varieties of separation, so many varieties of …  brokenness.

And she is right. But perhaps your litany of hurts might be different from hers.

Your litany, for example, might need to include aging. Someone once said, “Age is just a number until your back goes out picking up a sock.” For you, aging may very well be no longer just a number…..

Or maybe your litany must include illness and disease. At the very least, how something like COVID-19 can roar into our lives and disrupt it in a million ways, if it doesn’t kill us.

Maybe what keeps you up at night are the -isms that separate people from one another, infect our politics, and cause terrible suffering. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and on and on. And then there’s the impurity of the unearned privilege that comes from not belonging to some or all of these maligned social identities.

Or maybe it’s something that happened in this congregation—a year ago, 10 years ago, 30 years ago. This place that is supposed to be a source of strength and solidarity.

Or–maybe what keeps you up at night is death. That terrible separation from the ones we love. Our own lives, ending.

Jeredith Merrin’s poem doesn’t cover all the bases, for sure. But its point remains powerful and undiminished: our lives are so very fragile, and there can be so many occasions for disappointment, and we can be hurt in so very many ways.

But then the poem pivots:  

What if you turned back for a moment

and put your arms around [your life]?

Yes, you might be late for work;

no, your history doesn’t smell sweet

like a toddler’s head. But look

at those small round wrists,

that short-legged, comical walk.

Caress your history–who else will?

What if?, says the poem, and that’s the pivot point. What if you turned back and put your arms around your life, despite all the brokenness? Despite the fact that “your history doesn’t smell sweet / like a toddler’s head.”

Life takes on a certain kind of quality when people can turn back and love their lives despite the separations and divorces and disappointments and hurts. The poem’s title suggests what that quality is: it’s a “Family Reunion.” It’s all the broken pieces of our world somehow coming back together again into a pattern that gives us a sense of meaning and belonging and peace—maybe even joy if that doesn’t happen to be too much of a stretch.

“Family Reunion” is one way of putting it, but we could also describe it as “forgiveness,”—a word the poem never uses once, but it is constantly and persistently there, between every line.

To turn back and put our arms around our lives and our histories, despite all the things broken, which don’t smell sweet—that is forgiveness.

Which, by contrast, implies the alternative, which is not to turn back and not to put your arms around your life and history. For there to be no “Family Reunion” whatsoever. Things stay broken. You just stay away. You are repulsed by the smell. You reject the sourness. You—and I—just react harshly. We rebel against the brokenness, we recoil, we resist.

We resent.

That’s the alternative to the “Family Reunion” and forgiveness: resentment.

But when we choose resentment over forgiveness, life takes on an altogether different quality. There’s no “Family Reunion,” I guarantee.

Let’s talk about that for a moment, before we go deeper into forgiveness.

Think of how resentment feels. It feels like holding a grudge. Inside the grudge feels like an abscessed tooth or a stubbed toe; and then around the grudge, there’s a wall that’s formed, a wall of tightness and anger; one is touchy and on edge; you walk around like you are wearing plate mail armor; walking around feels so very heavy.

Maybe resentment feels different for you, in your body. But we know how resentment feels.

Part of the problem of resentment, though, is that it can operate stealthily in the background. We get so used to it, we forget it’s there or how heavy it is. As part of preparing for this sermon, I spent time listing people and situations I hold resentment towards, and oh, what a list. Each item on the list caused a stab of pain and anger and edginess. The things I’m still holding on to. I wonder what your list might look like, what you’re still holding on to. My point is just this: that occasions for shining a light on resentment can be rare. Which is what makes things like sermons valuable to us, because they can be opportunities for that. To shine a light on things that need to be seen, or seen again.

One aspect of resentment we really need to shine a light on (and what I am needing to remind myself of) is how it freezes people and situations in time. That person who hurt you—it might have happened years ago, in a world very different from now—but they are frozen in time and remain the same old unchanged perpetrator. Very importantly, note how you yourself are not immune to this freezing effect. Your resentment binds you to that perpetrator frozen in time and freezes you too. You never stop being the victim. You re-live the pain over and over again, and every time it is as if it were the very first time.

