Joined: 16 Nov 2006
|Posted: Tue May 21, 2019 9:15 am Post subject: Forgiveness by Phil Silk
We gather here today to celebrate life, find fellowship, explore values, and seek comfort and challenge, insight and inspiration. Let us enter into this assembly with our whole selves as we share words, music and silence in this special place.
HYMN 6 “As We Sing Of Hope@ read v.1
PART ONE: Introduction
In traditional language, we are all sinners. But here in this fellowship of liberal religion, we are also aware that we are doers-of-good, as well. In the words of one of my poems, we are both devils and angels. No one is purely evil or purely good; we are all mixtures. The ratio varies from person to person and from time to time, but we are all 'dangels’. We try to find and follow a path to rich and rewarding lives for all. Today I want to explore the huge and hugely important subject of forgiveness, which is an essential part of that path.
When I told Michael Dadson what I was planning, he said it could easily take a month to cover this topic. My wife says I always try to be too thorough anyway. Well, this time I have to apologise for not yet being able to master the wealth of wonderful material I have collected on the subject, especially from the book THE LOST ART OF FORGIVING, by Johann Christoph Arnold. Nevertheless, I shall at least bring this matter to your attention, and probably stir your thoughts and feelings, which is no bad thing. And you can take the order of service home with you to further reflect on the quotations at the end.
Let's start by trying to define 'forgiveness'. THE 1999 CHAMBERS DICTIONARY tells us it means: 'to pardon; to overlook…to show mercy or compassion'. Are these really exactly the same? They are all useful, anyway.
Here are a few comments which should add to our understanding of this humane action and experience, by various writers in Arnold's book:
1. “There is a hard law…that when a deep injury is done, we never recover until we forgive.” Alan Paton, p.xii
2. “What does forgiveness really mean? C S Lewis said it goes beyond human fairness; it is pardoning those things that can't readily be pardoned at all. It is more than excusing. When we excuse someone, we brush their mistake aside and do not punish them for it. When we forgive, we not only pardon a failing or a deliberate act of evil, but we also embrace the person responsible and seek to rehabilitate and restore them. Our forgiveness may not always be accepted, yet once we have reached out our hand, we cleanse ourselves of resentment. We may remain deeply wounded, but we will not use our hurt to inflict further pain on others.” P.16
3. “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning.” ML King,p.44
4. “Forgiving is different from removing responsibility…No amount of punishment could even the score.” said Bill Chadwick, who lost his son to a drunken driver, p. 66, Arnold. I'll come back to this story later.
Every day in the news we all know there are examples of situations where forgiveness is needed - by individuals, families, religions, nations and other groups - or even other animals. No doubt we also find such a need in our own daily lives. There are also examples of people who are willing and able to overcome evil with good.
The Lord's Prayer asks God to forgive our 'trespasses', or in another translation, our 'debts', ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us,’ our 'debtors. We recognise that we all get things wrong sometimes and need to find ways to move forward. We have to be able to engage in reconciliation by overcoming the guilt and the anger. We need to be able to forgive, to let others forgive us, and to be able to forgive ourselves, often the hardest of the three.
We have a choice to make. We are the choosing people, we humans. We are not in full control of what happens to us, but we have the opportunity and the responsibility and the freedom to influence the quality of our own life and that of others as well. We have some power to initiate and to respond. Furthermore, those who believe in their freedom, have more influence than those who passively accept what comes along, thinking they have little or no power. And we know from theory and practice that forgiving is one necessary part of the good life. We all need it and we all can give it. Why then is it sometimes so difficult? I shall discuss some barriers to forgiveness in Part Three.
From my experience there are three kinds of people: those who can forgive, those who have to struggle long and hard to do it, and those who never manage it. Perhaps each of us varies with the situation, as well. I am convinced we can improve our ability to share forgiveness.
