June 8, 2014 Greensboro First Friends/June 15, 2014 Indianapolis First Friends        

Pastor Deborah Suess; Toward a Healthy Theology of Forgiveness...

resources: Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen, When Forgiveness Doesn't Make Sense by Robert Jeffress, Don't Forgive Too Soon: Extending the Hands that Heal by Dennis Linn.

 My beloved state of NC feels incredibly polarized these days – politically, religiously and beyond.… But two Saturdays ago – it felt like our state was momentarily unified as we remembered and honored the life of our beloved Dr. Maya Angelou. Her memorial service was in Winston Salem and live streamed … and much of North Carolina watched, prayed and gave thanks.

 Maya Angelou was a survivor in many ways. Her childhood was described as “too rough for words.” Yet on numerous occasions she said that one of the keys to not only her survival but to living with joy – has been learning how to forgive.   My-ah said she was able to forgive as she began (in her words) “to internalize, ingest the truth that I am loved / loved by God.”

In my experience, offering and receiving forgiveness is one of the most challenging and liberating calls of the Christian life. So after watching the memorial service, I decided to look into a bit more of what Dr. Angelou had to say about forgiveness and faith.

She was interviewed in 2013 for O Magazine. Oprah was one of the many women My-yah adopted as “sister/daughter.”  Here’s a portion of the interview.

Oprah asks: What would you say, sitting here where you are now, to that young calypso singer (you were) in 1957?

Maya answers:  I would encourage her to forgive. It's one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody. I mean, we ask the Creator to forgive our stupidest actions. The cruelest mean-hearted things. …So then you too forgive. It relieves you. You are relieved of carrying that burden of resentment. You really are lighter.

Oprah: I know you often say that love liberates us, but actually, forgiveness does?

Maya: …. you can't forgive without loving. And I don't mean sentimentality. I don't mean mush. I mean having enough courage to stand up and say, "I forgive. I'm finished with it."

Oprah: … You have taught me over the years that when you forgive somebody, it doesn't necessarily mean you want to invite them to your table.

Maya: Indeed not.. …... No, no, no. … [sometimes] it just means  I'm finished ….   /  

(and that too is forgiveness…)

AS a person of faith, My-yah took Jesus’ call to forgive seriously. .. And so do I.

In the prayer that Jesus taught us -- we hear the words: Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.  As a forgiven people – we are called to forgive one another. But that does not mean it’s easy nor simple.  

I find it telling – that so very very much has been written about the topic in just the last 10-12 years. Books, articles, websites, blogs about various aspects of forgiveness now abounds …

And there is some incredibly helpful information out there. Unfortunately – there is also much of what I would call – kooky and even dangerous theology being taught and preached regarding the role of forgiveness in a person’s life. So … a good beginning place is to first consider:  What Forgiveness Is Not…

You are welcome to follow along in your bulletin.

First: Forgiveness is not indifference nor is it a pretense that an injury - an offense did not matter. Until we are honest about our actual feelings --   forgiveness has little meaning.  In other words –forgiveness is not denial. Rather forgiveness involves acknowledging the truth to ourselves, to God and (depending on the circumstance) sometimes to the one who caused injury.

Two: Forgiveness is not an antidote to hurting. Unfortunately – offering forgiveness does not magically take away the pain of injury. You may hurt for a long time … the good news is that forgiveness does help lead to healing and release. However, it is often slow, incremental, and a multi- layered process. I often think of the image of peeling away an onion.

Three: Forgiving is Not the same as forgetting. Thankfully hurtful memories often fade… but it is not required that we forgive and forget. Rather – I believe we can both remember and forgive.

Four: … Forgiveness does not mean a relationship will return to exactly the way it was before an offense.  By the grace of God, a relationship may indeed grow and become stronger, better, healthier… But the relationship will not be the same… ~ It’s been said that Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”  (paul boese)  I love that.

Five: As My-yah Angelou puts it – forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to invite the person back to your table. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. One can truly forgive and let go but also choose to not resume the relationship.

Six: Forgiveness doesn’t make a harmful action okay. Forgiveness is not justification nor condoning. While you may forgive, you may also say, “Never again …” 

Seven: Forgiving is not the same as pardoning. It is not letting a wrongdoer off the hook. There are often consequences to our behaviors … even though we’ve been forgiven. And it is not the same as accepting, excusing or tolerating. We may forgive what we cannot tolerate, overlook or ignore.

Eight: Forgiveness is not easy nor is it a one-size-fits all. What it looks like for you may be different than for me. The timing / the process/ the work/ the prayer that it involves … will differ from person to person / situation to situation.

Nine: Forgiveness is not something you have to do alone. It takes faith, courage and requires help. Help from God and often help from others – whether that be your best friend, spouse, your pastor, your therapist, spiritual director or your coach.  Forgiveness is not something you have to “journey through” alone….

Finally- Ten:  Extending Forgiveness is not primarily about the other but rather about our blessing, our release – (or as Dr. Angelou put it) our invitation to travel lightly.

To forgive another person from our heart is an act of liberation. We set that person free from the negative bonds that exist between us. We say, “I no longer hold your offense against you” But it doesn’t stop there. We also free ourselves from the burden of being the “offended one.”  In the words of Henri Nouwen - [When] we do not forgive those who have wounded us, we carry them with us or, worse, pull them as a heavy load. … Forgiveness, therefore, liberates not only the other but also ourselves.



Queries for Open Worship...

What does receiving/offering forgiveness look like in your life?

What is a “healthy theology” of forgiveness?

When in your life have you experienced forgiveness as grace, release or simply letting go?

Does the advice, "Don't Forgive Too Soon" speak to you?

Is the Spirit inviting you into the journey of asking for forgiveness, receiving forgiveness….or extending forgiveness to another?