But to be frozen in time is such a betrayal of the gift of life. The very last part of Jeredith Merrin’s poem wants to highlight this, wants to emphasize that if life is anything, it is about change. Her image for this is the toddler—the toddler reaching for more life, on the way to more learning and growing, with all its questions. “But look,” says the poem:

at those small round wrists,

that short-legged, comical walk.

Caress your history–who else will?

Promise to come back later.

Pay attention when it asks you

simple questions: Where are we going?

Is it scary? What happened? Can

I have more now? Who is that?

This is your life and history, talking to you. All the questions, all the curiosity. The yearning for ever more life. But if we take the path of resentment, we turn away from this smelly yet still vital aliveness and consign it to something very much like eternal hell and damnation. For what is eternal hell and damnation, but the denial of the possibility that people and things can ever change?

Think about that. If hell is anything, it’s that.

So consider, soberly, how resentment is the re-living, re-thinking, re-feeling, re-hashing, re-experiencing of some wrong done unto you, by others or by your own self. It is an eternal recurrence. It is unfinished business. It is like the scab you can’t help pick at. It is like the loose tooth or the broken crown you can’t help probe with your tongue. Your violation of yourself, or someone’s doing that to you or to something you love, never ending. This is why philosopher Hannah Arendt says, “[Without forgiveness, we are] confined to one single deed from which we can never recover; we remain the victim of its consequences forever.”

Again, what is hell, if not this?

But we put ourselves there. We are the ones. No one else. Resentment for sure hurts us. It damages our physical health, it damages our relationships, it damages this church. It does. But we go there anyhow. We drink the poison, thinking that it will kill the one who harmed us. But the only one getting hurt is us.

Resentment is living in hell, and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous tells us what the consequences are. It says that resentment destroys more alcoholics than anything else. More than any other emotion, resentment gets alcoholics drinking and keeps them drunk.

Take that word “alcoholic” and substitute it with your emotional management strategy of choice: workaholism, shopaholism, perfectionism, and all the other addiction -isms.

No chance for release but only imprisonment in eternally recurring pain and victimhood.

But why? Why do we put ourselves there? Why do we give ourselves over to resentment?

I think a main reason why is that we are divided selves. Our selves are divided, and a powerful part in us is the part that holds the grudge and won’t let go, no matter what other parts of ourselves want or say.

And this is something I really want all of us to hear this morning: that the part in us that won’t let go of the grudge isn’t a monster. It isn’t a demon taking satisfaction in causing hurt. I want to invite you to imagine your inner grudge-holder as this: as a good soldier who’s just following orders. The order is: make sure that the overall person is safe. Safety for the overall person, above all. Which means that the good soldier part in you that won’t drop the grudge is doing this because it simply feels too unsafe at this point to forgive. The good soldier within truly takes no pleasure in forcing the rest of the self to live in the hell of resentment; but like a good soldier, it will do whatever it takes to follow orders—despite the chiding of our other parts that just want to let bygones be bygones.

Consider a situation in which you yourself screwed up. You hold resentment against yourself. The good soldier within won’t drop your self-resentment because maybe it’s convinced that all the talk about self-forgiveness and blah blah blah is insincere and really just a matter of rationalizing our hurtful deed away. It’s just irresponsibility, which will open the door to us screwing up even further, and making even more mistakes, and therefore hurting ourselves even more. And that’s not safe! So why not indulge in merciless self-bludgeoning, to patrol oneself? To helicopter-parent oneself? Why not? There’s more virtue in that than moral apathy. We’ll take moral masochism over moral apathy any day.

And so, the inner good soldier follows orders and replays scenes of ourselves at our ugliest over and over again. To friends or to therapists we may complain about our critical inner voice and how mean it is, but we are simply unaware of the larger context dynamics: that that critical inner voice is, in reality, a good soldier trying to protect the overall personality. It is just following orders. We can’t forgive ourselves yet, truly, because the good soldier part of ourselves is convinced that we are not yet out of the woods. There must be a sufficient reason for it to disobey orders, and to change.

But how might the inner good soldier change? What would truly convince it to see that its orders are no longer useful and have been superseded?   

I suggest that there are four things to do. Four steps.

