Benediction Online

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Letting go of the past

Two monks were on a pilgrimage. They came to a wide river, and there on the bank was a beautiful but scantily clad young woman. She too needed to cross the river but there was no bridge and no boat. So one monk picked her up and carried her across. He put her down on the other side and the monks continued their journey. After about half an hour, the other monk couldn’t contain himself, “How could you?” he shouted. “How could you, a monk sworn to chastity, carry a woman like that?” The other replied, “Brother I put her down half an hour ago, but you are still carrying her.”

Forgiveness. Letting go of the past. It’s at the very core of Christian spirituality. Whatever you believe, if you are a follower of Christ, forgiveness, love and compassion are at the very center of your life and practice.

Jesus visits the home of Simon of Pharisee, and to Simon’s disgust a woman comes in who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and then anoints them. Simon is disgusted because this is not the way things are done. As far as he is concerned, the woman is a sinner – she is unclean – and Jesus is letting her touch him in a very intimate way. Simon is critical and judgmental whereas Jesus is allowing and loving. Simon sees the outer, Jesus sees the inner essence of the woman.

Hearing his criticism, Jesus asks one of his famous questions… two men went to a loan shark who, in an unprecedented move, offered to write off their debt. One man owed $500, the other just $50. Which one was the more grateful? “Well” replies Simon reluctantly, knowing that there’s trap in there somewhere, “the one who owed more, I suppose.” You’re right,” says Jesus. Of course you, as a Pharisee, don’t need much forgiveness so of course you aren’t as loving as this woman who has shown me hospitality with her own body and done everything you didn’t – washed, dried and anointed my feet.

And of course the irony here is that there are no degrees in sin – in Romans we hear “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. In God’s eyes Simon has sinned just as much or as little as the woman. But Simon is stuck in his criticism and his self-righteousness whereas the nameless woman is moved to tears by her gratitude and her love for God in Jesus. She allowed the knowledge of God’s love to touch her and move her and she responded with gratitude and love expressed through her emotions, her body and her gifts.

We are forgiven. We are totally and absolutely forgiven, no ifs, ands or buts…
If we are forgiven, why is it often so hard for us to forgive others? Like the monk who couldn’t let go of his anger at his brother, we continue to carry heavy loads around in our minds and hearts. And those knots of un-forgiveness tie up our energy and slow us down. Imagine for a moment that we get up everyday with 50 units of energy to spend. For one person the weight of un-forgiven past that she is carrying uses perhaps 5 units of energy and so she only has 45 to spend on today, but for another the weight is much greater and eats up 25 units so she only has 25 units available for living today. Forgiveness is not only a spiritual imperative because we follow the one who is forgiveness, but it makes practical sense. How can you live in today if you’re dragging yesterday around like a ball and chain?

In the first reading, we heard about one of David’s big outrageous sins. He fancied Bathsheba and so he had her husband Uriah sent into the front line of battle without back-up. When Uriah was killed, David took Bathsheba for his own wife. The prophet Nathan made him see that he had misused his power to oppress another, and that that had consequences. Unlike the ancients, I don’t think that the baby died because David sinned. God does not punish us. Illness happens, tragedy happens, it’s part of life in this world. But I do know that sin often has real-time consequences.

In fact, I used to wonder why it really mattered that God forgives us since it didn’t make things magically better. If I lose my temper then however much I know that God forgives me, I still have to deal with whoever I lost my temper with. God forgives us again and again but we still get to deal with the consequences of our actions or inactions.

The trick, I think, is in forgiving myself. If God forgives me, then why should I not forgive myself? In fact, it might even be rather arrogant to go on accusing myself when God has already forgiven me.

Once I have accepted God’s forgiveness and forgiven myself, then I am like the monk who put the woman down. I can move on. I can deal with the consequences of my behavior without the added burden of self-accusation.

A couple of days ago I needed an important document in a hurry. I have many large stacks of papers containing things I hope to get around to dealing with, some important like unpaid bills, others less so, like book catalogs I want to peruse just in case I need another book. So there were many untidy places where this document could be. As I searched I berated myself with how annoying it was that I couldn’t keep my papers in better order, that I would be so much more efficient if I just put things away in the right place and on and on… until I heard myself. I realized that my inner conversation was not helping, in fact it was getting in the way of my finding the document.

When I can approach the clutter and mess in my office with the equanimity that comes from accepting God’s forgiveness and forgiving myself, then I can deal with what’s there without the anxiety and recrimination that makes it much harder to get anything done.

Often, forgiveness does not come easily. Especially when we have made it a lifetime’s habit not to forgive ourselves, or not to forgive our father or whomsoever we blame for the inadequacies and disappointments of our lives. It’s also especially difficult to forgive when someone has injured you in a major way. In those times when an injury or injustice is too recent or too ingrained to be forgiven quickly, we can offer our willingness to forgive. If, whenever the problem comes to mind, we cannot say “I forgive…” we instead say “I am willing to forgive…” then before long that willingness will turn to forgiveness. And with forgiveness will come greater equanimity and grace.

Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)

The gentle and humble in heart can see themselves clearly, knowing their persistent faults and shortcomings and, being gentle with themselves, can also be gentle and humble with others.

So let us respond to God’s great gift of unconditional love and forgiveness, by disarming our critical selves, and embracing forgiveness and generous self-giving love.


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