To Forgive is Human

by Barbara Wells
Paint Branch UU Church
October 5, 2003

Call to Worship:

In the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the New Year. In ancient Hebrew mythology, Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of Adam, the anniversary of the creation of human life and for millennia it has been celebrated as the beginning of time and creation.

Yom Kippur, which falls ten days after the first day of Rosh Hashanah (that’s today, my friends), is called the day of atonement. It is believed that during the ten day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God pays close attention to what you have been and done during the past year, and offers you the opportunity to ask forgiveness and start the new year with a clean slate. During these High Holy Days, also known as the Days of Awe, people are invited to look closely at their lives, to admit they are not perfect, to ask forgiveness and be accepted once again by their fellow humans and by God. The celebration of these two conjoined holidays is a solemn one marked by reflection, prayers and fasting. Yet, the result is to bring people to a closer understanding of their gifts, limitations and their relationship to all that is holy.

May we, our time together today, reflect on the challenges and joys of being human, and let these ancient holidays offer themselves to us as teachers as we celebrate and worship.

Sermon: To Forgive is Human

In Northern Ireland, it takes a lot of courage for a Protestant and a Catholic to be good friends. But these two were. They were just boys who discovered in each other similar interests – cars, music, girls. They were better off than many of the people who lived down the road, and perhaps their money helped to shelter them from the hate that seemed to seep from the sidewalks in this beleaguered city. Whatever it was, Colin, the Protestant, and Seamus the Catholic became and stayed best friends.

At first, Colin’s mother was concerned. She had been taught to mistrust the other side in this centuries-long conflict. She was uncomfortable with the easy camaraderie that the boys had with each other. But after a while she got used to it.

The boys grew up and, as young adults, began to move further afield in the world. But in Belfast, the lines are drawn very sharply. Catholics go here, Protestants there. Finding a welcoming place for both of them was hard. But they managed. After all, you couldn’t tell by looking who was who.

Then one night Colin and Seamus stopped into a pub on their way home from seeing a film. It was a border pub, in the Catholic part of town but not far from where many Protestants lived. It’s why they went there. The fact that Colin was a Protestant was known by the bartender but no one else. And the old bartender had seen enough of hatred and violence to want to draw attention to Colin’s presence.

But hatred and violence prevailed that night. A Protestant loyalist, burning with anger which had turned to hate at the death, a few weeks earlier, of his best friend, walked the street near the pub in a towering rage. Looking in at the warm room filled with young men, he saw Colin and Seamus and realized he knew Colin from primary school. What was his school chum doing with a Catholic? He was betraying his people!

Then the man remembered where he had hidden the gun, stolen from a soldier who got too drunk to notice. Flush with excitement, he ran to the hiding place and pulled it out. Checking to make sure it was loaded, he turned the corner and saw again the pub and the men inside who he was sure were his enemies. Throwing open the door, he turned his gun on Colin and Seamus, and within moments, they both were dead.

The heartbreaking news was brought to Colin’s mother. Just like that, her boy was dead, killed by someone from her own faith because he happened to be friends with someone of the other. Anger blossomed from her grief. And soon her anger turned to hate. She wanted revenge. But she couldn’t figure out who to take revenge on. The Catholics for befriending her son and putting his life in jeopardy? Or the Protestants for killing her boy? The hate gnawed at her and she lost weight, became depressed, and wanted to die.

But the story does not end here. This mother, who had known such grief and the results of hatred, became a part of a project on forgiveness, led by the Stanford Center on Conflict and Negotiation. This project brought together women from both sides of the Irish "troubles" who had lost sons to murder. Each of them told a story as heartbreaking as the one I just told you. But together, by confronting their grief and anger, and learning to understand the power of forgiveness, all the women changed.