One is to open up your life album with all its pictures and look again at the people and situations you resent. Also be sure to look at the resentment pictures which are of your own face, each of which represents something you once did that has ever since felt unforgivable, something you have never stopped regretting, something you have never stopped beating yourself up about. These are perhaps the most difficult pictures of all to look at.

Some folks think that forgiveness means forgetting. No. Stop gaslighting yourself and acting like nothing happened. Something did happen. Forgiveness, if it is to be safe, must begin with remembering. It must begin with grief.

The inner good soldier simply will not believe your sincerity unless it begins this way.

But now move on to the next step, which is remember fully. To look again at the something that happened with a new depth of curiosity and compassion.

The problem with our resentment pictures—those snapshots of what happened in our life albums—is that they are greatly abbreviated. They are severely cropped, enough just to show the pain. There’s some representation of reality there, but it’s extremely limited. It’s like you are in front of your mirror, getting dolled up for a night on the town with a date, and suddenly you notice the newly grown red pimple on the end of your nose, and your sight contracts down to just that, that’s all you can see, and everything else about you—your lovely hair, your attractive outfit, your kick-ass shoes–gets cropped out of the mental snapshot you take of yourself. All you can see is someone who is hideous. That’s how it’s like with resentment pictures.

So this next step, step two, is to open your mind and heart to more of the truth. The inner good soldier won’t be convinced of your sincerity unless you demonstrate that you yourself are also a soldier—a warrior, in fact—in pursuit of truth.

Compassion is what will give you the power to do this. Compassion is a power enabling us to lose our attachment to resentment—our attachment to the drama of the pain—and to open ourselves up to more of what’s going on.

Look again at your resentment snapshot of someone who hurt you. Through the gift and grace of compassion, allow the person in your picture to tell their own story. Walk for a moment in their shoes. Empathize.

And then you will see something unexpected. You will see them more as they are and not as your prejudices make them out to be. You will realize ways in which you have been ignorant about who they are, what they were facing. You will see them not as evil, but as acting out of imperatives you might have had no clue about, or simply out of their own suffering and pain.

What happened wasn’t personal. When you hurt another, it’s never with full foreknowledge of the consequences. And so it is, when another ends up hurting you.

Breathe compassion into this world in which people can be so cruel in their anger and in their blame, in their self-righteousness and perfectionism and pettiness, and yet beneath it all is a hopelessness, beneath it all is that sense of devastating worthlessness and shame. Breathe compassion into this. Breathe compassion. Realize that they are merely human like us, and we are merely human like them.

Standing upon common ground, you with the one who hurt you—standing upon the truth: that is safe. And safety is what allows the seeds of forgiveness to start growing.

Same thing goes when we are talking about self-forgiveness. It’s just so easy to look back at a mistake we made and to and say, How stupid I was! What was I thinking? Such self-disparagement betrays a forgetfulness of how complex that moment was when we did what we did. As if you knew ahead of time, fully, what the consequences of your choices were going to be—as if you were some kind of Nostradamus or something. As if you knew ahead of time, fully, everything about context you operated within—the problem you faced, the generations of people contributing to that problem, the limitations of the context you operated within. As if you had all knowledge and all power to have avoided the mistake.

As if, as if, as if.

Friends, this is but the voice of pride talking. None of us are God. Look at yourself through eyes of compassion. Face the whole truth. You are not God, and that is OK. You are a “fine animal human” anyway.

Forgiveness demands a passionate loyalty to the larger truth. It must never skimp on the truth.

Which also implies this—yet another thing that helps to make forgiveness safe. Forgiveness does not mean that you are obligated to put yourself back in the line of fire. Some people in our lives never stop shooting at us. The power of compassion has helped us to see the suffering and fear and ignorance that are the ultimate motivation behind what they do, and so this takes the edge off of our judgmentalism towards them. Yet our changed mindset about them will not magically change who they are. The forgiveness we feel can’t supernaturally act-at-a-distance and change a situation or a person outside ourselves.

Again, none of us is God. There must be humility to our forgiveness, or the inner good soldier won’t believe it, and won’t let the grudge go.

