Many thanks to Roxanne French who preached this week while Pastor Chrissy was away.
Forgiveness is not...
"How ya doin' ?" It is so wonderful to be here again at Winthrop Congregational Church. I have missed being with all of you more than you know. During this time that I have been away from you- my body has been in New Hampshire, my heart has been in Maine and my soul has been in the Desert.
When I say "The Desert" , I am referring to the place that we go all go when we are struggling with our spiritual life or life in general. The inner landscape that we may retreat to when we wonder if God has abandoned us or let us down- usually because life has been more bitter than sweet. We may go to the desert when we need to adjust to some big transition or loss, usually not of our own choosing. Often we go to this fierce landscape, accompanied by grief, anger or even hatred.
Now, you might of been in the Desert as well during the last few months, but you and I did not meet as we each sought answers in our respective solitude. The Desert is a lonely, desolate place where we consider our own pain and God's place in our lives- yet there are gifts in that Desert. If we seek the companionship of Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit, we learn ways of coping with life.
A few years ago, when I was ready to leave the Desert, I had a meditation where I saw Jesus. I knelt to my knees at His beautiful, strong feet. I said to Him, "I am so tired of being alone." Jesus replied to me, "We all go it alone." The Master placed His hands on my head and I knew healing and peace.
` We sometimes feel lost as did God's People did in the 40 years between their captivity and arrival at the Promised Land. God was the constant companion to the Israelites in the Desert, even as they were facing deprivation and testing. God provided sustenance in the form of manna and water. A column of smoke during the day and a column of light at night. Yet the Israelites grumbled and wished for more. We might empathize with the People because all have our own moments of ingratitude when we are tempted to seek more or to worship "golden calves". We seek these things to mask the pain or fill the empty void- usually without much success.
As Christians, we are the spiritual descendants of the ancient Hebrews. We recall that Jesus of Nazareth underwent His own testing in the Desert for forty days and forty nights. Temptation came in the form of Satan, who appealed to Jesus' hunger and feeling of powerlessness. Through all of it, Jesus remained obedient saying “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Jesus proved his mettle and began his active ministry soon after this. I believe that Jesus the Man needed this test. God the Father already knew the strength of the Son.
So it was that I arrived in New Hampshire, only to face once again, old problems and troublesome people that I had thought that I had left behind. So much for the "geographical cure". Wherever you are, you are there ? I had to make peace once again with New Hampshire life, to forgive anew, and redefine what a life of service would look like in this place.
I do not know how you would go about sorting all of this out. What I did was throw myself an extended "pity party". No one was invited, but cake and light refreshment (and a very few adult beverages) was available. The ascetism of the saints is not for me. No fasting, no sackcloth and ashes. What I did was pray and complain (or kvetch) to God. The Hebrews kvetched plenty- read Lamentations and the Psalms of lamentation if you doubt this. Not every prayer is one of gratitude and praise.
In this tradition, I invited God into my innermost thoughts- even the ugly ones of bitterness, hatred, and anger. The process seemed to take too long according to my timeline, but I was working on God's time.
After much contemplation, I finally came to the conclusion that I must forgive, even in the absence of earthly justice. The self-torture of re-living past traumas and injustices just took too much energy. The justice is for God (not me) to mete out in ways that I will likely never see play out. It was time for me to trust again in life and find peace.
The forgiveness did not happen all at once. At times, I nurtured a resentment until I was exhausted enough to let it go. In other cases, I just gave an eviction notice to people who lived in my head. (They did not seem to notice.) In a very few instances, I realized that I was not strong enough to forgive- so I left these for later. I expected that God may work within until I realize that the old feelings are gone. I bound my wounds, rather than pick at my scabs.
Finally, it occurred to me that if people had caused me pain, then I was guilty of inflicting harm on others. Would I self-flagelate or seek God's grace ? If all of these folks have received forgiveness, am I not also worthy ? The most important gift of the Desert is that I have forgiven myself ! Self-acceptance and self-empathy are beautiful gifts.
In retrospect, as painful as this time was- I would only do one thing differently. I would be less ashamed of my struggle- and I would ask other believers to pray for me. It is easier to battle the darkness if we have spiritual support. After all, isn't that one of the many reasons that we are gathered here this morning ?
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.