“Everybody loves it when people forget their birthdays!” So proclaimed retired Episcopal Bishop FitzSimons Allison many years ago. Such an oversight gives us a chance to form a grudge, hold a grudge, nurse a grudge. And often – although we may not be eager to admit it — we derive some pleasure in that, even along with the pain resulting from feeling ignored or overlooked.
“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
The sweet sense of forgiveness wafts through, over, under this passage from Matthew, this command from Jesus. With these words, Jesus again calls us upward, forward, beyond where we thought we had to go. He makes it clear that it is insufficient simply not to physically murder another person; we are continually to seek and give forgiveness; reconcile; lubricate our relationships with Christ’s love and mercy and compassion. Sometimes we need to go to another who is unhappy with us for some reason; other times, we need to forgive another; and there are times when we have to forgive ourselves.
Recently, I was getting ready to leave the house for the day – I knew I would be gone for a long time, about 10 or 11 hours. I gave our family cat, Socks, two cans of food to get her through that time, left a few lights on for her, made sure the doors were locked and left.
When I got home many hours later, I discovered that I had left Socks’ bowl on the kitchen counter, too high for her to reach it. In disbelief, I slowly realized that indeed her food was not on the floor, where it should have been, and that meant she hadn’t eaten since I had left in the morning. Socks is going to be 20 years old in April, is thin, and I spend much of my time and energy every day focused on doing what I can to help her eat and get fattened up a bit.
I cannot describe to you how I felt. I said to my older son, with whom I was on the telephone when I made the horrible discovery, that clearly I am the worst mother in the world to our kitty. He comforted me, told me that I am not the worst mother to her and assured me that she would be okay. I put Socks’ bowl on the floor in the regular place, and she began to eat. I told her over and over again how sorry I was and assured her that I would never do that on purpose and that I would not do it again. She ate a little more and then when I settled in lengthwise on the sofa to relax and watch television, she hopped up to her spot on the back of the sofa right beside me. And later, when I went to bed, she nestled close to me. Socks forgave me without even having to go through the stage of holding a grudge for a while and then deciding to let go of it. She forgave me immediately, clearly, trustingly and innocently. In her, I witnessed forgiveness at its purest.
For most of us, it doesn’t work that way. It’s more of a struggle culminating in a decision to forgive. Social worker and spiritual director Lynn Huber helps us to understand the challenge of forgiveness in her essay included in the book Living into God’s Dream: Dismantling Racism in America, edited by Catherine Meeks. Forgiveness, Huber says, does “not require that you have all your feelings ducks lined up in a row. Forgiveness at heart is not so much a change of feelings. Rather forgiveness is a decision; the feelings often shift afterward.”
Spurred on by Socks and Lynn Huber, I decided to give forgiveness a try in terms of a lingering resentment I had held onto against a former friend. Years ago, I met a man through mutual friends, and we all spent a lot of time together. In particular, the man and I became fond of each other and enjoyed fun times on our own. Our friendship ended abruptly, as friendships sometimes do. It felt unfinished because it was unfinished; we didn’t go through a process of talking about our different life paths and saying goodbye in a healthy way. My nerves jangled when I thought about him. It was as if my memories of our time together were pointed and disconcerting, like shards of glass, rather than smooth and nonthreatening.
After my experience with Socks, I decided to practice forgiveness and to let my resentments of that former friendship go. With God’s help, I said – not to my former friend but to the space around me – “I forgive you.” And with Huber’s guidance, I knew that forgiving didn’t mean I had to forget what happened, that what happened was okay or that I condoned it. It simply meant that I forgave my friend for his part in it. And that I forgave myself for my part in it.
As soon as I spoke the words, I felt lighter, cleaner, airier; the resentment vanished, and the poison of resentment left my soul, my mind, my body. Forgiveness cleansed me through and through. God’s gift of forgiveness to me was extraordinary, helping to restore “a right spirit within me,” (Psalm 51:10), making me whole again.
And the good news doesn’t stop with what God did for me. I’m here to tell you that if God can work forgiveness through me, God can do it for any of us – that much is for sure!