The Art of Forgiveness
By Charles Rush
April 10, 2005
John 18: 15-27 & John. 21: 1-19
ile we are on the subject of forgiveness, there is the small matter of my no-show for Church last week…. Whew! I was in the Atlanta airport, trying the patient approach. I told the ticket agent I had to get on a 7 a.m. flight to preach- all full- and he looks at me and says "You can tell your congregation it was an act of God Reverend." What I actually said was "This is not helpful". What I was thinking inside was "You get me on that flight or I'll show you an act of God."
Let me tell
you, waking Julie up at midnight, parents of small children, to
inform her that I'm not going to be in Church and she has to read a sermon that
she has never seen cold in a few hours… Not pretty. And what do you say,
"Well, I know it's short notice but you've got some great material to work
with." … It is one of the simple joys of having a solid staff that things
get pulled together and it all does work quite in spite of …I believe that
Uncle Chuck is going to be babysitting in the near future while Julie and Jeff
go out to eat on me.
what an important subject…
10 days ago on the front page of the New York Times that features
the Grand Imam of Jerusalem, the two Grand Rabbis of the
biggest Orthodox movements, in the middle the Archbishop of the Armenian
Church, the Metropolitan of the Greek Orthodox Church, and the representative
from the Vatican, all joining together for a meeting.
Now, there, I
thought is a photo we desperately need to see. Unfortunately, the occasion for
the meeting was the mutual condemnation of a proposed Gay Pride Festival
in Jerusalem later this year. Let me get this straight.
These same Spiritual leaders who have been unable to say a constructive word to
98% of their flock who are heterosexual and engaged in murder, suicide bombing,
and the politics of hatred but they can come together to denounce the 2% of
their flock who are homosexual and would like to march peacefully. Regardless
of what you think about Gays, I can assure you they are not that important. We
have bigger fish to fry.
I was reading
just this week the writer Amy Wilentz quoting David Grossman from Jerusalem,
"So many Israelis and
Palestinians persuade themselves that the people standing before them are evil
by nature and evil in essence, a sort of existential, almost cosmic evil, which
turns against them out of a pure malice which has no rational justification… We
are so mired in the distortion that we almost do not really register the actual
price we are paying for living through four generations in a life parallel to
the life we could have lived, the life we deserve."[i]
picture we really need to see is this same group of Clerics from the 3 Major
faiths brought together by someone of the Spiritual stature of Mohandas Gandhi.
In fact, wouldn't it be wonderful if it was the Christians in the Middle of
this group asking, in the words of the bumper sticker, "What would Jesus
do?" Wouldn't it be great to see the Christians mediating between the
Muslims and the Jews, doing the things that make for reconciliation, developing
the capacity for forgiveness, that we might eventually establish the pressing
need for peace.
I have a
simple dream that one day Christians will be known for their expertise in this
area. Right now, if someone were to keel over, someone would cry out, "Is
there a Doctor in the house?" I keep hoping that one day, just when
tensions are rising and it looks like a fight might break out, that someone
will stand up and yell, "Is there a Christian in the house?"
In this season
where we lift up the fact that God has reconciled the world to God, we are to
become a people of reconciliation. That is principally our spiritual business, reconciliation. We are a reconciling
people. And in that context. Forgiveness is important. It is a critical
spiritual virtue in making reconciliation possible.
This is the
part of Christianity that I find the most engaging and realistic. It is not a spirituality of perfection.
It is a spirituality that makes amends and keeps growing. It recognizes that we
a difficult and compromised people, that we hurt one another, but that we are
in this life together, and that we have to figure out a way to go on.
hurt us because they are selfish boneheads who are indifferent emotional dolts.
But, it is also the case that we hurt each other in every profound relationship.
Any great friendship, any great marriage, comes to these junctures- and they
are often the great growth moments in our lives- where we do something hurtful
and destructive not intentionally but we just do and we have to figure
out a way to get beyond that. It doesn't mean that we excuse it. It doesn't
mean we forget it. But we have to resolve it, let go, of it if we are to be
reconciled and take the relationship to the next level.
I love these
last couple chapters of the Gospel of John. John depicts Jesus as pretty
esoteric in some of the earlier chapters, but here at the end, Jesus becomes
very concrete. John depicts the resurrection as a kind of postlude, a couple of
scenes at the end of the movie after the credits. Jesus comes back to the
disciples and says, "One more thing, don't forget about forgiveness." Then
he comes back again and says, "Did I remember to tell you about
forgiveness." Finally, he says, "If you can't remember anything else,
hang on to forgiveness."
In real life,
the actual act of forgiveness is neither simple, straightforward, or done at
once. Profound hurts, resentments, and disappointments take a long time to work
through and get over.
started Anne Lamott's most recent book Plan
B: Further Thoughts on Faith.[ii]
"In a superhuman show of spiritual
maturity, I moved my mother's ashes today from the back of the closet, where I'd shoved them a few weeks after she died."
When she got the ashes back in a little box, the funeral home had misspelled
her mother's name, not Norah, but Noraht.. and she had been calling her Noraht
"I put the brown
plastic box in the closet as soon as it came back from the funeral home, two years
ago, thinking that I could at last give up all hope that a wafting white-robed
figure would rise from the ashes of my despair and say, "Oh, little one,
my darling daughter, I am here for you now." I prayed for my heart to
soften, to forgive her, and love her for what she did give me- life, great
values, a lot of tennis lessons, and the best she could do. Unfortunately, the
best she could do was terrible, like the Minister of Silly Walks trying to
raise an extremely sensitive young girl, and my heart remained hardened toward
"So I left her
in the closet for two years to stew in her own ashes, and I refused to be nice
to her, and didn’t forgive her for being a terrified, furious, clinging,
sucking maw of need and arrogance. I suppose that sounds harsh. I assumed Jesus
wanted me to forgive her, but I also know he loves honesty and transparency. I
don't think he was rolling his eyes impatiently at me while she was in the
closet. I don't think much surprises him: this is how we make important
changes- barely, poorly, slowly. And still, he raises his fist in triumph.