Now let us join together to sing HYMN 25 “Conscience Guide Our Footsteps”(P) read v.1
PART TWO Some Stories
People seem to respond well to stories; we seem to be made for them. From a multitude of relevant stories I have selected five to share with you now. No doubt you know some good ones, too.
1. The first one is fiction; the rest are true, two are from the Arnold book.
Have you ever read any of the No 1 ladies' detective agency stories set in Botswana by Alexander McCall Smith? Here is a passage from THE FULL CUPBOARD OF LIFE, featuring the heroine:
“It was not the sort of investigation which she enjoyed, because it involved recrimination and shame, and MMA Ramotswe preferred to forgive, if at all possible. 'I am a forgiving lady', she said, which was true. She did forgive, even to the extent of bearing no grudge against Note Mahoti, her cruel former husband, who had caused her such suffering during their brief, ill-starred marriage. She had forgiven Note, even though she did not see him anymore, and she would have told him he was forgiven if he came to see her now. Why, she asked herself, why keep a wound open when forgiveness can close it?"
Good point, even if she may be a little proud, and it would have done him some good to have known it - if he felt any guilt, that is.
2. The second story is a little one from my own life, less humorous and paradoxically less serious, perhaps.
One Sunday when I was a teenager, I was rehearsing a vocal version of the Beattitudes with the choir after having had a quarrel with my mother. When we came to the line "Blessed are the peacemakers", I excused myself and went home to make friends with her. She should have been in the choir, too. I knew we were both upset and that it was not all her fault. So I thought it would be better to BE a peacemaker than to just sing about it. It worked, and the choir managed without us.
3. Earlier I said I would return to the story of Bill Chadwick. His son and the boy's best friend were killed in a traffic accident. "The driver, who had been drinking heavily and was speeding recklessly, received minor injuries; he was subsequently charged with two counts of vehicular homicide. Michael had only a trace of alcohol in his system, and his friend, in the back seat, had none.
"The wheels of justice grind very slowly…Finally, the defendant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years per count, to be served concurrently.
"We suggested to the probation office that a boot-camp-style program might be of benefit to him - we really weren't out to hurt him, but we believed he needed to pay for what he had done. All the same, we received a pretty ugly letter from his mother suggesting that we had somehow pushed for the maximum sentence. She said that if it had been her son who died, with Michael driving, she would not have held a grudge. I suggested that until her son were actually dead, she should not talk about what she would or wouldn't do.
"Her son was finally sentenced to six months in boot-camp. With the rest of his sentence to be served on intensive parole. In six months her son was coming home. Ours was not.
"No amount of punishment could ever settle the score. I had to be willing to forgive without the score being even. And this process did not really involve the driver - it involved me. It was a process that I had to go through; I had to change, no matter what he did.
"The road to forgiveness was long and painful. I had to forgive Michael, and God (for letting it happen), and myself. Ultimately, it was my inability to forgive myself that was the most difficult. There were many times in my own life I had driven Michael places when I myself was under the influence of alcohol. But that was the key to my forgiveness - to forgive myself. My anger at other people was just my own fear turned outward. I had projected my own guilt onto others - the driver, the courts, God, Michael - so that I would not have to look at myself. And it wasn't until I could see my part in this that my outlook could change.
"This is what I learned: that the closure we seek comes in forgiving. And this closure is really up to us, because the power to forgive lies not outside us, but within our own souls." Arnold, pp. 65-6
What an impressive, if complicated, story!
4. Do you remember the Vietnam war? Do you recall the powerful photo of the young, naked girl screaming and running away from a smoke-filled sky and some soldiers? The next story tells us more about that photo.
"John Plummer lives the quiet life of a Methodist pastor in a sleepy Virginia town these days, but things weren't always so. A helicopter pilot during the Vietnam war, he helped organize a napalm raid on the village of Trang Bang in 1972 - a bombing immortalized by the prize-winning photograph of one of its victims, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, ."For the next twenty-four years, John was haunted by this picture, an image that for many people captured the essence of the war: a naked nine-year-old girl, burned, crying, arms outstretched, running toward the camera, with plumes of black smoke billowing in the sky behind her.
