The Grace of Forgiveness


Kim had every reason to hate. She had every excuse not to forgive. Her photograph appeared on newspapers across the world. Because Kim was one of the children seen running down a street in Vietnam after her village was bombed with Napalm. Anyone who has seen this photograph will never forget it. It is one of the awful defining images of the Vietnam war
          We ask ourselves “How could the innocent victim of such an atrocity ever forgive?” But forgive she did. Kim has forgiven the man who planned the attack that killed many of her friends and family. Not only that but she has established the KIM Foundation International. Her foundation is devoted to “Healing the Children of War”.
          Kim is an example of the Grace of Forgiveness. And that is the theme of our service today.
          Robbie Parker lost his six year old daughter in the Sandyhook Elementary School shooting on the 14th December 2012 in Connecticut. Just hours later, with tears still running down his face he stood in front of the cameras and he said this: "We’d like to offer our deepest condolences to all the families who are directly affected by this shooting. It’s a horrific tragedy and we want everybody to know that our hearts and our prayers go out to them. This includes the family of the shooter and I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you and I want you to know that our family and our love and our support goes out to you as well."
          How could Robbie Parker manage to find words like this at such at a time?, his 6 year old daughter dead. He went on "As we move on from what happened here, what happened to so many people, let it not turn into something that defines us, but something that inspires us to be better, to be more compassionate and more humble people." Robbie is another example of the Grace of Forgiveness.
          And there are so many more, so very many more. People who somehow faced tragedy, loss and suffering and still found it possible to forgive. Some of these people have become famous. Others are less well-known. But each of them gives us a lesson for life.
          Nelson Mandela is among the famous forgivers. He spent 27 years in prison in South Africa. He had every reason to hate those who had deprived him of his freedom for such a part of his life. When he was released from prison in 1990 he helped negotiate an end to apartheid. He became president of the country that had imprisoned him. He promoted forgiveness by creating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights abuses. Forgiveness was offered and former enemies became reconciled.
          Nelson Mandela left us with these memorable words “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”
          We all know that if we have been hurt by someone it can be very difficult to forgive that person. And the greater the hurt the more difficult it can be to forgive. Maybe even now some of us here can remember unhappy circumstances. Something in the past where we have suffered some hurt and where even now we are finding it difficult to forgive.
          I have come across situations where people have carried resentment with them for years, in some cases even to the grave. Some people have been unable to forgive even during their final illness and knowing that the grave awaited them.
          I’m sure we have all come across people who are imprisoned by bitterness. Bitterness about something that happened way back in the past. As you listen to the complaining you ask yourself what could possibly have been done to cause such ongoing resentment?
          Now from time to time all of us will feel hurt by something said or done intentionally or otherwise. But we cannot afford to allow these hurts to change our personalities, to turn us into bitter people. to turn us into people who go about carrying and displaying a burden of resentment. Holding resentment like this is such a waste of a life. There’s so much more we can do with our lives rather than dwelling on hurts from the past. We owe it to ourselves to try to move on. We owe it to ourselves to forgive.
          In the Christian tradition in the Lord’s prayer we have these words: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” Sometimes in reciting this prayer people place a pause that sounds like this:-
give us this day or daily bread and forgive us our trespasses
Then a pause - to take a breath – followed by
as we forgive those who trespass against us

