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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Forgive Others, Because He Forgave Us

Image from kevinsandlin.com

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey
except quoted and cited passages
and sourced images.

Jeremiah 31:34
And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, 
and every man his brother, saying, 
"Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, 
from the least of them unto the greatest of them," saith the Lord: 
for I will forgive their iniquity, 
and I will remember their sin no more.

I’m going to ask you to do something that may cause some of you some pain, and for that I apologize in advance. If you don't want to participate, I'll understand.

Close your eyes. But stay awake! Look into the past, through the years of your life. Find an event in which someone really hurt you. Not a momentary or passing thing, but an act of hate or even betrayal that cut deep into your heart. For a moment, try to re-experience that hurt, that pain, and that anger. Whatever that person or people did to you, it changed your life. You could almost say that your life exists in two parts, before that incident, and afterwards.

Now. Take a deep breath. And forgive that person.

Now, put yourself on the other side of that line. Think about the absolute worst thing you've ever done or said to another person. Granted, it may have felt good in the heat and anger of the moment, but it has chewed at you ever since.

How badly do you want that person to forgive you?

Now, think about God. Think about the millions of times and billions of ways humans now and in the past have done things to him, or in his name that would have destroyed any of us. What would he say to us?

Ephesians 2:1-22
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, 
following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, 
the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience
—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, 
carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, 
and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 
 But God, because of the great love with which he loved us, 
 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. 
 For by grace you have been saved through faith. 
And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.

We take things personally. It’s part of our human nature. And we also transgress, also because we’re human. Being a husband, I am intimately familiar with that. One of my younger colleagues, recently married, asked me what the secret was to a successful marriage. I replied, “Liberal use of the words, “Honey, I’m sorry. You were right all along.” He asked, “But what if you are right?” I said, “Irrelevant and immaterial, counselor.”

Seriously though, along with repentance, forgiveness is at the center of being a disciple of Christ. Jesus put a high standard on this act. Remember this passage in Matthew?
Matthew 18:21-22)

21 Then came Peter to him, and said, 
"Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, 
and I forgive him? till seven times?" 
22 Jesus saith unto him, 
"I say not unto thee, Until seven times: 
but, Until seventy times seven."

Jesus isn’t putting an arbitrary limit of 490 here. What he’s saying is that we should never run out of forgiveness. Because God will never run out of forgiveness for us.

We have to think of forgiveness through the mind of God. In a human context, forgiveness has to be earned. If we have wronged someone, a penance must be exacted; punishment must take place. Somehow we must undertake an act of utter humility in order to earn the right to be forgiven. When I was in the Navy, that penance took many forms. Sometimes, it meant staying late for a couple hours, or perhaps not going ashore at all. In other cases, you had a choice of 150 pushups, or a visit with the Captain. It was that willingness to accept that sanction that somehow “proved” that we were well and truly sorry for what we did.

But God doesn’t work like that. We don’t earn his forgiveness by acts of penance. It is always present, because he sent Jesus to die an agonizing death in penance for the sins of all humans, past, present, and even the future. This is Grace; it is His gift to us.

 Think of it this way. The only people who will find it difficult to forgive others are those who believe that forgiveness has to be given out on a basis of merit. We think we cannot forgive someone because we believe that what they did to us is too much to deserve forgiveness. But when we come to see that our sins are too much to forgive but that He has graciously forgiven us--even though we feel we do not deserve it--then we realize how unfair it is for us to withhold forgiveness from others. In other words, we need to forgive others in the same way that we have received forgiveness--through grace.

Ernest Hemingway once told a joke in a short story about a man from Madrid, Spain who decided to forgive his son. Not knowing exactly where he was, he took out an ad in the paper, saying, “Paco, come home. All is forgiven. Meet me in front of the newspaper office.” The next day, the police had to be called because outside the newspaper office, around 800 young men named “Paco” had showed up.