As Fred Luskin, one of the leaders of the project put it, "We started with women who understandably felt extremely hurt and very angry in their grief. We ended with women who mourned the loss of their children but, through forgiveness, gained a measure of strength with which to cope. As one participant reminded herself, "Life is for the living." Another participant said, "We must move on with the memory of our sons in our hearts." (IONS, Sept-Nov, 2003, p.13) These women had learned to forgive and because they had done so, their burden of grief and hate was lifted.

Learning to forgive has got to be one of the hardest things we humans can do. Yet it is, I believe, essential. Why? Because the carrying on of grudges and the desire for revenge are at the root of much of what is wrong with our world today. The situation in Northern Ireland is only one of the many nations where hatred lives. We, as a planet, will very likely destroy ourselves unless we learn to break the cycle of vengeance with a healthy dose of forgiveness.

But forgiveness is not something that is easy to do. Even if the wrongs done to us are much less significant than the wrongs done to the Irish mothers, a wrong of any kind can hurt. And I would guess that a lot of us have been hurt by people in our lives. And many of us, I can be pretty certain, have grudges we carry, and anger we have been unable to unload, grievances we have been unwilling to forgive.

I know I do. Let me give you an example. Some years ago a woman I did not know very well took it upon herself to tell me how wrong I was about something that mattered a lot to me. This was not a simple argument about ideas. She attacked me in a very personal way that hurt a lot. I was wounded. More to the point, I was angry. Unfortunately, this person was someone I had to see occasionally. Every time I did, my blood would start to boil and I’d have to get out of there. The one time I didn’t, I said some things that I really wish I hadn’t.

But something began to happen about a year ago. I saw this person and realized that I wasn’t angry anymore. While I didn’t exactly want to go out for coffee with her, I discovered I could be at least civil. I had changed. Was I now able to forgive the awful slight I felt years ago? I think I was. In a sense I was doing what my colleague Greta Crosby wrote about in the earlier reading. I was "anchoring [the] wrong in its own time, letting it recede into the past as [I] live and move toward the future." I think I was also, for the first time, able to see the pain behind the nasty words this women spewed at me. As I began to understand her hurt and bitterness, my own began to recede. And I find I have let it go and forgiven her.

Today is Yom Kippur and it is a time to reflect on forgiveness. During the Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews are asked to take a true look at themselves and to ask God forgiveness for the sins they may have committed during the past year. More, they are invited to make amends with any they might have hurt, and to find it in their hearts to forgive those who have hurt them. It’s a complex and challenging task. But one that all of us can benefit from if we choose.

I am very taken with the concept of forgiveness. Behavioral scientists have done research that shows that people who can forgive are healthier and happier. For instance, did you know that the failure to forgive may be more important than hostility as a risk factor for heart disease? And that people who blame other people for their troubles have a higher incidence of illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and cancers? Learning to forgive and let go of judgment and blame is truly good for your physical health. And it is also good for your spiritual health. Learning to forgive is one of the most loving things we can do, and love is, in my opinion, the only thing I can safely say is divine.

So how do we do it? How do we learn to forgive ourselves and others so we can stay physically and spiritually happy and just maybe save the world? It begins, I believe, with a willingness to see ourselves and others as imperfect creatures who will make mistakes, even terrible ones. Learning to admit that we are not perfect is the first step in letting go of anger at someone else’s imperfections. It may sound easy to do but I don’t think it is. I spend a good deal of my time worrying that I won’t measure up, that I’ll let somebody down, that I won’t be there when I’m supposed to be. I worry about it and guess what – it comes true! There are times when I mess up, when I let people down, even some of you. My biggest challenge is to learn to say "I’m sorry" to those I have hurt and then move on.

We are Universalists, and one of the great gifts of our faith is a belief that all people, no matter how flawed, have worth and dignity. Our ancestors taught that God loved everyone, and that you would not be thrown out of heaven because you made mistakes. God, Universalism teaches, loves us as we are. Thus, we are challenged to love each other in the same spirit.