But we really must look at this as one sentence unbroken by a comma or a pause “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” When people say this prayer they are not asking God to forgive them unconditionally. They are asking God to forgive them in the very same way that they forgive those who have caused them upset.
          Millions of people say this prayer every day. But it can be recited parrot-like without an understanding of its implication. I am asking God to forgive me in the same way as I forgive others. So if I don’t forgive others then what?
          Writers and advisors from all traditions talk about the importance of forgiveness, how forgiveness is essential to our own happiness
          “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” ? Mahatma Gandhi,
          “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” - C.S. Lewis
          “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Lewis B. Smedes
          History gives us more inspiring examples of forgiveness:
Gordon Wilson was a draper in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh.Gordon became known as a peace campaigner during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. On the 8th November 1987 a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded at a Remembrance Day Ceremony in Enniskillen. Gordon Wilson himself was injured but the bomb fatally injured his daughter Marie, who was a nurse. Only a few hours after the bombing Gordon Wilson was interviewed by the BBC. He describes his final conversation with his daughter as they both lay buried in rubble.
          “She held my hand tightly, and gripped me as hard as she could. She said, ‘Daddy, I love you very much’” He said “those were her exact words to me, and those were the last words I ever heard her say.” And astonishingly he added these words “But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge”. and he went on “I will pray for these men tonight and every night.”
          Jonathan Bardon the historian says, "No words in more than twenty-five years of violence in Northern Ireland had such a powerful, emotional impact." "But I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge” Gordan Wilson, our example of forgiveness died eight years later on the 27 of June 1995 (aged 67)
          Now there is another aspect to forgiveness that we can overlook. Yes, we need to forgive others for the mistakes of their past.
          But we need to forgive ourselves too for the mistakes of our past. Every one of us has made mistakes. We have all at some time done and said things, things that we later come to regret.
          And there are the undone things. When action was called for we have left things undone and we have left words unsaid. We have failed to stand up for what is right.
          But if we fail to forgive ourselves for these mistakes we wind up carrying a burden possibly for years. And that burden prevents us from being the best we can be. It’s an example of the old saying give dog a bad name. We give ourselves a bad name. By failing to forgive ourselves we fail to believe in ourselves. We fail to believe that we can be better. And therefore we fail to be our best selves. We leave ourselves burdened with a ball and chain tied around our ankles.
          We go about our days carrying a weight that should have been laid down long ago. This burden slows us down. It prematurely ages us. It causes harm to our physical and mental health. It prevents us from being the good decent people that we would really wish to be.
          In the case of self-forgiveness we have this advice from Steve Maraboli: “The truth is, unless you let go, unless you forgive yourself, unless you forgive the situation, unless you realize that the situation is over, you cannot move forward.”
          Now when we talk of forgiving other people this does not mean reconciliation – they are two separate things. We don't have to become best friends with someone who has wronged us. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse the wrong that has been done to us. But we must try to forgive, and having forgiven it makes a lot of sense to try to forget as well. If we don't forget then it is like cutting down a weed from above ground without getting at the roots. In time the weed will come up again. The same could happen with our resentment. So “forgive and forget” is best.
          Even though we should try to make sure that we will not put ourselves in the same position again. Remember the advice “once bitten twice shy”
          And forgiveness doesn’t depend upon the other person asking for forgiveness - although it might help if they do ask - because this is our deliberate act of forgiving. It doesn’t depend upon the other person at all. Forgiveness lifts a burden from ourselves. When we forgive someone else we are the beneficiaries. We are the sufferers when we fail to forgive.
          And the other person does not have to say they are sorry. Their sorrow or lack of is does not affect the forgiveness question at all. First of all they may not be sorry. Or they may not even be aware that they have caused us any upset. And even if they were aware at one point the other person may have long forgotten they have caused us upset.
          So we need to take a step back for a moment. If we pause and think about it objectively we will likely find that we are the only people troubled about the situation. The wrongdoer has moved on and maybe long ago and so should we.
          The Forgiveness Project is a secular organisation collecting and sharing stories from victims, survivors and perpetrators of crime and conflict. These stories are from people who have rebuilt their lives. This is following hurt and trauma which has been caused to them or which they have caused to others. The project was founded in 2004 by a journalist, Marina Cantacuzino. The Project provides resources to help people to overcome their unresolved grievances. The testimonies they collect are inspiring. These stories bear witness to the resilience of the human spirit in awful circumstances. They offer alternatives to conflict, alternatives to suffering and injustice. On their website you find stories of forgiveness shared by people of all faiths and none.
          One account is given by Richard McCann. Richard’s mother was the first victim of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. He says that some people, who knew his mother, are still seeking revenge but that is not how he feels. In 2010 Richard was invited to a lecture on Forgiveness given by Desmond Tutu and this lecture turned out to be a life-changing experience. Richard says he always knew he could never turn back the clock. But when he heard Desmond Tutu’s words he discovered that he had the capacity to change the situation. He could do this by changing how he felt about what had occurred. He says he is no longer carrying around remorse or bitterness; Desmond Tutu’s words about forgiveness helped him forgive the person who killed his mother. Now of course he admits that his forgiveness fluctuates. He says that it needs to be renewed continually. But he has managed to practice forgiveness in a bad situation.
          On the same website there is a story told by Stacey Bannerman. In 2009 Stacy’s husband, Lorin, returned from the Iraq war is suffering from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She tells us that his bizarre and violent behaviour eventually destroyed their marriage. But Stacey also found comfort in the idea of forgiveness. Her quote: “Forgiveness won’t change the past, but it can change the present, which is where the future starts.”
          And we need forgiveness when it comes to overcoming political and religious differences.
          President Michael D. Higgins speaking in Belfast to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement says: “Forgiveness plays a central and necessary part in reconciliation”
          and he goes on: “I acknowledge that it is very easy to say that. Some are asked to pay a very high price when they are called to forgive a great hurt that cannot be expelled from their memory, but their achievement is all the greater.”
          So the message from all sides is that we really must try to move on and practice forgiveness. If we hold onto bitterness we can will ourselves wishing pain and harm on the other person. We wallow in negative thoughts. We replay the injury (or the perceived injury). We re-experience the hurt, over and over and over again. And while all this going on in our heads the offender is going about his or her business scot free, unaware of our ongoing suffering. We are the ones burdened with the ill will. This feeling of ill will causes us still further harm. How can we feel good if we go about our lives wishing harm on someone else? We start to see everything through a fog of negativity. We become bitter and we expect the worst. And expecting the worst what happens? We treat other people negatively and the negativity comes right back to meet us. And so it goes on and on and the downward spiral continues. Our relationships are affected. Who would want to spend time with someone who is full of resentment and bitterness? “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies” – says Nelson Mandela.
          So to the question “ the answer is a clear “YES”. And how often should we forgive? For an answer to that we can look to the words of Jesus as quoted in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Peter put this question to Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven”
          Now I think we can safely say that Jesus did not ask us to keep count of our acts of forgiveness. (Keeping count from number 1 to number 490). I think we can assume he means leave the numbers to the accountants. Just forgive. And allow ourselves to benefit from the Grace of Forgiveness.

Tony Brady                                      Sunday 27 June 2021
Dublin Unitarian Church