"For twenty-four years his conscience tormented him. He badly wanted to find the girl, to say that he was sorry - but he could not. At least as a country, Vietnam was a closed chapter for him; he could never bring himself to go there again. Friends tried to reassure him. Hadn't he done everything within his power to see that the village was cleared of civilians? But still he found no peace. He turned in on himself, his marriage failed, and he began to drink.
"Then, in an almost unbelievable coincidence, on Veterans Day 1996, John met Kim at the Vietnam Memorial. Kim had come to Washington, DC to lay a wreath for peace; John had come with a group of former pilots still searching for freedom from the past. In a speech to the crowd, Kim said that she was not bitter. Although she still suffered immensely from her burns, she wanted people to know that others had suffered even more: 'Behind that picture of me, thousands and thousands of people …died. They lost parts of their bodies. Their lives were destroyed, and nobody took their picture.
"Kim went on to say that she forgave the men who had bombed her village, and that although she could not change the past, she now wanted to 'promote peace'. John, beside himself, pushed through the crowds and managed to catch her attention before she was whisked away by a police escort. He identified himself as the pilot responsible for bombing her village twenty years before, and they were able to talk for two short minutes.
'Kim saw my grief, my pain, my sorrow…She held out her arms to me and embraced me. All I could say was 'I'm sorry; I'm sorry - over and over again. And at the same time she was saying, 'It's all right, I forgive you.'
"They met again later the same day, and Kim reaffirmed her forgiveness. They since have become good friends, and call each other regularly.
"Has John found the peace he was searching for? He says he has. Although his emotions are still easily stirred by memories of the war, he feels that he has now been able to put the event behind him.
"John says that it was vital for him to meet face to face with Kim, to tell her that he had truly agonized over her injuries. All the same, he maintains that the forgiveness he has received is a gift - not something earned or even deserved. It is, finally, a mystery: he still can't quite grasp how a two-minute talk could wipe away a twenty-four year nightmare." Pp. 117-9
5. The final story in this section is also inspiring and comes from the READERS' DIGEST, which often has inspiring human interest stories. (Sept. 02)
“A three year old child was repeatedly misdiagnosed as having chicken pox. The problems persisted and the treatments did not help. Finally someone discovered that she had a rare and potentially fatal reaction, to what I do not recall. Fortunately, she was saved. Her parents were not only relieved, but energised. Not only did they not sue the doctors, as some do, but they took constructive action. They quit their jobs and devoted themselves to helping deal with the condition which had nearly taken their daughter's life. They established a specialised charity, raised large amounts of money, set up four pilot projects and created an online information site for doctors.” Results? Now most patients survive! I wonder if I could be so constructive. I hope so.
HYMN 188 “Let Love Continue Long”(G) readv1
PART THREE Some Barriers
We know that forgiveness is needed, possible and liberating for all concerned. Why then is it so difficult? Let's look at a few things which get in the way. We can discuss them separately, but they do overlap. There are no doubt other factors, as well.
1. It has been said that we are only able to forgive others if we have had the experience of being forgiven. We learn by example. You would think we all have both observed and shared the experience, so that is not enough by itself. Even Christians, who believe that God loves us all if only we realised it, have trouble giving and receiving forgiveness. Those of us who do not personalise the universe, can nonetheless respond positively to humane experience, some of the time.
2. When hurt, people have always felt the need to strike back, to seek revenge. This does not lead to forgiveness, at least at first. However, history and personal experience should teach us that revenge is destructive and habit-forming. The ancient Chinese had a proverb which goes like this: 'whoever opts for revenge should dig two graves'. Actually, the situation is even worse, as vengefulness is passed on and on. Someone has to recognise that bitterness is a poison, one which can be overcome.
