Forgiveness is a Creative Act
Numbers 21:4-9, Excerpt from The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu and John 3:14-21
Welcome to this fourth Sunday in Lent on this wintery weekend in Colorado.
Now is the time in this worship service where we create space in our minds and hearts to hear beyond the surface. So, I invite you to take just a few moments to breathe and breathe out and to let yourself be here, whatever that means for you. And as you are so moved, I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer and centering from Psalm 19.
God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” I have been reflecting on these words from Bryan Stevenson a lot lately. Our last Fourth Sunday Forum went deeper into learning about the Equal Justice Initiative and this is a core principle of their work. Bryan Stevenson wrote, “Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” He said, “My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
This statement speaks to those labeled as condemned for crimes long ago committed and also to people wrongfully convicted. His book Just Mercy: a story of justice and redemption Stevenson explores these themes and others and invites anyone reading to look inward about our own attitudes on restoration, sin, forgiveness and outward to our institutionalized racism and systems of mass incarceration. Our prisons are not just racially biased and morally corrupt for-profit institutions, generating revenue off of inhumane treatment using our tax payer dollars, but they leave people hopeless and in the dark, without a belief in redemption and forgiveness.
One of the most famous scriptures in all of American Christianity might be John 3:16 The artistic version we heard says that “God didn’t send her Son into the world to judge it, but to give It life through him.” Or in the more traditional version, “God did not send Jesus to condemn, but to save.” You might already know that this is the very label given to those on death row- condemned.
This verse, John 3:16, in many contexts has come to mean that the redemption of sin comes from a certain kind of belief and/or a perfect kind of life, the part that comes after is often ignored. God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn, but to save. And yet, what many of us have experienced and what Bryan Stevenson shows, is the pain and suffering caused by a life of condemnation and he shows that salvation can sometimes happen in this life. Perhaps this verse means something like this, “Put our energy not toward judgement, not toward condemning, not toward judging one another and you will be spared, in some ways saved even, by learning again and again to extend and receive grace, by living in love and aiming to forgive.
As you know, for the season of Lent we are surviving the wilderness journey with spiritual practices each week and today our practice is forgiveness. We have used the spiritual resources of lectio divina, chanting, memorization and always silence built in, to dive deeper into these themes of shame, letting parts of our egos, our ideas and parts of ourselves die and last week, channeling and transforming anger.
I am no expert on forgiveness. And I find I need to practice it more and more as time goes on. I find the need to learn to forgive myself as much as others. One of the most challenging parts of forgiveness, in my experience is the trap of thinking that we are denying reality when we forgive or that we are not acknowledging harm caused. But Desmund Tutu wrote that, “Forgiveness does not relieve someone of responsibility for what they have done. Forgiveness does not erase accountability. It is not about turning a blind eye or even turning the other cheek. It is not about letting someone off the hook or saying it is okay to do something monstrous. Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed. Within every hopeless situation and every seemingly hopeless person lies the possibility of transformation.”
To me, this means forgiveness is in part about our willingness to situate ourselves in that liminal space that can feel hopeless and still hanging on. I am not saying that we remain in relationships that cause harm. Rather, what I mean is that forgiveness asks us to hope and to keep connections, even amid flaws and failures, disappointments and dashed dreams.
Bryan Stevenson shared that he knew it was part of his life’s vocation to live and be hope. He wrote, “The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong.”
Did you catch that? To position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, (to be and) believe in a better future.
This is required in the work of seeking justice and I wonder if it might also be part of what is needed in the act of forgiveness- positioning oneself in a hopeless place, while still seeing and believing in the possibility of transformation to something else.
To forgive- is to grant, to give over, to give up.
So to me, forgiveness is a willingness to give up again and again, in a healthy way. Giving up thinking we can change anyone but ourselves, giving up the tendency to let our energy go to what cannot be fixed, giving up being weighed down by the past. Forgiveness is surrender, throwing our hearts and sometimes even our hands in the air, giving energy not to what is wrong or what cannot be, but to what can be and granting hope the power to make it so. And sometimes, at least for me, I am learning that forgiveness is accepting that we did the best we could at the time or that they did the best they could and also in this moment now, we are free to do things differently now. Forgiveness is accepting and extending grace, showing patience, being honest about what is.
And here’s the other thing, if we don’t work on forgiveness, if we don’t practice it and aim for it, that which we haven’t given over and given up can become toxic. As Desmund Tutu wrote, “To not forgive leads to bitterness and hatred. Like self-hatred and self-contempt, hatred of others gnaws away at our vitals…”
I have come to see forgiveness as a creative act. There is no formula or recipe or perfectly right way to do it. To me it is more like an art form, a practice that we come back to again and again. One of my mentors taught me that from her point of view, we are most like God when we are creating. She is a dancer and showed us the Divine not by telling us about it, but by inviting us to experience It, to be open to It, to be moved by It, to channel It and let It flow through us. I have heard from many of you that if you have a concept of God it is more like that too, not a force whose primary work is judgment, but an energy, a Higher and Deeper Power that is pulling us to expansiveness, to kindness, to clarity, to hang on even when its rough, which asks us to be artists of our intentions and our emotions.
We can be creative with how we show up in these rapidly changing circumstances, in our quickly shifting landscape. Because to create or make a new relationship or really to construct anything is to dare to imagine what is not yet, and to be willing to step out to try and build or be something novel. This is part of forgiveness too. We acknowledge what is and also hold space for what is yet to be, that in and of itself can be a creative act. You might have seen the movie or read the book Eat, Pray, Love. There is a scene at the end of her time in India where she is faced with the impossible task of forgiving herself. She goes to the roof of the Ashram and meets her former husband in her heart and in her mind. And they dance to the song that was supposed to be the first song after their wedding. To heal from the loss of that relationship, she created for herself a ritual on the roof to feel what she needed to feel, to send him love and forgive him and then to forgive herself. Forgiveness asks us to be experimental, to be creative because it means finding ourselves again and again in a willing place- to situate ourselves in those liminal spaces that feel hopeless, while still seeing and believing in and modeling the possibility of a different way or dancing ourselves to something else.
Since our spiritual practice this Sunday and our whole lives really is forgiveness, I will end today with a meditation.
Spiritual practice: Forgiveness
Forgiving means not pushing anyone, or any part of our own being, out of our heart.
Forgiving means situating ourself in a liminal space- between what is and what is not yet.
As we bring a full, compassionate presence to the wounds that we’ve been protecting or the past that needs to be surrendered, or the places and people that we need to forgive, for the places in us that need grace, we pause, we breathe in hope and breathe out fear, we release the armoring of hatred and blame that has been imprisoning our heart. We cannot will this process of forgiveness, but we can be willing. It is a challenging and courageous life practice that frees us to love without holding back.