Name the Harm, Find the Heart: Forgiveness ©

Delivered on January 3,1999

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Harford County

Rev. Lisa Ward




Come sweet holy days out of the ordinary,
Come from the secret room in the heart of the house.
Open our shabby familiar walls,
Set the furniture in sacred space where breath carries its own consent --
And to live is no embarrassment.
Come with gifts and be the beauty in the hollow of things.
Come sweet holy days across time's bridge...
Find us ready.
To share.
To be fed.

-- from the "Friends Journal", December, 1998


"You Are"
--anonymous Jewish Commentary


You are strong when you take your grief and teach it to smile.
You are brave when you overcome your fear and help others to do the same.
You are happy when you see a flower and give it your blessing.
You are loving when your own pain does not blind you to the pain of others.
You are wise when you know the limits of your wisdom.
You are true when you admit there are times you fool yourself.
You are alive when tomorrow's hope means more to you than yesterday's mistake.
You are growing when you know what you are but not what you will become.
You are free when you are in control of yourself and do not wish to control others.
You are honorable when you find your honor is to honor others.
You are generous when you take as sweetly as you can give.
You are humble when you do not know how humble you are.
You are thoughtful when you see me just as I am and treat me just as you are.
You are merciful when you forgive in others the faults you condemn in yourself.
You are beautiful when you don't need a mirror to tell you.
You are rich when you never need more that you have.
You are what you are and that is enough for anyone to be loved.


Excerpt from Women Who Run With the Wolves, pp. 372-373
by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.


There are many ways and portions to forgiving a person, a community, a nation for an offense. It is important to remember that a "final" forgiveness is not surrender. It is a conscious decision to cease to harbor resentment...You are the one who decides when to forgive and what ritual to use to mark the event.

Forgiveness does not mean giving up one's protection but one's coldness. One deep form of forgiveness is to cease excluding the other...

Forgiveness is an act of creation. You can choose from many ways to do it. You can forgive for now, forgive till then, forgive till the next time, forgive but give no more chances -- its a whole new game if there's another incident... You can forgive part, all or half the offense. You can devise a blanket forgiveness. You decide.

How does one know if (one) has forgiven? You tend to feel sorrow over the circumstances instead of rage. You tend to feel sorry for the person rather than angry. You tend to have nothing left to remember to say about it all. You understand the suffering that drove the offense to begin with...You are not waiting for anything. You are not wanting anything...It may not have turned out to be a happily ever after, but certainly there is now a fresh once upon a time waiting for you from this day forward.


A Chinese Proverb:

A woman went to a wise one who knew the ways of medicine, herbs and mystical cures. She came with much money, visibly disturbed, heavy laden with a deep fury inside. "I have a sister whom I hate," she told the wise one, "She is ruining my life. I want to get rid of her. Can you help me." The wise woman studied her client for a moment and then answered, "Yes, I have just the thing." She took some massage oil off the shelf and mixed it with scented oil. She gave the sister the mixture. "This is a slow acting poison. You must give your sister an hour-long massage three times a week for six months. The poison will set in slowly and by the end of this treatment, this sister whom you hate will be gone."

The next day the woman began using the poison on her sister, who, though surprised at such a gesture of generosity, whole heartedly accepted free massages. At first the sister talked incessantly throughout the massage, irritating the woman to no end. What kept the woman going was the knowledge that the poison was taking effect and she would be rid of this pain in her life. As the weeks progressed, the sister became calmer, the conversations less frequent, the interchange more intimate, without pretense. And while the woman noticed this marked change in her sister, knowing that the poison was weakening her, she began to feel an affection for her sister, even a friendship that she never knew was possible. She began to look forward to their time together, not to increase the collective poison, but to share the hour together.

By five months the woman became very anxious. She realized that not only was her hatred gone, but she now wanted her sister to live. She returned to the wise woman with only two weeks to go, panic stricken that it was too late and her sister would die. The wise one heard her story and plea for an antidote. "I have no antidote for you," she said, "you do not need one...The poison destroyed your hatred. You are cured. You are rid of this pain in your life. Go home and celebrate your new freedom."


"Forgiveness is the culmination of all foregoing, forbearing, and forgetting," writes Clarissa Estes, "It does not mean giving up one's protection, but one's coldness. One deep form of forgiveness is to cease excluding the other..."

Without forgiveness, the past would ever determine the future. The baggage we all carry would remain intact and grow daily, until there would be no room for change or anything new. Without forgiveness, we would eventually cease to exist. We'd cease to learn, we'd cease to grow, and we'd cease to see outside our own wounds, our own rage, fears, walls and assumptions. Without forgiveness we would be defined by those who hurt us, giving them power over us: defined by what "they" did to us. Without forgiveness we become professional victims, letting blame shape our identity and imprison us in reactive behavior. "I am this way because of that thing or those people. I can't change my behavior because I was too hurt."