3. Some people are too self-centred and self-pitying. They overdo the sense of being a victim, not putting their situation in context and cutting themselves off from the healing process. They need to remember the parable of the mote and beam. We are all victims at times, accidentally or on purpose. But no one is perfect, either. We all need to confess our own complicity in what happens to us and remember we are not just separate individuals but part of the family of mankind.
4. Some people become so focused on justice that they become judgemental and forget the need for mercy. As Bill Chadwick said, you can never even the score. It has happened; move on. Besides, as the Bible says, "The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike." What we do leaves a lasting influence; that is karma. Let our future actions be the best we can manage. And may we find support when we fail.
5. Some people think they should not or cannot forgive someone if the wrong-doer has not repented. Thus, we imprison ourselves. We are not responsible for what the other people do; only what we do. And it is both possible and desirable for us to overcome this false barrier. But it is not easy to forgive someone who will not forgive you, I know. It still needs to be done.
6. Some people cannot forgive themselves, as they feel so guilty for what they have done (in general, perhaps, as well as in particular). This is just as unhelpful as not recognising any guilt at all. They/we need help, but also the wisdom to find a healthy balance between guilt and arrogance. Humility, yes; responsibility, yes, as well.
7. Perhaps some people do not understand forgiveness: how it can work and what the results can be. Ignorance can be a barrier. Even if we have the inclination, we may not quite know how to overcome the gap, repair the rift, re-connect.
8. Sometimes we may feel like forgiving, or letting someone else forgive us, but we do not have faith that it can and will succeed. We are too aware of the difficulties, perhaps feeling inadequate or doubting the response of the other persons. We need to trust the goal and the process. It may not work at this time, but it is worth the effort. It can't succeed if we do not try either by taking the initiative or accepting the outstretched hand from others.
9. Finally, for now, anyway, we may not have the will-power to carry it out, even if tempted . We sometimes harbour a grudge or feel resentment even after we have decided to forgive them and/or ourself. Neither they nor we benefit from this perverse emotion. Being able to forgive with the heart as well as the head is a blessing to be desired and encouraged. ML King said that 'Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude."
RESPONSIVE READING "A Stoic's Prayer" by Eusebius
May I be no man's enemy, and may I be the friend of that which is eternal and abides.
MAY I NEVER QUARREL WITH THOSE NEAREST ME; AND IF I DO MAY I BE RECONCILED QUICKLY.
May I never devise evil against any man; and if any devise evil against me may I escape uninjured and without the need of hurting him.
MAY I LOVE, SEEK AND ATTAIN ONLY THAT WHICH IS GOOD.
May I wish for all men's happiness, and envy none. May I never rejoice in the ill fortune of one who has wronged me.
WHEN I HAVE DONE OR SAID WHAT IS WRONG, MAY I NEVER WAIT FOR THE REBUKE OF ANOTHER, BUT ALWAYS REBUKE MYSELF UNTIL I MAKE AMENDS.
May I win no victory that harms either me or my opponent.
MAY I RECONCILE FRIENDS WHO ARE WROTH WITH ONE ANOTHER.
May I, to the extent of my power, give all needful help to my friends, and to all who are in want.
MAY I NEVER FAIL A FRIEND IN DANGER.
When visiting those in grief may I be able by gentle and healing words to soften their pain.
MAY I RESPECT MYSELF. MAY I ALWAYS KEEP TAME THAT WHICH RAGES WITHIN ME.
May I accustom myself to be gentle, and never be angry with people because of circumstances.
MAY I NEVER DISCUSS WHO IS WICKED AND WHAT WICKED THINGS THEY HAVE DONE, BUT KNOW GOOD MEN AND FOLLOW IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS.
PART FOUR SOME POSSIBLE ACTIONS
Fortunately I could take all day on this as it seems the world is actually waking up to the importance of compassion in action, of the possibility of it and, better still, of more and more wonderful examples of it. Here are a few ideas for us
1. Learn! Each of us can become more aware of examples of forgiveness in action and how it works. We can also be more aware of the need for forgiveness in ourselves and those around us. We can work on developing self knowledge through meditation, education, counselling. We can study conflict resolution, peace-making, bridge-building. For most of us it takes careful training to develop more self control leading eventually, if paradoxically, to more spontaneity. With inner peace - through a sense of connectedness and goodwill - we can live with gentle strength.