All these are steps to forgiveness. So far, we’ve looked at two of them: To stop forgetting and look again at the old hurt: that’s step one. Step two is to remember more fully, and to use the power of compassion to help us seek out more of the truth.

And now, the home stretch: steps three and four.

Step three is to make amends, as you can. Nothing you do or say may cause another person who feels harmed by you to forgive, but, again, you can’t control that. What you can control is doing what you can, at the very least for the sake of your own personal integrity and need to heal your guilt. A good start is saying “I’m sorry.” A willingness to simply listen to another person’s hurt nondefensively is also very good. Do what you can. “Pay your dues,” says Juliana Breines, PhD. “Just as you probably wouldn’t forgive someone else until they make it up to you in some way, forgiving yourself may be most beneficial when you feel like you’ve actually earned it. So,” she asks, “how do you know when you’ve adequately paid your dues? In some cases, it’s obvious what needs to be done (e.g., if you borrow your friend’s favorite sweater and lose it, you would probably want to find a way to replace it, at minimum), but in other cases the criteria for making amends may be less clear. Receiving forgiveness from others can help facilitate self-forgiveness, but it’s ultimately up to you to decide when you’ve done enough to right a wrong.” To what Dr. Breines says here, I would add that none of us needs to be alone in deciding what we can do to make amends. Bring a friend or two in. Ask for their perspective. Get a reality check from them. This is so important.

Remember, the inner good soldier is watching, even if no one else is. Gain the soldier’s trust. Prove your sincerity to him, and make forgiveness safe.

Finally, step four. Resolve to learn all you can from what you did, or what happened. Carpe diem: seize the day. If you fumbled the ball in the big game, pick it up again and keep running. Don’t give up on your life, on what you are trying to become. Remember, the goal of forgiveness is to do justice to all people involved—the others affected and yourself. You are an essential part of the equation too. So what does your mistake say about who you are and what you are trying to become?

What if, in fact, we saw our mistakes as wake-up calls, as symptoms of trying (however fumblingly) to become something better?

Just the other day I was delighted to discover a book entitled Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error, by Kathryn Schulz. “If we relish being right and regard it as our natural state,” she says, “you can imagine how we feel about being wrong. For one thing, we tend to view it as rare and bizarre — an inexplicable aberration in the normal order of things. For another, it leaves us feeling idiotic and ashamed. Like the term paper returned to us covered in red ink, being wrong makes us cringe and slouch down in our seat; it makes our heart sink and our dander rise. At best we regard it as a nuisance, at worst a nightmare, but in either case — and quite unlike the gleeful little rush of being right — we experience our errors as deflating and embarrassing.”

But then Kathryn Schulz says, “Of all the things we are wrong about, this idea of error might well top the list. It is our meta-mistake: we are wrong about what it means to be wrong. [F]ar from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world. … [H]owever disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.”

It’s Jeredith Merrin’s poem again—its emphasis on how everyone is on a journey of lifelong learning. We saw how her image for this is the toddler—the toddler reaching for more life, on the way to more learning and growing, with all its questions. “But look,” says the poem:

at those small round wrists,

that short-legged, comical walk.

Caress your history–who else will?

Promise to come back later.

Pay attention when it asks you

simple questions: Where are we going?

Is it scary? What happened? Can

I have more now? Who is that?

This vision of growth is echoed beautifully by the tradition of Judaism: “From innocence to awareness, from ignorance to knowing, from foolishness to discretion, and then perhaps to wisdom.” There is no greater teacher than the consequences of our actions.

Remember, my beloveds, we are the “no hell” church. So let us refrain from freezing anyone in time, including ourselves.

Let us heal our divided selves, by earning the trust of the inner good soldier.

Let us look again and what hurts, but deeper than ever before, powered by compassion, so we come face to face with the truth.

Let us make amends, as we can.

If living well is the best revenge, then learning well is the best amends.

The reality of our lives is undeniably this: so many varieties of divorce, so many varieties of separation, so many varieties of brokenness.

But through forgiveness, all the broken pieces of our world somehow come back together again into a pattern that gives us a sense of meaning and belonging and peace—maybe even joy, if that doesn’t happen to be too much of a stretch.

It’s no less than a “Family Reunion.”

May each of us find our way back to that.