If we do not have forgiveness, we release responsibility for our lives and let someone else's actions, whether recent or in our childhood, determine how we make our choices. Without forgiveness we simply are not free ...none of us...because we all make mistakes and we have all been offended in some measure or another. If we lock ourselves into the hurt or into the blame, then we will inevitably experience a crisis of courage to go on.

"The poison destroyed your hatred. You are cured. You are rid of this pain in your life. Go home and celebrate your new freedom..."

Forgiveness is rarely an easy equation. Often the hurt is not acknowledged by the offender or not in a way that is immediately satisfying. But the healing must happen anyway -- else we become imprisoned in the hurt and its manifestations.

In January of 1989, I had the opportunity to be a part of a Witness for Peace delegation to Nicaragua. Remnants of the contra war were still active and political rhetoric was still in full force, as sides were attempting to proclaim their rights to govern the land. We visited small towns, barrios, where politics were not directly discussed for fear of losing more medical, educational and even religious supplies or personnel. The politics were played out in the lives of these people -- you could see the damage that the war had done, the severing of family ties, the constant threat of death and disease, the common place loss of children and parents. Many of the poor had been scattered during the war and found themselves setting up communities with make-shift roads, shacks, no plumbing, limited electricity -- if any at all.

We were received by one such community in a barrio outside Jinotega for a few days. The community knew we were from the United States and they knew the United States was covertly involved in the contra war. They knew that vested political interests of the more powerful was what created the situation that they struggled with. They were caught in a war that they did not start and were losing loved ones by the scores for causes that rarely included them. And yet, the spirit of community was more powerful in Jinotega than I have ever experienced. The power of love was palpable. The hospitality overwhelming. Bonded simply by their insistence to affirm life and one another, this community created a home by acknowledging that they needed one another...and further...that they needed to live with one another.

A group of children took us for a hike to their tallest peak. On our way back, we took a short cut through a graveyard. Halfway through, I realized one child was missing. I turned around and saw this seven or eight year old standing at a grave. I went to him. "My mother." He said, matter of fact and sad. "My father's over there." Pointing to another grave. We stood in silence for a moment and then he went on to town. Watching him go. I then noticed the scores of graves surrounding me. I found out later that his mother had been killed three weeks before. And yet he had life in him, life that he clearly cherished. Life that had dignity and knew love. Life that did not deny the suffering.

A dedication to a traveling juggler who was killed in Nicaragua stands in a park in Managua. It was designed by children and reads: "They can kill all the flowers, but they can never kill spring." Naming the harm.... Finding the heart.

The people we visited were not professional victims forgiving their abusers and enabling an unjust system. These were people who lived with dignity in spite of their circumstances. The people I met in Nicaragua gave me the gift of understanding forgiveness as a way to claim dignity -- as a way to release the hold of power others may have over me...because resentment and revenge, in the end, cripples the soul.

Now, I am not talking about denying the very real pain we may feel or have inflicted; nor am I saying that the offender should be let off the hook unconditionally. I am talking about forgiveness as a discipline toward transformation -- both a strengthening and release of self that eventually creates a more just and compassionate world. I am talking of a discipline that helps cleanse the soul: clear the debris of should have's and should be's and rage and blame and distrust -- a discipline that energizes hope and helps us see, once again, the potential of our lives, the potential, in fact, of life.

Forgiveness is a difficult issue to address. That is because it is an individual task -- different in each situation. It is up to you to know when forgiveness is possible. It is only you who knows whether you have been heard, only you who knows whether you can let go, only you who can let the past be and move on.

There is also a preaching of forgiveness that has permeated Western Culture, which perpetuates oppression and abusive relationships. It stems from a misinterpretation of the gospel to "love your enemy" and of the beatitude "blessed are the poor in spirit for they shall inherit the earth." Throughout the centuries, religious institutions established in powerful circles would often preach these edicts to keep the poor and disenfranchised from claiming their rights and dignity. "Forgive your oppressors for it is the saintly thing to do...and you will be rewarded. Forget our opulence, our positions of will get your justice in the next life." It is not up to the powerful to tell others to forgive their excesses. It is not up to the unharmed to dismiss the damage of the victims.

And yet that is exactly what we do in society. Those injured are told too soon to forgive, for it is "the righteous thing to do". This gives the survivors no avenue to truly embrace their whole hurting and healing selves. We know this pattern -- to blame the victim -- to somehow make the hurt the fault of the one hurting and then scoff at that person's inability to forgive unconditionally. This 'failure' to forgive is then seen as further proof of a failure of character. "You should forgive and if you can't that makes you bad."

