Falling: Thoughts on Forgiveness

IMG_0574Forgiveness is our ministry theme for October. This is a sermon about forgiveness. I’ve given it the title, “Falling,” mainly because autumn has come to New England, the leaves are changing and beginning to fall, and I’ve been caught by the notion that the act of forgiving someone who has wronged us requires us to let go of something; to let go like leaves and fall; to let go like leaves and fall and trust that we will land where we need to be.

There are many metaphors that will work in addition to falling. All morning we’ve been singing those words from Rev. Raymond Baughan: “Turn scarlet, leaves.”[1] The act of forgiving someone who has wronged us requires us to turn; to turn away from something; to turn away from something that has been holding us, constraining us, defining us—some hurt, anger, distrust, fear, self-pity, self-righteousness, pride. To forgive someone who has wronged us requires us to turn away, to turn toward something new—often something unknown—and to trust we are turning in a good direction.

In our first reading, Rev. Belletini likens forgiving to sinking “like stones in a pool” all those things that weigh us down. “Drop them like hot rocks / into the cool silence,” he urges.[2] Here again, the act of forgiving someone who has wronged us requires that we let something go, drop it, plunge it, sink it, trusting that its removal from our lives will serve us well; will enable us, in his words, to “lay back gently, and float, / float on the calm surface of the silence.”[3]

We might add tumbling to the list. We sang Rev. Baughan’s words, “Tumble the shadows into dawn / The morning out of night.”[4] Perhaps forgiving is akin to tumbling—to leaving the solid ground we’ve been occupying; hoping and trusting some new ground will form beneath us, hoping and trusting we will land well. Falling, turning, sinking, dropping, quieting, letting go, surrendering, tumbling. Many words work. This morning, falling. If we are to forgive those who have wronged us, something must fall.

The impact genuine forgiveness has on our lives is well-known: it makes us free. Let’s remember this. Our national culture, at its worst—meaning not all the time, but increasingly—is becoming less forgiving, more tolerant of and comfortable with un-checked and unbridled anger, more content with broken relationships remaining broken, more quick to judge, more quick to assume the worst, more quick to lash out, more quick to publically shame. And public apologies, if they come at all, are shallow, worded to avoid responsibility for wrongdoing, and thus they don’t readily invite forgiveness. Ours is a ‘gotcha’ society, a litigious society, a road rage society, a mass incarceration society, a mass shooting society. The more familiar and habitual these trends become, the more we let them become the status quo, the less free we are. Something must fall.

Last July I had the honor of participating on the National Public Radio show “On Point.” The show was about religion in the public square. The topic of forgiveness came up in response to the way some of the family members of those killed in the June 17th mass shooting at Charleston, South Carolina’s “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church publically forgave the shooter. The quickness with which these family members forgave was puzzling to many people. One of the panelists on the show, Rev. Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, MD, responded, “Many people think that [to forgive] means to absolve the offender. But the word ‘to forgive’… is also about releasing the self from the pain, from the action that was committed by the other person…. When I hear people saying that they forgive … they are going to release themselves from … the desire for vengeance that can actually creep into one’s heart.”[5] I don’t pretend to know why or how those family members were able to utter words of forgiveness so quickly after such a monstrous crime, but I think Rev. Coates is correct: they did not want their lives to become defined by overwhelming anger, bitterness, and a desire for vengeance. They wanted release. They wanted to determine the values that would guide them through the chaos. They wanted emotional and spiritual freedom. I also suspect they offered forgiveness not to announce they had completed a process of forgiving, but that they had begun. Forgiveness is a practice, and this would not be the last time they would say those blessed words.

In a sermon entitled, “The Gift of Forgiveness,” minister emeritus of Boston’s King’s Chapel, Rev. Carl Scovel, says “When we forgive, we are freed, not from the hurt, but from the dominating power of the hurt. We are able to give up our anger. The hurt and wrath no longer direct us…. We may still suffer the consequences of the offense, but the offense no longer masters us.” “However it happens, we are free.”[6]

In a meditation entitled, “Forgiveness is Human,” Unitarian Universalist Army chaplain Rev. George Tyger writes, “We often think about forgiveness as releasing another person from an obligation to us…. In truth, through forgiveness, we free ourselves. We free ourselves from the desire to take revenge, the need to get even, and from anger. Without forgiveness, we carry these weights with us wherever we go. With forgiveness, we can put down these burdens.”[7]

