Post Author: Name Withheld
During the season of Lent, my church has been studying a variety of Christian Practices. Together – in sermons on Sunday morning, as well as book study groups throughout the week – we have explored practices like Hospitality, Discernment, Healing, and Testimony. Together, we have grown in faith. Together, we have learned about God and one another. Together, we have discovered new ways of being the Church.
While I would love to say that our study of Christian Practices has been all sunshine, lollipops, and roses, I can’t do that. Certainly, there are some aspects of these many practices that are easy and fun to do. But, some of them are downright hard. Some of them require that we face things that we have been trying to hide. Some of them force us to let go of things that we have been holding onto for so long that our knuckles are white from the death-grip we have on them.
The practice of Forgiveness is like that.
It was the chapter that I had been dreading. Having been deeply hurt by individuals in a previous call – wounded to the point of almost abandoning my call to ministry – I was less than excited about the subject of Forgiveness. And, I soon discovered that I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t thrilled with having to talk about it. On the morning before our study group met, a woman who had just joined the study group the week before called me to check which chapter we would be studying.
“Well, we will be studying the chapter on Forgiveness,” I said, trying to hide my own hesitancy to deal with the topic.
“Oh,” she said, clearly upset by the mere mention of the word. “I’m not sure I can deal with that. Maybe I should skip this week.”
I completely understood her desire to avoid the study. Frankly, I wanted to run away from it, too. But, my responsibility to both encourage and challenge those in my care as pastor took over, and I invited her to come and meet with the group. “It is a safe space,” I heard myself saying. “You don’t have to speak or share anything if you don’t want to – just come and listen. I’m sure that you aren’t alone in your feelings about the practice of Forgiveness.” Little did she know that we were kindred spirits. She thanked me and agreed to come.
Now, I know that God’s Spirit is present wherever two or more are gathered in God’s name. And I know that God’s Spirit has been (and is) at work in the congregations I serve and the study groups that I lead. But, God’s Spirit was really there the night that we discussed the topic that terrified me and my elderly friend. I could tell that the Spirit was with us as soon as the meeting started. Normally, I have to practically beg someone else to offer the opening prayer (they all like to stare at me, expecting that the pastor can pray the best out of everyone there). That evening, however, I didn’t even have to ask. One of the other participants offered to pray before I had even uttered a word! I realized in those first few moments of our meeting that this was going to be a very different kind of study that night.
The older woman who had dreaded the thought of even coming to the study that night opened up to everyone, confessing that she just didn’t think that she could ever practice this practice of Forgiveness. “I just can’t,” she said. “I was hurt so badly, and I can’t seem to let it go. I want to let it go. I want so desperately to move on with my life and stop being so angry and bitter because of what happened to me. But, I don’t know how to do it. And that really frightens me. I am worried that I am losing my ability to love.”
Her words hung heavy in the air, and I found it hard to take a breath. I simultaneously felt her pain and mine – and it was almost too much to bear. “What do I say, Lord?” I silently pleaded with the Holy One to give me guidance. “I am this woman’s pastor, and I don’t know how to help her! I don’t know what to say, because I don’t know how to do it. I have the same worry. I have the same fear. What do I say?”
As I thought those exact words, the person sitting next to me said, “Sometimes, there are no words.”
I nearly started to cry.
“Sometimes, there are no words,” she repeated. “Sometimes, we are so overwhelmed by our past that our future is hard to know what to say. It is hard to know where to go and what to do next. But we know that we are told to forgive one another. Even when we are afraid that we will never hear an apology… Even when we may never be forgiven by the other person… That’s what we’re supposed to do. And it is hard. But…while Forgiveness is hard for us to do, Jesus has the strength to do it. When we hand things over in prayer, Christ can do the things that we don’t have the ability to do. The tricky part is, we have to let go of it so God can do it.”
The other members of the group went on to talk about practices that they have used to “let go and let God”. One woman shared how she created a box that she called her “God Box”. Every time she thought about the person she was trying so hard to forgive, she would write that person’s name on a piece of paper and put it in the box – literally giving it to God. She testified that she discovered that, over time, she wrote that person’s name less and less, having finally realized forgiveness.
As we talked and shared, opening up about our own struggles with the practice of Forgiveness, there was a real sense of peace that started to spread in the room. Shoulders relaxed. Brows unfurrowed. Arms unfolded. Teeth unclenched. When the chime of the clock indicated that it was time for our meeting to come to a close for the evening, we sat in silence for a few moments – just drinking in the grace that we had all experienced in and through the conversations moments before. Finally, my kindred spirit – the older woman who had worried that she was not even going to be able to sit through the study group that night, for fear of the topic – spoke: “Maybe what we all need most is to practice forgiving ourselves for not always being comfortable with the practice of Forgiveness.”
We all said in unison, “Amen.”
I left the book study a changed person that night, and I don’t think I was the only one. In the weeks following our discussion of the practice of Forgiveness, we have all commented on how we have been able to do better at practicing that practice. Why? We have realized that we are practicing it together. Several of us created “God Boxes” of our own, writing the names of people and situations that we struggle to forgive, and giving them to God – again and again. And little by little, we are making progress toward real forgiveness. When we clung to the notion that we had to do it all by ourselves, it was too much to bear. Now, we realize that we can help one another carry the load – and help one another carry it to the Cross. Together, we are practicing – forgiving others and forgiving ourselves. Thanks be to God for the gift of kindred spirits with whom we may practice our faith.
Image by: Seth Anderson (swanksalot)
Used with permission