We all yearn for that space of peace and love where forgiveness is given and received. When we forgive, we open the door for healing. Hopefully, the forgivee recognizes the open door for the opportunity that it is. But even if they don’t…well, remember “seventy times seven.” Author Anne Lamont wrote, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”

If we keep in the forefront of our hearts the knowledge of how we are forgiven, it should make it easier for us to extend that same grace to others. As God reveals himself as compassionate, we also can learn compassion. As God reveals himself as gracious, so can we learn grace. And as God is slow to anger in the face of our transgressions, so can we learn to "slow our roll," as the young used to say, when we are wronged. God shows us patience; so we must also show patience.

Do any of you remember the short-lived television series “Joan of Arcadia?” If you didn’t see it when it was on, you really should rent the DVDs and watch them. The crux of the story was a teen girl named Joan, who lived in Arcadia, California. Her father was the Chief of Police, her mother was an art teacher, her older brother was a former football star who had been paralyzed in a car accident, and her younger brother was a kinda geeky science genius. As Joan navigates her often chaotic life, she begins to meet God, in the person of ordinary people. A cafeteria lady, a lineman working on a power pole, a trash hauler, a librarian, a book store customer, and one hunky-looking young guy that the female fans of the show called “Cute God”…anyway, at the beginning of the episodes, Joan is tasked with performing something that seems off the wall, and completely unrelated to anything. But being a person of faith, she does the job, and as the episode builds toward the end, she and those around her learn a very important lesson. In keeping with the way God was presented, the theme music was a song written by rock-and-roller Joan Osborne. The lyrics of the chorus went something like this:

What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home.

It pointed out that God doesn’t just live in some glowing cloud-bedecked place in the sky, but in fact is all around us, and within us always. We are never far away. It also tells us that whatever we do or say to each other, we are in reality saying or doing the same to God. Think about that for a moment. The last time we lost our temper and said (or thought) terrible things about someone else, would our reaction have changed if we remembered that we were actually speaking to God?

And what if God was like one of us? What if he saw us doing, saying and thinking terrible things instead of forgiving? If was like one of us, that conversation would, I think, be kinda scary.

“What were you thinking? How many times have we had this conversation? 
 I blot out your transgressions and remember your sins no more! 
 Haven’t I said “love one another as I have loved you? 
 Forgive your trespasses so you can forgive the same in others? 
 I sent my Son, my only begotten Son to die on that cross 
so you and everyone else could have their sins washed clean! 
 And this is the thanks I get?”

I don't think I'd like to be on the listening end of that conversation.

Fortunately, he is not like one of us. He is God. He knows our weaknesses, knows the temptations we must endure. He knows that other people can test us to our very limits and beyond. But what he points out is that no matter what someone else has done to you, God has forgiven them. 

And so also, should you.

Forgiveness is a conscious and deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward someone who has harmed you. What forgiveness is not is condoning or excusing offenses. Forgiveness does not replace justice or trust. Pastor Rick Warren said, “Forgiveness is immediate, whether or not the person has asked for it. Trust, however, must be rebuilt over time. Trust requires a track record.”

Forgiveness brings the forgiver peace of mind, and frees them from the corrosive effects of anger and hate, empowering us to recognize the pain we have suffered without allowing that pain to define us. We heal, and we move on. We let go of the suffering, and refuse to use it as a weapon. Another author Bree Despain wrote, “We don’t forgive people because they deserve it. We forgive them because they need it – because we need it.”

Fred Luskin, a PhD and director of the Stanford University Forgiveness project lists three steps to forgiveness.

"The first step is to fully acknowledge the harm done, 
whether by you or somebody else, 
and to own the fact that you've lost something.  
That you didn't get something you wanted, and it hurts. 