2. Spread the word! We can help others learn what we have learned. One example is the Forgiveness Project, which aims to break cycles of violence and retribution around the world. The founder collects and shares stories of people who have succeeded in transforming hurt into help. One quote shows the way: 'This is a very special man. I shot and killed his only son yet he can sit with me, encourage me, and then offer me a job. We need to counter the cultural expectation that the normal response to offences received is rage and revenge. Fortunately there are many examples of people overcoming evil with good. Each of us as individuals and the communities we belong to can help spread the word that forgiveness works.
3. Repair relationships! Each of us no doubt is involved in damaged, even broken relationships. "Think globally and act locally," we are told. We need to fully realise that one person, with determination, can achieve a great deal. It is not too late to seek reconciliation . We can start with one situation, then move on to others. We can all say "Sorry". As Katherine Whitehorn, Saga columnist says: "expressing regret seems their best chance of setting things straight.” Arnold tells us "True forgiveness spreads from one person to the next, and has the power to sweep through an entire community, town or region", which makes me think of Bishop Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation project in South Africa. Sometimes churches find ways to improve relationships, not only internally, but in the wider community. There are many possibilities, but each little step helps. Each of us belongs to other groups which can also take constructive action to spread goodwill.
4. Find ways to reduce, but not eliminate, guilt. A recent book on consciousness, THE ORIGEN OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BI-CAMERAL MIND by Jaynes, tells us: "There is no biological mechanism for getting rid of guilt. How to get rid of guilt is a problem which a host of social rituals of reacceptance are now developed: scapegoat ceremonies among the Hebrews (the word for 'sending away' translates now as 'forgiven') [Japanese ritual as well; and elsewhere]; the similar harmakos among the Greeks (again the word translates 'aphosis' for 'sending away' becomes the Greek for 'forgiveness'); 'purification' ceremonies of many sorts; baptism; the taurobolium; the haj; confession; the Tashlik; the mass; and of course the Christian cross, which takes away the sins of the world (note the metaphors and the analogies in all this). Even the changing nature of God to be a forgiving father". (pp.464-5) To me, Christian worship overdoes the emphasis on sin. Guilt is important, but can be a prison. We have to teach people that they are capable of doing good, as well. Remember, we are dangels. We need to empower people. Again, it is the balance that is needed for the good life, for us and for all.
In short, we all cause and experience troubles of varying degrees of seriousness. Can we learn to forgive the universe/God, other people and ourselves and move on with wise goodwill and action? That is our opportunity and our challenge.
SILENT AND SPOKEN REFLECTION
Let us now share a time of reflection with words and silence.
Let us now ask ourselves if there is anyone we need to reach out to right now. Family? Friends? Church? Neighbours? Someone in another part of our lives? Society? The universe/God? Or perhaps ourselves?
Let us choose one of those and think about our situation, how it came about, why it is a continuing problem, and what we might be able to do about it.
"When we are willful and wayward,
When we value possessions and popularity more than people,
When we judge others by appearance and status,
When we pursue our rights and dodge our responsibilities,
When we fail the young, the vulnerable, the outsider and the elderly,
When we cling to our hurts, harbour our grievances and refuse to forgive,
When we live by shallow values of the world instead of the highest values we know, let us admit our failures, recognise our strengths and our opportunities and reach out with courage to the days ahead. Amen. (adapted by PAS from "The Face Values Forgiveness Resource")
PART FIVE CLOSING
We have not finished with the subject; we never will. But for today I shall end with three more short readings before our final hymn.
1. In the Barbara Wood novel THE PROPHETESS, the heroine is training a disciple in six great Truths. Here is what she says about the fourth:
"Forgiveness, Perpetua, is the fourth of the great truths.