There are many, many such doubly wounded people in the world: first, they endured the hurt and then the guilt and shame of not being able to heal. We rarely give enough room for healing; we rarely claim and name the harm. We see this most often in the way we often handle grief -- rarely giving the ones who experience loss enough time, wanting the pain over before it can be. Too often we want things forgotten, dismissed, diminished so that we don't have to feel deeply, so that we don't have to feel responsible, so that we don't have to say we're sorry. But until we name the harm, and until that harm is heard, there can be no true opening of the heart.

I'm sure most of you are familiar with that counter productive phrase in the seventies, coined by the movie "The Love Story": "Love means never having to say you're sorry." WRONG. Love means having to say you're sorry. Love means owning up to our part in the relating. Love means accepting another's regret, giving it full hearing and honest consideration, so that it may lead to reconciliation and wiser ways of being. For if a person is truly remorseful, then it is cruel to withhold forgiveness. But, I'm talking true remorse, the kind that changes heart and mind, the kind that has full understanding of the damage done to the point that that damage will not be done again.

Love carries us through difficulties into acceptance of change, growth, and imperfection. Because what we do in love -- to friends, family, life partners -- is give the most that we can of ourselves. That is not always the best of ourselves; sometimes it is raw, untested, unprocessed refuse from past experiences, fears or ignorance. Sometimes, with the best of intention we make mistakes, sometimes doosies...sometimes we are the recipients of damaged goods -- sometimes we are deeply wounded or confused by the acts of our loved ones. But it is love that keeps us trying, seeking ways of relating that heals wounds, break down barriers and engender joy.

The power of the soul, fueled by love and compassion, is far more mighty than we can comprehend. The stuff of our lives has a flexibility beyond our imagining. Changing, learning, growing, accepting, regrouping, renewing, reforming...all this and more life takes in stride and thrives from our participation in it.

Forgiveness gets us out of those stuck places when we find ourselves unable to fully participate in the movement of our lives. This only happens when it is the offended who grants the forgiveness. This only happens when the intention is toward new and better ways of relating.

Seeking and granting forgiveness is an essential part of summoning the sacred knowledge that life is a gift and we are ever emerging into all that we can be.

We have rung in the New Year. A time when many assess their past and look toward the future with new resolve. In order for that process to be truly transformative, a degree of both repentance and forgiveness must be part of the mix. In the fall the Jewish New Year includes a ritual known as the "Ten days of Teshuvah". This is the journey of repentance and renewal into the New Year. It is begun with two days of Rosh Hashanah and ended by one day of atonement, Yom Kippur. In the middle are the seven days to do Teshuvah, the work of seeking forgiveness and vowing repentance for wrongdoings committed towards others in the previous year. You must actually appease the person you have wronged and vow to stop the behavior.

We gain insight into repentance with the five stages in the doing of Teshuvah. One: the offender recognizes the wrongdoing. Two: he/she feels sincere remorse. Three: he/she undoes the damage. Four: he/she pacifies the victim. And five: the offender resolves never to commit the misdeed again.

The one hurt must accept the repentance by the third request, else withholding the forgiveness becomes a sin, a way to separate and damage community, a way to withhold power over the remorseful one. But the remorse must be real...the transformation of the offender begun.

Clarissa Estes gives insight toward forgiveness in the form of four stages. These stages are not necessarily experienced in this order and have no set time frame. One: the one hurt must forego for awhile, take a break from thinking about the person or the event, this allows building of strength and perspective. Two: the one hurt must forebear, abstain from punishing and work to summon compassion and the wisdom therein. Three: the one hurt must forget, not blot out the memory of the offense but refuse to dwell on it, let go, loosen its grasp on one's psyche. And four, to forgive, to abandon the debt.

Each journey of repentance and forgiveness is up to the traveler. It will not happen unless the person is granted their own pace.

I'd like to end with a meditation by Sara Moores Campbell (excerpted):


Spirit of Life, fill our hearts and cleanse us.
Remove the resentments that create walls between us.
Remove the jealousies that make us small.
Remove the fears and guilts that close us into ourselves.
Cleanse us and empty us of these things so that we may
know the force and power and fullness of the love
that reconciles us to ourselves, to one another, and to Life.
Give us in these moments of quiet the power of love that forgives

-that forgives us when we fail ourselves

-that allows us to ask for forgiveness

-that empowers us to forgive.

With forgiveness, lift us into new ways of loving;
free us to care

-to care for ourselves

-to care for our families

-to care for our friends

-to care for strangers

Grateful for that which nourishes us, we celebrate its power to renew us, to
change us, and to give us hope. This I pray.



May we find ways to name the hurts we inflicted and experienced and find the heart to use that new knowledge for better ways of being. May we someday find ourselves fully known and fully free. Amen.

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