Yes, we are asked to not only give ourselves a little slack, but to offer it to others. Everybody in this whole wide world is imperfect and it’s best we understand that right up front. It’s the beginning of forgiveness, when we recognize that each of us has the potential not only to do great things in the world, but to hurt and wound as well. When we can truly internalize this understanding of our own and others’ imperfections, then we have the potential to become people for whom forgiving is a way of life.

Fred Luskin, the professor at Stanford who worked with the Irish women, has done much work on forgiveness, and he suggests that the movement toward becoming a forgiving person can be understood in four stages. The first stage, not surprisingly, is to blame another for the hurt we are feeling. This is a fair place to start. People can be awful to us and sometimes we have done nothing to deserve it. But staying in this feeling of anger and blame is a very unhealthy option. Yet, lots of us get stuck in it, sometimes for years. But if we are able to move on, we can reach Luskin’s second stage.

This stage "emerges when, after feeling upset with someone for a while, you realize that your hurt and anger do not feel good" (IONS, p.11). You may start having physical symptoms like an upset stomach, or tension headaches. At this point, some people get stuck again, and never get better, physically or spiritually. Others just decide to forget about it and move on—a choice which in some cases is quite appropriate. But some of us might begin to think about how to repair the relationship, particularly if it is with someone who we care about.

And that leads to the third stage. After a while, you begin to notice that you can see the grievance from the other’s point of view and you might find that a loving spirit has begun to enter your heart and you start to do things to make yourself more forgiving. In particular, you begin to recognize the benefits of forgiving and realize how much of the process is up to you.

Finally, if we are lucky, we may develop into Luskin’s fourth stage, and become, simply, a forgiving person. Forgiving people aren’t perfect but they recognize that others aren’t perfect either. Forgiving folks give people the benefit of the doubt and understand how common it is to hurt and be hurt. When I think of people like this, I call to mind the Dalai Lama of Tibet. Here is a man who has been exiled from his country, called a traitor, and seen Tibetans unfairly treated for decades. Yet, he maintains a loving spirit, a smiling face, and a belief in the ultimate goodness of the human spirit. He is able to forgive because he believes forgiveness is not only possible, it is necessary. He is a forgiving person.

Now I realize that few among us could claim to have the spiritual wisdom or maturity of the Dalai Lama. Yet, I think that all of us have the potential to learn to be forgiving. We can start here, in our hearts, and forgive ourselves for our imperfections. Next, we can forgive others for theirs. Then we can remember how good it feels to let go of anger and hurt and watch it recede into the past where it belongs. Finally, we can begin to meet each day with a forgiving spirit.

Our world today is so in need of people who can move past old grudges and build new relationships built on forgiveness and love. As hard as it is, the act of forgiveness is a powerful antidote to the hatred and vengeful spirit so common in our world today. On this day, when Jews all over the world acknowledge their faults and ask God for forgiveness, may we also find the will to turn away from anger and hate and turn instead toward love and forgiveness. I know it won’t be easy, for me or for you.

But when I think of that Irish mother who was able to let go of her anger and hate toward the murderer of her son, I am awed at the power of the human spirit to grow and change and forgive. And I say to myself, if she can do it, then so must I. For the health of our planet, so must we all.

Closing Words:

These words were written for Yom Kippur by 20th century Rabbi Jack Reiman, May they serve as blessing and benediction on us all.

On Turning by Jack Reimer (Rabbi from Florida, from SLT #634)

Now is the time for turning.
The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange.
The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the South.
The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter.
For leaves, birds and animals, turning comes instinctively.
But for us turning does not come so easily.
It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking with old habits.
It means admitting that we have been wrong; and that is never easy.
It means losing face; it means starting all over again;
and this is always painful.
It means saying: I am sorry.
It means recognizing that we have the ability to change.
These things are hard to do.
But unless we turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday's ways.
[May we learn to] turn – from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith.

May we turn toward each other [and to all that is holy] and break not the circle of love but be forever forgiving and forgiven. Amen.

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