Two friends were walking through a desert. During their journey, they had an argument. These two friends had never argued like this before. Their disagreement escalated, growing more and more heated. And then, just like that, Kezlin slapped Baylor, right across the face, shocking them both. Baylor’s first impulse was to hit Kezlin back – even harder than he had been hit - to defend himself and hurt Kezlin in return.
But Baylor thought that could lead to more trouble. So he paused and wondered: What should I do next? Can this friendship continue? Do I even want to be friends with this person? Baylor realized the friendship was at a crossroads. He was at a crossroads. He needed to decide. Would he walk away or forgive his friend with the hope of renewal. (“Sand and Stone,” adapted from multiple sources)
This week when I met with our congregation’s Caring Circle, I asked them to reflect with me on the topic of forgiveness. What do we do when someone hurts us or we hurt them, when they metaphorically or literally slap us in the face? It’s a big topic, and we had a free-ranging conversation.
Our chat spanned the personal and the collective, the concrete and the more abstract, and encompassed our questions, doubts and words of wisdom for each other. We discussed how sometimes it is tempting to forgive quickly but that perhaps when that happens we are not being completely honest. Maybe in our minds we forgive, but in our hearts we are not quite there yet. A strategy of forgiveness we talked about is trying to get insight into the other person’s actions. Why did this person hurt me or someone else? Why did I hurt them? Sometimes this might lead to making excuses for ourselves or for another person’s bad behavior, but it might also lead to understanding and empathy. Can everything be forgiven? Should everything be forgiven? What about cases of abuse and murder?
Our conversation led us to our deep-seated concern – our lament - about the poor decisions that leaders and others in power are making that are ravaging liberal ideals and real lives. Those offences may or may not be based in a personal interaction but can nonetheless have a detrimental effect on us personally, on other people, and on the planet. Greed, murder, and xenophobia are just a few of the examples of these kinds of large-scale issues that impact us globally and in the day to day. Because all beings are all interdependent, everyone suffers from the mistakes each person makes.
Your caring circle also talked about how forgiveness offers a “feeling of relief” for the person who forgives as much as for the person who offends. In other words, forgiveness is a form of self-preservation. That’s what we called it.
The inability to forgive damages our emotional and physical health, and the ability forgive restores and repairs us. The negative energy of the offence can be diffused and some love can return. Reconciliation between people may be achieved. But even if a relationship is not repaired - and not every situation warrants a return to the way things were before - there can still be acceptance and a letting go of the anger and grief. Or a partial letting go. Sadly, some people carry their grudges to the grave. Yet letting go can conflict with the desire for fairness, justice, and accountability.
Our Caring Circle observed that there is a certain grace that is involved in forgiveness. A certain grace and ability about when to give and when to receive forgiveness.
Wow, this forgiveness thing is sounding more and more complicated, isn’t it? And more and more essential, touching many aspects of our lives, indeed it touches us in all areas of our lives throughout our lives, perhaps even beyond this one.
The world’s religions devote energy to practices of forgiveness for just this reason. The Jewish tradition is particularly notable in this regard. Judaism has a time of year set aside to think about forgiving – to think deeply about injuries our actions have caused or acts that have injured us. There are in fact ten days of reflection.
This period begins with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, celebrated this year this past Wednesday. On Rosh Hashanah, God is said to open the Books of Life and Death for the year. Theologically, during those ten days, individuals devote their attention to serious introspection and to taking stock of their life, focusing on repentance and atonement for sins during the course of the past year. This is the crossroads moment – the moment when like Baylor we wonder whether we can forgive. The moment when Kezlin might wonder if there will be grace despite his heated assault on his friend.
On Yom Kippur, at the end of those ten days, God inscribes in those Books people’s fate for the coming year and closes the Book. That sounds pretty formal, pretty final, having your fate inscribed in a book for the coming year. Just imagine having that book thump closed. Metaphorically speaking – and our faith tries to help us understand religious ideas metaphorically – forgiveness is like that. It opens and closes books of life or death. Fortunately, each year brings a fresh start, a new chance to open the books and be inscribed in the book of life. Having our fate inscribed in that book of life is a chance for healing, for a new beginning, a chance to be reconciled to ourselves, each other and to God.
I suspect that if I took a poll of everyone gathered here today, the majority would agree that forgiveness is a hoped for outcome. That poll might even yield unanimous results. Intellectually and spiritually we know this is the right thing to do, the best thing to do, even if we do it imperfectly and with great difficulty, and sometimes not at all.