Last Sunday from this pulpit Jeannette LeSure shared a powerful and painful story about her decades-long process of forgiving those who had abused her as a child, and forgiving her parents—particularly her mother—for not keeping her safe. Finding the capacity to forgive ultimately freed her not only to reclaim positive memories of her mother as a beautiful, if flawed, person, but also to become more fully the person she longed to be—an artist, a painter with a studio. Without forgetting the wrongs done to her, she can say on this side of forgiveness, “Who cares how my wings got so broken? When I paint in my studio, I soar to where Mommy and I could never travel, and she’s with me in every brushstroke. I just do not care. I am free.”[8]

But how? I can hear many of you, over the years—and me too—saying “I understand forgiveness brings freedom, but understanding the outcome isn’t the same as getting there. How do I actually get there?” “I’m so mad, I’m so hurt, I feel so betrayed. How can I forgive?” Or, “I want so much to not feel this anger and pain anymore, but it won’t leave me, it won’t be gone, it won’t get behind me.” Yes, there is freedom on the other side of forgiveness, but the chasm between that freedom and the experience of being wronged can feel so vast, can feel—for years, for decades, for a lifetime—unbreachable. Something must fall.

What if I told you that leaves are always falling, that falling is their natural state? We don’t notice them falling in spring and summer because they are firmly attached to their branches, but without that attachment, and without the ground on which to settle, they would keep falling and falling and falling in every season. What if I told you that even once they settle on the ground, that settling is just an illusion? The falling continues as gravity pulls their decaying fibers down into the dirt, into the dust, into the muck. The pace of the falling slows greatly once they reach the ground, but it continues even after nothing resembling a leaf remains.

And what if I told you the same is true for us, that without this floor, without the ground, we too, like leaves, would fall and fall and fall? Over the eons, as living creatures, we have adjusted well to the presence of solid ground—we have learned to trust that the earth’s surface more or less holds—but what if I told you that falling is our natural state? You might say that’s silly, not helpful, but take the ground away, and you know as well as I: we’ll all fall.

You might also say, “that’s a very astute observation, Rev., but even so, we have to hold onto something. We can’t live if we’re falling.” That’s true. We need solid ground in order to live. We need flat, even surfaces for walking, running, rolling, driving, dancing. We need chairs to hold our weight as we sit, tables to hold our food as we eat, desks to hold our computers as we work. Most of us lay down on mattresses to sleep. These are the physical handholds, footholds and body-holds that keep us from falling through life. They are more or less reliable. But not all of the things we hold onto are physical. Some are emotional and spiritual. On our best days, we hold onto positive emotions—what makes us feel happy and joyful, content and fulfilled? What makes us feel enthusiastic and excited or calm and serene? If we can have the experiences that create these feelings in us, and then hold onto them, we won’t feel as if we’re falling. We’ll feel stable, steady, solid.

But here is the key to forgiveness: not all emotional and spiritual handholds are positive or pleasant. Some are negative and quite unpleasant, but we reach for them too. We use them to stop falling too. Sometimes we hold on tightly to the experience of being wronged. The thoughts and feelings that spin out from that experience become our thoughts and feelings. They take hold in our bodies. They become habitual. Sometimes they become so familiar to us that we aren’t sure who we are without them. The same is true for the experience of betrayal, of being victimized, harmed, oppressed, let down. Thoughts and feelings spin out from these experiences: we want the wrong-doer, the offender, the perpetrator, the betrayer to feel pain as well; we want them to feel remorse, guilt and shame; we want them to be punished; we want vengeance. We typically don’t like it when we think and feel this way. It isn’t how we imagine ourselves thinking and feeling. But these are real thoughts and feelings, and we have them. Sometimes we keep coming back to them. They become our solid ground. They anchor us. We return to them habitually—and with good reason: they, too, keep us from falling.

No wonder genuine forgiveness is so difficult. In order to forgive we must somehow move off the solid ground of our pain, off the solid ground of our desire to punish, off the solid ground of our anger. In order to forgive we must let go of our hold on these things. We must let go and fall and trust that we will land where we need to be.