"The second step of the process is to experience the feelings 
normally associated with the negative experience. 
It’s not enough just to have someone say, 
“Hey, I was beaten for 12 years and I want to get over it” 
if they've never been miserable about their suffering. 
They’re going to have to be miserable before they let it go. 
I've never met anyone who suffered real loss and didn't suffer at some level. 
You experience a range of emotions—you're sad, you're scared. 
But when you forgive, you understand 
that there are other options besides continued suffering. 
You're not letting go of the event—that’s immutable. 
But you can transform the emotional response to it.

"The third and final step is that it can’t be a secret. 
I try not to let people forgive stuff that they haven't shared with others 
because there’s such good research on resilience 
showing that people who go through harmful experiences 
and don’t tell anybody have much worse consequences 
than people who do tell others. 
The human connection is central to healing."

Forgiveness doesn't free the other person from accountability or justice.

It frees us from the prison of pain.

Psychologist Jack Kornfield shared the story of an encounter he had with a man who worked with young boys as part of an inner-city project. The man told this story.

A young kid, 14 years old, wanted to get into a gang. The way that he proved himself to enter the gang was to shoot somebody—it was an initiation rite. He shot this kid he didn’t know. He was apprehended, brought to trial, and at the end of the trial, convicted. Just before he is taken away in handcuffs, the mother of the boy who was shot stands up, looks him in the eye, and says, “I’m going to kill you,” and then sits down.

After being in prison for a year or so, the boy is visited by that mother, and he’s kind of frightened. She says, “I’ve just got to talk with you.” They have a little bit of conversation, and as she leaves him she says, “Do you need anything? Cigarettes?” and leaves him a little money. She starts to visit him. She goes every few months, and over the course of three or four years, she starts visiting him more regularly, talking to him.

When he’s about to get out at the age of 17 or 18, she asks, “What are you going to do?” and he says, “I have no idea. I got no family, no nothing.” And she says, “Well I’ve got a friend who has a little factory—maybe I can help you get a job.”

So she arranges that with the parole officer. Then she asks him, “Where are you going to stay?” and he says, “I don’t know where I’m going to go.” And she says, “Well I have a spare room where you can stay with me.” So he comes and stays in the spare room, takes this job, and after about six months, she says, “I really need to talk with you—come into the living room. Sit down, let’s talk.”

She looks at him and says, “Remember that day in court when you were convicted of murdering my son for no reason at all, to get into your gang, and I stood up and said, ‘I’m going to kill you?’”

“Yes ma'am, I'll never forget that day,” he says.

And she looks back and says, “Well, I have. You see, I didn't want a boy who could kill in cold blood like that to continue to exist in this world. So I set about visiting you, bringing you presents, bringing you things, and taking care of you. And now I let you come into my house and got you a job and a place to live because I don't have anybody anymore. My son is gone and he was the only person that I was living with. I set about changing you, and now, you're not that same person anymore.

But I don’t have anybody, and I want to know if you’d stay here. I’m in need of a son, and I want to know if I can adopt you.”

And he said yes and she did.

C. S. Lewis wrote, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in others because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

Life is too short to carry that burden. Remember the thousands who died on 9/11? Do you think that there might have been a few who went to their deaths with unresolved anger? Author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote, 

“I thought of how many people go to their graves unforgiven and unforgiving. 
I thought of how many people have had siblings or friends or children or lovers 
disappear from their lives before precious words of clemency or absolution 
could be passed along. How do the survivors of terminated relationships 
ever endure the pain of unfinished business? 
From that place of meditation, I found the answer. 
You can finish the business yourself, from within yourself. 
It's not only possible, it's essential.” 

Now, go back to where we were at the beginning of this sermon, and think again about that person who did that unspeakable thing to you. Think about that anger, that hate that has poisoned you and imprisoned you since then. If you want to continue to live in that jail cell of misery, you certainly have the freedom to choose that option. 

But if you want to open that cell door and walk away unburdened, if you truly want to be free, then forgive them. 

Just as God has forgiven you.

Picture taken by Ralph Couey
at the temporary memorial for
Flight 93, Shanksville, Pennsylvania
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