This ethic of forgiveness is handed down to us in this tradition from our Universalist forebears. They called it atonement. It can help to think of atonement as two words: at onement. Atonement means that when people forgive they are brought back into unity and a spirit of oneness with themselves, God, others – with life. There is repair and healing and wholeness.
The Universalists insisted that every person – every single person – is worthy of salvation. To put it in contemporary UU language, every person has worth and dignity. That meant in part that no sin, no transgression, no offence, is too great to be forgiven. Thus salvation is universal. No one would be punished eternally for their actions. No one. Some things might not be resolved in this life, they said. Some things would need to be rectified in the afterlife. (“Salvation for modern Unitarian Universalists, Scotty McLennan,” UU World Magazine, Summer 2016; “Hosea Ballou's Universalist manifesto,” Charles A Howe, UU World Magazine, May/June 2005, www.uuworld.org/articles/ballou-manifesto)
So while the Universalists agreed that no sin was too great for forgiveness, there was nevertheless a sticking point with this forgiveness business. And I think it is a struggle that remains with us today – both personally and collectively. Does forgiveness give people a pass on their bad behavior? Will it give people permission to do it again? And what about the so-called “bad” people? How can we make sense of all that? How can we forgive the people who we are destroying our planet and destroying whole groups of people? How do we forgive ourselves for our role in that? How do we forgive people who have viciously injured others? Will everyone just automatically share the same fate – those who led stellar lives and those who did terrible things? And what happens to all the stuff that isn’t atoned for in the life?
I don’t know about you, but I want there to be some accountability, and if not in this life, in the next one. The fairness gene seems to be deeply embedded in me. Apparently I share that with our forebears.
The Universalists had a full-blown theological controversy about these questions. They called it “The Restorationist Controversy.” Some thought that salvation came immediately upon death and that any consequences of human behavior were limited to one’s time on earth. However, a majority believed that the soul would be educated, disciplined, and transformed after death. This would lead ultimately to eternal reconciliation. Those who espoused a period of post-death transformation believed the consequences of human wrong-doing.
Now, of course, for those who don’t believe in an afterlife, the possibility of such a future reparation is an impossibility. For me, this idea of a post-death transformation speaks most powerfully to our faith’s historic longing for healing and wholeness and for accountability and justice here and now. It is an insistence, a persistence, that love outlasts hate, and that kindness is more enduring than pain, and that transformation can and will happen. We owe it to ourselves and each other to begin again in love. I believe we owe it to ourselves and each other to do as much of that restoration as possible in the here and now, regardless of what we do or don’t believe about a future life. Universalism has bequeathed to us a respect for human worth and dignity in the here and now. This faith inspires and calls upon us to ameliorate suffering and pain – now.
The grievances and acts that never get atoned for, are never repented, and never forgiven, the ones that are taken to the grave – well, I find these deeply disturbing, deeply dissatisfying. My longing is for justice, kindness, and wholeness in this life. And my faith helps me conceptualize the possibility of repair, even when it seems unlikely, improbable, and even impossible.
In the story of the two friends, Baylor decided that the friendship was what he most longed for. He believed that transformation was yet possible. He took a chance. Without saying anything, Baylor reached out and wrote in the sand: “Today my best friend slapped me in the face.” The wind from the desert rose up and blew the words away. When Kezlin witnessed this, he asked Baylor to forgive him. They continued walking and came upon an oasis. There they decided to go for a swim. In the water, Baylor slipped and got stuck in the mire. He started drowning. Kezlin quickly reached out to help him, saving his life. After catching his breath on shore, and without saying anything, Baylor reached out and wrote on a rock: “Today my best friend saved my life.”
Puzzled, Kezlin said to Baylor, “After I hurt you, you wrote in the sand. Now that I helped you, you write on a stone. Why?” Baylor said, “When someone hurts us, we should write it down in sand where the winds of forgiveness can blow it away. But when someone is kind, we must carve the kindness in our hearts forever.
Let us endeavor to write our words of pain in sand and our words of kindness in stone. Let us endeavor to be inscribed in the book of life and to aid others in their effort to be inscribed there. Let us try to the best of our ability to do so in the here and now. To do so is to honor the worth and dignity of us all and to move closer to healing the world.
Amen. Blessed be.