Sunday's sermon on forgiveness stirred up lots of conversation. As early as during the Passing of the Peace, someone came up to me to express the tension she was feeling on the topic of forgiveness, remembering the ways forgiveness was weaponized in her childhood as she was forced to forgive people in the church who were unrepentant, harmful, even dangerous. Later, over lunch, someone reminded me of the way Columbine High School students were almost immediately pressed to forgive the shooter who had killed their friends.
I so appreciated these insights. Similar questions have been raised over emails and texts and later conversations. Thank you for wrestling so honestly and thoughtfully with such a difficult topic.
The sad reality is that forgiveness has been weaponized. Throughout history, those who profess to be Christians have demanded forgiveness from the most vulnerable while exempting themselves from a standard of Christian love (consider, for example: Christian segregationists, apartheid enforcers, or abusive clergy and their institutional protectors). Forgiveness can and has been be wrongly applied, placing burdens on people already heavy-laden.
And yet a world of retaliation without forgiveness is a bleak world indeed, and a far cry from the peaceable kingdom that Jesus came to announce. It is remarkable that many of our most admired Christian leaders and theologians of oppressed people — Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, James Cone, Howard Thurman, and others — called out the misuses of forgiveness but continued to advocate for it as Jesus' way, indeed the only way, toward a more loving, just, and humane future.
But it's also important to recognize the limits of forgiveness. Forgiveness is our internal work toward those who have hurt us. It is not the same as reconciliation (which requires repentance from the other party) nor full restoration of relationship (which may not always be wise or possible in this life) — though it is a necessary step along the way.
And so despite all the ways forgiveness has been problematized and weaponized, we still forgive. We forgive because Jesus forgave us and told us to forgive. We forgive out of the abundance of God's mercy and justice toward us and toward our enemies. We forgive because we long for more of Christ's abundant life in us and because we long to be freed from the poison of bitterness.
At the bottom of this page is a resource that we have developed for those who are working on forgiveness in some area of their life. I've pasted the entire document at the end of the letter, but it is also available as a PDF here if you would like to download and print.
In other news...
We will celebrate the Feast Day of Saint Francis on Wednesday, October 4, from 3-5pm on the lawn outside Greenbrier Baptist Church (5401 7th Rd S). Saint Francis loved all of God's creation, and the traditional liturgy for this day includes a "blessing of the beasts": praying for God's loving care of each animal he has made, including many family pets. Everyone from our community is welcome to bring a beloved pet on this day! We'll pray a simple St. Francis Day liturgy around 3:15pm and then linger on the lawn until 5pm to meet and bless any animals who stop by, as well as share refreshments. Two school buses drop neighborhood off kids outside Greenbrier around 3pm each day, met by parents, aunties, neighbors, siblings, and pets. We hope this will be an opportunity to meet and bless our neighbors, and we are delighted that our friends at Coracle will join us!
We will hold a Parish Meeting on Sunday, October 15. I hope everyone will plan to stay after church to hear important updates on our church's finances, vestry, and shared life.
It's such a gift to be your pastor and to wrestle together with the hard work of forgiveness. I always love hearing your thoughts, questions, and challenges.
When We Have Been Harmed
There are certain steps that we can take as we respond to those who have harmed us. These steps place us on the Christian path of healing. As disciples of Jesus, we must walk this path; however, these steps are not intended as a replacement for therapy with a trained counselor when needed.
Acknowledgement. When we experience harm, we must first simply acknowledge that it happened. This acknowledgement can be very difficult because the harm is so painful. Admitting and accepting that it happened is the critical first step towards healing. To take this step:
Name the offense. In as much detail as seems necessary, write out what has happened.
Name the offender’s part. Describe everything the other person did that was wrong or caused harm.
Lament. Notice how each offense made you feel. What was the cost? Name this pain to God, using the strongest language possible. Join your prayers with a psalm of lament (e.g., Psalm 10, 42, 130) that you can pray throughout the forgiveness process. You may wish to write your own lament, using these instructions.
Forgiveness. If we have acknowledged that we have been harmed, there is an opportunity to forgive. The one who harmed us does not have to be present or acknowledge the harm they have done. Forgiveness is something we offer as a gracious gift so that we can be free. Forgiveness is rarely a one-time occurrence, and it does not always come with immediate emotional relief. Instead, forgiveness is a choice we make over and over, regardless of how we feel, to release our resentment to God and entrust him with justice for those who have harmed us. The prayer below may help you practice this ongoing release of forgiveness:
A Prayer for Our Enemies (BCP 655)
O God, the Creator of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you in Jesus Christ; in whose Name we pray. Amen.
Repentance. (Note: this step is not applicable in cases of abuse or trauma.) We are not responsible for others’ harmful actions, and acknowledging our own faults does not excuse the harm done to us. However, the Christian way of healing is through forgiveness and repentance, including repenting of our own unforgiveness. Even when our offenses seem small compared to those done against us, we can release them to God in repentance and receive his forgiveness as a step toward our own freedom. To take this step:
Examine yourself. Being as honest as possible, name your own offenses. Write them down. Be specific. Include things done and left undone, harm you have caused, and inner inclinations that only God sees. Invite God’s illumination, praying the words of Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
Confess and receive assurance of God’s forgiveness. Confess to God in prayer. You may find it helpful to pray Psalm 51. An appropriate act of closure after this step is to schedule an appointment for Reconciliation (confession) with a priest. If you have never done this before, we have prepared this guide to making your confession. This blog post may also help you prepare (written for children, but applicable and used by many adults).
Reflection. The harm done to you was wrong and should not be excused or explained away. Yet God is in the business of bringing about our good, even from the wrongs done to us and the wrongs we have done. Is there any way that this harmful experience can be a teacher to you? How might God be using this experience to form or guide you? As you recognize these areas in the coming weeks, months, and years, give thanks to God for his work in your life.
Acknowledgment, forgiveness, repentance, and reflection are steps we can take, on our own, whenever we are ready. The final two steps require the participation of the other party.
Reconciliation. This step requires the one who harmed to be truthful, remorseful, and repentant. Reconciliation cannot happen unless the one who harmed acknowledges the harmful behavior. Thus, we may have relationships in which we have been harmed and have forgiven, but we remain unreconciled. Reconciliation requires truth and Godly repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). We can earnestly pray for God to work in us and in the offending party to bring about reconciliation.
Restoration. This final step means to restore the person who harmed us back to the place that they previously occupied in our life. Sometimes this happens. But many times it is not possible or wise. Restoration of position or place requires profound healing and life change on the part of the one who harmed. Enormous rebuilding of trust is required, sometimes more than is possible in our lifetime. We trust the God of eternity to restore all things in his power and wisdom, and we look to the coming kingdom in which all things will be made new (Revelation 21:1-5).