How do we do this? Practice. In her short book, Practicing Peace in Times of War, the American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, writes about shenpa, which commonly translates as “attachment,” but which she describes as “getting hooked.” She says “Somebody says a harsh word and immediately you can feel a shift. There’s a tightening that rapidly spirals into mentally blaming this person, or wanting revenge, or blaming yourself. Then you speak or act. The charge behind the tightening, behind the urge, behind the story line or action is shenpa.”[9] Chödrön isn’t writing about forgiveness per se, but I suspect shenpa functions as an impediment to forgiveness. We can become hooked on our victimization, on our pain, on a desire to punish, on a desire for vengeance, on anger. The sense of self-righteousness that can flow out of these feelings is very powerful, very addictive. We get high from it—high both from the emotional rush of false power it provides, and from the way it allows us to place ourselves above the wrong-doer, to believe we are better than they. So, forgive? Not easy when we’re hooked on pain and anger.

For Chödrön, the practice of meditation overcomes the effects of shenpa. Meditation, she says, “teaches us to experience the uneasiness [of shenpa] fully [and then] to interrupt the momentum that usually follows. We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to return again and again to the present moment.” She tells us to let the thoughts and feelings arise—because they are real. Let them come … but don’t follow them. Instead, let them dissolve—because eventually they will. She says: keep coming “back to ‘right now,’ even when ‘right now’ doesn’t feel so great. This is how we learn patience, and how we learn to interrupt the chain reaction of habitual responses that otherwise will rule our lives.”[10] “What happens when you don’t follow the habitual response?” she asks? “Gradually you learn to relax into the shaky, impermanent moment.”[11] Or to use my language, gradually, you learn to fall. When we’re no longer holding on, we’re falling. Rev. Belletini might call it floating.

Meditation, we know, is not for everyone. There are other ways to practice. I imagine very simple prayers: If I am angry, then may I feel anger. But let me not follow it. Let it not define my life. If I am in pain, then may I feel pain. But let me not follow it. Let it not rule my life. If I am vengeful, then may I feel vengeful. But let me not follow it. Let it not become the master of my life. I am convinced this is what the family members of the Mother Emanuel victims were doing when the offered forgiveness to the shooter. They were practicing not holding onto pain, anger and vengeance.

So practice. Practice not following the negative thoughts and feelings. Slowly, slowly, slowly their power over you will wane. Slowly, slowly, slowly you will begin to let go. Slowly, slowly, slowly you will fall. As you fall, the deeper truths of your life—and of living—will shine all around you. Forgiveness will come. Freedom will come.

Those words we heard earlier from Rev. David Breeden may make more sense now: “I dug and dug / deeper into the earth / Looking for blue heaven / Choking always / On the piles of dust rising / Then once / At midnight / I slipped / And fell into the sky.”[12] Slowly, slowly, slowly, it will come. May each of us, when we need it, learn to fall.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Baughan, Raymond J., “Turn Scarlet, Leaves,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #485.

[2] Belletini, Mark, Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 23.

[3] Belletini, Mark, Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House, 2008) p. 23.

[4] Baughan, Raymond J., “Turn Scarlet, Leaves,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #485.

[5] “Politics, Tragedy and Religion in the Public Square” On Point, July 6th, 2015. See: http://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/07/06/god-public-life-united-states-scotus-charleston. 21:00.

[6] Scovel, Carl, “The Gift of Forgiveness,” Never Far From Home: Stories From the Radio Pulpit (Boston: Skinner House, 2004) p. 131.

[7][7] Tyger, George, “Forgiveness is Human,” War Zone Faith: An Army Chaplain’s Reflections from Afghanistan (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 73-74.

[8] LeSure, Jeannette, “Forgiveness: Freedom to Fly,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, October 4, 2015. Unpublished.

[9] Chödrön, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Boston: Shambhala, 2006) p. 56.

[10] Chödrön, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Boston: Shambhala, 2006) p. 59.

[11] Chödrön, Pema, Practicing Peace in Times of War (Boston: Shambhala, 2006) p. 63.

[12] Breeden, David, “Falling Into the Sky,”eds., Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, Falling Into the Sky: A Meditation Anthology (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) p. 1.

Edge Times: A Meditation on the Coming of Spring

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

We’re right on the edge. Spring has come so close. 

Diggin' in the dirt

Snow, when it falls, melts quickly now. Thermometers now read forty, even fifty degrees at mid-day. Morning bird song, though sparse, is unmistakable now. Sharp green shoots will break through the cold but thawing ground any day now. Pale, red buds will begin dotting branches any day now. Spring has come so close and so many of us are ready, on the edge, poised, anticipating, expecting, crouching as if ready to leap, ready to burst forth, ready to bid farewell to our winter tombs, ready for resurrection, ready for rebirth, ready for warm April sun on our backs, ready for dirty hands planting seeds in the dark, brown earth. Continue reading….