“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”~ Lewis B. Smedes ~
It’s been some time since I have written a blog for Willowjak. It seems that every blog I have written has seemed better suited to my own website and my congregation. So here I sit, penning another blog, that hopefully resonates with some of you and will make it to Willowjak.
Easter is a huge part of my life. As a minister of a Christian church, it is one of my busiest times in terms of worship leadership and study groups. It is a time that is preceded by 40 days and nights called Lent. The time known as Lent, is a time for self-reflection. The whole Holy Week experience for us as Christians, takes us from the highs of Palm Sunday (when the revolutionary Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, in stark contrast to Herod entering through another gate in pomp and circumstance and power, embodying Empire) to the lows of Good Friday, to the high again of Easter Sunday. Good Friday has shifted in meaning for me over the years. I no longer have a sense that Jesus “died for my sins”, nor that a loving God intentionally had his son killed. Rather, it is on the cross, that we experience the worst that humanity can do. We experience in the death of Jesus, the human compulsion towards power, ego, self, violence, hate, the attempt to thwart justice and equity for all, silence those voices that are other, and love (agape love- a selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love). So then, on Easter Sunday, what we experience is the Divine notice that love and life, justice and inclusion, peace and joy, are stronger than death and pain, and self and ego, and the powers that work towards “us” and “them”, where some are able to wield power over others, where there are “have’s” and “have not’s” in our society and in our world.
I guess this is my long way of getting to my reflections over this Lenten and Easter period. It is also my attempt to set the context from which I write. I would describe myself as an individual who does not read the Bible literally, whose faith is progressive rather than traditional, who seeks to work for a world where we are all valued and encouraged to be the best we can be, in a world where love is that agape kind of love. I seek a world where no one is left behind.
In saying all of that, my reflections over Lent revolved around “forgiveness”. Forgiveness and I have had a tumultuous relationship nearly all of my life. It has not eased with age, nor have I come to a place of complete resolution, only a deeper understanding. There is much I am able to forgive. I don’t believe that I am a person that holds grudges. I try to see the very best in people. I tend to believe that everyone is trying to do the best they can in the moment and in the situation in which they find themselves. I tend to be the one who gives the benefit of the doubt. I tend to grant chance after chance to individuals, grace, knowing that we are all on a journey. We are all growing and transforming and becoming throughout our entire life. And yet, I struggle to forgive one person in my life. I think there would be others, but death has taken them from me, and so over time, I think they have faded from my consciousness, that is, unless I force myself to think about them. The one I am unable to forgive drifts in and out of my life and my mind regularly. Or is it even forgiveness that I struggle with? Maybe it is something else.
For those of us raised in a faith tradition, forgiveness is a part of who we are. As a Christian, one of the key tenets of my belief system is forgiveness. I pray each Sunday with my congregation the words, “and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Does my inability to forgive this one person then preclude me from being forgiven by others for the wrongs I have done?
Ultimately, forgiveness for me, is about acknowledging the wrong that has been committed, making a decision to let go of the resentment and thoughts of revenge. It doesn’t mean forgetting nor does it mean excusing the harm done to me, or even making up with the person who caused the harm. I do believe that forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps me get on with my life. For the most part, when I objectively look at my relationship (or lack of one) with this individual, I can say that I have genuinely forgiven them. Yet, my heart speaks of a different reality.
The place that my pondering and reflecting took me over the Lenten and Easter season, was to the realization that I have done the forgiveness piece. For the most part, that person no longer has control over me. The events that broke our relationship no longer have the same hold over me, as they once did. I no longer see myself as a victim. For the most part, I have let go of the anger and bitterness (until they do something that I hear about, that only pushes those buttons once again!). I am no longer wrapped up in the wrong that had been done. I am able to trust people. I am no longer anxious and suspicious around others and their intentions. I am able to find joy in life. I feel like I am fully human and fully integrated within myself, integrating all parts of my emotional and psychological self. I know my true self and I continue to seek to be the best true self I can be. I continue to value the authentic me. I am able to see purpose in my life and I am able to make meaningful connections with others. What I came to realize about my situation, is not that I am unable to forgive, but rather, that I am human. And every once in a while, the hurts and brokenness of my past come back to haunt me, particularly when I am tired, when I am emotionally exhausted, when I feel that I am carrying the weight of the world, or when I am feeling isolated and alone. It is not about an inability to forgive but rather a reminder that life is hard for all of us. There are things in our lives that are difficult. Forgiveness is possible and does happen and it frees us, me, of the hold that those events, or people have over our lives. We are the only ones who can release us from that power.
For the longest time in my journey, as a victim, I looked to others to rescue me. I looked to ministers, family doctors, psychiatrists, social workers and even a lawyer to rescue me. They couldn’t. They could support me. They could walk alongside me. They could sit in the s*** with me. They could encourage me. They could remind me of my value and worth, but I needed to do the hard work. Until I decided that I needed to do the work, and no one else could, I spun my wheels. I got bogged down. I found myself caught in the deep pit of self-pity, victimization, self-loathing, suicidal ideation, self-sabotage, self-harm. And then, I started to do the work.
The work took many years, many conversations with people who had insight. These people had compassion and had knowledge about what my issues were. They were patient. It took small steps, sometimes one forward and 5 back. It took speaking about the harm and the associated emotions. It took recognizing the true reality of what happened, not the adult spin I had put on it, that was at the root of much self-blame and self-loathing. It took time and hard work. For 1 year my primary job was me. For another 20 years or so, it was a part-time job for me. There were days I didn’t want to do the work. There were days I just wanted to curl up in a corner and disappear. There were days where I feared I would never be whole, healed, complete. But I stuck with it. Deep down inside, I knew that my circumstances, my state of being, was not my doing, but by gosh, it was up to me to get out of this situation. It made me angry for sure. It was that anger that propelled me. I used the energy that came from that anger to push myself. These individuals were not going to have the final word. The evil of this world was not going to win.
That’s the Good Friday and Easter Sunday story. Humanity tried its best to use me and in doing so, to destroy me. It failed, because love and justice were stronger than pain and death. So, I discovered within myself, that I have done the work of forgiveness. What comes back to haunt me every once in a while, is a past that will remain with me all my days. I do not want my entire memory wiped clear, for that would be the only way to erase these unwelcome intrusions. There are some memories of joy and love that I still have, that I would hate to lose.
What I have had to come to grips with, is the idea that there will not be reconciliation for me in this relationship. It isn’t that I haven’t tried, it only led to be hurt once again. I cannot get them to change. No one can get them to change their actions or behaviour. I am finding peace with that, some 25 to 30 years later. There is grief for sure. There is grief around not having a significant relationship in my life that many others blessed are with. At the same time, in all of this, I have discovered my own tenacity and my own inner strength. I have found a deeper faith that has sustained me. I have a different relationship with, and understanding of, the Divine, than I did in my younger years. It is a more life-giving, life-affirming, community and relationship building reality. I have found my authentic self and I kind of like what I found! I have found empathy and compassion, that guide me in my work today. For that I offer gratitude and can proclaim “Hallelujah!”.
“I think the first step is to understand that forgiveness does not exonerate the perpetrator. Forgiveness liberates the victim. It’s a gift you give yourself.”T.D. Jakes