But what I learned from Isis was a very profound form of forgiveness. It is not simply absolving of an enemy, or one who has done us wrong. Forgiveness, in order for it to lead to enlightenment, must encompass all those things which disturb the tranquility of our soul.
"For the fourth Truth, Perpetua, that will lead you back to your birth soul and to the gift, you must forgive those who have hurt you, but you must also forgive the barking dog that robs you of sleep, forgive the heat of summer, the cold of winter; forgive the ingrown toenail, the torn sandal, the flea that bites; forgive the flatness of the wine, the dust in your house, the cranky child, wrinkles, grey hair, a missing comb; forgive rising prices, a forgotten birthday, a crowd in the market, the noisy neighbour, a lost wager, a disappointment, a nightmare, an insult, bread gone stale, the fishbone in the stew.
"And these are only the beginning. Such forgiveness must be practised daily and with sincerity. And when this has become a daily and comfortable habit, then the next Truth can be put into practice."
We do not have to become nuns and monks to learn from these instructions.
2. ML King wrote, in his bestselling 1963 book, STRENGTH TO LOVE:
"Some people have sincerely felt that its actual practice is not possible. It is easy, they say, to love those who love you, but how can one love those who openly and insidiously seek to defeat you?
"Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, the command to love one's enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love even for our enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world. Jesus is not an impractical idealist; he is the practical realist…
"Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…
"Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power." Arnold,pp. 42-43
FINALLY, 3.Bishop Holloway in his book ON FORGIVENESS wrote:
"The tragedy of the many ways we trespass on each other is that we can damage people so deeply that we rob them of the future by stopping the movement of their lives…forgiveness, when it happens, is able to remove that dead weight, and give us back to our lives - it can deliver the future to us." Lindy Latham, in THE UNITARIAN Dec. 03
HYMN 101 “Dear Lord and Father”
Today’s service ends; the chalice goes out. Let us go forth to life enriched by our having been here together and bring the spirit of forgiveness with us in the days ahead.
Leader: Rev Phil Silk
Hymnbook HYMNS FOR LIVING
SOME WORDS TO PONDER
"Apologies and explanations are the grease in the wheels of most human affairs…expressing regret seems their best chance of setting things straight!" Katherine Whithorn
"In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior." Francis Bacon
"Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive." C S Lewis
"Dear Lord, forgive the little jokes I've played on thee, and I'll forgive thy great big one on me." Robert Frost
"Keep on giving a dog a bad name…and eventually he'll answer to it." Anonymous
"The man whom society will not forgive nor restore is driven into recklessness." F W Robertson
"The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." Gandhi
"The hallmark of forgiveness is that it enables the forgiver to live painlessly with the forgiven." Susan Howatch
"Whatever your age, go away now and make a rough assessment of how mature you are, based loosely on the categories: probability of temper tantrum; ability to hold alcohol; forbearance and forgiveness; ability to tell whether clothes will suit you before you have bought them. Update it yearly." Zoe Williams
"Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a permanent attitude."
Martin Luther King
"Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hate. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.
He who cannot forgive others, breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass." Corrie Ten Boom, concentration camp survivor
"Bitterness and the desire for revenge, while understandable, only prolong the pain
and prevent deep emotional wounds from healing." Anonymous
Many of the problems of the human race are based on the lack of three of its shortest sentences. Too few of us are prepared to say, "I was wrong. Even less of us are prepared to say, "I am sorry." " How many of us, faced with such an admission
and an apology are prepared to say, "I forgive you"? Roy Wain
"May I forgive and get on with life.
May I act with vision and hope."
May I start each hour with thanksgiving." Richard Boeke
"Whoever is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love."
M L King
Magnanimity is always in short supply, but it is the main ingredient in everything that makes the world a better place, and the only antidote to the rage for revenge which always makes bad things worse." AC Grayling
“There is no future without forgiveness.” Bishop Tutu”