"I've spent my
whole life trying to get over having had [my mother] for a mother, and I have
to say that from day one after she died, I liked having a dead mother much more
than having an impossible one. I began to call her Noraht as her nom de mort. I prayed to forgive her but
didn't-for staying in a fever dream of a marriage, for fanatically pushing her
children to achieve, for letting herself go from great beauty to hugely
overweight woman in dowdy clothes and gloppy mask of makeup. It wasn't black
and white: I really loved her, and took great care of her, and was proud of
some heroic things she had done with her life. She had put herself through law
school, fought the great good fights for justice and civil rights, marched
against the war in Vietnam. But she was like someone who had broken
my leg, and my leg healed badly, and I would limp forever.
pretend she hadn't done extensive damage- that's called denial. But I wanted to
dance anyway, even with a limp. I know forgiveness is a component of freedom,
yet I couldn't, even after she died, grant her amnesty. Forgiveness means it
finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You're done. It doesn't
necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person. If you keep
hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare- which is the tiny problem with
our Israeli and Palestinian friends."
through this ritual of taking the ashes out, only to realize that she just
can't do it, and then she puts them back again for months that turn into years.
This is the way we are, literally and figuratively. We go over and over these
things, considering them from different angles, proposing different outcomes to
Finally, one day,
she reaches up into the closet and pulls down her Mother's purse that had been
sitting right next to the ashes, lo these many months. It is an important
moment, as she is ready to leaf through it. It is the time honored spiritual
ritual of assessing, reflecting, and letting go that all of us go through with
our loved ones- wading through the stuff of the estate, much of it things we
haven't thought about for years.
She finds the
Kleenex her mother used to dab the over abundant make up that was on her face;
pads and pads of post-its that she used in a failed attempt to remember what it
is that she was doing when dementia set in. There were receipts from the
grocery store for pints of ice cream and cookies, this for a woman with
diabetes, sneaking her last little act of defiance, wads of HMO receipts that
she was supposed to deal with and never did. A huge tube of toothpaste that has
a story with it unexplained. Finally she comes to the wallet. What will be in
the wallet? What would that tell her about her place? What would yours right
now say to the deceased? Would it be a blessing or an indifference?
After all the
cards that identified her professionally and her organizations, there were
several pictures of her grandchildren and one of her Mother as a striking young
person of 21, the image I suppose that most of us think is the person that we
really are… And that was it. Whatever, Anne needed, she didn't get it. And not
enough resolution one way or the either.
"I put the wallet back in the closet, next to my
mother's ashes. I say a prayer to Jesus: "Here. Could you watch her a
while longer?" I left the ashes there for another 6 months…"
day when she was getting ready to go to the beach and she was worried about how
aged she looked, she did something her mother would have done, she rubbed
lotion on herself, and in so doing remembered that it would have been her
mother's birthday a couple weeks ago. So she got down the ashes, wrapped them
in lavender wrapping paper, stuck a plastic rose on the top and wished her
mother a happy birthday. She writes:
"The thing is I don't actually forgive her much yet… but I'm definitely not
hating her anymore. Grace means you're in a different universe from where you
had been stuck, when you had absolutely no way to get there on your own.
happens-when you stop hating- you have to pinch yourself. Jesus said, "The
point is to not hate and kill each other today, and if you can to help the
forgotten and the powerless. Can you write that down, and leave it by the
phone? So I picked up my mothers's ashes, and put them on a shelf in the living
room, and stood beside them for a while."
never easy; it is rarely straightforward or done all at once. It is only
occasionally unambiguous- we've done it, but we haven't done it as much as we
should but more than we thought we had;
It is often
observed by counselors and Ministers that the main benefits of forgiveness go
not to the person who is forgiven but to the person who forgives. It allows us
to get past the recurring internal videos of revenge and resentment. It allows
us to get beyond the negative emotions that are clogging our life and move on.
profound relationship, we are going to have resentments and disappointments. At
the moment of his crisis, all the disciples around Jesus just fled into the
darkness. He was left alone to face an unjust trial, torture, and a slow
Peter, the one
guy that professed the most zeal for Jesus actually denied that he even knew Jesus,
not once but three times. And the last time, he cursed Jesus' name just to
provide some cover of association. That kind of betrayal hurts deeply. Finding
out your strong support is really weak and fearful is a disappointment that is
difficult to get past or ever rely on again.
Peter three opportunities to reaffirm his love. Jesus models forgiveness for
Peter in its mature form. At first Peter is confused by what is happening. But
somewhere between the second time he said, "I love you" and the third
time he said "I love you", I presume the spark jumped the gap. He
remembered his betrayal; he was embarrassed; and he was forgiven.
a spiritual skill. Learn to use it often and to use it well. Like Jesus said,
"One more thing… don't forget about forgiveness." Amen.
"The Wall Against Peace" by Amy Wilentz in the Nation (April 18, 2005) pp. 20 ff.
This is from the Chapter entitled "Noraht, Noraht" in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith
by Anne Lamott (Riverhead Group: New York, 2005) pp. 45-55.
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